Q: You didn’t work on your first feature film until you were 39. Why were you so late to the game?
A: Well, it wasn’t for want of trying. I’d even written something for the Bee Gees. My contact in their management company told me, "The boys are in disarray. We need to do a movie that will put everything back on track." You know, like A Hard Day’s Night. So I wrote a film called Castle Accident—I was very much enamored of medieval tales—and I met the Bee Gees. Then something happened financially and they decided not to do it. I was very disappointed, but before long I got into films—and those boys got what they needed from Saturday Night Fever, didn’t they?
Q: You had a successful career making commercials. How did you end up doing that famous 1984 Macintosh ad?
A: The agency came to me and said, "There’s this personal computer called Macintosh." And I said, "A computer in a household? You’ve gotta be kidding me." I mean, I can just about change a lightbulb. So I did the ad and I was tickled by the fact that there was not one reference to a computer or shot of the product. I don’t think Steve Jobs liked that one bit, having his big launch campaign not show the fucking product. But right off they sold like gangbusters. And Jobs was, from that moment on, impressed by the power of media, I think.
Q: You’re used to dealing with prima donnas, though. I mean, you handle Hollywood stars ...
A: Look, actors are all different. They’re not all volatile. Some are sweet, some are volatile, but what is fundamentally in there is something that has to be paid attention to, in that they are, I would say, needy. Maybe that’s what Hitchcock meant when he said, "Actors are children." But I don’t think stars are children at all. They’re usually the most intelligent, no question—all the stars I know are really, really bright. But yeah, every director devises their own methodology. By the time I got to do my first feature, in ’77, The Duellists, which was with a certain tough guy called Harvey Keitel ... He was what they call Actors Studio and all that—Method acting and that kind of thing. Method? I told him I have a method too. I had absolutely no idea what the fuck he was talking about, and I think he had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. What I’ve devised over the years is being honest with actors and if I don’t know, saying "I don’t know. Let’s talk about it. You tell me."
Q: Really? I’ve heard you say actors had better be ready and that the camera is your "weapon."
A: True. It is. By the time I got to the chest-bursting scene in Alien, I figured if they see the little bastard lying there on the table it’s going to look pretty pathetic, so I’m going to hold it back from them. I knew it would only work once, but I only wanted one take anyway. The ship doctor says, "This is serious," and jumps on the table, because he thinks he’s got food in his gullet. We’ve got the air lines filled with blood, and then suddenly the chest goes BAM! Wallop—the son of a bitch came out. And they all go, "Fuck!" They thought it had gone wrong, because there was blood spurting everywhere, but they just kept running with it, until one of them started to shriek with laughter, and then it was over.
Q: Has an actor ever surprised you?
A: Well, I was waiting to meet Harrison Ford for the first time and show him the storyboard drawings for Blade Runner. And I wanted his character to be like Philip Marlowe with a kind of a trilby, a fedora with a slightly wider brim. Very sharp. He’d been shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, so he arrived at this posh piano bar in London wearing a leather jacket, khaki shirt, and baggy khaki trousers and a hat—fully dressed from the set. I said, "There’s our hat!" He said, "No. This is why I came like this—this is how I am as Indiana Jones. Let’s think again." We did.
Q: You became the father of the director’s cut with Blade Runner. And then did a few more versions—including the final cut. Stuff didn’t work out. Did it?
A: You know, it went off the rails, but not hugely. Frankly, I look back on it and think, Actually, it was pretty normal. The only two things about the film that were marred were the voice-over and the ending. When we finished, I really thought I nailed the motherfucker, and I did. But then somehow it didn’t test well, and then Harrison’s not happy, and if Harrison’s not happy I’m not happy, because I like my artistes to be happy about what they did, right? Yet Harrison’s wife at the time, Melissa Mathison—she was the writer for E.T.—she was the one person who took my side and said "Fantastic movie. This will stand up the way it is." So she’s a smart lady and she got it, but the rest of them ... Everyone’s in the room with their opinions, including the financiers, and my problem, being a well-brought-up Northern English boy, is always being respectful of the money that’s been put into my expenditure. So I changed it.
Q: The dark, industrial look of Blade Runner—it sort of seems like the Northern English steel mills and chemical plants near where you grew up.
A: It does. I had a quite unconventional childhood, in the sense that I traveled a lot and I went to 10 or 11 schools. I was completely confused academically, but wherever I went, I could paint. I painted an inordinate amount. Ended up I went to the Royal College of Art. If you ever have a kid who doesn’t know what to do, stick him in art school. It’s amazing what evolves. For the first time I was absolutely focused, passionate about everything. My parents couldn’t tear me away from the art.
Q: I heard you signed on to direct Gladiator after seeing a painting.
A: Walter Parkes called me, saying, "I don’t want you to read the script. I want to pitch you an idea." I was defensive, because swords-and-sandals films have, over the years, been downright cheesy. So he flipped out a reproduction of a Jean-Léon Gérôme painting, To Those About to Die. It was a detailed representation of an andabatae, an armored gladiator with a pitchfork, standing over a victim he’d netted, looking up for permission to slaughter, and there’s a lunatic with his thumb down—"Kill!" It was so vividly expressive that the penny just dropped, and I went, "I’ll do it."
Q: How did you choose your latest project?
A: My job is almost entirely about reading now, keeping up on the great writers. So David Ignatius had written the book and it had what I thought was a really great title, Penetration, later to be changed by his publisher to Body of Lies. But penetration is a great description of international intrigue in the Middle East, where they all fuck each other—both religiously and politically. We cover a lot of ground. You know, I like to move very fast now, because I’ve started to feel my oats in terms of being assertive. It’s taken awhile for me to think, Well, actually, you do know best.
Q: Wait, are you saying you’re just coming into your own now?
A: Well, mostly because I’m the most experienced person out of the whole fucking 800 on the lot, I’ve learned to really trust my intuition. I’ll always listen. If somebody wants, I’ll explain it and then I’ll see their eyes cloud over and I’ll realize that they’re never going to get it anyway and therefore I’d better stick to my guns. When you’re at a certain point in your time—age, that is, when you’re older—you start to realize that, actually, what you leave behind you does count, and so you start to become fundamentally aware of your own destiny, which sounds very grand. It’s not grand at all, actually. It means never just taking a job, and I’ve never taken a job for money. I’m enjoying myself now as a director more than ever before. Once the passion goes, you’d better take up golf, you know?
Q: Well, your movie A Good Year is about dropping out of the rat race and making wine. You’re 70 now—ever consider doing that yourself?
A: I live about eight minutes from the house in Provence where we shot that, you know? But I have someone else run the vineyard. I know what I should make and what I should consume, right? Coppola started his winery and label, but he also almost gave up movies, didn’t he? I want to be known as the guy who makes good movies, not good wine.