By David E. Williams | April 26, 2000

Interview with Ridley Scott (Upon the release of White Squall)
[ You always very thoroughly and visually explore a particular world. In a way, once you’ve done a picture, it seems like the location is used up. Like in Thelma & Louise, with the Southwest, it’s almost like you could never do that again in another movie because it’s been done so well. Do you find that you really have to seek new environments that way to bring to your films? ] ^ I find that it’s partly my background as an art student. I spent seven years at art school. It’s as long as a doctor’s training. I explored everything from fine art, where I was a painter for three years, to graphic design, photography, at a really good art school called the Royal College of Art in London (Check prod. notes — called Royal Academy of Art there). There was no film school, but when I got into the process of making films, I always felt that I came at it from the direction of a designer, which at first was constantly pointed out as a weakness. I gradually began to realize that it was also a strength.
I always treated the environment of the film, whatever that was, if there were seven characters in a film, I treated the environment as the eighth character, or as the first character. Because, after all, that’s the proscenium within which all the actors will function. So I regard the world of the film as terribly important, particularly in science fiction. In Blade Runner, you talk about replicants, robots basically, humanoids, then it becomes lightweight if when the central character walks outside the door and you look at the city and think, “Wait a minute, I don’t believe this story could exist within this environment.” So you better pump up the volume to make that world believable. Otherwise, the story doesn’t stand up.
[ Was White Squall the former or the latter of those two kinds of films? ] ^ Same thing. I’ve now recognized that this is the way I work. This process begins the second I read the script. I find when I read it, I’m almost automatically getting images, and part of the persuasion process as to why I’m going to be involved in this film, apart from all kinds of other reasons, is also, am I interested in this particular world?
[ When you consider a script, are you as driven by the visual possiblilites as you are by the story or the character possibilities? ] ^ Yeah, I think clearly the visual possibilities have to take second position, because I’ve seen too many good movies that look like s**t and work very well. (laughs) They stand up just great with a good script and good actors. There’s a lesson right there. Whereas I’ve also frequently seen films that look terrific and are also a pile of s**t — there’s no script.
[ I looked through some old issues of American Cinematographer, and in ’79, in a piece you wrote about making Alien, you said that you were attracted to working with cameramen who were not traditionally studio-trained, because it relieved the pressure of a very experienced person trying to impose a way of doing things on you. Is that still true, even now that you’re a very established director? ] ^ Did I really say that? No, because I think if you undertake a huge canvas with massive interiors and big crowd scenes, difficult, very low-key settings or night shooting…. that’s where I now know that you have to rely on the craftsmanship and technique and in some instances, the artistry of the cameraman. I think I was saying that because I came out of the world — it was only my second film — I came out of the world of advertising as pretty much my own boss within the process of doing many, many commercials for many years. . I also used to always operate the camera, in fact I still do (off the record). There’s not enough attention given to the camera operator. I think the camera operator has one of the best jobs on the floor. The magic happens through the viewfinder. I discovered that very early on through advertising. I started a film called The Duelists with a very experienced producer who said, “Listen, you can’t do both because it’s too difficult, it’s too complex. You have to be watching the actors.” I found over the years that I was able to do both, because to me operating was like driving a car. You don’t look down to your feet and your hands when you’re turning a corner or changing a gear. It was more intuitive at that point, so I tried it for a week and that didn’t work, so I simply got on the camera and operated the camera. Things moved much faster and much more comfortably from that point on.
I was told this a few times actually, that it’s very difficult to do both. But, was I right today, now with video assist? You’ll look on the studio floor and you’ll find a director stuck in a dark corner with a monitor in front of him. The scene is frequently going on over his shoulder, and he’s staring at the goddamn monitor, which after all is a less good optical representation of what’s happening through the viewfinder. So all he’s doing is watching the bloody viewfinder. At the end of it he says “Cut,” and then he turns around and says, “Can we do that again, darling?” (Laughs)
[ And not even getting the visceral thrill of actually looking through the camera or being in close proximity to the performers. ] ^ You said two of the most important things. A, if I open my left eye, I can look at the actor straight in the eye and talk to him and I found rapidly that the actors became very comfortable with the fact that the person closest to them was the director. He’s scrutinizing every little wink and shudder that they’re doing through the viewfinder. I found that they became very comfortable with that.
