Ridley Scott interview: How Napoleon took streaming back to cinema


When filming began on Ridley Scott’s biographical war epic Napoleon early in 2022, the world was taking its first hesitant steps after the pandemic had shuttered movie houses around the world. The 85-year-old director’s greatest fear? That cinemas would remain closed forever.

“Bloody right [I was worried],” Scott says. “But doing a film of this scale, I think the platforms, whoever they are – and we know who they are – had designed their business plan on getting rid of cinema. And COVID struck like an iceberg, so a lot of cinemas were closed anyway. They couldn’t keep them open. It was a disaster.”

Napoleon, which chronicles the rise and fall of the French military commander and, later, emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, has been finished for almost a year but has been patiently waiting for its moment on the big screen. But the brave new world of streaming and the director of Alien, Gladiator and House of Gucci were on a collision course.

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine de Beauharnais.

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine de Beauharnais.Credit:

“Realising the intent was only to go a little bit of screening and then go to streaming, I had to step in and start to object,” Scott says. Unsurprisingly, the man who put Russell Crowe in hardened black leather with silver plating is not somebody to be reckoned easily with. The fight was quick. Scott 1, streaming 0. (Well, maybe a half – the film will be released to streaming after its theatrical window.)

It helped build a case for Napoleon that four major post-pandemic films – Top Gun: Maverick ($US1.5 billion, or $2.3 billion, in global ticket sales), Avatar: The Way of Water ($US2.3 billion), Barbie ($US1.45 billion) and Oppenheimer ($US951 million) – generated enormous box-office heat by delaying streaming as long as possible. The gift with purchase: they represented a very broad spread of movie audience demographics.

“Bloomberg had said [at the time] that the business plan of streaming only could not compete with [cinema] screening, and thank God for Top Gun and Avatar, which came out and both did a billion dollars in the first month,” Scott says. “Then Chris Nolan’s film Oppenheimer does a billion dollars. I think they’ve learned a big lesson. The platforms are embracing the importance of cinema.”

Divorcing the reality of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life from the historical account is not always easy. It can be argued that much of his success was the result of his brilliance, but also his bastardry. He led successful campaigns during the Revolutionary Wars and led the French Republic as first consul from 1799 to 1804.

Ridley Scott on Joaquin Phoenix: “Joaquin was always in my mind [for Napoleon].”

Ridley Scott on Joaquin Phoenix: “Joaquin was always in my mind [for Napoleon].”Credit:

But then, for a decade, he ruled as emperor and, despite his imperial depictions in the art of the time, was ultimately consumed by his own hubris: during the Napoleonic Wars, which shook France until 1815, millions died. Bonaparte personally faced two chapters in exile: to the Corsican island of Elba in 1814, and finally to the Atlantic Ocean island of Saint Helena, some 1800 km from the west coast of Africa, in 1815.

Woven around the tale of broken armies, blood-spattered battlefields and military carnage of an almost unprecedented scale is a great love story, between Bonaparte and Josephine de Beauharnais, who would become his wife and, later, empress. Why they both pursued the union, and its enduring appeal as a love story for the ages, is the subject of some debate, Scott says.

“It’s wrong to say it was one-sided [but] I think initially she was less impressed by him other than the fact he was a good support system. Where was she going to live? Where was she going to sleep? And remember, she is actually described politely as a courtesan and, for a woman in those times, [being a] courtesan was about survival.

Director Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Napoleon.

Director Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Napoleon. Credit:

“So she had the grace of a courtesan and a courtier, and he was Corsican – not exactly a ruffian but he had no social grace at all. So when you get these two together, she latched onto him to support her, and he latched onto her because he was incredibly impressed in every way by her,” Scott adds.

But it was unequivocally, Scott says, a love story. At least from Napoleon’s side of the romance. “Not she, him. That took a while,” Scott says. “And I think it may have not developed beyond respect, realisation that ‘he’s all I’ve got’ and then finally affection. Then the disaster [that she] cannot give him a child. So that becomes a void in her life. Whether she loved him, I’m not sure.”

In the film, Bonaparte is played by actor Joaquin Phoenix, a piece of breathtaking casting that in many ways captures the complexity of measuring the intangible qualities that turn an actor into a movie star in the first place. Phoenix’s on-screen demeanour is moody and withdrawn, but with enough intensity that, if left to foment for a time, it becomes almost impossible to look away. In this role he is truly compelling.

Ridley Scott: I think they’ve learned a big lesson. The platforms are embracing the importance of cinema.

Ridley Scott: I think they’ve learned a big lesson. The platforms are embracing the importance of cinema.Credit:

It certainly works in his favour playing Napoleon, a man who seemingly captures the love of the alluring and evasive Josephine but also leads with such magnetism that French soldiers, charged with capturing him upon his perilous return from exile, surrender and join their former general after only an impassioned plea.

This film had long simmered in the back of Scott’s mind. His friend, the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, had long wanted to make a Napoleon film but its scope and scale had eluded him. And for the longest time, as the project sat in Scott’s mind, he had Phoenix in mind for the role of the French dictator.

