According to Ridley Scott, the resurrection of the Alien franchise started with a question: “Who would do this and for what reason?”
Alien: Covenant, out Friday, is Scott’s third film in the franchise he spawned in 1979 with Alien, a gruesome, pulsating exercise in horror that changed science fiction forever with its bleak depiction of space as a rotting industrial hellscape and a hardscrabble woman (Sigourney Weaver as Ripley) in the lead. In the decades since, Scott watched as a flurry of sequels and spin-offs spun their wheels and ignored the title character’s origin story.
Scott meanwhile, went on to become one of the world’s most diverse, prolific, and polarizing directors, who could pull off sprawling historical epics (Gladiator), frenetic war movies (Black Hawk Down), and feminist road movies (Thelma & Louise) with equal aplomb.
But as the accolades piled up—including his 2003 knighthood from Queen Elizabeth—there was still one itch that needed to be scratched.
“Who would do this and for what reason?“
So in 2012, Scott returned to the world of xenomorphs and facehuggers with Prometheus. While beautiful to look at it, the ill-fated prequel was light on the scares and even lighter on the answers. With Covenant, Scott aims to rectify both. We spoke to the legendary director about making movies in the digital age, the importance of box office at this stage of his career and the secret to his longevity (hint: it’s sit-ups.)
You’re one of the most diverse directors working, but no matter how far you ventured off into a certain genre, you still felt compelled to revisit this world, this mythology. What is it that makes you keep wanting to tell this story?
RIDLEY SCOTT: It’s more about repairing what was done. I think it was gone so quickly. Because it was such a formidable creature, it was a pity to see it disappear. So I went back to Fox saying “I think we can resurrect the old guy, because there is more to tell”. So that’s where it began. I went back in to further ask who are they and why. Because I was always amazed in the sequels, no one ever asked that. Who would do this and for what reason. Once you open the door to this, it gets organic, you start asking questions about creation and it inevitably goes to the question of god. Is there a god or not, and are they superior? You’ve got a mountain of things explore, and that’s what happened.
With Covenant you’ve returned to the pure horror of the original. Is that a response to some of the criticism that was levied against Prometheus?
Well studios are concerned with what makes most sense financially. Because whether you like it or not we all have to think of the bottom line and I respect that. And originally, Prometheus was meant to be PG-13, but the problem is I had this great idea for self-removal—in polite terms, it was an abortion—and I said “Great, I’ll cut it out if you like.” It did really well from a ground zero idea, so that’s where we are right now. And then it’s up to us to make it good or mediocre and if we don’t put bums in seats, we don’t have a business. You have to really look at it as a business.
So even after all your success, you still find yourself beholden to the bottom line?
No, no. I’m a reasonable reckless, because I do think—without sounding pretentious about it—I do art. I think there is an artistic decision made everyday on my movies. I mean, hundreds of artistic decisions have to be made. I just start the process. So the bottom line to me is it’s all an amusing challenge. The important thing is, you can’t just say “I don’t care what happens.” You’d be a fool. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care what happens. I’m a pragmatist, I guess. A real pragmatist.
Once again you decided to make your lead a heroine, which has become somewhat de rigueur in Hollywood. That wasn’t necessarily the case when you cast Sigourney Weaver as Ellen. Are you pleased with the progress the industry has made?
I think it all comes down to having a strong mom. My mother was a pretty tough gal and she had two kids—three kids actually—one was a sea captain, sailed the seven seas for twenty years. And then there was Tony and me. So she did ok. But she is the one who brought us up because my dad was Army, right, so he was frequently not there. So that said, I’ve never argued about the fact that there are strong women. My mom was very strong and we had great respect for her. It’s not new to me, I’m used to it, I’ve done films with women who are leading types. Thelma and Louise was probably the most significant but there is a very good film that I made with Demi Moore called G.I. Jane, that was pretty good.
Your films paint extraterrestrials as being incredibly hostile creatures, whereas a film like Arrival took a very different approach. Which camp do you fall in, if and when we do make contact?
Are there others out there? of course there are. It’s illogical not to believe that. And hopefully they don’t arrive before we arrive there. I think whatever it is, its liable to be hostile. We can’t even get on with each other. I don’t give a shit who I work with, whether they are Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, whatever. My units are six hundred plus and they’re multinational, multi religious and we all get along just fucking fine. I don’t know what the fucking problem is.
