Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Ridley Scott

Walking the Walk, Talking the 'Hawk'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 8, 2002—Between them, the two guys sitting on the couch at the Clift Hotel have supplied multiplexes with some of the biggest, loudest, and most spectacular movies of all time. To name just a few of the better samples: Alien, Blade Runner, Beverly Hills Cop, Thelma and Louise, The Ref and Crimson Tide.

I had never seen producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Coyote Ugly and Pearl Harbor) before, even in photos, and I expected him to be a David O. Selznick-type -- a Hollywood old school burly fellow chomping on a cigar and loudly proclaiming his radical views on humanity. But Bruckheimer was surprisingly soft-spoken, slim and well dressed (in black). On the other hand, his friend and partner, the burly, bearded director Ridley Scott (Gladiator and Hannibal), did in fact chomp on a cigar while he spoke in his delicate British accent.

The pair has traveled to San Francisco for a brief foggy afternoon to discuss their new film Black Hawk Down, opening in Bay Area theaters Jan. 18. It's perhaps the first time in years that Bruckheimer has enjoyed a measure of critical acclaim, and for Scott it marks a serious step up in quality from the highly overpraised and, in fact, quite awful Gladiator.

Based on a book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down captures a true 1993 incident in Somalia in which an American mission to capture two enemy lieutenants went horribly wrong. "The book is one of the best war books ever written about the modern military and Special Forces," Bruckheimer says. "That's what excited me about first buying it." Of course, when Bruckheimer buys a book, he doesn't just buy it at Borders. He's talking about buying the book -- hook, line and sinker.

In the story, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are shot down and American soldiers (played by Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and a host of other hot young actors) find themselves scattered everywhere with heavily armed Somali troopers hiding around every corner.

Their new mission is to rescue every possible American soldier and be at a rendezvous point at a certain time. But every moment that passes leaves more soldiers needing rescuing and less soldiers to rescue them.

For the film, Scott concentrated visually on the few square blocks around the crash site. "One of the things about doing battle scenes," Scott says, "is that so many battle scenes that have been done that you're always trying to think of another way of showing it differently. And it usually involves the human factor, which always makes it more interesting."

"Something like a bunch of German lunatics charging at a bunch of guys covered in mud and armor, waving swords around, will have a very short shift. You'll have two minutes and you'll start to get bored. So for Black Hawk Down, we walked the streets, and thought, 'they get caught just crossing the street.' Crossing the street is mayhem."

For this film, Scott managed to make the chaos seem absolutely clear to us, the audience. "I always storyboard everything," he says between puffs on his smoldering cigar. "Still do it personally. It's like writers having writer's block. You have a blank piece of paper and you don't know how to begin, so very often you just begin. As you begin, suddenly you've got the first paragraph and you're forming ideas. So I just start to doodle, because I know the place."

"I think facts and procedure are always interesting," he continues. "One of the best cop films ever made is The French Connection, and it's all about procedures and procedures driven by a character." And so for Black Hawk Down, Scott mainly focuses on the details of a rescue -- or in this case, a failed rescue. Doubling, and redoubling, of efforts.

In order to control such on-set bedlam -- increased by the fact that the SAG strike was looming during the shoot -- Scott had to assume the role of commander himself. "You've gotta walk on the floor in the morning and say: 'You, over here. I want three cameras over there.' If you don't do that, there's a lot of nudging: 'F---er doesn't know what he's doing.'" Scott admits to utilizing up to eleven cameras and working with eleven shots at one time, which really kept him on his toes. "It's like knowing how to ride a bicycle," Scott muses.

Bruckheimer, acting as Scott's superior officer, agrees. "I've had writers direct for me. They go out there and they've got 150 people asking, 'what do we do next'? And they're terrified. They don't know and the crew knows they don't know and they torture 'em. You have to be a real field commander: know how to budget your time, know when the sun's going to go down. They know where they want their actors at 5:02 because the sun's going to be in the perfect place."

This technical expertise is apparent in the finished film, which has racked up several mentions on year-end top ten lists. Scott admits that the film's reception may have something to do with America's changed outlook since Sept. 11. "[The film is] a celebration of what these guys do. It's anti-war and pro-army. You never think of these guys until you've got a problem. Sept. 11 is really about paying attention."

Partial Ridley Scott Filmography:
The Duellists (1977)
Alien (1979)
Blade Runner (1982)
Legend (1985)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
Black Rain (1989)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
White Squall (1996)
G.I. Jane (1997)
Gladiator (2000)
Hannibal (2001)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Matchstick Men (2003)
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
A Good Year (2006)
American Gangster (2007)
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)
Body of Lies (2008)
Robin Hood (2010)
Prometheus (2012)
The Counselor (2013)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

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