EXCLUSIVE: Last week, Deadline’s Mike Fleming reported that Ridley Scott is planning another Blade Runner film, while brother Tony Scott plots to do a remake of the 1969 Sam Peckinpah Western classic The Wild Bunch. These are just a couple of many film projects the indefatigable pair are involved in after careers that have spawned some of the most successful pictures of recent years. For Ridley, that would include three Best Director Academy Award nominations for the likes of Best Picture Oscar winner Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise, and for Tony a resume that includes such hits as Top Gun, Crimson Tide and most recently last year’s Unstoppable. He’s currently prepping Hell’s Angels, while Ridley is working on the 2012 summer release Prometheus. It’s remarkable that they actually have time for anything else, but since 1995 they have been heavily involved in their very prolific joint production company Scott Free, which not only produces their big-screen vehicles (and many others) but also has become a force in television, receiving 23 Emmy nominations this year in multiple categories covering scripted, nonfiction and miniseries. In 2010, it received the Britannia Award for Worldwide Contribution to Filmed Entertainment.
Under the day-to-day guidance of president of television David Zucker, Scott Free has seen growing critical and ratings success in the medium even as both are often in far-flung corners of world making movies. When I caught up with them in a conference call last week, Tony was in London, Ridley was in the South of France, and David was in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, they were thrilled about the Emmy love and planned to be here for the Sept. 18 prime time ceremony, where the CBS hit drama series The Good Wife, now moving into Season 3, is nominated for nine Emmys and the elaborate Starz miniseries Pillars of the Earth collected seven nominations. Their nonfiction entry Gettysburg is a major player also, with seven nods in the Creative Arts awards to be handed out a week earlier.
Previous TV projects includes the long-running CBS series Numbers, HBO’s Into the Storm and The Gathering Storm, A&E’s The Andromeda Strain and TNT’s spy thriller The Company, among many others.
The secret to all this success, they say, is smart creative choices and independence. “In terms of the creative ambitions of the company, as well as profitability, Ridley and Tony decided a few years ago to go entirely independent, so we have the flexibility to partner with ambitious and like-minded production companies like Tandem Communications but also the freedom to align on network projects or cable projects, with whatever studio or broadcaster that suits the material,” Zucker says. “I think the mandate that has always been the case for the company is that it’s very talent-driven, it’s very writer-driven, so when we happen upon something fiction or nonfiction that excites everyone and that Ridley and Tony want to pursue, then it’s all about finding the right home and about finding the right partner, and so the flexibility of being independent has been critical to being able to have this variety of projects.”
But with such successful — and continuing — international movie careers for 73-year-old Ridley and 67-year-old Tony, what is the allure of the small screen? “Well, I came out of TV,” Ridley said. “I started my life as a director, apart from being an art director first, then in live television for the BBC and then commercial advertising for almost 15, 20 years before I did a film. Television is like my first love in terms of it broke me into the business, and I think watching TV right now it has taken a really marvelous turn into being truly original, innovative and better all the time.”
The same goes for Tony, who remembers his first TV project as an hourlong show on Henry James for the BBC and even directed an episode in the fourth season of their CBS series Numbers. “I love it because you get to cast yourself in so many different ways and in different disciplines,” he said. “I love being involved in these shows, and the thing is we have a great team around us, and even though Ridley and I are always buried and busy, we are always hands-on in our involvement.”
According to Zucker, it all works for Scott Free because Ridley and Tony are the most supreme multi-taskers he has ever encountered. “It’s really just a matter of keeping them abreast day to day and putting things in front of them,” he said. “And they tend to jump in with both feet and enthusiastically keep the quality high, and keep the projects moving ahead. They talk at least every two or three days wherever they are in the world. In fact, Ridley chimed in that while he is in the South of France on holiday, he is looking at about 30 discs of Scandinavian television Zucker sent over in their quest to find interesting new material in which to “cast your net,” as he says.
They are proud that The Good Wife has managed to maintain its own individual quality on CBS, where procedural drama hours seem to reign. Zucker thinks the line is blurring between quality-based drama on cable outlets, which he thinks now networks are beginning to adapt, and vice-versa for cable, which is finding ratings gold in certain genre-type shows. He notes that Good Wife could not have been more conventional, though, in its development process in working with their partners at CBS Paramount. “But it’s something of an evolutionary-type show for what CBS has traditionally done,” Zucker said. “We were able to serve it to the base audience and at the same time strike some chords that have hopefully carved out a show that can run for many years.”
