Ridley Scott, at the age of 79-years-old, is a man who is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. After directing The Martian, his most critically and financially successful movie in more than 15 years, he is returning to the world of Alien with the highly-anticipated Alien: Covenant. Unlike Prometheus, this movie is not just going to be taking place within that same universe with loose ties to the Alien mythology. This is a true-to-form Alien movie and if Ridley Scott has his way, it will be the first of many.
I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable discussion with Sir Ridley Scott at SXSW about Alien: Covenant. We were also joined by cast members Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride, who seemed just as pleased to be there as everyone else. The second a man like Ridley Scott starts talking, everyone listens. He speaks quietly yet confidently and says what he wants. His answers to some questions, at least from an outside perspective, seem to have nothing to do with the question at hand. Still, the answers are fascinating and it is impossible not to hang on his every word. The conversation started with his ambitions for the franchise beyond Alien: Covenant. The good news is, he is very confident about this movie and wants to make these movies "forever."
"Well I think this is so, dare I say clever and violent and everything you kind of want. I think it's a cut above what's come before. And therefore we leave all kinds of things open for the next one. Just see how you go. I mean, I enjoy doing them so much. Honestly, I'd like to keep it going forever."
That led to the obvious point that Ridley Scott is no longer a young man and clearly can't do Alien movies forever. The director, without an ounce of sarcasm, said, "I'm trying." He isn't going to let a simple thing like age get in the way. Katherine Waterston quipped that, "Ridley might be an AI." She then went on to tell a story of how he sprained his wrist on the set of Alien: Covenant and was back to work in about 30-minutes. No big deal for a man who has a great many things to accomplish. But her brief mention of AI got Ridley Scott thinking and he was asked if AI is something that would interest him.
"Absolutely. Can a computer beat a chess master? I'm just hoping that he can't quite replace a human. Can you have a computer write a book? Or Write a screenplay? Or write a poem? It's always going to be very derivative and only based on what has been done in trillions of ways before...I don't know if it's going to make better movies. Books. Movies are getting worse. F*** me. We are getting better all the time. That's one of the ways it's raised the bar."
To really get an understanding of how Ridley Scott's mind seems to work and what it is like to be in a room with him, one need only look at his answer to a seemingly simple question during the roundtable. When asked if these many planned future Alien movies will take place before the original movie or if they will jump around the timeline a bit, Scott took the opportunity to seemingly ignore the question entirely and talk about what he learned from scientists while working on The Martian.
"Well you know, a lot of scientists, I got close to guys doing The Martian and so I got close to astrophysics, astromathematics. All of that shit. And having seven geniuses around the table, they're all like schoolboys. They're all savants. I mean, at 60-years-old this guys a f*****g schoolboy. So enthusiastic about what he is doing. So you ask him the questions about, basic questions like, 'All of you at the table, who believes in God?' There's this murmur and this giggle and then four of them go, 'I do.' So I said, 'why?' He said, 'When I come up against a wall in my mathematics I am constantly impressed in who invented this wall and I can't get through the wall because I know there's an answer on the other side.' We're all very keen on movies. So what you guys do is then you kind of back up a bit, address the wall. Think about, 'Take that out, take that out and go around and I'll come back in.' So that's, fundamentally, science. You're playing with components which are facts and you're adjusting them as to how you get through it."
That, in some way, was his version of an answer to that question. Despite the fact that he seemed to not answer it at all, it was a good window into the mind of this creative genius and how it works. Katherine Waterston found one bit of this response curious and asked Ridley Scott why the scientists believe in God. That led to another interesting rant, but one that did ultimately connect to Alien.
"Well because where does the buck stop? And I think the buck stops in superiority. We might put the label on God, but if something comes and hovers over here with a ship half the size of Manhattan and climbs down and says, 'Good morning! How are you doing?' We're going to think this is superior. They might even have God-like capabilities. So we give the name God. I look more to superior. And I think, are we superior out there? Definitely. Thirty years ago I did a film called Alien and I did a screening at the Pasadena observatory, and there was Carl Sagan. Anyone remember Carl Sagan? He was a man who brought that kind of passion to the screen in a wonderfully entertaining fashion. He said to me afterwards, he had a glass of champagne and he goes, 'You know Ridley, it's entirely ridiculous. There'll be no aliens in your lifetime or mine.' And I said, 'Lighten up Carl, it's only a movie.' Now, thirty years on, are you f*****g kidding me? There's trillions of evolutions around the radius of the Earth. I don't know how many lumps of Earth ball there are, but let's say there are millions. Not trillions. They're all enjoying the benefits of sunshine. Probably a lot of them have components which are similar to ours, which give you biology. If you have a microbe in water on Mars. They've got a lot of water on Mars and they wanna know what's in the water and that will tell them a lot because if the microbe then that is a f*****g alien. That microbe is an alien. So science and mathematics, I think is art. It's not just science, it's f*****g art. When you're thinking at that level it's an artform, isn't it?"
