We chat to the Body of Lies director about the highlights of his career so far and his plans for the future.
He is, very obviously, a man who gets things done. It’s 20 minutes before the assigned time, and my audience with Ridley Scott is already under way. This is someone, after all, who’s released eight features in the past eight years. And we’re not talking two-people-in-a-room chamber dramas either, since Sir Ridley, as almost no one seems to call him, typically works on a fulsome canvas. The glories of ancient Rome in Gladiator. A lavish take on Thomas Harris in Hannibal. Mogadishu laid waste by RPGs in Black Hawk Down. Rebuilding Jerusalem in the era of the Crusades for Kingdom Of Heaven. A fresco of the ’70s New York underworld in American Gangster. Oh, and between times, he’s producing films (The Assassination Of Jesse JamesBy The Coward Robert Ford) and television (US cop show Numb3rs) under the Scott Free operation he owns with his brother Tony, with whom he’s also partners in one of the UK’s top ad firms, RSA. One suspects he gets up earlier than Napoleon.
He also reaches his 71st birthday at the end of this month, but while his schedule would kill a lesser man, this ever-bluff Northerner looks good on it. ‘You just keep charging on,’ he says of his work ethos. ‘That’s it. When I’m not actually shooting stuff, my life is development. Reading. Or looking for material. I know what I’m doing next year and the year after. Then it looks like I’ll take a full year off.’
You suspect even at this stage that such projected downtime will most likely evaporate. His restless energy comes across in his new movie Body Of Lies, which is Ridley’s report from the post-9/11 intelligence landscape. Adapted from a novel by David Ignatius, the foreign editor at The Washington Post during the first Gulf War, it investigates the efficiency of the War on Terror within the context of a star-driven, action-equipped entertainment. Out in the field is fluent- Arabic-speaking, culturally sensitive agent Leonardo DiCaprio, while back in Washington is his handler, Russell Crowe, who’s determined to conduct operations on his terms, at any cost.
Essentially, it’s a film which says the best way to keep tabs on the Islamic extremists is to build trust with security partners in the Middle East, something definitely more in tune with Obama-era USA than the Bush II regime the script carefully skewers.
It’s also a knottier, more demanding undertaking than perhaps unreceptive US audiences were expecting, so was there a sense that the exquisitely mounted car chases and explosions were in there as a sweetener for the mainstream?
‘God, I hope not,’ comes the swift reply. ‘I hope it’s all organic. With a book like this, it’s all about selecting the best stuff, but what I wanted to do was take it in a more domestic direction. Russell’s character is on the mobile, master of the universe from his SUV. He’s just had some guy executed, then the next minute he’s waving his little son off to school. That’s the reality, isn’t it? A guy who’s running some special ops section where he doesn’t have to answer to anyone, but he still has to function. These people play golf at the weekend, they don’t walk around wearing suits of armour.’
What’s strong about the film is that it doesn’t provide heavy underlining to tell us that Crowe’s master manipulator – his uncompromising yet ultimately counter-productive tunnel vision a walking, talking paradigm of Bush Jr’s foreign policy – is the villain of the piece, all the while delivering a positive counterblast in the characterisation of the Jordanian intelligence head, played by a wonderfully suave Mark Strong. ‘That was based on a guy I met on a previous project, a higher-up, shall we say, in Jordan. Tweed jacket. Gold cigarette holder. “Why do you always make the Arabs the bad guys?” he asked me, sort of kidding.
‘But that was 13 years ago and it was exasperating them even then. The extremists are a tiny minority in the Muslim community, where the majority just want to send their kids to school and have a nice weekend, but they get this trickle-down effect every time something bad happens because of their religion.’
Following on from the dashing, charismatic portrayal of Saladin in Kingdom Of Heaven, Scott definitely felt like he was trying to bring some understanding to post-9/11 attitudes.
It might be tempting to ascribe this to the criticism he faced for giving the Somalis short shrift in Black Hawk Down, but it may in part be down to his ongoing love affair with Morocco, where he’s now shot four films . And at least it ties some themes together in a filmography which often appears scattershot, and for which he’s now facing adverse comments for making too many movies, working too quickly to allow another Alien or Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise to emerge. But don’t expect him to slow down soon.
‘I took up painting again two years ago,’ he says. ‘Forty years after I was at the Royal College of Art with Hockney and Kitaj and all those guys. I couldn’t face the canvas then, it was so lonely, so I did graphic design instead. But I’ve gone back to painting and it gets easier as you get older. Same with filmmaking. I used to agonise over what to do next, but now I’m making a movie a year. It’s insane, but it’s only a movie after all. You just hang in there and occasionally you might make something which you can call art… briefly’. ‘Body Of Lies’ is out now