Colour him comedic
By MATTHEW HAYS
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 12, 2003
TORONTO Chameleon filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott tackles another genre -- the con-man comedy -- while overseeing the director's cut of his sci-fi landmark Alien.''It's probably too late to quit,'' Scott says, lighting up a stogie as he sits down to discuss his latest movie, Matchstick Men.
Any reference to his own age -- he is 65 -- may sound odd, as Scott hardly seems to be neither slowing down nor past his artistic peak. Since 1977, when he won the Jury Prize at Cannes for best first feature withThe Duellists, he has made a string of unusual and highly varied films -- from science fiction (Alien and Blade Runner) to road movie (Thelma & Louise) to epic (the Oscar-winning Gladiator) to war movie (Black Hawk Down).
And although he's certainly had his low points (1492 and G.I. Jane among them), this year's Toronto International Film Festival finds him on a distinct high. Matchstick Men, starring Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman and Sam Rockwell, had its premiere here. And the new director's cut of Alien has also been screened (both events marked by near-riots from those who couldn't get in).
Scott concedes that Matchstick Men -- which opens in commercial theatres today -- was a shift in genre for him, but argues that comedy has always run through his work. The film, based on the novel by Eric Garcia, has Cage playing a con man who finds out a relationship that ended years ago resulted in a daughter (Lohman), who has now entered his life. He must continue to work as a slick con while also learning how to be a father.
It may not sound comical in its synopsis, but Scott says he immediately saw inherent laughter.
"Some thought it was a rather morose or dark character. People are very literal when they read things. But right away, I started seeing elements of Jacques Tati. I love that funny posturing in his silence. Traffic and Mon Oncle are hysterical. That's what started in my mind as I read it. I became fully engaged in the material. I started to see characters. I got to the end and thought immediately of Nick Cage, who's such a chameleon. My initial discussion with him was that you and I both see this as a comedy. He did, of course.
"One of the reasons I was really attracted to this material is because I've always loved comedy.
"I've always tried to inject comedy into anything I do. Even in Alien, you've got two comical characters in it. I always say this about Thelma & Louise: You can make this very serious, or you can make it humorous and reach far more people. It has its moments of seriousness, sure."
You mean like the ending, where they commit suicide off a cliff? "I always like to think that they didn't die in the end," Scott says, straight-faced. "That's why I froze that last shot. I didn't want to see them go down."
As well as Matchstick Men, Scott has also been overseeing several restored minutes of Alien, the film that was famously sold to studio suits as "Jaws in space," introduced Sigourney Weaver to international stardom and launched a sci-fi franchise.
Alien's new director's cut will be released into cinemas this Halloween. At first, he wasn't sure about the idea of another cut of Alien being launched.
"We've done two discs recently and then there were the VHS tapes," he says. "But they're going to put it out in a bunch of theatres in Europe and across North America. And I thought, that's interesting because three generations haven't seen it. I regard a generation as about every ten years. Mostly, this generation has mainly only seen bad VHS copies, and hopefully a good DVD copy. Still, many people on this continent don't have DVD machines. So for them to see it on the big screen for the first time, that struck me as important."
Scott is clearly pleased the film has had such staying power with audiences. "I think the film works very hard to introduce you to a world that's very, very real. It's exotic beyond your possible experience, but it's also very real -- that's why I took my time with the waking-up scene. I have them having breakfast, the business of the day. Then the question comes up of why they were awoken. I like to take you in by the hand to experience the texture of the environment. That's as important as the script and the acting."
Then, of course, there is the film's central casting call. Dan O'Bannon's original treatment for Alien called for a male protagonist named Ripley. But Scott decided to give Weaver the role. That move made both Weaver and Scott feminist folk heroes, placing a woman in a position she hadn't been in with regards to this genre.
"It was pragmatic originally," Scott explains. "I thought, 'Why not?' I knew that Thelma & Louise had a very strong subtext that females would like. I've always gotten on with females, as friends and equals. I never understood the fuss over what roles they should fill. I never saw it as that significant, that the hero is a woman.
"When you see this pretty woman -- or girl virtually, Sigourney was in her early 20s -- you think that she's going to be the one who goes first, or in the middle of the film. And then when she hangs on, and then when she becomes the boss, that surprises people. When Hitchcock did Psycho, he murdered his star in the first 40 minutes. And that shocked us, because we thought, well, now we're really vulnerable. I think Alien surprises people too, because of the expectations."
For Scott, the great sci-fi film that set the standard will always be Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"I had enjoyed sci-fi before, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but 2001 was really a turning point. I went to 2001, and it hadn't played that well at first. I was just out of college and had started at BBC, I remember going down and seeing it by myself. And I thought: 'My God, this world can exist, it can be real.' It was like NASA in about 20 years' time.
"When he was making it, the space program was in full swing. They spent a lot of time figuring out precisely how the technology would be designed and how it would look, so it had this incredible authenticity. I worked to make Alien feel that real too."
Scott said that when he received a letter this year asking if he'd accept a knighthood, he assumed it was a prank played by a friend.
"Then I looked carefully at the letterhead and it said Downing Street. So I thought: 'Oh my God, this is serious.' I was incredibly touched. I wasn't nervous about it, until I actually had to get into the car and arrived at Buckingham Palace for the ceremony. Then I was really quite nervous.
"But it happened. And yes, it was sweet. In the nicest way."