Ridley Scott on sci-fi epic Raised By Wolves: ‘Watch it with three bottles of wine!’
‘I don’t know if anyone’s fully nailed what it’s about it yet’ … Raised By Wolves. Photograph: Coco Van Oppens
The director is returning to TV after 50 years, with a drama about two androids raising humans on a far planet. He talks about working through lockdown, doing big adverts for China – and living on £75 a week
The lead character in Raised By Wolves is Mother, an android tasked with bringing up a young human family on a faraway planet. But things soon go wrong. Mother starts wildly overreacting to the tiniest provocation, then murders her partner. Before long, she’s screaming at visitors with such fury that their heads actually explode. Which raises the question: has its writer’s mum seen it yet?
“Yeah, she has,” says Aaron Guzikowski hesitantly. Does she like it? “She was rendered speechless by it. I still don’t know. She hasn’t given me a satisfactory review yet.” What Guzikowski does have, though, is a young family, which is how he came up with the idea for the series. “I was thinking a lot about my children and technology,” he says. “And I started thinking about raising kids with artificial intelligence – and what that might be like. I have three young sons.”
Another voice clicks on to the line. “Thank God I’ve already done that!” it booms in a loud north-east of England accent. “And let me tell you, it never stops. My lot, they’re 52, 54 and 42. And it never stops!” It’s Ridley Scott, the bluff, gruff, breezily unsentimental director of Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Ever the workhorse, even at 83, he directed the first two episodes of Raised By Wolves, setting an early visual blueprint for the series that is, as you’d expect, epic in scale. The show marks Scott’s return to directing episodic TV since he left the wilds of British telly half a century ago. The landscape has changed beyond all recognition – but don’t go suggesting that he doesn’t have TV experience.
“I’ve done 2,500 commercials!” he roars. “I’m Mr Fucking Television Commercial-maker!” Scott initially left TV over money. “After tax, I was getting £75 a week,” he says of his days directing the likes of Z Cars and The Informer. “And I thought, ‘This is fucking crazy.’ One day I was asked to go and do a commercial – and I was handed £100 in cash.” The instinct to do ads has never left him. “In fact,” he says proudly, “I’m right now doing a Chinese commercial, a big one. So you always lean back on your old stuff.”
Scott has always had a seemingly unstoppable momentum, but you do have to wonder about this right now. He’s an octogenarian in a year when a pandemic has stopped the world, not to mention his industry, in its tracks. Did he ever feel frustrated by 2020? “No!” he shoots back. “I’ve just handed in a film with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck. I finished shooting about six weeks ago. And now I’m in Provence, where I’ve got a facility to cut. I’ve cut four films here. I’ll deliver February, then I start [next film] Gucci. So you can’t stop, dude. You can never stop. Once you stop, you may never get back up.”
Raised By Wolves, which has just launched on Sky Atlantic in the UK, is a series you’ll either love or hate. The tale of two androids who escape a war-ravaged Earth with 12 human embryos, it’s a big show about big themes – family, technology, religion – and it unfolds at its own pace, throwing up new questions faster than it can answer them. Like Lost or Westworld, half the fun comes from concocting your own theories about what’s going on.
“I love that level of engagement,” says Guzikowski. “I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so I know what it is to try to figure things out. The show is almost like a giant haunted house, full of all these mysteries in terms of who has lived there before. There are so many layers.” Has anyone worked it all out yet? “Not really. I think if you go through all of Reddit, there might be a few people who have gotten close. But I don’t know if anyone’s fully nailed it.”
Thematically, even if it had been directed by somebody else, Raised By Wolves would still owe a debt to Scott. Four decades after making Alien, the notion of space exploration and AI still captivates the director. Discussing the show’s androids, who over time start to override their programming and develop feelings, he says: “I like that moment when you’ve created a computer so smart, and fed so much into it, that this incredibly complex equation begins to add up to emotion.”
The conversation somehow moves on to whether life exists on other planets. “There was a great thing done by Nasa about a month ago,” says Scott, “that followed some of the Mariner probes. And remember, they’ve been travelling at probably 100,000mph for the last 47 years, so you work that into light speed, and they’re still only about four and a half minutes from home. So when you look at an equation like that, science fiction barely scratches the surface. There’s so much we don’t understand. The idea that we are it in this galaxy is fucking nonsense.”
I start to ask Guzikowski a question, but Scott isn’t done. “Come on, that’s ridiculous,” he continues. “That is ridiculous – being it. Right? And I am a firm believer in what Stanley Kubrick brought about in 2001: A Space Odyssey – that we were definitely pre-visited. For sure.” Really? “Of course!” he splutters, now in full steam. “Are you kidding? It’s not even … of course. Are you joking? Of course we were. You think we are it, that we were just a biological accident over a billion years? I don’t think so. There’s too many items to have been put together – to turn ‘two and two makes four’ into a multiple gigantic mind-blowing equation. I think there was a guidance system somewhere way back there that put us on the path.”
Kubrick’s film seems to be the guidance system that put Scott himself on the path to his own vision of sci-fi. He watched it in his 30s, early in its original run. “A 70mm print mid-afternoon in London. It was empty because people didn’t really get it. I just sat there blown away.” That fed him all the confidence he needed when Alien came his way. “I was fifth choice, by the way,” he says. “I wasn’t first choice, I was fifth choice to direct Alien.” The first choice was apparently Robert Altman. “But,” Scott chuckles, “if you’re stupid enough to ask Altman to direct a science fiction … He just said, ‘What? You’re kidding me? Give me a break. Are you out of your fucking mind?’”
We’re running out of time, which is a shame because having Scott shout about aliens and space is a lot of fun. However, the day before we talk, Warner Bros announced that it would be releasing its entire 2021 slate to streaming on the same day they’re released in US cinemas, a move that has angered cinemas, stars and directors. I wondered how Scott, an immovable figure in the world of cinema for so many decades, reacted to the news. “It’s good for us,” he says. He’s talking specifically about Raised By Wolves. It runs on HBO Max in the US and that’s where all the big Warner films will drop, so he’s happy that the inevitable subscriber boost will get more eyes on his show.
But what about his new Matt Damon and Ben Affleck film? What if someone told him that, after all his hard work and money, it would go straight to streaming? “Apart from the money, it’s great, you know? Ideally, the bigger the audience, the better. It’s not financial, it’s more to do with communication. Am I communicating? Because that’s the job we do. It’s nice to see people like it.”
So he’d be happy if everything he made went straight to streaming? “Oh yeah, sure,” he replies. “Well, you can binge there. With a TV show like ours, you can sit there with three bottles of wine and watch all 10 hours if you want.”