When I asked Ridley if he might be interested in directing an episode, he said he would love to if the timing worked out. He believes it is best to limit the number of directors on a show like that to create a kind of “house style” week in and week out. Tony encourages his brother to do it and in directing his Numbers episode took it as a challenge. “What’s good about that is it’s scary,” Tony said. “If film is like running a marathon, then television is like sprints. So you are really on a different time clock. It’s a whole different mind-set. But it’s good putting yourself into that mind-set and experience again.”
With Pillars they were on ground more similar to the scale of movie-making, and Scott Free is currently shooting another mini all over Budapest based on Ken Follett’s The World Without End which, like Pillars did, will be shopping for a U.S network. “It was really put together like an independent film; the financing was raised internationally,” Zucker said. “The market outside of HBO for these types of ambitious limited and mini-series is obviously not what it was 10 years ago. But I think broadcasters are seeing the great potential of these big-event programs. But at the same time we want to protect the product and make sure that it lands in a place that is not only going to give it a great airing, but great marketing support to insure success as we’ve enjoyed with Pillars. These are really dangerous and expensive, but it really begins and ends with the partnership with Tandem Communications and executive producer Rola Bauer and her team, who have been brilliant partners, and what they’ve been able to do with a financing standpoint as well as positioning with the right buyers internationally and domestically.”
Pillars cost about $40 million on a 113-day shoot, almost twice the length of an average feature film, Ridley said. World Without End reportedly costs about $45 million. “The world we dabble in, with Pillars of the Earth or (History’s nonfiction project) Gettysburg, they are dangerous areas because you can so easily fuck yourself and go over budget, or miss the mark and go over in time, so we are really proud that the processes are controlled processes,” Tony said. “For instance, we take directors out of our mold like Adrian Moat, who did Gettysburg, which I can’t remember how many shooting days it was, but it was really tight, and it’s a really quality product, fantastic.” Ridley agrees finding the right partner in terms of directors is key and because of their ties to the commercials world they have an extended family “of guys who come out with a fresh look and a fresher spin.” In fact, Scott Free, which has offices in London and Los Angeles, works closely with RSA Films, one of the world’s largest commercial production companies; Ridley’s son Jake Scott is nominated for an Emmy this year as well for his Subaru commercial Baby Driver.
In addition to the eight-hour The World Without End, which Michael Caton-Jones is directing through the end of the year with a cast including Miranda Richardson and Cynthia Nixon, Scott Free is involved in a host of upcoming projects. Coma, a four-hour adaptation of the Robin Cook novel, starts production this fall for an A&E airing Memorial Day 2012, and Prophets of Science Fiction is another nonfiction project in production for November airing on Discovery: Science in which Ridley Scott will appear in a series reflecting on science fiction’s founding fathers and legendary figures like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and George Lucas.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) is developing an adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, as well as a series, his first ever. Michael Hirst (The Tudors) is working on Drivers, a drama series set in the 1950s and 60s revolving around a group of young drivers competing at Le Mans. There are also adaptations planned for Dick’s The Man in the High Castle with writer Howard Brenton (Spooks) and a period adventure series for the Fox Network, Pyrates, about the men and women who pulled off the capture of the Spanish silver fleet in 1628, the largest in pirate history. Writer Barry Schindel is working on it.
Kelly Masterson, Evan Wright, Blake Herron, Peter Noah, Craig Wright, Jason Horwich and Harley Peyton are among the writers who also are in active development at Scott Free.
In the nonfiction arena, the company is forging ahead with Shooters for TNT, a project close to home for the Scott brothers about 10 up-and-coming stars of the commercial-directing world who compete to become “top shooter” and win seed money for their own production house; and truTV’s Motorclash, about the longest, most dangerous motorcycle race in the history of the sport.
Summing up the philosophy of the diversified company, Ridley keeps it simple: “I think in anything, whatever part of the entertainment industry that you are in, good is good. And I don’t care what the story is, whether it’s period drama or futuristic or present day, one is always looking for an original through-line and original direction for interesting innovation, story and character.”