Q: Are you pleased with the new Gladiator DVD? A: Yes, I am. It's a triple disc, a big one. The other week, I sat down with Russell and we basically talked to each other about the film for about four hours, I think, and had a great time. And that's on the disc as well. Q: How would you describe this version?
A: Well, there's about 17 extra minutes in there. People ask me if it's a director's cut or not, and I say 'no' because every one of my films that goes out is a director's cut - the theatrical release is a director's cut. I don't get bullied anymore - the studios don't do that, that's a kind of fiction. And I maintain good relationships with all the studios so I've never been bullied into any cut, frankly. What you do, is you gradually become more and more experienced, and more and more realistic about dramatic tolerance, i.e. about how long the play should be. And because films are expensive you can't make it indulgent, you've got to really address what I call the BA Factor – the Bum Ache Factor. And ask yourself 'at what moment are the audiences getting bored?' Q: And the BA Factor is different with a DVD?
A: Yes, it is. Digital is a different world because you are sitting at home and a hi tech piece of equipment today is within reach of most people, so they are watching a pretty hi tech version of whatever you've done. You can put the machine on pause, stand up, go away and scratch yourself, go off and get a beer and come back and resume. Seriously, that's the way I look at it. And it's almost like taking a novel off the shelf, which is kind of like what a DVD is, it's almost like a slender Penguin book which you sit down and read. I think that's the opportunity where I can put back in the uneasy areas; scenes that whilst I loved them, I felt took us dramatically off target in terms of the dynamics of the drama. That's the long answer but it's the truth. And I'll give you an example – Kingdom of Heaven's cut will be an hour longer. Next year I'll put out a version which is about three and a half hours. Q; Do you like the DVD format because it allows you to give us a different version of your work?
A: Yes, I love to be able to do that. Because if you ask, 'at what moment in his career is a director allowed to be indulgent?' The answer is never, right? Because it costs too much – it's art against commerce, art against money, cash, what the film is costing. And also that would mean what it would cost the movie if it doesn't play. Someone up there pays. So I've always got half an eye on that -it's in my DNA. Fundamentally I'm a practitioner, I'm quite practical minded, both on a creative level and on a business level. So it's always a cross-collateralisation between the two. There are scenes I wish I'd put in, but I just knew that if I did, the film would be taking a right hand turn when it should have been going straight on at that moment, that's all. These are really fine tuned decisions, if you know what I mean. Like if you are writing a book or an article and you'd love to put this paragraph in, but you know you can't because everything stops while you get the paragraph over. Q: What was it like re-visiting the film? Was it an enjoyable experience to go back to it?
A: Yes, it depends on the movie. But Gladiator is one of my favourite adventures because I really loved going into the world. I loved creating the world to the degree where you could almost smell it. So it was great. It was going back in to make sure that the grading doesn't get away from us and making sure we were reinstating what it should look like and what it should sound like. So it's opening the door again on the old adventure, you see. Q: It's quite poignant in a way because Richard Harris is no longer with us. And of course Oliver Reed and David Hemmings are no longer with us...
A: Yes it is. And what is bizarre is how vibrant and fit Oliver seemed. But there it is. Three of them went, but that's the price you pay for having a good time. Q; How would you define your working relationship with Russell on the film?
A; I think at the very beginning when Russell came in he wasn't sure about coming in to what would constitute a Roman epic, wearing a skirt, you know with spears and a toga. Also I think at that particular juncture, everybody was quietly sniggering that Roman epics of this nature were over 45 years ago. But I just knew what to do, so I was absolutely confident about what I was going to do. I was so enthusiastic about the whole world we were going to create, and I have never been more confident - since Alien actually. I knew exactly what to do on Alien, it was funny. So when you are charging at the fence and you know you are going to jump it, there is a different level of exhilaration. And whilst we had short falls – we were a bit short on the writing, we were behind constantly on the writing – we were never behind on the production. The production really led the way and I think it's what kept a sane balance between Russell and I, because we knew we had to fill in, you know, 'I'm about to hit the Roman arena, so I'd better get every thing else right…' Because the Roman arena was going to be so fantastic we had to meet it, and that's what we did. So in that extent I spent a lot of time – more than usual – with an actor. Because once the production begins everyone gets so exhausted you tend to take your free time when you can and as they say 'chill out.' And you don't get many of those when you are doing a film like Gladiator. With Russell there was no 'chill out' time and therefore it was a constant discussion about where we would go next. So that was very interesting. And by the end of it all I think we excised all of our problems to the extent that I get on really well with him, he's a bit of a pal really.
Q: Would you work with him again?
A: I'm trying all the time. We're trying to find something which will satisfy both our requirements. I think Russell has now become the finest actor of his generation.
