I don’t normally take phone calls at 7:50 AM on a Saturday (not even, no, especially not from my mom), but I will always make an exception for Sir Ridley Scott. He could call me at 7:50 AM every Saturday for the next three years, and I don’t think I’d complain. He might get awfully well-acquainted with my voice mail after a while, but, hey, a little phone harassment is a more-than-fair trade off for Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven and, now, American Gangster.
The dovetailing story of Frank Lucas (a 1970s Harlem drug dealer who cut out the middle men – i.e. the Italians – by arranging for pure heroin to be shipped in from Vietnam in the coffins of American dead) and Richie Roberts (the New Jersey detective who tracked Lucas down), American Gangster does for its titular genre what Clint Eastwood did to the western with Unforgiven. Seventy-six years after Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar, it’s about time someone tore the gangster film apart and reconsidered its conventions while questioning the popularity of the kingpin mythos that’s dominated hip-hop culture since, I don’t know, N.W.A. dropped "Dope Man" ("Young brother gettin’ over by slangin’ cane)? Audiences paying to see the ne plus ultra of gangster flicks may emerge confused (especially with the mixed-signal release of Jay-Z’s American Gangster LP), but Steven Zaillian’s remarkably nuanced screenplay will out. Regardless of its intent, the story is just too absorbing.
The narrative is so strong that Scott, one of cinema’s supreme stylists, has opted for a muted visual palette in order to de-emphasize the glitz that often bedecks the gangsta film (it’s a trickle-down effect flowing from Brian De Palma’s Scarface to rubbish like State Property). But, as the master filmmaker notes in the below interview, the lack of ostentation is also in keeping with the New York City of that era; though some folks stepped out in natty attire, they were the exception to the rule. They were also targets; a chinchilla coat and primo seats at Ali-Frazier II meant you were either a celebrity or connected. And if you were the latter, you were fucked.
It was 10:50 AM in New York City for Ridley – who’d just flown in from Morocco where he’s directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe in Body of Lies – when we chatted, and he was in great spirits. And why shouldn’t he be? American Gangster is a masterpiece, the final cut of Blade Runner is selling out theaters in re-release, and he’s got a shot at Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian provided he can secure the requisite financing (which won’t be a problem when AG breaks $100 million in two weeks’ time).
This was the first time I’d spoken with Ridley since moderating a Q&A for the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven. I’m not sure he remembered me, but he was friendly nonetheless.
Q: In practical terms, you’ve adapted your visual style to the environment of New York City by shooting Super 35 for 1.85:1.
Ridley Scott: I spent a lot of time in New York City during the ’60s, so I knew it well, including Harlem. And I relate very strongly to some of the photography of that period. So when Harris [Savides] and I talked about whether we should shoot wide, we decided we were better off at 1.85, which is probably the closest thing that would be appropriate for this kind of story. It’s almost like a still photograph.
Q: Framing-wise, did this have to do anything with the height of the buildings?
Scott: I never have that problem. There’s always the argument that if you letterbox, you’re going to see less "up". I’m not one for big masters. I never have been. I learned to get rid of that when I was doing millions of commercials, knowing that, during the scene, there will be an opportunity to gradually reveal what is the environment, what is the room, what are the surroundings. You won’t miss anything. And it will be in this more powerful form rather than jumping back to one wide shot – which really doesn’t do anything and has no reason to be there.
Q: The other aspect of American Gangster that I think is different from your previous films is the way you de-emphasize the glamour of this obscenely glamourous world – which is, of course, one of the film’s central themes. Why play down what every other director would play up?
Scott: I went through it. I rubbed shoulders with… if not necessarily drug dealers throughout the 1960s, certainly people who were close to that. So I was able to sort out who was really well-dressed and who was shabby. I think for the most part, even in the period from ’69 to ’74, there wasn’t a lot of money around, not like there is today. There were still the monied few, but, for the most part, it was a kind of reined-back visual experience. Even in the streets, which were always what I called "cinder, toffee, brown and black". That’s what I always thought about New York. New York light is very harsh, but harsh in a good way. It was very well-captured by a very good fashion photographer named William Klein*. He did three books: one on Manhattan, one on Tokyo and one on Rome. He brought fashion onto the streets, and gave it a different look, a very strong, aggressive, fashion-y look. He used people on the streets, and he used the backgrounds. He loved 42nd Street, which, in those days, was really grim.
