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Interview with Ridley Scott, director of A Good Year

Review of A Good Year

Ridley Scott directs A Good Year about Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), a London bonds trader visits the wine country of Provence, France to sell a vineyard he recently inherited from his deceased uncle (Albert Finney). Ridley Scott has directed many films including Kingdom of Heaven, Matchstick Men, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, Gladiator (Academy Award Winner for Best Picture of 2000), G.I. Jane, Thelma & Louise, Legend, Blade Runner, and Alien. He also produces television programs, such as Numb3rs. I had the privalege to interview him.

20th Century Fox will release A Good Year on November 10th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you meet Peter Mayle, the author of A Good Year?

RS: I’ve lived in France for 15 years. That kind of made an impression. I thought that a contemporary film should be made about this beautiful place and how it has attracted foreign visitors. Inevitably, my experiences there have been, to a certain extent, xenophobic—them to me, not me to them. I just want to go there and do my thing-schlep around flip-flops and get drunk. It’s like the city boy going to the country and, fundamentally, you’re the enemy. Notwithstanding, this film is a celebration of France because France has so much to offer. It just sank in after 15 years. I thought that I must do something about this. My old buddy, [author] Peter Mayle, lives 20 kilometers away over the hill. So, I met with him and, one New Year’s Eve, we were, of course, drinking over at his house. We were swapping stories about our experiences and then I was, of course, there partly by design. My design, by the end of the day, was to call him up and say, “What we were talking about might make a good book,” and he said, “Yes, it would.” I said, “Well, you do the book and I do the movie.” That was quick—it was [about] 4 years ago.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you end up directing A Good Year?

RS: From the onset, when I spoke to [author] Peter Mayle, [he] said this film will happen in 16 years time. I called him up and said, “By the way, here’s the screenplay. We’re going to shoot next autumn.” He was flabbergasted because, I think, the turnout was about 2 ½ years. The turnout was that he has written the book, it became successful, so now you have a re-issue 3 weeks ahead of the film. I hadn’t really gotten a leading man, but I figured to make it somebody important. I got a pretty good relationship with Russell [Crowe] because, apart from Gladiator, we talked fairly regularly on the based of what [other works] we got. We’ve been doing one of those big meetings in Hollywood where we were talking about everything he got and everything I got. He called me a week later and said, “You know, that stuck with me. It might be a nice thing to explore.” Once I had that, then we we’re on board and flying. Needless to say, [20th Century] Fox weren’t really sure about me and him doing comedy. They call it a comedy, but I don’t call it [that]; I call it a romantic dramedy. I think that the word “comedy” infers slapstick and it’s not that at all. I think comedies are usually driven by really good characters and situations that they get put into, which, for the most part are amusing. They’re usually driven by bad news or good news. Comedy is driven by bad news where in how you fix it or don’t fix it or how you have to accept things at the end of it all.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did Peter Mayle base anything in A Good Year on you?

RS: No, not that I’m aware of. He might have done it secretly. [Max Skinner and I] are both advertising men, so banking and advertising are not far in terms of the people involved in both worlds.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of movie do you prefer directing?

RS: I think the key is that, if you can do it, have an evolution of big [movie], small [movie], big [movie], small [movie]. Simply because of the obvious: it’s taxing. It takes its toll. Kingdom of Heaven was massive. I walked onto the set one morning and there were 2,500 people having breakfast.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Were you surprised that you directed a comedy?

RS: I’ve always thought that films are a kind of comedy.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Was directing A Good Year more relaxing than directing Kingdom of Heaven?

RS: Yeah. [Directing] Kingdom of Heaven is like going into war. Kingdom of Heaven is massive, but what you want to see is the 3-hour version which is now on DVD. There’s no comparison. The silliness that some of us got into, which persuaded us that, maybe, it should be 2 hours and 23 minutes. It’s absolutely wrong. The film should have been sold on the basis that it’s about religion politics.

NYC MOVIE GURU: So, you were right after all.

RS: Yes, it’s true. Some people either listen to the voice in their head or not. I’ve learned to listen to my own intuition. Usually, it’s based on heavy experience and therefore, usually, that first notion is the best one, so I try to stick with that. The enemy is previews. When you ask a whole group of people who would never asked these questions at all and take what they say [seriously]—are you crazy? Normally, they’d go over to their car and say, “Did you like that?” “Yeah, when are we going to eat?” That’s the end of the conversation. If they talk about the film the following morning, then it means it was getting through [to them].

NYC MOVIE GURU: How difficult was it to assemble such a fine cast?

