‘Have you been drinking?’
Sir Ridley Scott steps into the meeting room and surveys the array of half-empty wine bottles with a twinkling grin.
I have indeed been drinking — and in most circumstances, getting stuck in to several glasses of high-quality plonk would probably not be the best preparation for interviewing one of the greatest (and most famously no-nonsense) filmmakers of all time. But these are not ordinary circumstances. Drinking is, in part, why I am here. You see, as well as releasing Napoleon this week, Sir Ridley Scott — 86 this month — is out to conquer the wine trade, too.
We meet on a bright, crispy-cold November afternoon at his ludicrously picturesque estate in the Luberon region of southern France. It’s here, on the clay-rich Provençal soil, that the director’s range of wines (titled Mas des Infermières, after the property) has been independently produced since 2020 — right from vine to finished bottle. ‘I bought the place in 1992, just after I made Thelma & Louise,’ Scott says of the sprawling pile, which also boasts cypress trees and olive groves. ‘I won’t tell you what I paid for it, but it was absolutely nothing. And it came with 30 hectares of vines…’
I think we’ve been monitored for years! How did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Rolling 20-tonne stones on logs? F*** off!
For years, Scott stuck to drinking rather than making. Viewing wine production as a ‘pain in the butt — I was too busy’, he simply sold his grapes to local vintners. But in 2019, right on the cusp of Covid, he decided to invest properly in his passion and bring production on site, recruiting French ‘master blender’ Christophe Barraud and constructing a winery, cellar, tasting room and gift shop — all decorated with memorabilia from his films. As I sip my way through the Mas des Infermières portfolio, I am surrounded by spacesuits from The Martian and Alien, signed Blade Runner posters, battered Gladiator chariots and meticulously realistic costumes from the new Joaquin Phoenix-powered war epic.
In person, Scott is an absolute force of nature — uproariously funny, brimming with insight and anecdotes, and clearly full of passion for his new viticultural venture. ‘It seemed a good way of forming a business that could come under the family umbrella,’ he says. He has two sons and a daughter, all directors, too. ‘I hope I live to a hundred,’ he grins, ‘but I’m trying to keep [the family] fully engaged [in the winery] because that’s who this is for. I love it, but it’s a tough learning curve.’ He leans forward with a chuckle: ‘Don’t get into vineyards to make money.’
While he is amusingly blunt about the financial side, you sense Mas des Infermières will be more than breaking even soon. The wines are already available in several London restaurants (Akoko, Fallow, Straker’s) and are all, quite honestly, outrageously good. Spanning from lively, floral whites all the way to hearty, gastronomic reds via some more-ish rosés, the range has already picked up gold at prestigious Paris wine fairs. Scott designs the labels himself (‘I doodle while I’m on the phone’), and one in particular catches his eye as he sits down: a sketch of French general Baron Robert, who owned this estate in the 19th century. ‘He looks a bit of an oik, doesn’t he?’ says Scott, squinting at his own illustration on the bottle. ‘I’ve been wandering around the house hoping to meet his ghost. I’d like to meet a ghost. It would be an honour.’
Monsieur Robert is very much on Scott’s mind right now. In the 1800s, the general served as surgeon in the army of one Napoleon Bonaparte. Scott’s film about the notorious Gallic warmonger is very much not a biopic (‘I don’t do biopics,’ says Scott firmly), more a character study of one of the most infamous men in history. ‘There’s been [equal to] a book a week written about Napoleon since he died,’ Scott marvels. ‘Tens of thousands.’ And he read them all, of course? ‘Of course,’ the director deadpans. ‘People say Napoleon was a monster, but he probably wasn’t. He was just trying to function as a general. The real story about war is: nobody wins. Who’s winning right now in Gaza? Nobody.’ But among the cannon fire there is levity in the film — and sex. ‘You’re allowed to laugh!’ Scott booms. ‘Josephine [The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby] was naughty and Napoleon was like a little f***ing Jack Russell.’
In some ways just getting a film about Napoleon in the can is an achievement. Scott’s hero, Stanley Kubrick, famously spent decades trying, even allegedly going so far as to eat like Napoleon: dessert first, starter last. ‘You hear this shit, but I don’t believe it,’ Scott laughs. ‘Stanley eating in reverse order is bollocks! He was forthright, but not eccentric. He just was right about most things.’ Did Phoenix adopt a ‘method’ approach to playing the man? ‘Joaquin is his own method,’ the director says. ‘A month before filming, though, he had a moment of: “Holy shit, am I really going to do this?” So we sat together every day and broke the narrative down. It was like being on a helter-skelter… Wait, no, that’s a bad term because of f***ing [Charles] Manson. It was like being on a bobsled. Two guys going downhill at 90mph, each saying, “Watch out for the next bend!” That’s what making a film with Joaquin is like.’
They’ve worked together before, of course, on 2000’s Gladiator. Are there other former collaborators with whom Scott would love to reunite? ‘I had a good time with Brad [Pitt] on Thelma & Louise and The Counselor,’ he muses. ‘He’s got his own wines, too. His rosé is very good. But it’s easier for him to get the word out about them, because… Brad’s Brad.’ Brad is, arguably, only Brad because of Scott — it was Thelma & Louise that catapulted Pitt to superstardom. ‘Ha — yes, he was an extra [before that],’ Scott cackles. ‘He’ll say, “No I wasn’t!” But he walked into the audition and I thought: this guy’s really interesting. That 17 minutes [on Thelma & Louise] was the most valuable screen time in history!’
The wine is still going down a treat and our conversation meanders wildly, from whether aliens exist (‘I think we’ve been monitored for years!’ roars Scott. ‘How did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Rolling 20-tonne stones on logs? F*** off!’) to the dangers of AI: ‘We’ve got to step on this shit now, and move forward with incredibly tight constraints. If
I design an AI, then tell it to design another one even smarter, what’s next? It could close down England, the internet, [drop] a hydrogen bomb. The compound interest is scary.’
Movies running past three hours... you’ve got to consider the bum-ache factor!
Scott is also forthright on the topical subject of whether movies are getting too long. ‘I’m not naming names,’ he says, ‘but yes. You’ve got to consider the bum-ache factor! You’ve got to have something really special to go past three hours.’ Napoleon dips below that, but still looks set to tick the ‘really special’ box. And the director has lots more ‘special’ in the pipeline: the end of the actors’ strike means he can now finish his next project — Gladiator 2, starring Paul Mescal, and he’s already begun casting the one after, a ‘f***ing savage’ Western. All this with his Mas des Infermières venture expanding, too: how on earth does he find the energy?
‘Fear,’ he chuckles. ‘No, I enjoy it.’ He leans in to speak into my Dictaphone: ‘I’m just getting the word out that the old guy’s not dead yet.’ Another twinkling grin: ‘In fact, I’m kicking harder than some of the young ones…’