The 49-year-old actor had starred as Commodus, the ambitious and power-hungry son of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in Scott’s now-iconic 2000 film Gladiator. This is not to say Commodus and Napoleon are the same man: Commodus’ ambitions were wholly personal, while Napoleon came with a great ego but was also driven to rebuild the glory of France.

“Joaquin was always in my mind,” Scott says. “And as soon as I started thinking about Napoleon, I thought, you know what? He actually looks like him. And how complex can you be other than Joaquin Phoenix? And how complex was Napoleon Bonaparte? So it was a natural marriage.”

Bonaparte’s indestructible political charisma is on display throughout the film but never more potently than when faced with apparent capture and arrest by his own men; the broken but desperate unseated emperor pleads his case, only to have the soldiers cast down their arms and join their former general on his march from exile back to the French capital. It is a deeply affecting scene.

Ridley Scott, Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix attend the Napoleon UK premiere.

Ridley Scott, Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix attend the Napoleon UK premiere.Credit: Getty

To some extent, Scott says, careful navigation through a sea of historical texts is required to unpack the story of Napoleon Bonaparte. “There’s 2½ thousand books; that’s 2½ thousand books of conjecture and guessing,” he says. “But I work as close as I can get to the truth.”

Unsurprisingly, for a director who began his career as an art director and production designer, Scott gives the greatest weight to the surviving art of the era. “Because paintings are time capsules, they’re like plate camera shots,” Scott says. “How they dressed, how they looked and all the little bits on the side. You get a history lesson just looking at a painting.”

Key among them: The Coronation of Napoleon – known in French as Le Sacre de Napoleon – by Jacques-Louis David. The painting, completed in 1807, depicts Bonaparte’s ascent to imperial power; it is rich in small details and populated by many of the key figures of the French court, including Napoleon’s mother, Maria-Letizia Ramolino (who did not actually attend but was added to the image on her son’s order), and Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the grand chamberlain of the court.

Joaquin Phoenix takes pictures with fans at the UK premiere of Napoleon.

Joaquin Phoenix takes pictures with fans at the UK premiere of Napoleon. Credit: Getty

“From that my imagination starts running wild, so that’s where I go,” Scott says. “But [Napoleon’s] vulnerability was fuelled by his intuition. This guy must’ve had the intuition of a tiger.”

Challenging, too, is the scale of the film. It required three of Scott’s long-serving collaborators, production designer Arthur Max, director of photography Dariusz Wolski, costume designer Janty Yates and special-effects co-ordinator Neil Corbould. Max, Yates and Corbould had worked with Scott on Gladiator (for which both Yates and Corbould won Oscars), Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Martian; Max, Yates and Wolski had also worked on Scott’s Prometheus and The Last Duel.

The landscapes are stunning. The battle scenes complex, and bloody. Scott used as many as 11 cameras at a time, delivering astonishing coverage but requiring almost every set to be a complete piece. Boughton House in Northamptonshire stood in for Bonaparte’s chateau, and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire stood in for his staterooms in the Fontainebleau and Tuileries palaces. Two other sites – Bourne Wood in Surrey and Fort Ricasoli in Malta – were repurposed from former Gladiator filming locations.

Such attention to detail is characteristic of Scott, who is, by reputation, a formidable presence on his own sets. It seems incredible that at the age of 85 he’s as fit and focused as he is. He works, generally, telling stories with immense scale. Many of the feature films he has directed – Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), American Gangster (2007), House of Gucci (2021) – are masterworks of cinema.

It’s a tempting thought, then, the idea that all art is inherently autobiographical; that in each of those films there is an echo of Scott himself in each of the protagonists: Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Maximus in Gladiator, Jean de Carrouges in The Last Duel or indeed Napoleon Bonaparte. But Scott is quick to shoot the idea down.

“Never. No, never,” he says. “People associate that with the ambition of the project and I tend not to even think about it. I know I can do it, so I never question it.”

And while he may not see himself in the work, much of the work takes on a life of its own. There is something in the sprinkle of Scott’s stardust that gives unusual and complex life to films that should end at the 200- or 250-minute mark.

Instead, Alien and Blade Runner gave rise to cinematic universes (and franchises) that are now mimicked by Star Wars, Marvel and DC. The Last Duel, set in Napoleonic France, seems like a natural pre-step towards Napoleon. And Scott’s great swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator is returning in Gladiator 2, which will be released next year.

“Let’s not sidestep,” Scott says candidly when asked why, with some stories, he chooses to go back. “It’s also financial. Gladiator became so successful. And not just the box office – what happens afterwards? Gladiator plays every night, every country in the world, and has done for 20 years.

“You tell me how much it’s worth,” Scott adds. “Probably $2 or $3 billion? So do you not go and try and think about the next one? Of course you do. So, really, the circling the wagons on the central story is the most important thing. [You ask yourself] what will fly?”

Napoleon is in cinemas from Thursday.

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