I’ve been obsessing over Ridley Scott a little bit over the past week. Scott’s first four films are four of my favorites – they are the works of a commercial artist who has found a way to do the personal by communicating entirely through images. Later Ridley Scott has it’s bright spots, but really those four films are a triumph in using the tools of storytelling in order to create an entire world. Generally, Blade Runner and Alien are two of my all-time favorite movies and works of science fiction, but all four of these films set out to build a universe (and not in the shitty way “universe” is thrown around often when discussing science fiction, legitimately these are coherent places instead of backdrops), whether it is the span of Napoleonic wars from France to the Russian front in the Duellists; the dual design teams that created Alien; the fragmented and complete development of the city in Blade Runner; or the Hans Christian Andersen fantasia of Legend.
Anyway listening to commentaries and watching interviews with Ridley Scott I’ve picked up something – you need to be able to reach outside of the sphere of your project to give it any real weight. On the commentary for Blade Runner and the making-of docs, there is a lot of talk about Moebius and Bilal’s comics. But there are also moments when designing JF Sebastian’s home, he speaks about showing his crew David Lean’s Great Expectations and Jean Cocteau’s The Beauty and the Beast. When he was working on his failed staging of Dune, he thought of the Battle of Algiers as a perfect baseline. When he was selling himself to the producers of Alien, he talked a lot about the merits of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Now none of these things is particularly mind blowing in and of itself with Scott referencing an earlier movie for a design element or a thematic similarity. But I caught that nearly every time he referenced a movie it was less likely to be a direct forebear to the picture at hand and instead betrayed a massive knowledge of film as a whole, and the strengths of all kinds of film. It also shows a – maybe intuitive – drive to look outside of the subject matter which almost always helped the final product. Catholic taste is the greatest tool he had, more than his eye, more than his story sense. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Scott saw himself as a follower of Kubrick, who had a similar “plan obsessively until the day of shooting, then improvise” style. The difference is, at least in Scott’s first 4 films, that Kubrick would focus on mastery of the subject before he dealt with it to it’s nearest facet, and Scott was focused so intently on the frame itself before anything else. The world building is the product of that, I think, not the need to tell stories but to create a place.
What I think I’ve picked up though is that knowing something isn’t necessarily going to give you mastery over it, especially in storytelling. You have to know everything else as well.