By Iain Blair
A mysterious alien world in deep space, hundreds of years in the future. The gore and glory of imperial Rome, and the spectacle of its doomed gladiators. The nightmarish vision of a dystopian Los Angeles and its rogue replicants. The colossal grandeur of ancient Egypt and its massive monuments. The bloody battlefields of the Crusades. The pastoral glow of vineyards in southern France.
Those are just a few of the “other worlds” that Ridley Scott, one of the supreme stylists of contemporary cinema, has brought to life over the past five decades since making his feature debut with The Duellists in 1977. Scott’s directorial resume also includes Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma and Louise. Of all his contemporaries working today, Scott alone seems to be equally at ease creating vast landscapes set in both the distant past and distant future, in the process channeling David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille and Jim Cameron along with his own prodigious gifts as an epic storyteller and visual artist.
Now, the three-time Oscar-nominated director — whose credits include such varied fare as Hannibal, Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, Exodus: Gods and Kings, A Good Year and G.I. Jane — has turned his attention to the red badlands of Mars in his new sci-fi thriller The Martian. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Jeff Daniels, it tells the story of a botanist astronaut (Damon) left behind on the dead, hostile planet after an aborted mission and the efforts of NASA and a team of international scientists to rescue him.
I recently spoke to Scott, whose other credits include Prometheus, Matchstick Men, American Gangster and Legend, about making the 3D film, which was shot in Jordan and Hungary. We discussed his love of previs and post and — hold onto your seats!! — why post schedules are way too long for his liking.
You’ve made a lot of sci-fi films. What’s the appeal?
It’s a new canvas, it takes you into the arena of “anything goes,” but you also need to create a rulebook so the world you create is coherent, otherwise you just get rubbish. You also need a story that’s valid in that universe… and to create parameters. Anything doesn’t go!
The appeal here was it’s a sort of Robinson Crusoe survival story, set in space, five years in the future. There are no aliens and we went for a very realistic look and approach — I knew exactly what to do with it. Even as I was reading it, I was seeing Wadi Rum in Jordan, where we shot the landscapes, and I knew grading would be simple, as I could adjust terra cotta to orange landscapes.
How early on did you decide to go 3D?
Immediately. I loved 3D when I first tried it out on Prometheus, and then we used it on Exodus, so this is the third one. Again DP Dariusz Wolski used the 3ality TS-5 Technica rigs with Red Epic Dragons and Scarlet Dragons. I love it! It’s only a problem if you allow it to become brain surgery, so you just need to know what you’re doing. It’s a bit like shooting four cameras, which I do anyway.
All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How soon did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
I start it almost immediately, and I also do a lot of boarding. I started well before we began The Martian, with a particular view or rock. I board it all myself, which makes it more accurate, and it allows you to pace a scene. They’re very instructive and they become the bible for everyone, and you can tell the VFX guys, “Here’s the lead-in, this is the cross-over, now we’re in the full VFX shot.”
What about digi-data animation?
I absolutely love it. I think it’s essential before you go into anything complex, because, first, you see what the problems are and, second, in editing you invariably haven’t got the greenscreen, so digital data enables you to cut it into the film instead of having blank space, and it stays there until you get a complete shot.
Did you do a lot of previs?
Yes, at MPC and Argon. I love that too as it let’s me see what’s what. It can be very sophisticated now in terms of working out the pacing and how you’ll cut. You can get very close to what the final thing will be.
Where did you post?
Partly in London and Budapest, and we did a lot of post as we shot. I cut as we go, every night, so by the end of the shoot I’m pretty close to the director’s cut. I hate waiting until the end of the shoot to start editing, so editor Pietro Scalia just got on with it. That let’s me see where I am.
We did the sound mix at Twickenham in the big new Dolby Atmos room. The mix is amazing as it gives you all this clarity and separation between dialogue and all the effects and other layers.
A lot of filmmakers complain about today’s accelerated post schedules. I assume you’re not one of them?
Are you kidding me? It’s like watching ivy grow when you’re waiting for all the VFX shots and so on. We worked 25 weeks on post for this, and I still think it’s a bit long. Today’s digital technology means you no longer travel with a million feet [of film], just digital output and data, and post is getting faster and faster, thank God. Shooting and posting in 35mm drove me crazy! To be honest, I’d be happy with an even shorter post. I love post, but if you know what you’re doing you don’t need to spend all that time. And digital has changed everything.
How many visual effects shots are there?
Probably 1,300, and we had a lot of companies — Framestore, ILM, Milk, Prime Focus, The Senate, [The Territory for screen graphics] and my usual VFX supervisor Richard Stammers, who’s been with me since Kingdom of Heaven. Funnily enough, the hardest shot to do was the [scene] with the tape, where it floats around and curls in a rather balletic fashion. That was very tricky to get right.
Where was the DI?
At Company 3 in London. I love the DI. For me it’s the final touch, like grading still photographs, and I used my favorite colorist, Stephen Nakamura, who’s a top guy at their LA office and he would travel to London. He’s very fast, and we did the whole film in just two weeks. I’m very happy with the way it looks. (Nakamura used Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve on the film.)
I plan to start Alien: Paradise Lost in February, maybe in Toronto. It’s a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien. I’m also doing a lot of TV projects, including The Hot Zone, a drama with Fox about the Ebola virus.
You seem to be working at a flat-out pace these days, directing a huge movie every year. You turn 78 in November. Do you ever see yourself slowing down?
(Laughs) Hopefully not! I actually think I’m speeding up, and as long as I find great projects to make that really interest me, I’ll keep working.
Photos by Giles Keyte and Aidan Monaghan.
Check back in soon for our audio post coverage of The Martian.