Q: Watching the film now, it's like watching Joaquin Phoenix come of age on screen...
A: I don't know if Joaquin would think about it that way, but I had this funny idea that Joaquin would be this marvellous Prince of Darkness of Rome and the reaction at the time was…let's say wondrous!. (Laughs) It was like 'what?!' But I was convinced. I said to myself 'yes, this is the man who has all the complexities and the depth to pull this off.' But I don't think he enjoyed himself really. I think it was such a new world, a new venture, a new venue for him. But Joaquin's talent is he functions on his own insecurities and I think that's what makes him really, really unusual. Joaquin stepped up to the plate on what would be classified as the first big epic he had been in – because there is no question that it's an epic.
Q: What about Connie Nielsen? Did you always have her in mind for Lucilla?
A: At first I couldn't find Lucilla, this woman who would be queen. If she had been Egyptian she would have been the Empress - you know I'm thinking of Cleopatra in Egypt. Not in Rome, but still, I was casting somebody I felt automatically should be the Empress anyway by right, by intelligence and by power. And so I was looking for a woman who was carrying that kind of stature and could also pull off tricky dialogue. Anyone who can walk side by side with what could easily become theatrical in the bad sense is the difference between a great actress and an average one. And Connie I found almost by accident. She sent me a tape of something she had done for a contemporary film, actually, it was a kind of dissertation or a soliloquy to herself and I was so fascinated by it that I met with her and she had the job. I mean, she got that job absolutely on talent and I'm a little surprised she hasn't blossomed more. She was fantastic.
Q: What would you say that the extra footage in the DVD illuminates in terms of the story?
A: It illuminates a little more of Commodus's (Phoenix) anger at and love of his father. Again, there's a lot of Joaquin and I don't like to use the phrase 'twisted nature,' but the complex nature of Commodus. There is an execution scene where he drags it up from the past, in the first act. If you remember, they were meant to go off and execute Maximus and of course Maximus dealt with everyone, but in so doing there were two officers involved who hadn't reported that Maximus had got away because they were afraid of the Emperor. So this comes up at the end of the second or beginning of the third (act), where Commodus walks into the arena and sees Maximus alive. He is so stunned by that and goes back and says 'somebody knew, somebody must have known that he was alive. Why wasn't it reported to me?' and for that reason he executes these two characters. And there's an execution scene with a firing squad, basically, of 12 archers , and he demonstrates a certain amount of craziness there because he stands in front of the archers with fully drawn bows and says 'one moment' when they have their arrows fully drawn back. Of course the weight of each bow is tremendous so he is crazy enough to walk in front of 12 arrows while he talks to the men who are about to die, and while he brings forward Quintus (Thomas Arana) who is the treacherous one in all of this, the man who you believed was Maximus's friend and supporter right at the very beginning and then turns.
I think one of the successes of Gladiator is how we manage to turn on a dime the character from one thing to another where you believe he is one thing and he is something very different. You know it's a very modern, contemporary view of ancient Rome and because of that it doesn't become a history lesson. I think people were drawn or even sucked into the world and enjoyed it, enjoyed everything they saw. Not just the story, they enjoyed what they saw – the food, the clothing, the environment. I always try and create worlds that you would like to visit. You'd like to go on holiday there (laughs). I'd would have liked to have gone there on holiday, actually – I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the slaves but I'd love to have visited Rome at that time.
Q: How physically demanding was it for you? You are at the helm of this huge production, filming in three countries (England, Morocco and Malta) and you had storms wrecking part of your set...
A: But this is all par for the course. I don't ever blink, honestly. It's all part of the excitement of doing the job and if you don't like that kind of stress, don't do the job. Actually it's not stressful to me. You have to take everything in your stride. If someone says to you 'the roof has fallen down,' you then have to say 'oh well, how quickly can it be put back up?' You can't stand there wringing your hands, you have to deal with how you are going to fix it. Everything has to come from a positive stance.
Q: What do you remember in particular from filming?
A: I must say I loved every phase and stage of it. For the opening battle scenes, I remember we couldn't find the forest to do the German front. We had gone to Bratislava and then we thought, 'all that way to Bratislava for what?' They were magnificent forests, but when you are taking a big unit on the first few weeks of principal photography and you suddenly have to go to Bratislava, (which is a great place), but you are taking strangers to a strange land and you are going to lose your ground. So the decision was, let's keep it in England, let's contact the Forestry Commission and ask them which forest they want to be taken down. Because they are always either cutting forests or replanting. And they said 'well, actually we've got a forest that's no good to us. The trees won't grow, just outside Gatwick Airport. Do you want to go and have a look?' Well that was it. We went down there, and bugger me there it was, (Bourne Wood in Surrey). And I loved that.
