When Ridley Scott called ‘action!’ for the first time on the set of Prometheus, it brought things full circle for the legendary British director. After all, he had started the Alien franchise back in 1979 with the terrifying, claustrophobic original and now, 30 years later, he has returned to the series, eager to explore new ground and new ideas.
The 74-year-old director has worked in a plethora of genres since Alien – a war movie (Black Hawk Down, 2001), a feminist road movie (Thelma & Louise, 1991), a historical epic (Gladiator, 2000), even gentle comedy (A Good Year, 2006) – but Prometheus represents Scott’s return to science fiction for the first time since 1982’s Blade Runner. Like Alien, that movie is a seminal masterpiece, which goes some way to explaining why there is so much anticipation about the British director’s decision to return to a genre he helped define. We quizzed Sir Ridley about Prometheus, returning to sci-fi and arguably the biggest question of them all: why are we here?
Why are you returning to science fiction after all these years?
Science fiction is a wonderful universe – sorry about the pun – for another much-overused word, creativity. It’s an arena where anything goes, but you have to make sure it’s a good story and is not abused. There’s a serious lack of originality in many science fiction films – often they are mostly dressing. Many filmmakers don’t really utilise the science fiction idea that the arena itself presents. You can fundamentally do anything you want, provided you draw up the rules of your drama first. Within that universe, you have to stick to your own rulebook. The hardest thing to do is to get the screenplay right.
When you first came on board, Prometheus was, correctly or incorrectly, described as a prequel to Alien. Is that still an element?
That leads me to the $64,000 question, which I’m not going to answer. You’ve got to see the film. You won’t get an answer until about eight minutes from the end, and that is the answer. When it happens, people will think ‘of course!’ What it does do is open up a whole different door. A much bigger door, away from monsters and demons.
It’s interesting that the word ‘Alien’ doesn’t appear in the title.
Well, this movie didn’t really have anything to do with it except for some tiny elements. It takes off on its own direction. When we analysed the title, we thought, why not? It has a certain depth and ring to it. As long as you can say it, Prometheus is a good title, and it looks good on the trailer!
So what is Prometheus?
I have to tread very carefully here. You know who Prometheus was [the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire and gave it to man], and the idea is that if we’re given a gift from the gods, we must not abuse it – and we must never think that we can compete with them. He stole fire and they had his entrails torn out every day in perpetuity by an eagle as a punishment. Every night, they’d repair and an eagle would come back and rip his kidney and liver out. It’s a perpetual purgatory. Basically, don’t [mess] around with the gods.
So it’s tackling major themes.
It’s about the beginning of life. It’s a giant ‘what if?’ This ball we’ve been sitting on right now has been around for a long time. I think its three billion years. There was a very nice quote by someone, whose name I can’t remember right now, which said that if we haven’t been pre-visited, what on earth has this planet been doing for all that time? It’s only our arrogance that says that’s impossible, that we’re the first ones. Are we the first hominids? I really, really doubt it. Race memory, or legend, can say that we keep talking about wonderful and weird things like Atlantis. Where does that come from? Was it real? Is it a memory? Did it exist? If that didn’t exist, did it exist three quarters of a billion years ago? How was that created and who was it? Is there a guiding force into this process? Is it a much larger idea, or an entity that we can’t fathom?
In Alien, the characters were at each other’s throats. They were very much a blue-collar crew. Is that the case here?
Not really. The problem in the original Alien script was that there was no motivation. That’s why I was so unpopular with the actors. They kept asking for motivation and eventually I said in exasperation, ‘Your motivation is that if he catches you, he’ll rip your head off!’ Eventually I sat down and wrote out their biographies and gave them each one of their own. They loved that because it was something they could hook into. That’s what they need to privately do their own work and create their own characterisations. I did that. I was so bent on the crew being slightly dysfunctional and not wanting to communicate with each other. You have a below-deck situation, you have politics, and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton saying: ‘It’s anti-social, they don’t want to come down here.’ That was ad libbed, that wasn’t in the screenplay. But the group turned out terrifically well. Here, the journey is slightly different, so we came at it from a different direction. On a journey like this, everyone would be scientific.
In Prometheus, do they know what they’re getting into?
They have a different thesis, which is being pre-visited. I think it comes from a good place. It’s entirely a good question. Is there a God? Is there not a God? Are we a Petri dish here? Or not? And if we were a Petri dish, of whom? What is the force? What is the entity that we can’t possibly even fathom because it’s something that we haven’t crossed the line to understand yet? Scientists will poo-poo that idea, but at the back of their minds I think they do think about it.
The sets on the movie are enormous, and they represent your commitment to shooting as much of this movie practically as you can. Was that a response to, say, Avatar?
I think Jim [James Cameron] raised the bar, both with what he did in the story and when he pulled it off. He has patience. Four and a half years. I knew I wasn’t going to get into that area. The truth is that if you know what you’re doing, [using sets is] cheaper. Digital effects are not cheaper. We’ve done this film for a very good price.
You extended the 007 stage at Pinewood – the biggest in Europe – by 25 percent. Was it not big enough?
It never is. It’s never big enough. I worked on it for Legend, and I burned the stage down! I like the actors to have their proscenium and see where they are and what they’re doing. I don’t know how to do that blue-screen thing and say, ‘now the monster’s coming down the corridor!’
And you’re shooting in 3D for the first time. How was that?
Not a problem. Absolutely straightforward. Why not? I’d seen tests. I saw a lot of the tests that [David] Fincher had done and how you could light with no light and what you could capture. Technically, it saves a lot of time. I’ll never be the same again, because I really enjoyed it. Even with a dialogue scene, the arena in the room grows a little bit. There’s no question you get drawn in more by feeling that you’re there.
Alien was described, famously, as a haunted-house movie in space. Is Prometheus along the same lines?
It’s more than that. It’s not entirely what you expect, but what I’m saying is that the film is going to be scary.
Prometheus is in Dubai cinemas from Thursday June 7.
Click here for Time Out’s review of Prometheus