[ While you’re operating, do you often talk to actors while they’re doing a scene? ] ^ Sure, it depends on what scene it is. I don’t like to interrupt once they begin, but sometimes if it’s going well, I may choose my moment to say something like “Faster!” or something. (Laughs) They kind of enjoy it. I think it’s a good partnership.
[ I can only think of two other directors who do that, and Stanley Kubrick and Peter Hyams. Do you think it’s something specific out of your background that makes you feel that way, or is it just that there’s a system that’s been imposed on people and they just accept it? ] ^ I think you work out the best system for yourself, because it’s very difficult to give a broadstroke or advice to anybody who intends to be a director. Because at the end of the day, you find your own system. You find your own way of dealing with actors and you find your own way of communicating to your cameraman about what you want as quickly as possible, because everything’s against the gun! So it’s faster if you really do know what the hell you want, so you can put a camera down and line it up. Other directors don’t have that interest, and therefore never develop that side of it so they’ll put it in the hands of a good operator.
Operating is a very exciting job, and sometimes I think operators aren’t given enough pats on the head by saying “this film looks terrific” because it’s a very important process. Some cameramen get involved with the operating, and I know if I was a cameraman, I would have to be very much involved in the lighting and the operating of the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily operate but I would go out and line the whole bloody thing up, and know what I’m lighting. Unless I had a very good partnership with a brilliant operator.
[ So you probably discuss this before with other people, in that what you’re describing is really a modification of what people describe as the “British system.” ] ^ Well, it’s European, certainly. More so than here. There are a few directors who operate. In rock videos and also advertising, most of them climb into it.
[ People know when they go see a Ridley Scott movie, and a lot of people go to see your movies specifically because you directed them, which is a rarity. How do you feel [can’t quite make out what you said here] in getting that signature style with using so many different directors of photography on your pictures — you mentioned Frank Tidy, and there’s also Steve Poster, Jordan Cronenweth… ] ^ I think it has to do with the eye, because I’ve always wanted to line my shots up. I’ve always approved the shot. Now, certainly in recent years, I always work A and B cameras, with the cameramen. I think it generally becomes a mutual agreement that for a lot of stuff in the film, you can work two cameras simultaneously and not necessarily side by side. Side by side makes sense, because the big camera is doing the wide shot and the near camera is doing the close shot, and vice versa. There’s a moment when that shot will collapse, when the actor can’t deal with both.
But it means you can get into the scene faster, and if there’s a performance involved, what I found that’s very useful is that it saved the actor from having to go through this continual bloody process. Particularly if I have two actors sitting down at the table, if I can, I’ll try this with the cameraman so that we can light it so that we can shoot A and B. I can do cross-cameras, like you do on television actually. That’s good, because both actors are up and running for that particular take. If you get something that starts to happen, where a little bit of magic occurs, then you’ve captured it and you’ve captured it on both sides. So it makes all the sense in the world, and also you can save an awful lot of time.
[ Provided you have the space to do it. Jumping ahead again, was that the situation on White Squall? Shooting on an actual ship, I would imagine space would be limited. ] ^ It was tight. [Cameraman] Hugh Johnson and I would look at it and go… I’ve known Hugh for 27 years, we’d both gone through the same school. I’m older than Hugh, so Hugh is always pretty well coming on a similar route. A lot of it is unspoken, he’d just nod and say, “Do you want two cameras?” and we’d just jump straight into it. I think when I first came here, there was a more classical establishment, particularly of high level cameramen. I wasn’t used to that, so it was difficult at the time. There was a definite structure. Because I’d done advertising for a number of years, where I really became my own structure, and had a company at that point which already had about 10 directors.
