Director Ridley Scott knows a thing or two about epic historical dramas, and his latest film sets its focus on Napoleon, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Ahead of the film’s release, Scott and co-star Vanessa Kirby, who steals the show as Empress Joséphine, Napoleon’s first wife, sat down with RT correspondent Nikki Novak to talk about what it was like working with Phoenix, what to expect from the movie, what’s next for Scott (Gladiator 2, anyone?), and more.
Nikki Novak for Rotten Tomatoes: So 1977, you made The Duellists. If somebody had sort of sent back a little time capsule with Austerlitz or Waterloo or a scene from this film, would you have believed it?
Ridley Scott: Yes.
Scott: Yeah. I mean, well, The Duellists explored with Joseph Conrad. It was a 100-page book, novella. But what I loved was the class obsession — this upper class, and there was the lower class — two officers. They would duel, and at the end of it, one of’ them would forget the original reason for the duel, which is, to me, a great metaphor for the craziness and violence in war. But the film ends on… The character’s obsessed by Napoleon, everything he stands for — it’s Harvey Keitel’s character Feraud. He stands on a cliff and fundamentally has to settle for his lot at this point in the story. And I also thought that’s the image of Napoleon Bonaparte. I redid the film about three years ago and watched it, and thought, “Damn, that’s a good movie.”
RT: I read that you actually studied a lot of paintings to sort of inform yourself who he was, what the time was like. And when I watched this film I wrote down, “Holy s—, this movie is amazing. It looks incredible.” It feels like a painting from that time. It almost feels like it’s lit paintings from that time. So if you can talk about how those paintings informed who Napoleon was and the time for you that we see in this film.
Scott: Well, the paintings that appeared were very literal, so they’re almost like plate camera photographs. So when you’re looking at the painting, you’re looking at a time warp. Those paintings are time warps. So you look in the corner of the painting, you see the furniture, the people, you can look at the street scene. Somebody said a picture’s worth a thousand words, and I used to think it was a Hollywood director. It wasn’t. It was [Henrik] Ibsen. Can you believe that? But we deal with cinema, so I look at images as my research. I don’t read that much.
Watch the video for the full interview with Ridley Scott and Vanessa Kirby.