Q: Streets like that, and atmosphere like that, have, of course, been almost completely driven out of the city.
Scott: I’ve always felt Times Square was grim. (Laughs) Now, it’s smothered in millions of electronic signs, so a lot of the shabbiness is hidden. But that was part of the charm, part of the power of New York; it was that sense of a city always on overload. It always looks like it needs refurbishing. And, yet, the modern cities, when they start from scratch, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, they’re very crisp; they’ve been designed for the future. New York is largely about trying to hold onto the beauty of the buildings of the twenties and thirties; the rest is retro-ing, and then trying to shoehorn in there some really seriously good pieces of new architecture – of which there aren’t many, surprisingly. In fact, I can’t think of any that are really good.
Q: No Frank Lloyd Wright, no Gehry…
Scott: No. No serious architecture for a while. But when you go to Holland and Germany and Berlin and Shanghai and Hong Kong and, now, even London, you see some pretty damn good stuff.
Q: But the Harlem of the ’60s and ’70s has still changed dramatically. I know you did a lot of location shooting in the city; how did you find places and buildings and neighborhoods that would evoke this era?
Scott: It was a lot of looking. The Harlem that exists today is starting to get into $3 million to $5 million brownstone houses. (Laughs) So it was a lot of trying to find those spots that had not been touched. I just went round and round with a small unit of location scouts. We chose one center of the universe, which was the narrowest street in Harlem. But that became secondary – and it was the corner on which Frank Lucas and Bumpy Johnson handed out turkeys. But we got there, and I thought "This street is too small." Harlem was basically known for it’s boulevards, so we ended up on one of the widest boulevards. Then I said, "I don’t have a coffee shop. I need a coffee shop." So we built that coffee shop [which Lucas frequents in the film]; that was a set. I built that on site, on the spot, on the best crossroads.
Q: Building onto a preexisting building?
Scott: Actually, it was a old, ruined corner store. So we just went in there, tore it apart, and glommed a cafe onto it. And because the sidewalks there are so wide, we brought the glassed area onto the sidewalk – which they used to do sometimes.
Q: And you only spent a week in Thailand?
Scott: Yeah! I shot for only a week. We went in there, I did a two-day turnaround, and then just shot. Honestly, you get so experienced at it; I can tell from location pictures how to position the set according to the sun, and according to where I’m going to shoot at that time of day. That factory was a set. We built that, too.
Q: And the poppies?
Scott: We put those in digitally. Pretty good, actually. You choose whether you want white, pink and white, or red. I went for the white because it looked more unusual.
Q: Getting back to the de-emphasized glamour of American Gangster, this approach is contrary to what most people expect from gangster films – especially when then see big names like Denzel and Russell on the poster. There are expectations, and, for modern audiences, they’re grounded in films like Scarface and Goodfellas. Though you were reflecting the world you recalled from the ’60s and ’70s, was there still a sense of commenting on where we are with this genre?
Scott: Yeah. I think what made me give the big pause [prior to taking the gig], even with Zailian writing, was that I thought, "Eh… drug dealer, Harlem… do I really want to do this?" I hesitated because I felt it had been done. But then I reappraised it over a couple of years, and wondered what the hell had happened to the film. It hadn’t been made. So I called up Steven, and he gave me the two evolutions it went through – albeit, this was quietly done. Then I talked to Russell about it, called Brian and said, "Let’s try and do it." That’s how it happened. And I went back to the original notion of what Zaillian had written.
Q: And then you have the challenge of balancing the story between two of the most overpoweringly brilliant actors working today. You do a great job of juxtaposing their personalities, but when you finally bring them together… how do you keep that interrogation scene from overwhelming the entire movie?
Scott: It’s one of the scenes that worried me the most. It’s a nine-page talking scene. And nine-page talking scenes, when you get to the end of a movie, are not what you want, right? (Laughs) Except this was so beautifully laid out in terms of its dynamics, in terms of the question and answer of what would happen. So Frank amusingly revisits some old ground, and asks [Richie] the inevitable question: "Is it true that you actually gave back $1 million?" Then you begin with corruption; you begin with Frank Lucas trying to bribe him. It was always on paper, and I think for that reason, with those two, I wasn’t afraid of it. I thought it would be just fine. And, ironically, it works out as being one of the best scenes in the movie.