When I started my first film, I was to a degree my own boss on the film. And also, it was a much lower budget, $900,000,000. And it was a step forward into the Hollywood system. I persuaded our producers, who I had a very good working relationship with, to go with the guy I was used to. In fact, it was the second commercial cameraman I’d worked with, Frank Tidy was the first. And Derek Vanlint [on Alien] was the second. I’d made many commercials with Derek, and Derek was particularly talented, as was Frank. I persuaded them to use Derek, and it went very smoothly, no problems straight through. What’s interesting is that Derek’s never been on another feature, so maybe he hated it! (Laughs)
[ Going back to the idea of operating and how vital that is, how you can catch things, and in also being a director and also focusing on that, how much less or equal attention can you spend on lighting then? Do you find that having as much input over lighting is vital to the way you work? ] ^ Yeah, I’m interested and I think cameramen like that. I don’t say, “Call me when you’re ready.” That’s another way of working. You can say, OK, we’re rehearsed, everybody happy? And then you walk off and you’re called back in an hour and you get on with it. I don’t like to do that. I like to be involved with the boys, I like to be right in there with the lads. I think by not leaving the set, I think the crew like it, you know? Because you’re interested in the process. I’m fascinated by the process of lighting. In fact, it’s one category I never went through and I would like to have, but I never did, I never got to it.
[ Could you express what your initial interest was in the story of White Squall? It’s a great story, full of adventure, emotion and drama between characters and this great man and nature kind of adventure movie. We don’t see that very often anymore. ] ^ It touched me in an area that — it’s about a time in the past that will not return, which is to a degree the last vestiges of innocence, if you like. It’s an earnest film and well-meaning, and rather moral. I like the fact that, to summarize the original story, it’s about the rite of passage, which I think has evaporated today. So I felt that was worth refreshing in people’s minds that this did exist. Also the fact that it was a good system.
[ Do you feel, as someone who’s looking for stories, that to convey the idea of a rite of passage you really do have to go back and make a period film to tackle that kind of issue? ] ^ I think so. I hate to sound cynical, but I think in most walks of life today, it doesn’t really exist. I think you create your own adventure and your own dynamics in your own life, and it depends on how inventive you are in that process in whatever you do. You can either want to be the best in something, which in a way is a form of adventure — I guess that’s also a form of ambition, there’s nothing wrong with ambition. I think there’s a lot today where the younger generation assume that there’s a lot owed to them, which I think is not so. I think you’ve got to earn that process, you’ve got to earn that right. I think you should never think about that, you know what I’m saying?
It’s a delicate balance, because it’s a film that I’m actually trying to make obviously for a generation that will range from about 17 to about 55 or 60. It’s a pretty broad stroke for a target for the film, and for the audience that might find this film interesting, I think we cover a lot of ground.
[ Did you already have images of the sea, or ships that you had thought of before, did you think with this film, here is an opportunity to apply these things I’d thought of? ] ^ I did a film called 1492, and Hugh did second unit on that. He did all the sea stuff, and there’s some jungle stuff. He loved the whole process, it was a different deal from doing commercials. Your canvas is larger and your opportunity for telling the story is longer. I never thought I’d go back and do another sea story, because that was a pain in the a*s. It was really enjoyable doing that, but I didn’t really want to do it again. I figured, “That’s that, I’ve just done the sea story.”
Then the script came floating past, which was on the loose. I was slightly amazed that it was on the loose, and we picked it up. So really, it was the strength of the story that brought us back to revisit the sea. In 1492, because we were against the gun with the budget and the time, we never got rough seas. So I never really experienced rough seas, and besides, that was kind of all right for the story of Colombus because he basically took 9 weeks to cross the Atlantic and the worst experience he had was the Sargasso Sea, the weeds, I think he had a bad storm on the way back but by then he’d certainly been on the islands. So there was a kind of frustration, I’d never really hit high seas and I wanted to romanticize that journey a little bit with rough water, but we never got it so it was fine, it was cool for the story.