The chat then turned to the Engineers from Prometheus and what role they may play in Alien: Covenant. Ridley Scott stated that they are metaphors for superior beings and that there are more than likely superior beings in the cosmos. He was willing to put money on it. The subject of the larger legacy of Alien then came up and, though he acknowledged it is kind of weird, he remained humble about the whole thing.
"You get used to it. It's fun. We're lucky to be doing this."
This subject finally got Danny McBride to open up a bit, joking that since he is in Alien: Covenant his parents think he is finally in a real movie. Then the conversation turned to getting some perspective from Katherine Waterston and what it was like working with Ridley Scott. It turns out, a lot of how he works has to do with trusting in his actor's ability to do their jobs.
"When I first met Ridley he was like, 'I hire people I think are good at acting and do their thing. Figure it out and if they're doing something really idiotic I'll tell them, but mostly I like to leave them alone. I know what the f*** I'm doing and you should know what the f*** you're doing. You show it to me and then we go have dinner. It's not rocket science.'"
Mr. Scott felt the need to add to that.
"The Key is to be, from my point of view, my best compliment is I can go, 'F*** me, I hadn't thought of that!' If she does that and he does that then they're free to move within the parameters of what you've got. That's why I take a long time and great care casting."
Any fan of the Alien franchise knows that strong female characters have always been a cornerstone of the series. Katherine Waterston will be continuing that legacy as Daniels, a decision that was easy for Ridley Scott, simply saying, "The first one did so well, why change it?" Fair point. Waterston was asked to discuss the role of strong women in movies and how that has changed over the years, since she is one of those strong women in a couple of big franchises now.
"Well, we were talking about this earlier, you know, all it takes for any change to happen is a few people who have a lot of power to have the guts to show something in a new way. And that was just a couple of people in a room together putting together the first Alien. There's a script. Ridley is a dude and they say, 'We're gonna put a woman in the part' and they say, 'Yeah! Why not?' As opposed to, 'I don't know. Will this work? Maybe not. Can a woman do it?' And all of those bullshit questions that probably happens all over Hollywood and they end up not going for it. People that didn't have the courage. And so he has the courage and it changes the shape of the business. Obviously, because it sells tickets. These things have to succeed for it to continue. I think with Alien obviously you changed the look of science fiction."
At some point in the conversation, before talking about Danny McBride's character Tennessee and his hat, which he revealed was meant to be an homage to Dr. Strangelone, Ridley Scott decided to randomly and surprisingly declare his love for Beavis and Butthead. But then Danny McBride talked a bit about his inspiration for the character.
"On the ship, it's a lot of scientists and I like the idea in the original that you kind of had like, working class people and so I think that was sort of his dynamic with him is a little more working class. He's paired up with all of these scientists and brilliant people. It was sort of trying to figure out kind of how he would operate in that world. In something advanced like that but still kind of really salt of the Earth to it as well."
We couldn't leave the table without first dealing with a bit of rumor control. For quite some time there has been a rumor floating around that Katherine Waterston's character Daniels was the mom of Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley. Ridley Scott shut that down without any hesitation.
"No. That was probably way back when. 'Should she be the daughter of Ripley?' I said, 'No. She's herself.'"
Last but most certainly not least, the legendary director was asked what he thinks it takes to scare audiences today. Things have changed a lot since Alien came out in 1979 and part of what makes scaring people so challenging these days, according to Ridley Scott, is the fact that we are overexposed to violence.
"You know, it's the hardest thing I think to do. It's very easy to make people smile, laugh...I think we've been challenged by so much violent, super violent, like Saw 14, where you get so numb to blood and numb to brutality and numb to inhuman behavior. So people get hardened to it. You've got a 5-year-old seeing Saw IV. It's like, 'Whatever. That's boring.' It's hard. Wayback when I was going to do Alien and I think at that point in time there two, well, one really serious one that scared the hell out of me. I was 40 before I did my first movie and I'm sitting there in a room at Fox and I screened The Exorcist again. It's a perfect engine. It's a fantastic film. Maybe because it feels logical? It feels possible and when it's possible and logical it's always scarier...then there's Omen one, which is a pretty good film. That was quite clever and scary. And then I thought I had better look at some hardcore thing. I had always resisted seeing the film because of its poster because it had a guy with a pig's head on it and a saw. I had never seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Tobe Hooper. And so I sat in a room one afternoon. I mean that is hardcore. I just sat there thinking, 'He's not going to do that.' And he does. That's hard to do."
If you learn one thing sitting at a table with Ridley Scott, it is that this man is very intelligent and that intelligence influences everything he does creatively. I walked away feeling confident that Alien: Covenant will be a great cross section of that intelligence and his creativity. The movie stars Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, James Franco, Demian Bichir, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby and Billy Crudup. Alien: Covenant is set for release on May 19.