The Robin Hood junket was originally supposed to be held in London, but that pesky volcano got in the way and instead it took place in boring old Los Angeles. The London trip would have been small and exclusive, and when the location was changed Universal kept that exclusivity. I was in a room with just a handful of other writers, each numbering among the best folks writing on the web today.
That’s part of the reason why this interview is so damn good. The other part is because Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were very loose, and weren’t looking so much to sell Robin Hood as to just talk about movie making. There’s very little in here that’s specific to Robin Hood, and much that gives you an insight into how one of our most important living directors approaches his craft. Scott also talks about how he approaches each film as a theatrical experience and as a home viewing experience, which I found fascinating.
Crowe was not in the room for the first few questions, which we posed to a visibly unwell Scott – the filmmaker had undergone knee surgery recently, and it wasn’t healing up even close to as quickly as he was expecting.
There’s been a lot of talk online about you possibly doing Alien in 3D.
Scott: Oh, of course. Of course it’ll be 3D. Yeah.
Are you actually going to use the 3D cameras that Cameron did on Avatar?
Scott: No. I think they’ve already moved beyond. Jim said, “This process has taken me four years. Now you could probably do this in two.” So, the technology’s shifting all the time. Right now, I could’ve taken this 3-D, this Robin Hood.
We had heard some reports that you might.
Scott: I could’ve converted Robin Hood- if they’d said ‘Yes’ last October, I could’ve squeezed it under the hat and I could’ve got it in as a 3D version of Robin Hood.
For somebody who’s as visually demanding as you, doesn’t it make sense for you to compose in 3D and plan it?
Scott: It’s not a big deal. People always agonize over whether it’s 1:85 or 2:35. I don’t really give a shit. It’s all ‘How are you gonna fill the frame,’ you know? So, if you’ve got an eye it’s not a problem. If you don’t have an eye then the buffoons turn it into science. So, we get a lot of conversation going on and that’s where it takes forever and it shouldn’t.
I always heard that in 3D you want as much light on a situation as possible.
Scott: That’s the downside.
Isn’t Alien almost the antithesis of that because the movies have always been about shadow and darkness and about hiding things.
Scott: That’s what Jim said. He said, “The problem is you’re going to have to grade it later. You’re gonna have to grit your teeth and light it, not the way you like it. And then later, you’re going to have to re-grade it.” Re-paint it. So you’re literally re-painting. So, in fact, Avatar, when you think about it, is almost a completely animated movie. It’s an animated movie.
Can you make an Alien movie now that has that same sort of austere, patient style?
Do you think it would still work for audiences?
Scott: I think it’ll work. Don’t you?
The original definitely still does, but I think that audiences are now acclimated to things that have more energy.
Scott: But that’s twenty-nine years ago, that film. Now, to say, ‘Do you want to re-cut it?’ At the time, I thought, ‘Not really.’ I think I should leave it alone. Leave it as it- that’s what it is. Would things move faster today? Yeah. But I had no technology, at all. I had no digital technology, at all. So, even the ones that followed started to have tech like digital rails and tracking and computers. I had no computers at all in Alien. Alien was, literally, all physical. So, even the spaceship, which would be about as big as this table, you’d hang it from a wire and the camera would slowly push under- I was the operator- the camera would slowly push underneath, trying to keep it as steady as possible with a fan and a lot of dry ice blowing at it to give it some sense of movement. That was it. It’s pretty good, actually.
With the advent of all these movies, Cameron’s talked about doing Titanic and doing it with 3D, and Lucas as talked about the Star Wars movies and Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, could you ever see yourself revisiting one of your previous films and doing a post conversion for 3D. For example, Blade Runner.
Scott: You can virtually order it. I can virtually go to a company saying, ‘Can you re-3D this?’ And it’ll be quicker if I sat there and did it with them, which I would. It’s when you’re grading a movie, I sit there with the grader and we flick through one scene. I give him two frames a second, like that. You do the grade and then he says, ‘Ok, I’ve got it’ and then you go and do the whole scene. And then you can see- then you do the whole film that way.
Has anyone come at you to re-do some of your older films?
Scott: Yeah. Yeah.
What are your thoughts on that?
Scott: Not really. I’d rather save that energy for something- we could’ve done this in 3D, but everyone was so hesitant. It could’ve been that, but we didn’t bother, because the film’s good enough.