Q: It’s spectacular. And I love the little touches, like the cup of coffee being nudged back and forth.
Scott: That just happened. Denzel swatted the coffee off the table. It comes off Richie’s line, "And everything can return to normal." Denzel starts to talk about what he means by "normal", and he literally lost it; he got enraged and swatted the coffee. I thought that was pretty cool, so I just let it run. It’s only going to happen once; you can’t predesign these things. If it happens, it happens, and that’s great because you know it’s real. Then Russell, during the right moment, decided during the take – because I was running four cameras on them – to push the coffee back as is to say, "The ball’s in your court." Denzel didn’t immediately use that. I was waiting for him to slide it back. And then he chose the right moment to slide it back. That all happened spur of the moment.
Q: Great as Denzel and Russell are, they also get to play off an amazing supporting cast. Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Chiwetel Ejiofor–
Scott: There are some great characters in this. And I was really thrilled that they wanted to do it – particularly Chiwetel, because it’s not a big part. But he said, "No, I want to do it. I love the character, I love the idea, and I love the film." And Josh had five great, really telling scenes, didn’t he?
Q: Yeah. He’s had a phenomenal year. I’ve seen him in three movies this year, and he’s been amazing in all three.
Scott: He’s really coming of age.
Q: One quality that has become your signature as a filmmaker is the creating of worlds. Stretching back to Alien and Blade Runner and even The Duellists, I think of the art design and real locations and things that are hand-crafted, not CG-ed in later. Now that you have CG at your disposal, do you find it’s more difficult to achieve this kind of immersion?
Scott: I think with CG that you’ve got to be very careful, because CG starts to look like CG. With CG, less is more. You’ve got to know when to hold back. When you see an over-elaborated, over-painted shot that looks real – even though you know it’s not real – because it’s so complete and so what I call "postcard-y", then you know there’s something fake about it. A lot of films suffer from that. There’s very little CGI in American Gangster.
Q: I also want to congratulate you on the final cut of Blade Runner. It’s been playing to packed houses, even on weeknights, here in Los Angeles. Are there plans to roll it out wider?
Scott: There are. They had a four-screen show-and-tell in the States about a month ago, and we were running at the highest per-screen average of that weekend. So that got them to get their heads out, and now we’re going to start a limited release in something like twenty theaters. We’ll see how it goes.
Q: That’s the way the film has to be seen, I think.
Scott: Yeah, I’m very happy with it.
Q: Would you say that you’ve changed the way you pace a film between Alien and American Gangster?
Scott: It’s horses-for-courses. You’re driven by the material rather than pre-deciding "This film should be quicker." I think the audience certainly has less tolerance. It’s kind of a TV audience now, isn’t it? This sadly effects the kinds of movies that are successful, and, because they are successful, there are more made like that. I’m being fairly negative, but… there’s a lot of shit out there, put it that way.
Q: I only ask because watching the beginning of Alien the other night, I remembered something you said on one of the commentary tracks. The note you kept getting back from the studio was that "Nothing happens for the first forty-five minutes."
Q: I can’t imagine anyone making a major studio film nowadays trying to get away with a opening like that. Same with Blade Runner.
Scott: They have their own cadence and pace. My argument [with Alien] was that once you get to the point where John [Hurt] lowers himself into that chamber, I think you’re pretty distressed. So I think the forty-five minutes was pretty well invested. I always said that when that egg opens, then you know you’re in for a different kind of experience.
Q: How have things been going in Morocco with Body of Lies? You’ve shot over there once or twice before, right?
