It’s election day in Britain when we meet. “Have you voted yet?” I ask Ridley Scott. “I’m going to miss it, I guess,” he says. “God, I hope they know what they’re doing — because we don’t really know who they are, these new boys, do we? You used to have to have fought in a war to be president of the United States or prime minister of England.”
Now 72, Scott still looks surprisingly boyish. It’s hard to believe that three decades have elapsed since he reordered our understanding of sci-fi with Alien and Blade Runner, movies whose protagonists may do thrilling battle with space monsters and androids, but the larger villain, come the end, is invariably the beast within man.
We turn to the subject of Robin Hood, his new movie that opens the Cannes film festival today. Somewhat surprisingly, he says there’s not a lot of difference between recreating the world of Robin Hood (England, 1199) and that of Blade Runner (LA, 2019), not least because the historical record on the former is so patchy, you have to use your imagination to put flesh on the bones. Robin Hood is Scott’s fifth pairing with Russell Crowe. It centres on the origins of the man who, according to legend, did his good deeds dressed in Lincoln green — although, ever the revisionist, Scott has mischievously dropped that particular hue from his movie. His hero is a landless yeoman-bowman, returning from the Crusades having witnessed the death in battle of Richard the Lionheart. “I was so engrossed in finding a convincing story for where he came from, how he came about, how I could justify the Sheriff of Nottingham, how King John inherited a terrible position — by the time we got through all that, we were already doing a making-of kind of film, the making of this person who later will be called a legend.”
Scott was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, but spent his schooldays in postwar northern Germany, his father being an official with the Allied Control Council, which oversaw the defeated powers. Ridley went to a school for expat kids, housed in a former U-boat barracks. Today, with houses in LA, Hampstead and Provence, he makes films that are acclaimed and certainly varied: from Thelma and Louise to Gladiator to American Gangster, they span the decades, hitting the populist button while retaining a sort of classy machismo — more high gloss than highbrow. “I’m sorry for people who never knew what they wanted to be,” he says. “There aren’t many of us lucky enough to know — but I’m one of them.”