Why one of Hollywood’s greatest living directors will keep tinkering with his franchises until the day he dies.
This past week, director Ridley Scott let slip two updates during interviews that had more than a few cinephiles clutching at their chests. First, Scott confessed that he had no plans to shut down the Alien franchise now that Alien: Covenant is on its way, noting that he could easily crank out one Alien film a year for the next six years. Later, Scott admitted that he was hard at work on a sequel to Gladiator, noting that he even had an idea on how to bring Russell Crowe’s Maximus back from the dead. For Ridley Scott fans around the world, this news was met with anything from confusion to horror. Why would one of Hollywood’s greatest living directors keep messing with his legacy?
There’s always been something fascinating about Scott’s no-nonsense approach to his films. While Scott has directed some of the most important films of the last thirty years, he’s also exhausted some goodwill with his fans through his constant tinkering with their favorites of his works. Whether you love or hate the director’s cut of Blade Runner, for example, you probably won’t deny that Scott’s cut did away with some of the film’s ambiguity by including the controversial unicorn dream sequence. Scott even voiced his own opinion as to whether Harrison Ford’s character was a replicant in a 2014 interview with Digital Spy, ending – or at least putting on temporary hiatus – countless arguments on internet forums over the mystery at the heart of Scott’s film.
And while the Blade Runner director’s cut may be the most contentious part of Scott’s filmography, it also helps explain his ongoing fascination with home video versions of his films. Whereas we romanticize the battle for creative control that occurs between filmmaker and studio, on multiple occasions, Scott has contented himself with releasing a flawed film in theaters and cleaning things up once the movie hits the home video market. We once called the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven “amongst the top films Ridley Scott has ever made,” and Scott himself has referred to the Director’s Cut DVD of The Counselor as his preferred version of the film. There’s even a director’s cut of Legend that the director refers to in his introduction as “an archival curiosity for fans and a digitised preservation of my original vision for the film.”
That doesn’t mean that Scott is the same as someone like George Lucas, who will frequently go back and clean up movies with modern technology. Scott’s director’s cuts are simply meant to capture his original vision before the studio had their say. In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, for example, Scott noted that the director’s cut of Blade Runner shouldn’t exist to begin with; the discovery of Scott’s pre-release cut occurred thanks to a shipping mistake by a film festival, when “by accident the original cut was shipped from the wrong drawer at Warner Brothers” to a Los Angeles festival in 1990. Perhaps most revealingly, Scott admitted in that article that he never makes final cut a sticking point in his contract. “I’ve never had a head-on with a studio in my career,” Scott is quoted as saying. “They’re the investor, and I believe they should have as much say as the creative end. They’re paying for it.”
That quote seems to speak volumes about Scott’s work. Whereas many filmmakers might fancy themselves artists working within a commercial system, Scott has always been pretty matter-of-fact about Hollywood’s intersection at the center of art and commerce. “There’s a fiscal responsibility for a director who wants to do movies on this scale,” Scott told Deadline Hollywood in 2015, and Scott’s career has been a testament to the idea that it’s better to make 80% of your movie than no movie at all. If anything, that’s why Scott’s notorious comments regarding his whitewashing of ancient Egypt in Exodus: Gods and Kings shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. If the studio mandated that Scott motion-capture space aliens as every major character in the film, he probably would’ve agreed and released the pre-rendered version of the film as the Exodus: Gods and Kings director’s cut. The man is nothing if not a good organizational soldier.
So should it really come as that big a surprise that Scott would make another Gladiator and a whole bunch of Alien movies? In interviews, Scott seems to be the rare director who truly seems to value the process more than the results; he’s happy making movies, and even if the movies don’t quite hit the target he initially set out for them, he can at least take solace in the fact that he was able to keep making blockbuster movies at an age where most filmmakers have been relegated to obscurity. In 2006, Scott told the Pittsburgh Post – Gazette that he was feeling somewhat anxious about his output over the past few years. “I started looking back and thinking, ‘God, I’ve averaged only one film every two years,’” Scott explained. “Which actually is fine. It’s about average. But I’m very impatient.” For better or worse, that impatience – that need to be out there, making new movies – is what makes Scott such a fascinating director.
We may spend countless columns dissecting the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the constraints placed on their stable of up-and-coming directors, but if Ridley Scott has shown us anything, it’s that it’s possible to keep making blockbuster movies your way without overdoing it on the studio concessions. I don’t know if a half-dozen more movies about space aliens and chestbursters would be any good, but there’s something to be said for a filmmaker who is capable of delivering on the projects he promises.