Scott: This will be my fourth time. I’m halfway through. It’s with Leo and Russell, and Russell’s already done, actually. He’s mostly in Washington. It’s a Washington film, it’s a Middle East film, and that’s where the usual conventions stop. It’s a rather excellent story told by David Ignatius’s book. The book is called Body of Lies, but I’m not sure that’s going to be the title. I preferred his earlier title, which was Penetration. It’s a metaphor, obviously, for what has happened and what is happening. And really trying to distill not what we should have done, but what we should do, and is there any hope on the horizon for dealing with the problem. At the moment, there really isn’t. And that’s not negative, but realistic, right? Leo plays a [CIA agent] in the field, and Russell plays a person who, fundamentally, is his boss. It’s a little John le Carré, and I’m really happy with it so far.
You know, David Ignatius is something of an old hand with the Middle East. I think it’s been his main subject for the last thirty years. He’s the foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.
Q: That’s good. It’s so important to be telling these stories from the point-of-view of the people who’ve been studying and living the subject.
Scott: You better get it right. You can’t be jingoistic today. And this is not jingoistic, but self-critical. It’s looking inwards. It’s the idea that, in our arrogance, we believe we’re the actual enemy, when we’re not. The enemy is within on that side of the world, and their first priority is cleaning up their religion. That’s the fundamentalist overview of [the Muslim] religion; they feel like there are too many people who aren’t thinking as they’d like them to think. So the first priority is to get that all straightened out. (Pause) And that’s when we’ll really be in trouble.
Q: (Laughing) And that’s not being negative. That’s being realistic.
Scott: I think so. (Laughs)
Q: Beyond that, we’ve heard about Nottingham and Russell playing the Sheriff. Is that–
Scott: He’s not the Sheriff in a way. He begins the film being called "Nottingham". He’s kind of, if you like, the right-hand man to Richard Coeur de Leon. It begins with the return from the Crusades, where they’ve lost a whole generation going down to this religious fervor without really realizing why they’re there. Richard Coeur de Leon was an interesting character in that he was more of a figment of good publicity than reality. He never really won anything. But he was a great figure on a horse with armor.
Q: It sounds like maybe this could be a companion piece to Kingdom of Heaven.
Scott: No, no. I would say it’s less serious than that.
Q: And now that the Cormac McCarthy thing might finally be happening in film, are you still interested in directing Blood Meridian?
Scott: It’s a hard one to push forward. As soon as you start to explain the "why" of the violence, then there’s no reason to make the film. It is an exercise in evolution, I think, and no more than that. There was a time when the scalp hunters went out, and there was a clear attempt at genocide, to wipe out a group who was a nuisance down there. And the bounty hunters were paid quite substantially for one scalp. So it’s really about that group. And the "why" is a very straight answer. I believe they were getting as much as $100 a scalp… and they discovered that, honestly, one dark mane was as much the same as another, so they were just scalping indiscriminately eventually. It’s about the end and the turning point for the American Indian, but it’s a pocket in that time – and it’s a hard one because it’s a wonderful read, and I think it should be kept that way. When one makes a film, you’ve got to make it like the read. And [Blood Meridian] is nearly an abstract. That’s hard. And suddenly, because movies cost a lot to make, you’ve got to do it as a low-budget movie.
Q: That might force you to be an even more impressionistic filmmaker.
Scott: It’s harder. You want to hit the seasons, you need back-up, you need violence to do it properly… and some really careful, diligent shooting. It all rolls into the fact that it’s not a low-budget movie, not if you want to do the book justice. It’s like saying I can do Apocalypse Now cheaply. You’ll end up with the TV version.
Q: Films like that require so many days of shooting.
Q: But the studios are always trying to bring them in at ninety days. Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t happen in ninety days.
Scott: And there’s always a reason why. With Lawrence, if you’re in Jordan, once the sun comes up you can’t really shoot two hours after sunrise. And you don’t really want to shoot until two hours [until sunset]. So the rest of the day you sit around waiting for the sun to go down. If you don’t hit the right time of the year, and [David Lean] didn’t want to be in the right time of the year for some reason, you’re staring at 132 degrees. You can’t work in that.
At this point, I was a good fifteen minutes over my allotted time with Ridley. I could’ve gone on for another hour talking about Lawrence of Arabia with him, but that would just be selfish. I just hope there’s some studio (or studios) out there willing to cough up the requisite cash to get Blood Meridian made.
For now, we have American Gangster, and for that we must be thankful. It opens wide on November 3rd.
*He also played "A Man from the Future" in Chris Marker’s "La Jetée".