But in this instance, I knew I would have to explore every avenue of water, including the big one. In the islands, we found no rough water, it was like a goddamn mill pond. We were smart in never waiting for it, we just kept moving on and deferring the rough water sequences, saying that at some point this heavy water’s going to occur isn’t it, and it never did. Then I was in Charleston doing the land stuff, and then we were facing Malta, which is the tanks, where I was going to do the big one. We did that very successfully, in fact the squall sequence runs almost 17 minutes, which is a long time, a lot of shots involving two jet engines and god knows how many propellers and tip tanks and wind machines.
Meanwhile, my schooner was on his way down in South Africa. I figured there’s only one way to get this, we better go to either Cape of Good Hope or Tira Del Fuego. We went down to the Cape of Good Hope and the first day I got 30-foot seas, straight out and we were in big, big sea. Because the crew was so well-versed by then in terms of leaping around this boat and getting camera positions, we dealt with it pretty easily actually. So we got some big, big water for what I call the intermediary stuff, and then of course the big storm is entirely created in the tank and with models.
[ Were there other pictures that inspired you to do certain things or gave you certain emotions about ships in the sea? ] ^ Yeah, the original Moby Dick is really good. Particularly the sea footage of the whalers — I could never work out whether it was real documentary footage of guys in those funny hats with their harpoons
in the long boats or whether they’d shot it. Either way, it was good stuff, because they didn’t have gimbals to keep the camera steady. And they had huge cameras in those days! So that must have been a really hairy experience. And then also the effects of the whale and the battle with the whale were pretty amazing stuff that work well today. So that was an interesting focus on it.
But really, I looked at documentary footage. Nothing in particular, we just compiled a lot of footage, saying that’s a big sea, that’s interesting, that’s interesting. And I started to watch water just to see how it behaved, to try and get around the curse of a tank. Because in a tank, even with a wind machine, you’ve only got three-foot waves. Because I’d been doing a television commercial just before the film started and my special effects guy turned up with a jet engine from a navy jet, which gave me a wind of 600 miles an hour, and it was on wheels. I’ve never worked out to this day why when you switch it on, the jet engine doesn’t take off with a guy on it and disappear from the horizon!
I figured I have to have these two jet engines. So we found two jet engines in Europe and rigged them, so we could pan and tilt them. When you cranked them up, we had two 600 mile an hour winds. So that process takes the waves that are only three-and-a-half feet and whips them up and lifts them into this white foam that I’ve never seen before, actually. Also, the other thing we discovered was — you know the circular device that fits within a high-tech wheel — we had a couple of those, and of course I was on a rostrum, because these tanks were huge, one tank was 6 million gallons and the other was 3 million gallons. They’re like two massive football fields. Of course the water’s only eight feet deep and the deep part’s 18 feet deep. But it means you’re working on a rostrum.
I noticed before that everyone keeps the camera still and shoots the sea, and there you have it — you’ve got three-foot waves with a lot of wind machines going and a lot of people rushing around tip tanks. And the storm sequence tends to develop into very swiftly cut montages where most of the time you don’t know what the hell is going on because the montage is so fast. Therefore they get the storm sequence out of the way as quickly as possible. What I wanted to do was sustain the storm sequence as a drama in itself, which of course it was. In the actual event in 1961, they went over in 90 seconds and sank in 90 seconds.
A white squall is a microbust, it’s in essence a tornado or a hurricane over a short distance where cold air drops at a huge velocity from 45,000 feet, hits hot air and you have an ensuing force that pushes everything in its path flat. They reckon that weather conditions are perfect for this kind of squall on the Bermuda Triangle, so that may account for a lot of vessels disappearing there. In this, we learned to move the cameras, so the gimbals were used to move the cameras. By doing that, we created an illusion of very high water, I think really successfully.