RS: Easy. I can make the call and, usually, people are interested. That’s what happens. I’ve seen a little film called Somersault and, just based on that, I called [Abbie Cornish] and said, “Do you want to do the film?” and she said, “Sure.” It’s pretty straightforward, but the hard thing is actually deciding who will it be. One of the things I didn’t want anyone to be was a French cliché. So, in other words, the French would be happy about what they’re watching. So, [regarding] the choice of Didier Bourdon [as Francis Duflot], the winemaker of the vineyard, I saw a terrific film with Didier and they said the problem was that he directed it. I wanted him and the [actress] in it, but I couldn’t put them in both as husband and wife because it already had been done. I met Didier and he really impressed me, even though he’s a director. It was magic. What I like to think about directors is that they’re evidently practical, so he knew when the clock was ticking. I would ask the right pertinent questions and just get on with it. That was great fun with him. Marion Catillard [who plays Fanny Chenal] is probably one of the most important actresses in France. She just finished Môme, La. That’s a big role for her [as] Edith Piaf. So, I found that very easy.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What challenges did you encounter while directing A Good Year?

RS: Not to eat too much at lunchtime and dinner. Not to drink too much in the evening [and] to make sure that I can get up in the morning and drive to my house without feeling too guilty. That’s about it. Making any movie is all hard, but it’s why we do it. We love the chase, we love the challenge. I get up at 5:45 AM and get there [and] do a 13-hour day on set with [the] crew. Then, I go straight there to the editing room , see my rushes from the day before, probably go and edit it a little bit and then go back to bed at around 10:30 PM or 11 PM. That’s the average day. Right now, I don’t get back from the editing room until 1 AM.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What is it about you and Russell Crowe that makes you such a formidable team?

RS: We both speak our minds. So, that’s a good starting point. He can never bullshit. He’ll come right out with it and say what he means. And then you get a reply back which is crystal clearly distilled and understood. So, you get used to it. Some people find it a little bit intimidating.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you help Russell Crowe with his comedic skills?

RS: Russell has done about 30 movies. You’ve only seen Mystery, Alaska, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider, L.A. Confidential, The Sum of Us. He’s doing another 25 movies which are, for the most part, Australian. I’ve seen a lot of them, so I know Russell’s order. I saw Romper Stomper and said, “This is the guy for Gladiator.” Romper Stomper really brought Russell to the attention of the United States.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you get him to do a comedy?

RS: He loved the idea. Anything that’s new [or] that’s different [and] is attractive. Everything I haven’t done is interesting provided that it’s well-thought, well-designed [and has] a good idea, a good story, its own truth and has a great character. He’ll definitely pay attention to that. Anything original.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like directing Freddie Highmore as young Max?

RS: Freddie was brilliant. He’s very professional. He’s like an adult. Russell said to him, “Hi, Freddie. I’m going to be acting Max.” and [Freddie] said, “Yes, I know.” Russell said, “Maybe we should get together.” And Freddie said, “Well, I’m going to be acting, you’re going to be acting, are we going to do anything useful?” and [Russell] said, “I don’t think so.” So, that was it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why is there more tension between the British and American characters than the British and the French characters?

RS: [Winston] Churchill said that we’re only two nations divided by the same language. Even though I live in London, business is still here [in America]. I find [that] I’m still wearing a kind of split brain in terms of drama and humor. There’s a marked difference [between the two]. I think we [Americans] might be drier—I’m not talking about New Yorkers; they’re a different ballgame. If you’re talking about the rest of the United States and, certainly, Los Angeles, you’re talking about the East Coast which is slightly a different part. I’ve known for the last three months that I’ve been in New York that I’m feeling very much at home here. I’m planning and prepping and even functioning with the writers—again, writers aren’t necessarily the best judge because some of the writers are too strict for their own good. I’m not saying that you have to dumb-down, but you’ve got to communicate. This business is to expensive not to pay attention to that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What has your experience in television been like?

RS: I come out of BBC television drama. That’s where I started both as a production designer and then as a director. Then I went into television advertising. I want to go back to it because you can explore in high end TV that you might not consider commercial enough for feature films. So, for instance, [there’s] my show Numbers. I’m doing something really great now for TNT, [The Company], with a director called Mikael Salomon. [It’s] the anthology of the CIA from 1957 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re shooting in a 5 month period with Michael Keaton, Chris O’Donnell, [Alfred] Molina, a really great cast. The challenge is [that] these actors age 50-odd years throughout the film, so it’s a tremendous challenge for them and the production. But, so far, so good. The evolution of television keeps going, so we’re going to be very television-oriented.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Will there be a Gladiator 2?

RS: It’s possible. You can deal with that and bring back Russell. I know what to do. You don’t do a prequel, you actually deal with it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What will your next epic film be?

RS: The thing I’m doing next is something that was a book which [is] about what’s happening now in the Middle East. [It’s] a complete understanding of what’s going on and how we’re dealing with it. It’s [written] by a journalist called David Ignatius. It was called Penetration which I think is a really good title, but that’ll change by the time it comes out next March.

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