Sunday, May 09, 2010

English Legends: That Robin Guy and Sir Ridley


The New York Times
May 9, 2010

David Appleby/Universal Pictures

Russell Crowe as the star of Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” their fifth collaboration.

RIDLEY SCOTT had seen better days. True, he was at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills a few weeks ago while studio types fluttered about making sure that the fruit platters were just so. But he was about to be press-ganged, fed to roomfuls of reporters who would ask him how his latest film, “Robin Hood,” compares to “Gladiator” (it does and it doesn’t) and whether he and Russell Crowe bickered on the set. (Not really, theirs is just a full-contact collaboration.)

But before that ritual began, the English-born Mr. Scott got to warm up with ...another interview. We had been scheduled to meet at his Los Angeles office the day before, but he had been up all night, in extremis from one of his extremities, specifically his recently installed knee replacement. “They tell you you will be up and about in no time, and that is just pure,” um, nonsense, he said, as he eased his way into a sofa and, very carefully, placed his new joint up onto a table.

For the moment he looked very much the 72-year-old veteran of more than 20 feature films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down” and “American Gangster.” But a single question about the provenance of “Robin Hood” and he was up in a flash, moving about the room and using a cane as a field commander might to plan his next campaign.

“Without realizing it we devised a story that is about the forming of Robin Hood, the beginning of the legend and how he came to be as opposed to what people already know,” he said.

With a romance between Big Hollywood Stars — Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett — and lavish medieval sets that were built, pillaged and burned down over the course of many months, “Robin Hood,” which will open Friday, is a spectacle very much in the Ridley Scott tradition. There are lots of swashes buckled, swords clanked and, just in case that doesn’t do the job, a shirtless and chiseled Mr. Crowe.

Mr. Scott is frequently damned and praised as a stylist, a genre-driven filmmaker whose aesthetic — the steampunk look of “Aliens” and “Blade Runner” is now aped in the d├ęcor of various boutique hotels — is often seen as more influential than his films. Frequently lumped in with Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay as a confector of large, sometimes vacuous entertainments, he is up to something more serious thematically. The dystopian worlds of “Blade Runner” and “Black Rain” remind that human ambition creates mortal collateral damage, while “Gladiator” and “Blackhawk Down” are tutorials in the limits and pitfalls of imperialism. Even “The Good Wife,” the CBS series starring Julianna Margulies and produced by Scott Free, the company he owns with his brother and fellow director, Tony Scott, draws DNA from the corruption that often accompanies power.

“There is a visceral pictorialism to what he does,” said David Bordwell, a professor of film studies at the University of Wisconsin. “Yes, he is a director of spectacle and crowds, but they are genre films of a certain weight, painted on a bigger canvas in a way that makes them land more substantially. He’s had a long career, and his images of modern civilization are as important to our conception of modern life as something like ‘Metropolis.’ ”

“Robin Hood,” like “Gladiator,” allows Mr. Scott to use his modern visual and sound technique to make ancient combat brim with menace. And he plays with the Hollywood archetype embodied over the years by Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner by making his “Robin Hood,” in effect, a prequel.

Mr. Scott’s film is an origins story of how Robin Longstride, a journeyman archer in service of the king, became Robin Hood. Spirited away to a French monastery at a young age, Robin’s path is changed when King Richard is mortally wounded, and Robin decides to head out for the French coast with a newly formed posse of merry men to make their way to England.

They happen upon an ambush, and Robin is tasked by a dying man to return a sword to Nottingham, a once-proud village now forced into a hand-to-mouth existence under oppressive taxation. There he meets and clashes with Marion Loxley (Ms. Blanchett), the widow of the man who owned the sword. With steady nudges from the father (Max von Sydow), Marion and Robin fall in love and fight both for and against a country they cherish, now led by the feckless and narcissistic King John. In this version of “Robin Hood,” Robin is a loyal if conflicted subject, and it is gradually revealed to the archer that fate has put him exactly where he belongs.

Mr. Scott explained as much as he settled back in on the couch, but then Hollywood’s taste in films is mentioned and he is up again, gesturing and declaiming. “One studio head said to me, ‘I make movies I don’t even want to see,’ ” he said. “I find that entirely depressing and told him as much. I only want to make movies that I want to see.”

Robert Yager for The New York Times

The director Ridley Scott says that his latest film, “Robin Hood,” is about the beginning of the legend.

Lately, however, his choices have not always been embraced by moviegoers. Of his past five films, only one (“American Gangster”) took in more than $100 million at the domestic box office; others, like “Body of Lies” and “A Good Year,” tanked.

While commercial success is not always a given, critical reaction is much more of a constant: some critics line up to point out that they think the big vessel is a little on the empty side.

“In a Ridley Scott film, the setups are so much more exciting than what he eventually delivers,” said David Edelstein, film critic for New York magazine, who had yet to see “Robin Hood” and added that he very much admired Mr. Scott’s work in “Black Hawk Down” (2001). “He is wonderful at creating an atmosphere of anticipation. I just don’t think it always pays off.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Scott has brushed aside criticism like so many rubber-tipped arrows, in part because he has supreme confidence in every aspect of his craft. He has been a set designer, a camera operator and an art director. He directed hundreds of commercials before the release of his first British feature in 1977, “The Duelists,” and his first Hollywood effort two years later, “Alien,” which created not only a franchise but also a reconsideration of the sci-fi genre. Mr. Scott has great relationships with the actors he has had great relationships with and little time for others. Sigourney Weaver said he showed more concern for the props and sets on “Alien” than the actors working amid them. But Mr. Crowe has made it his business to keep signing up to work with Mr. Scott. “Robin Hood” is their fifth collaboration: in addition to “Gladiator,” they have made “American Gangster,” “Body of Lies” and “A Good Year.”