At the water-tank complex in Malta where we shot, there’s a huge one over on the right that’s about 40 feet deep and I think it’s 6 million gallons. Every time you move, you have to run these walkways out and get the cameras out and then in everything there’s the camera platforms…..Each of these has 5 tons of water, these are all tiptanks and these smaller pieces of equipment are wave machines. The jet engines have to be pulled back because they would burn people, because a flame came out of them if you got too close.
[ This is the kind of squall you would get from the wave machines. ] ^ No, we would get bigger than that. Then it’s up to you to fool the viewer as to what he’s looking at. Because what I discovered was that, particularly in heavy seas, if you’re in a 30 or 40 foot wave motion, the walls of water have waves on them, so they already have a chop on them. By gimballing the cameras, the three-foot chop looked like chop on the sides of walls of water. I think that’s what’s successful.
[ So many of these movies have a stationary camera where the horizon is set, essentially what you’re doing is inverting your camera so you’ve changed your horizon. ] ^ Oh, we kept the horizon changing all the time. Consequently, there are shots that we run for 10 or 15 seconds, with no problem at all. Of course, we’re shooting inside the boat, where the internal sets are on gimbals. So we built the separates, the corridor, the below-the-decks and cabins below the deck on gimbals that would do 360 degrees. As they turn over, they fill up as they’re going. So we would just shove the guys in there and shout, “Action.”
[ So these sets could fully capsize within the tank? ] ^ Fully wrong, and right themselves. So it was very successful and truly claustrophobic, because the main — we built just over half the actual schooner with its full rig, and that’s on a 70-ton gamble, which could basically tip at 90 degrees in about six seconds. To continue the roll, there’s a long gimbal which was about 40 feet long, which takes in the whole corridor running down the center of the ship. That does 360 when they’re trying to get out of the cabins, and then the front portion of the schooner where the boys are bunked, that would do nearly 90 degrees, and that was a heavy gimbal as well. So it was painstaking and plodding, like all filmmaking is. For anybody standing on the side, it’s plodding, but if you’re right in the thick of it, it’s high adrenaline because every little shot blow-by-blow would involve water or gimbals or some goddamn nuisance. (Laughs)
[ I assume that safety was a really big issue on that set. ] ^ In the set, it was no problem really. The biggest problem at sea, of course, was all the actors on board. Particularly in South Africa, because you’re on the high seas and if somebody goes overboard, you just never pick them up. By the time you turn around, you can’t see them. There’s just this little head bobbing around in the water. Let’s say you’re doing eight knots, and…you’re gone. So we were very careful about that.
In the Indies, it was relatively calmer. I was pursuing heavy water, and it escaped. Of course, as soon as we left, there was a major hurricane.
[ Was safety equipment taken care of just by having them, or were they digitally removed? ] ^ No, harnesses are usually quite simple and you can get them under a shirt. So you’re just pre-thinking what [the actor] is going to have to wear in that scene, make sure you have a loose enough T-shirt. But at sea, even in heavy seas, or something short of a hurricane, you would throw up lifelines. So to make your way down across the deck to do whatever you’ve gotta do, you’re moving along the lifeline. We only experienced maybe 35 to 40 feet, and they weren’t curlers, so they rarely broke on the deck. So we didn’t function with any lifelines.
We looked very seaworthy by then, all of us, the whole crew and the boys. On the rigging, they could all go up and cross on the yard, and some of those yards are 80 feet off the deck, where they go on the spar and let down the canvas. Each of those sails weighs also a ton. Today they have a man-made fiber in the middle of it, which makes it stronger. So when it gets wet, it doesn’t go to two tons because the water runs off it. In the old days, once it got wet it was murder. Wet and cold. In heavy seas like Cape Horn, you’d get ice on the yards.
But we were in quite good shape, much to the bonders’ relief. It was quite a difficult task bonding the movie, simply because of the few water films that have occurred this year. (Laughs) The idea of doing this all at sea worried them.