Crowe: When that technology becomes- and you discovered, recently, how far forward it’s gone, right? It’s not an invalid thing to do a 3D version of Gladiator. This is one of those odd movies that doesn’t happen very much. We made that movie in 1999 and every given week that passes it’s screening somewhere as the principle movie that night in prime time. So, it’s one of those movies that’s lasted. I can see a theatrical 3D release.
Other actors from the film were saying that you shot this picture with a bunch of cameras going at once, all hidden around the locations, and they would just act within the world, not at the camera. Would you still be allowed to do that with 3D?
Scott: Not quite as… not with that absolute freedom, but I was told you can’t do that with 2D cameras, either, and we do. And [Crowe]’s expert at knowing where every fucking camera is, because it’s my thing to-
Crowe: Mainly because I’m a slut.
Scott: He knows exactly where the ninth camera is. Whereas, an actor, say like Bill Hurt saying, “I don’t think he was covering me. He didn’t get to cover me.”
Crowe: He’s talking specifically about a conversation that I had with William. At the end of one day he was very morose and sitting in his trailer and I was with the Merry Men; we were all sitting around having a beer together and I said, “Come and join us.” And he goes, “Ah, you know, man, I can’t. I just don’t understand what’s going on, you know? I’m out there. I’m doing my thing, but not once did Ridley cover me in a close-up and I don’t understand. I mean, isn’t this an important part of the story? I mean, I’m not trying to overstate my contribution here but I just don’t understand.” I was like, “Bill, he had five cameras going. He had five cameras. He did four takes. Between each take he’s gonna change the lens and change the way a particular camera moves. I absolutely guarantee you, he’s got more close-ups than you can shake a stick at.”
Crowe: He goes, “Is that how he works it?” “That’s how he works. Did he interrupt you? Did he stop you from doing anything? No. When you’re not doing what he wants, that’s when he’ll come talk to you.”
Scott: And also, it’s a preference or a choice for an actor from one actor to another as to what do you prefer. Do you prefer to know where the camera is or do you prefer to just be able to forget about it? It’s a choice, isn’t it?
Crowe: Yeah, and me, I like to live in the world.
Scott: Yeah. You don’t want to worry about it.
Crowe: The thing is I spend all the time that I need during a rehearsal situation. I have a look at where [the cameras] are. I got and ask them what lens they have on and I’ll do that between each take. ‘So, if you’re changing, what are you changing? You were at 15, now you’re at 125.’ So, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he’s gonna get, given the set of tracks that are laid down. This comes from growing up out of smaller films where you don’t want to waste an inch of footage. You don’t want to be the guy whose back’s to the camera in the emotional part of the movie. So, you have to be aware of the camera movement and what the camera’s doing. So, it’s just in a much more fluid sense when you’re on a set with Ridley.
Scott: And I came to it through watching actors get frustrated where you do a take; I’m off-camera here, and I’m the actor helping him off-camera and I’m saying, ‘Save it.’ Except you’re not saving, he’s actually giving it to him so by the time I’m done here, and come around here [for the reverse angle], he’s done. He’s cooked. That started driving me crazy, so I started with two cameras. And you do adjust the light a little bit. There’s not much of a compromise and then once you do that, you can then, suddenly say, ‘Hey, we can put four or six cameras in here, if you know where to put them. Because if you regard each short sequence as a playlet, then you’re covering maybe a minute and a half or two minutes. It’s better for the actor who is acting through the play without the stop and go of individual takes.
Crowe: And also better for the editor.
Crowe: Because everything that happens in front of those six cameras is mathematically related.
Crowe: So it’s easy to cut together. I first had that experience prior to working with Ridley, with Michael Mann and working with Al Pacino and Michael just decided that he was going to run two cameras on everything. I like to work in the first three takes and Al kind of uses the first thirty to warm up. So Michael just decided he’s going to get everything and anything that happens. When I’m on another film and somebody’s back to a single camera that I still make sure that the energy is high off-camera. You’re driving everything so you don’t have this thing where you drop down. Quite often we’ll have chats with younger actors who believe that their job only starts when they’re on camera. And it’s like, ‘No, actually you have to work on the other side of the camera at the same time.’
