Actors Theron, Fassbender talk about working with famed director

Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi with 'Prometheus'

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

“As a cinematic genre, science-fiction has a longer shelf life than most,” says director/producer Sir Ridley Scott. The mastermind behind such classics as “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982) and this year’s “Prometheus” is referring to how aspects of a sci-fi film can morph from fiction into fact with time. He offers up the privatization of NASA as an example.

“Many films set in outer space have referred to corporations as villains,” the 74-year-old says. “As moneymaking concerns become involved in space exploration and exploitation, there will be inevitable lapses in ethical practices.”

“Prometheus” marks a return for Scott, whose films have included “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator,” to the genre that made him famous, three decades after cult classic “Blade Runner” was released. The film — whose script was devised as a prequel to “Alien” and then expanded upon by writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof — is about a scientific mission to a distant star system in search of the origins of humankind.

What the team finds, however, is unexpected. What was expected, though, was the film’s success at the box office and the buzz that would surround it, igniting the Internet with questions, opinions and verdicts on the film. The Japan Times spoke with Scott after the overseas release of “Prometheus” and as a result some of the film’s surprises were revealed. Those who are concerned about spoilers should not read on. (It was also before the death of his brother, Tony Scott, who served as a producer on the film).

“Sci-fi is easily misinterpreted,” Scott says. “One reason for that is that you can interpret it any way you wish. Hard-core fans take it very seriously. Often they interpret it in a really personal way. That’s their privilege. After all, what’s beyond the heavens, out in space, is so vast and mysterious, so relatively little is known, it’s wide open to interpretation and symbolism.”

Actress Charlize Theron plays mission director Meredith Vickers in the film. She tells The Japan Times that she has “heard all types of interpretations of what ‘Prometheus’ is ‘supposed’ to mean. That it’s a religious parable, it’s apocalyptic, it ties in with the Mayan 2012 prophecy, it predicts this or that. … I had no idea it could be filled in with so many private points of view — like some famous paintings are.

“When we were shooting, we knew it was an event: Sir Ridley’s returning to a film category for which he’s justly celebrated.”

Theron says she did not know too much about the plot’s details when she was filming, but that she had expected there would be some intense scenes.

“If anything, I pushed for more strength and mystery in my character. Meredith isn’t very secure, which can lead to extremes. Though I am used to extreme characters,” she chuckles.

Theron won an Academy Award for her portrayal of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the 2003 film “Monster,” in which she pushed herself to both mental and physical extremes. She recently journeyed to the extreme end of villainy when she gave a turn as the evil queen in this year’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Scott tends to steer clear of definitive explanations of his work, but he admits that ” ‘Prometheus’ has necessarily been influenced by market considerations, which is to say that one successful film may cast its shadow onto another in the same genre, and we all mirror each other to some degree in terms of inspiration or borrowed creativity and artistic homage.”

Critics have compared parts of “Prometheus” to other films such as “Alien,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Contact” (1997) and “The Tree of Life” (2011). However, Scott’s film is grand in scale and it’s more action-oriented than his past adventures in outer space, which were slower and more personal. It begs the question, does Scott believe there’s still room for such stories, or is that era past?

“The personal must be highly compelling to hold today’s audiences,” he says carefully. “Action needs to drive the pace. … The engine has to move faster than it used to.”

Asked about his upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel, apart from confirming that it will have a female protagonist, he only says that “the director (in him) is a creative individual who enjoys sharing, to some extent. The producer (in him) is more wary. At this point, business sense and business partners enjoin me from revealing too much.”

Theron laughs when asked what it was like to be killed off by Ridley Scott.

“Most actresses esteem him more for ‘Thelma & Louise’ than the sci-fi pictures. Although ‘Alien’ was pioneering. But yes,” she discards her usual policy of carefully avoiding spoilers, “I do get killed off. Sir Ridley is an actor’s director. This movie is more character-driven than some I’ve been in. Yes, looks do count; for instance, I loved the detail of a bodice I wore (in “Snow White”) that was decorated with tiny bird skulls. But costume and great visual effects don’t always make up for a script that needs more … characterization.”

Scott used physical sets for “Prometheus” and minimal green-screen backdrops, enabling the actors to, according to Theron, “psychologize their characters more fully than in a project where the human elements are somewhat more akin to chess pieces.”

“Prometheus” star Michael Fassbender tells The Japan Times that Scott doesn’t “over-direct actors. I think he enjoys the discovery process, too.”

Fassbender plays David, the spacecraft’s android caretaker. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is created by man, not nature, and may have more feeling and emotion than originally intended. Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel “Frankenstein” was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.” Does Fassbender think the movie’s title has a certain symbolism?

“Prometheus from Greek mythology has been used to represent different things,” Fassbender says. “He helped humans, despite knowing the gods would punish him. He’s been a benefactor, a savior, a villain, he’s self-destructive. … He brings a double-edged sword, you might say. I don’t want to add to that; you might want to ask Ridley.”