[ Early on, there must have been a question of how much we can do in the tank or with models versus how much would we have to do on location. ] ^ You’re very limited, actually. In fact, for a film that’s not a parody movie or not a more picturesque movie, you’ve got to be very careful with models, because models tend to look like models. Particularly in this instance, because this film is taking place in 1961. Even though it’s a schooner, the way the rest of the film is shot, it’s very real. I was very wary and worried about the models, so we built a large model — a 25-foot model. That’s a very good limit. You can’t come down very much below that. The turning over, we were successful with. When it goes over, we had a model that was only eight feet long, and that looks good from below. But there’s a limit to the size, and you’ve got to overcrank. On the rolls, we were doing like 72 frames, in the storm when it goes over, we were doing — to make the seas stiffer and give it more — we were doing 72 and even to 96. That gave the ship its right weight and the sea its right movement.
And foam, you get a lot of foam in there. When you’re in some heavy water, you get more foam than you think. Trying to create white caps is also a big problem. Just getting the nose of the ship going in and getting white water is difficult, because your ship is basically anchored on your models, anchored on the gimbals and cables that allow it will push and pull it, almost like a four-way gyro. But you tend not to get a sense of the thing moving forward, so that’s difficult.
The jet engines saved the day. In fact, I’m buying these jet engines for the studio in London, because I think people are going to get wise to these jet engines. The propellers are good for certain things, but the jet engines, if you really want stuff like this, that’s what you’ve got to have.
[ Was any of the picture at all shot at Shepperton? ] ^ No. I’m editing there, or mixing there, but I couldn’t shoot anything at Shepperton unfortunately. I shot a little bit at Pinewood, but the tank at Pinewood is not as big as my requirements. What happened was, I think we were even more successful, because the storm was always a worry. It’s one of those things you stick in the back of your head and think, well, experience will tell if we’ll be able to pull it off. But I was always worried about it.
Really, Malta — I think there’s a facility in Miami, isn’t there — I’d heard that it was difficult to work in. But what we got out of it was terrific, and I found that the working process there was actually quite easy, and I don’t know where else we could have done it. You don’t want to tank too deep, because if you’re too deep every goddamn thing is going to be moved around on the scaffolding and that slows you down. So you don’t need more than about six or seven feet on the overall bit, but once you got your big ship in the middle, you wanted it deep there so it was about 18 feet in a pit in the middle where your big gimbal is.
But you want to be able to get in at it and service it with all your machines. Because half your battle is getting everything as close as you can just out of shot. So it’s very much a studio system, and it’s the only water facility I know of.
[ How much time were you guys spending in getting the actual ship to Cape Horn and the West Indies? ] ^ We wrapped him. We said “That’s it, we’re finished.” We were off to shoot for a month at Malta, and he took three months to get there. So I went off to Shepperton to edit for two months, I was at Malta a month, and meanwhile he was already chugging down the coast of South America. Whatever you do, it’s Murphy’s Law. I knew that normally, I could get heavy seas off the coast of Cornwall, or the British Channel, the Irish Channel. But we got one of the hottest summers this year since 1600. So I was scared of going in there and finding myself in a goddamn mill pond.
Because he was going to go back to Portsmouth. But basically, we said, “Listen, here’s the bad news. We want you to go down to Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope.” And he said, “Oh, no,” but he did it. He was great. And he arrived six days before we got there.
[ Having that time, waiting for the ship to come in, how did that impact how the film was going to progress? One of the major complaints that most productions have now is that postproduction is so incredibly fast. ] ^ I usually go for fast postproduction anyway. I’m usually about 16 weeks. It was all right because I had a month to shoot in Malta and I always work with Gerry Hambling, who’s a great editor. He was cutting right behind me. So by the time we got to Malta, he was in there — we were cutting still while I was shooting. And then we still had eight weeks to go before he got to South Africa. So we just went to Shepperton and got on with editing the movie, and put the slugs in down there. Just leave in “scene missing.”
[ Was that sequence always intended to be a 17-minute sequence? ] ^ A. I wanted it to be an important part in the film, and almost be an act in itself in the story, so I was hoping I could stretch it and sustain it and keep it dramatically interesting.
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