Scott: There’s nothing worse than saying to an actor, ‘We’ll be ready in forty-five minutes’, which is going to be an hour and a quarter, and he goes out back to the trailer going, ‘Fuck.’ When you’ve just got going, you don’t want to stop. It’s death, death, death.
Crowe: Now, the thing is- the assumption would be that going from one camera to six cameras adds a lot of money. But what you’re talking about is being able to achieve more in any given hour of the day. You take your six cameras and yes, functionally, you have ‘X’ more dollar cost. You have multiple of six, ok, but that multiple of six counts in your favor in everything that you shoot.
Scott: Coverage. Everything.
Crowe: We were doing a little comedy in the south of France and the crew, after a few days, went to the producer and said, “I do not know what this man is doing. He is going to kill us. We are doing seventy set-ups before lunchtime. It’s supposed to be a little comedy.” But that’s just the way that he likes to work. It’s the way I like to work.
Can you tell us about the development of this project? We’ve heard that it changed drastically from the original concept.
Scott: What you’re about to hear is totally normal and very every-day, and happens almost on every project.
Crowe: Yeah, if you look at the two-and-a-half years between when we first were given the idea and the last day of shooting… I know people have tried to pump it up like it was falling apart and this was going wrong and that was going wrong. The reality is we took a normal, responsible, period of time to develop a story into a feature film that was shootable within a confined period of time. There was nothing extreme about it. I mean, some of the things that were printed were simply that we couldn’t answer the question at the time… you’ve seen the film, right?
Crowe: Okay. So, ‘Are you gonna play more than one character?’ Well, at the central part of Robin Hood one of the things is disguise and deception. I take on somebody else’s persona. I can’t answer no to that question but I can’t fully explain the reality of that because that’s giving away one of the fun bits of the plot. So by not being able to answer it fully, you then leave this massive ground for interpretation. That was happening to both of us where we were trying to answer the questions as best we could in the time and people were just running with the answer and creating something completely different out of it which wasn’t what we said or what we intended or what was meant.
But I think you’ve got to take the time period it needs for you to get on top of it. You don’t want to be starting a film not knowing what you want to do. So, we just took that time. And, also, it was a real thing that happened- is when a certain series of dates was put forward it’s like, ‘It’s gonna be a very bleak landscape if we’re going to shoot in England starting in January.’ And we’d shot a part of Gladiator in England, in January. You can’t do your first shot til 9:30 in the morning and you’re done by 2:30 in the afternoon. On Gladiator, at least we had a balance where we had some day and some night in the same sequence.
Scott: And we parked the tents on top of the hill, so we’d say wrap at two, have a quick lunch, you’d be in Maximus’ tent at three. So, we’d have sets on the hill. So, it was incredibly practical, wasn’t it?
Crowe: Yeah. Well, that worked in our favor. But, also, trying to get that amount of artillery and horses and the stuff in place when you’re dealing with a foot and a half of mud- we knew that January’s not a great time to be shooting epic battles in England. So we had to wait a little bit. Obviously, once you’ve had a film like Gladiator - once that’s in your background then everybody’s going hold whatever else you do up to that. And I don’t think, at all, we ever try to functionally live up to that but we do apply the same methodology. No matter what is going on, we’re going to get up every day and our aim is before this day is done, we are going to have done something special.
You’ve been known to have many deleted scenes on your movies. Did you guys overshoot on this? Is there a lot of stuff that might be on the DVD/Blu-ray?
Scott: Seventeen minutes more- which is not a lot, actually. We’re pretty accurate. And we had the first cut on this was worked at three hours and four minutes. Did it work? Yeah, because everything was fresh and you live to see rushes. When I’m shooting, the reward in the evening is not going on and having a drink and lying down. I go straight to a dark room somewhere and watch rushes and eat dinner. Then, go in the editing room afterwards, because that’s the reward. The fun of it is the- it doesn’t sound like fun, but it’s the fun- you’re doing eighteen-hour days. And it truly is a reward. You get a day of rushes which are good from yesterday, you’re walking on air, and then you go out and have a drink. And then you’re working the next day. But for the most part the average of losing fifteen/twenty minutes is pretty average. But the seventeen minutes that we took out is very good stuff so it’s gone straight back into the DVD.