“He comes prepared to work,” Mr. Crowe said in a telephone interview. “He can tell you exactly how many horses he has, how many severed heads he has on hand in the props department, how many cameras he needs for a shot. He is the boss, and by having that command of infrastructure, he is able to create entire other worlds.”

Mr. Crowe said that Mr. Scott was actually a shy person who enjoys spending quality time with oil paints, which is a bit of a surprise, and a warrior on the set, which is not.

“We were at Fresh Water beach in England, filming a massive scene where the French army was landing and the tide was coming in furiously,” he said. “We are setting and resetting, and there are, I don’t know, 14 barges and 500 extras as French infantry, and one of the backs of the boats kept swinging into the frame where it wasn’t supposed to be. And Ridley jumped into the waves and grabbed this 15-ton barge with both hands, bum knee and all, and starts trying to push it out of the shot. When it was clear he was not going to win his lone battle against the barge, he looked back at the beach and the hundreds of extras and said, ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ That’s leadership.”

Even now, the peripatetic Mr. Scott does a lot more than direct, serving as producer on a variety of film and television projects. Scott Free, with headquarters in both London and Los Angeles, has a lot of Scotts: Brother Tony (“Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder,” “Crimson Tide”) is in post-production with “Unstoppable,” starring Chris Pine and Denzel Washington, a thriller about a runaway train. Sons Jake (“Welcome to the Rileys” with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart) and Jordan (“Cracks” with Eva Green) are in the mix as working directors.

The company is also producing “Cyrus,” a film directed by Mark and Jay Duplass about a frustrated suitor at war with his girlfriend’s son. In addition to “The Good Wife,” it produces “Numb3rs,” currently in its sixth season on CBS, and has the independently financed mini-series “The Pillars of the Earth,” based on the best-selling novel by Ken Follett, in post-production.

There was talk recently that the directing brothers would take a shot at owning and running MGM, but Mr. Scott decided that it would take him away from “the best job in the world, which is making sense of the puzzle that is before me as a director every day that I am on set.”

“I like working on all kinds of things, whether its producing or directing,” he said. “I was working on the script of ‘Alien’ at 6 this morning because I woke up with this leg throbbing, so I get up at 5 and go to my office and go through a ritual. I’m actually a good morning person.”

He added that he likes to try to stay on a pace of about a movie a year — “Robin Hood” took a year and a half — and producing for Scott Free fills in the blanks. But that’s as far as it goes. The MGM talk didn’t get very far.

Soon enough the knee will feel more like his own, and he will be back at it, most likely finally revisiting the “Alien” franchise (albeit with a new hero not played by Ms. Weaver). Brian Grazer, an executive producer on “Robin Hood” and the co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, describes Mr. Scott as a general, adding: “Nothing stops him. Nothing.”

Mr. Grazer said that the revisited Robin Hood concept had been knocking around a while and that he took it up with Mr. Crowe several years ago on the set of “American Gangster.” Once they decided that they had a shared interest in the project, it was not a long walk to find a director. “The whole thing was more or less settled in a matter of hours,” Mr. Crowe explained.

For Mr. Scott “Robin Hood” offered a chance to tackle once again the life of a soldier, and the mud, filth and mayhem in “Robin Hood” does not make it look any more enticing than the world of “Gladiator,” which won a best picture Oscar and a best actor statue for Mr. Crowe.

“There is nothing glorious about it, is there?” asked Mr. Scott, the son of an officer in the Royal Engineers. “It is always miserable, and technology won’t keep you safe. Do you really think that the soldiers that ‘Black Hawk Down’ was about were any better off? They end up as soldiers because they have no other options, but all that changes when you end up with a rifle in your hands.”

Issues of class and station in life, always a pertinent concern for the British, are woven throughout “Robin Hood.” Given that Mr. Scott is also Sir Ridley, it’s a complicated business in his hands. King John is an ineffectual greedhead in “Robin Hood,” but Robin Longstride and his merry men go to war on the king’s behalf because he is what stands between England and the condescending French.

“Could the country run without a monarchy? Certainly, but the monarchy is part of our institutional history,” he said, adding that “in a way, the royal family is a business now and must be managed as such.”

The royals in the “Robin Hood” are mostly in the business of using factotums like the sheriff of Nottingham to grab its subjects by the ankles and shake them up and down until every last pence falls out of their pockets. Which is of course where the Robin Hood of myth and legend comes into play. Without getting into spoiler terrain, Robin’s final arrow in the film is aimed at the corruption of the monarchy.

Mr. Scott said that the corrupting force of power is a persistent theme in his films because it is how history is often made. “In a sense you are watching Robin beginning to understand the corruption around him, whether it is King John or Philip of France,” he said. “And watching that forming of Robin Hood is the beginning of the legend, of how he came to be.”

Our work done, Mr. Scott gets up and goes down the hall, girding himself for further inquiry.

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