But Scott is known to occasionally give more than one answer to the same question. Critics have said he has offered varying explanations for the monster in “Alien,” including psychological ones that relate to the fact the creature hatched out of one of the character’s insides. When he talks about the title of “Prometheus,” he doesn’t betray his reputation.

“There is more than a single answer to (why I chose the name ‘Prometheus’),” he says. “I might tell you one thing now and think of another tomorrow. I might have evolved away from an answer I favored during production and another during postproduction. Let the viewer decide why (it’s called) ‘Prometheus.’ “

Scott is currently working with Fassbender on “The Counselor,” which is due for release next year. The cast also includes Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, and an anonymous insider who has read the script describes the story as ” ‘No Country for Old Men’ on steroids.”

Scott has called Fassbender “a major presence” in films now and in the future.

“He’s more than wonderfully malleable,” the director says. “There’s an old-fashioned star quality many attractive young actors definitely lack. He fully inhabits a role and takes direction beautifully, which is to say he requires a minimal amount yet can shift and adapt to new circumstances and add further layers to a character than a script provides.”

Fassbender humbly brushes off critics’ comparisons to actors Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, though.

“If they mean I’m fully committed to my work, I’m flattered,” he says. “Just stop me if I call it my craft. I think talking about it can tend to diminish it.”

Fassbender and the filmmakers have done a remarkable job in a scene where David watches the film “Lawrence of Arabia” while all the humans are asleep. He mimics pieces of dialogue from the movie, a clever and amusing touch that casts doubt on whether he really is just an unfeeling neo-robot. Fassbender won’t definitively state if David is more than what he seems, no doubt because he is on board for the sequel (Scott has said he intends to make at least one more).

The promotional campaign for “Prometheus” has been almost as compelling as the film itself. However, some critics have dubbed it pretentious and say that it indicates a climax that never quite arrives. Perhaps this is because a sequel was always intended, but detractors say it’s because it allots more time to scenes such as the one where one character administers surgery on herself. Some advocates contend the movie works best as an outer-space horror flick, and urge viewers to forget looking for bigger themes and open-ended symbolism.

Fassbender explains, “When something’s different, it gets flak from all sides because it isn’t this and it isn’t that. But this wasn’t meant to be formulaic and it’s sort of fated to be a blockbuster — a film like this almost has to be. I think it has a good blend and a balance of giant moments and more intimate yet universal moments.

“I don’t think the horror element is overdone. It doesn’t mimic any other (picture). … It also doesn’t serve you a platter of pat answers and solutions. You don’t finish seeing ‘Prometheus’ and go, ‘OK, so that’s what happened, and that’s that.’ It’s a movie you can discuss afterward.”

Scott points out that “Alien” got more than its share of flak upon its release. “Making Sigourney (Weaver) the focus was too revolutionary for some viewers and reviewers,” he says. “The fright elements were said to be too frightening, too wet, too deep-sea-like, too … mythic. And there were complaints about far more symbolism than the film ever could have contained.”

Comparing “Alien” with “Prometheus,” Theron says she was quite aware of the former during filming.

“I sometimes envied Sigourney Weaver, because she was the (picture’s) anchor; other times I thought of ‘Thelma & Louise,’ in that Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and my character had nothing like the same closeness or relationship. Meredith keeps people at bay; she’s strong but she isn’t the occasionally maternal figure that (Weaver’s) Ripley was.”

Just as “Alien” became a classic over time, Scott believes it’s too early to pass judgement on “Prometheus.” He’s seen firsthand how verdicts can change.

“Much is written about certain films when they come out. This is one of them,” he says. “But the last word — or words — come with time and audiences. If audiences support a film, it can continue in the public consciousness. It may or may not become a classic, or become a cult film. It may or may not become a franchise. Its reception and reputation may change with time. Again, the sci-fi genre is very malleable and open to reinterpretation. For now, I recommend viewing ‘Prometheus’ on its own perceived merits.”

This fall, Japanese viewers will get to see another Scott project titled “Japan in a Day.” The piece was done in conjunction with Fuji TV (it is set to be released in cinemas overseas next year). A spinoff from the works “Life in a Day” and “Britain in a Day,” which were developed by Scott’s company, Scott Free, the film focuses on Japan in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Scott, known for the visual richness and detail in his films, says he has always found “Japan a culture and nation that captures and holds the eye.”

“It’s less exotic to me now, as I’ve gotten to know it better, but it still fascinates. The eye always has somewhere to go. … The details may be as — or more — interesting than the whole. Both may be something unique, visually and in practical terms. I like that in some senses to a Brit, Japan is an alien country, but it is also technologically at the forefront. The stories that ‘Japan in a Day’ will offer the world can only educate and inspire. It’s a project that I’m excited (about) and humbly proud to be involved in.”