So, you’re going to be putting out an extended edition?
Scott: Yes. It’s exactly the same film, except interspersed with areas and little scenelets and scenes.
Crowe: Just little grace notes, in terms of the characters and how they’re connected to the form and so forth.
Scott: The dynamic at play, when you’re sitting there with an audience and they’re on you, the test is- an audience sitting at night in his living room with a can of beer or a glass of wine, watching, he’s a different person than the person sitting in a theater with a lot of people and it’s a different mindset. Because, you’re more likely, when you’re in your own living room, to want to stand and sit and watch three hours where you can pause, get up, have a pee, get another glass of wine, come back and resume. It’s a different experience.
Crowe: Yeah. And film’s also a strange sort of medium. You can take what’s on a page and you think you absolutely need these four moments to fully explain this relationship. But then when you’ve shot it, and you look at the shots you have, you realize, ‘Oh, well, that two second look from Marion? That supercedes these four scenes.’ Everybody knows what Marion’s thinking now so I don’t need to explain it so I can take those four scenes and put them away.
Scott: And you can never be sure how that’s going to land. But in the shorthand of something that suddenly really works you go, ‘Damn, that works, so we don’t need this.’
What do you think about the test screening process?
Scott: Horrible. But you think differently.
Crowe: He hates it, but I said, ‘You gotta do it, man.You gotta do it. I know it’s hard.’ Actually, funnily enough, I felt that it gave you another burst of energy when you started hearing people’s opinions.
Scott: Yeah, it did. Yeah. Beause one thing’s for sure when you do what I do: nothing’s for sure. Whatever you think, you don’t know everything. The value of the screening is that when you think, ‘That really works,’ and then you go to a screening and then a third of the audience say something that you knew was in the back of your mind, which was kind of niggling away. And as soon as they say it you go, ‘Fuck, I’ve got to deal with that.’ So, that all you’re doing is get an endorsement of, ‘That is a problem.’ So you got to deal with it.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the difference between enjoying a film in the theater versus enjoying it at home. With a film like Kingdom of Heaven, in which the two versions are extraordinarily different-
Scott: Forty minutes. That was unfair. That was really my fault. It was a really stupid cut.
Did you take anything out of that experience when you’re working on a big epic film like this now?
Scott: Well, it didn’t kill her but it was unfair to her to give her the princess of –
Crowe: Eva [Green].
Scott: The Eva role was completely different when we discovered, historically, that the person she was – she was the sister of the leper king. The leper king existed. The leper king had got a virulent form of leprosy when he was fifteen, died at twenty-five, had to be lifted into the saddle and tied in the saddle with a sword tied to his hand so the appearance of things would be acceptable. And the moment he had to put a silver mask on brcause you couldn’t look at him was when he was nineteen. I would think, ‘How did she find out the child had leprosy?’ The child was diagnosed with leprosy. History says the child died or the mother murdered the child for power. I don’t believe a mother allows a child to go to eight years old and then kills the child for power. I think she euthanized the child because she loved him so much and could not see the child go through what her brother went through. So, I think she euthanized him, which is an incredibly powerful and rough thing to have to do. And we removed that, so I removed that thing of the kid’s curiosity of putting his hand over the candle and he’s burning with soot and he’s not feeling it. His hand’s got soot and he looks at that and the next thing he’s lying in a bed with his little foot and there’s an Egyptian doctor there with a needle and he’s just pushing the needle into the foot til blood shows and the child is playing with a doll- doesn’t even notice. And the guy looks at the doctor and just nods and he has leprosy. It took a fifteen minute deviation to get through that, so for guys sitting in the cinema, they’re going, ‘Ugh. Come on.’ At home, you can take that. Sit and watch it. So, I think sitting at home looking at a DVD- and today’s technology is available to you in a living room, is the equivalent of reading a good book. You can sit at home, open a good book, and sit and take your time. In the cinema you’ve got to eat afterwards, it’s noisy, it’s a different dynamic.
Are you looking at your films from both of those perspectives?
Scott: Always. Always. Yeah.
Are you guys thinking about doing anything else together again?
Crowe: We’ll see as it comes up. We don’t plan that far in advance. Just, sooner or later a cycle of time goes past and he calls me up and goes, ‘Would you like to do this?’ and then we go from there.