It has been said that director Ridley Scott gets more intimate with each epic. For Twentieth Century Fox’s Kingdom of Heaven he turned to the Crusades to frame the story of a young Frenchman (Orlando Bloom) in the 12th century seeking spiritual redemption as a knight who journeys to Jerusalem during a tenuous moment when the truce between Christians and Muslims will soon shatter. Shot in Spain and Morocco, locations he used for Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, Scott employed production designer Arthur Max, cinematographer John Mathieson and costume designer Janty Yates. All three collaborated on best picture winner Gladiator, for which Yates won an Oscar.“We try to make this a kind of labyrinth—a piece of old Jerusalem, or a piece of the fortress of Kerak or a piece of the village at Ibelin,” Max explains. In terms of creating 12th century Jerusalem on the backlot of Atlas Film Studios in Morocco, Max adds, “Jerusalem is definitely the biggest set I’ve ever worked on, and one of the larger sets constructed in recent years.” Meanwhile, Mathieson helped create shots in which you literally “see the air in every exterior scene, whether it is drenched in smoke, rain, snow, sand or mist.” For Yates, the blending of East and West meant weaving a tapestry of rich colors.Below the Line: One of the most astonishing things about Kingdom of Heaven is that each scene has an entirely different look. It’s so beautiful yet unpredictable.Ridley Scott: I’m very influenced by the Orientalists, the painters who surfaced when I did Gladiator, for the interiors. For the big exteriors, there was [the French painter Jean-Leon] Jerome, who painted these very exotic historical scenes and didn’t become really famous until the 1920s with the advent of Hollywood. And there was Almatin, who painted the Greek and Roman houses and courts and ruins as he imagined it, which are seriously exotic. So what I did was graft the architecture of Pilatos… into those inner courtyards that could be inside Jerusalem, mixed in with Roman architecture.BTL: Can you talk about working with Arthur Max about recreating Jerusalem?Scott: We go all the way back to commercials and we worked on Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, so that’s serious stuff where you’re digging in the dirt to get that made.BTL: And you both have architectural training.Scott: Yes, so I can draw, Arthur can draw, and you have endless discussions over reference books, and then drawing on pads and scribbling and saying, “What about this?” Then we go and journey in jeeps and choose the locations. So we have a guy with a hammer and stakes. How big is big? How [large should this part] of Jerusalem be?BTL: In addition to storyboarding, do you do previs?Scott: No. I don’t need that. The best previs is up here [in my head]. Fortunately, I can put it all down on paper. But I will definitely previs if I’m doing evening prep on the telephone and my telephone pad can code. And if something strikes ground, I’ll say, “See that?” And he’ll say, “I’ve already done that.”BTL: So what did he bring to this?Scott: Everything. Just because I’ve been brought up as an art director and director, [it doesn’t mean I know everything]. On the contrary, I’m the worst taskmaster, so I need the best. And because he was an architect, you always have this purist. But because he’s a purist, you know what to mix. I said to him that’s why I want those beautiful tiled corridors for the Muslim meeting. We wanted to create a labyrinth and then on the streets in Jerusalem that’s all hard stone and we mixed that in with [actual footage] five miles from the set.BTL: Tell me how John Mathieson and you arrived at that painterly look?Scott: I’ve got a lot of experience and I’m going to be pretty hard—pretty tough. I’ve operated a camera myself. So I always work very, very closely with the cameraman because that’s your proscenium… the bells go through there. That’s why I eventually have to work on a commercial… because a commercial is like working with still photography. It predetermines you. I could walk onto any location now having never seen it and have a setup in two minutes. So again, I do a lot of walk and talk and John comes in and does his technical move. “How are we going to get the lights in here?” That’s all done so when the crew comes in to see the locations for the first time, it’s all there. Arthur’s there with his art department, having already built Jerusalem for five months. We prepped this whole thing in about five months.BTL: Why Mathieson, in particular, for Kingdom of Heaven?Scott: I like working with him. When you’re working on a film, you have to like the person as well because it gets awfully close for such a long period of time and it becomes: Who would you like to spend five months with in a capsule so that when they open up the capsule they don’t find everyone dead? What’s special about him? It goes without saying that he’s very good. I came across John through my son, Jake [Scott], who’s Mr. hotshot commercials, and did a very good film with John called Plunkett & Macleane, that’s a sort of Tom Jones. I was very impressed with how beautiful the costumes and the hair looked, and I asked Jake if I could meet the cameraman.BTL: Talk about what Janty Yates, your costume designer, brings to the picture.Scott: Same thing: It’s talking about silk and purple and exotic paraphernalia that are creating a world you’d like to inhabit. And I think that’s why people were drawn into the world of Gladiator. It’s very attractive, which was kind of an underlying theme in Kingdom of Heaven when the Pope at the time said that you people have forgotten why you are in Jerusalem—you’ve all become Orientalists. Because they liked the life, they liked the climate, they liked the tangerines. And they started to integrate and it became very confusing… and difficult to run Jerusalem from a distance.BTL: This is only Dody Dorn’s second film with you as editor following Matchstick Men.Scott: I think I’ve become very pragmatic: No babies are safe in the editing room. You can’t hang onto to things that don’t move it along. So with her it’s constant discussion. I’ve got everything up here. So I know what I’m doing in terms of how it’s going to be—there’s no guessing. Then when it’s laid out you have to start chipping away like a book editor. You don’t want the BA factor to kick in, which is the bum ache. So many movies and operas today are much too long.BTL: Having worked on Memento and Insomnia and now the two films with you, she’s obviously very good at intimacy and scope. She started as a sound editor with Alan Rudolph.Scott: It’s the same thing in anything, which is: What is the linearity? Which means it’s always emotional in terms of your decision. And as far as I’m concerned, I have to be unemotional about making that decision. It works, but it takes time. All these people, including Dody, are first rate, and that’s what you need. You want to dialogue with the very best people. Because the very best people aren’t afraid to come up with ideas.
Written by Bill Desowitz