Do you feel more at home when you’re creating these distant, unfamiliar worlds as opposed to making films that are grounded in the here and now?
No, I really liked the film I did called White Squall and I liked the film A Good Year. I’ve no regrets about anything actually. Oh, I really liked Matchstick Men with Nicolas Cage. That was great. I like comedy, actually. Its fun.
When you make the Alien films now, do you feel unshackled by the advents of technology.
No question. That said, the first one is still pretty fucking good. No CGI whatsoever. They have good old-fashioned craftsmanship. I’m literally grading for the new release of Blade Runner. The original Blade Runner will go out as a disc set and I was grading it yesterday, looking at the original stuff and it was pretty fucking great.
But in terms of filmmaking back then, it was more guerilla style, you had to be more resourceful. Now an SFX team can create anything you may dream up. Do you look back on those days with a kind of romanticism or nostalgia?
I have to say, it was more fun in those days. We’ve become so conscious of the box office and the competitive nature of that. The way many more films are being made today, but that said they are not necessarily any better. It varies dramatically. But it’s true, there were some good films in those days, twenty, thirty years ago. Good stuff. But there are some good stuff now also.
Is having a fertile imagination the most important quality a director should have? Or is it knowing how to manage and lead a team of people?
I think you are right, they are one in the same. If you’ve got an imagination, then you’re lucky. If you’re really fertile, you are really gifted. If you are gifted, you are lucky. What has to go along with that is enormous energy, because as the very terminology suggests, you are driving the bus. If you are not the driver, you shouldn’t be there.
Is it difficult to give up the reigns to one of your franchises? For example, has it been hard watching Denis (Villeneuve) direct Blade Runner? Or do you relish watching someone else interpret the visual language that you helped create?
I’m very, very, very much involved in the screenplay, so a large part of the screenplay is me anyway. The story, anyway. I think Denis was very well chosen. He’s a very good director.
So you don’t develop a sense of ownership? When you watched Alien vs Predator, was that a cringeworthy experience for you, to see these people bastardize your creation?
Mind you, I’m a very practical person. I’m artistic perhaps but I’m practical. I have a very good combination of those things.
You recently mad a foray into prestige television with Taboo. Do you see the walls between film and television crumbling?
We do a lot of television. I started in TV and it was live television in those days, which was great fun because it was so fucking scary. I will do some television at some point, for sure but producing it is also fun because it enables you to expand the canvas and the characters—something you could never do in two hours. It’s great because you are able to enlarge more than you are able to in film.
People often marvel at how prolific you’ve been and how long you’ve been doing this. What’s the secret to longevity in a business that often worships the shiny and the new?
Do pushups every morning. Do sit ups. Don’t drink too much, but just enough. And get up early. That’s what I do. I get up early.
What time do you wake up?
Usually by six, I’m out of bed, up and about, doing my calls. If I’m in LA, I do the London office and if I’m in London, I do the LA office. The real thing is just love what you do and I do.
How do you feel about the term ‘workaholic’, which usually has a negative connotation.
I think its good because I love it. I love the process and I’m really grateful that I’m still allowed to do it. Luck is another factor. I’ve seen bad luck happen to a lot of people over the years and I’m just lucky.
Are you encouraged by the current state of cinema and movies?
You have to be positive, you can’t be too critical because there is a different kind of movie being made today. There are a lot of films that I think could have been good TV. And now you’ve got Netflix and companies like that, and that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s good. I watch a lot of television out of curiosity but also because I have to, because I’m in the business.
Would you be open to having one of your films opening on Netflix, or do your films demand the big screen?
I would do Netflix, no problem, especially with the kind of budget that they are spending to get movies made. We just did a deal on Netflix, which will be quite a big budget but I’m not going to direct it, someone else is going to direct it.
How much feedback do you take from studios now? I mean, you’re Ridley Scott. Have you earned the right to do your own thing?
You never earn the right to do anything.
That is great advice.
Yes, that’s great advice.
What advice do you have for young emerging filmmakers?
Just never give up. Keep trying. Learn from your errors. And also decide when it was an error or if it wasn’t an error. Always have your own opinion about what you’ve done. Don’t read press and let that get you down.