We started shooting January 14 or whatever it was, and in the next three weeks we did the entire German front, we did all the interior of the tents, and we did the murder of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). We did the near execution of Maximus and we did his ride away all less than 400 yards apart. And so I never left that teeny weeny valley and it was the most practical set I've ever had. So I knew I was off to a flying start while Arthur Max (production designer) was already in Malta trying to get up the 32 per cent of the Coliseum.
Q: There are many set pieces. One of my favourites is the tiger sequence when Maximus is in the Coliseum and the tigers are in there, too. How difficult was that to film?
A: It was a bugger, because you have an 800lb tiger always prowling about, six to eight feet from you and it's held down basically by a chain, a ring in the ground and four guys. So it's like a block and tackle system - the guys pull it back on its chain if it gets aggressive. And the dangerous thing about a tiger is that for the most part it will sit looking sleepy on the ground and it's only when its tail starts to move and thrash that you know it's getting irritated and that's when you step back. But they are entirely unpredictable - even with the trainer, who has been bringing these cats up since they were teeny weeny kittens.
There has to be absolute trust between the tiger and its master, but its master must be the master, there must be no mistake about that. And so the tiger would knock him to the ground – and don't forget we're talking 700, 800lbs like I said – and it would be going for the food in his hand. He would have little pellets, tit bits that the tiger really liked. And he would go for the food, but once the tiger had the food then you had to get the tiger off the man on the ground immediately because you didn't want the tiger getting excited. And the guy would wear steel cuffs so if he had to, he could put his wrist in the mouth of the tiger. On one day the tiger bit through and punctured the steel cuff. So there was a piece about the size of a dime or like a 5p piece, a small coin, punched straight through the steel cuff and into his arm – and that happened in a millisecond. And another tiger turned on a stunt man and had him on the ground in two seconds. You know, these things are huge, but they move like lightening, and once they move, you have to get all over them.
Q: How many did you have there?
A: Four Bengal tigers. Actually, five – we had one back up. I'll never forget the first shot with Russell and thinking 'fuck this, this is never going to work..' He's dancing around and fighting with the guy with the big silver mask on, he's knocked to the ground, and then the floor is supposed to open and out will come the tiger. And everybody was going 'yeah, sure..' And bugger me if it didn't work immediately (laughs). This tiger came out of the ground from nowhere, out of the trap door with the dust flying, leapt out of the fucking cage and went for him and it actually scraped his ass with his claw. He paid attention after that (laughs).
Q: And presumably choreographing the chariots must have been difficult?
A: Yes, chariots are quite difficult because there is no differential. So when you are flying around a tight curve – and even though that arena was big, the curve was very very tight – Arthur (Max) knew, we were building an arena in the space we had, which was about ten per cent shorter than it should be. So consequently I knew I could never get the horses up to a flying gallop, and there's a difference between a canter and a reined-in gallop. I could never get it up to a flat-out gallop – but you don't really notice because of the way it's cut. But at the end I had no turning room, all I had was wall, So one of the most dangerous things about the chariots was getting them up to full speed, having a moment or two on them on the cameras and then the guys had to rein in before they could do a turn, otherwise the chariot would flip. The chariot weighs about 500 lbs and you don't want 500lbs to land on anyone.
Q: Were there any accidents?
A: Yeah, with one guy, it was the only accident we had on the whole movie. There were two brothers – I think they were Romans actually – who on one lunch time, decided on the quiet to have a race around the arena. And one ended up being taken by helicopter and having brain surgery. So that was a big warning. The chariot flipped or hit the wall and I think he damaged his cranium and we had to fly him out. When you are filming you have to keep your eye on everything the whole time. And if I sense there's something not quite right I'll say 'wait a minute, let's talk about exactly what we are doing again.' I want to know exactly before we do something like that, because someone can get very seriously hurt or killed in a second.
Q: When it was first announced that you were making Gladiator there were those people that raised their eyebrows and said 'what is he doing?' And yet Gladiator paved the way for a renaissance of this kind of historical epic. Have you allowed yourself a little wry smile about proving so many people wrong?
A: Absolutely. I always do. But it's the same as Blade Runner, really. Blade Runner appears regularly, two or three times a year in various shapes and forms of science fiction. It set the pace for what is essentially urban science fiction, urban future and it's why I've never re-visited that area because I feel I've done it. But something will raise it's head one day and I'll come back and do a science fiction, definitely.
Q; There's always speculation about some kind of prequel or sequel to Gladiator. Would you be interested?
A: I think it's important enough to not ignore it and say 'no, no..' I would do a sequel if I felt the passion was there, and that would have to be the script, the story. It's all about the material and if it was there I would certainly address it.
Q: What are you doing next?
A: We don't absolutely know. I would like to have a bit of a break and do a comedy. It's kind of written and we are just working out the viability now.