“I’m not lazy when it comes to filmmaking,” says Guy Ritchie, cracking an egg. Yes, it’s true that the 48-year-old director seems uniquely unbothered on-set, but he’s just as unflappable in real life: Over the course of a long breakfast in Bel-Air, he kept an even keel when met with praise (for his underseen spy-movie gem The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) or when mulling criticism (for his poorly reviewed new take on King Arthur, starring Charlie Hunnam and out this weekend). But to hear Ritchie tell it over the course of a surprisingly philosophical conversation, that’s simply how he approaches all things in his life: “Is anything as serious as you think it is?”
Did you pitch this spin on King Arthur to Warner Bros., or did they come to you?
It’s a bit of everything, really. There are various things out there in the public domain that just get kicked around a bit as ideas, and some of those gestate into something. And then one thing leads to another, and before you know it … The first script that I received, I didn’t like.
I didn’t think it was funny. It needed to be funny and wittier and, essentially, I just gauge any of these things by, “Would I enjoy it?” But I could see that the studio was hell-bent on making it.
So what do you do when there’s a deadline and the script isn’t where you want it to be?
It’s irrelevant. You just get on and do the best job you can do. And I think it’s a foolish effort to put a date on a film anyway.
That it may be, but you’re swimming against the tide, aren’t you?
In what respect?
Studios are now in the business of claiming dates years ahead of time.
It’s irrelevant, because they just move the dates anyway, according to the competition. So what’s the point of having the fucking date in the first place? But it is what it is, and it’s funny because it’s not my business, so I just keep out of it. And then, of course, you find out that it starts becoming your business because then someone says, “You shifted dates.” Only, in my mind, there never was a date.
So you wanted more humor in the story. Inherently, what do you think is funny about this King Arthur story?
Is it humor, or is it wit? Wit implies some sort of intelligence, I suppose, and it’s important that my principal character has a sense of levity. There’s an interesting quote I read this morning, a biblical quote: ”The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” What does that mean to you?
You tell me.
Before you do anything, there’s an inherent fear of how you’ll be judged on it, because you’re asking for the opinion of others to tell you who you are. So you’re scared, but what you’re scared of …
… is nothing, essentially.
Nothing, essentially. So if someone gives you a load of money to go and make something and you have a lovely time doing it, at what point do you start to care about the judgment of your creation?
Do you care about that judgment?
I think you oscillate. Funny enough, I never do care, up until this moment. But it’s really essentially what the film’s about: Levity, or humor, or wit, implies you have objectivity over your current situation. It implies, in other words: Is anything as serious as you think it is? There’s real danger, and there’s perceived danger. How often are you in real danger?
The stakes of movie-making are not life and death, but there are still stakes.
I wonder: At what point does it go from being a pleasurable, light, creative experience to becoming a heavy, result-orientated anticipation?
Over the course of your career, have there been times where it felt heavier?
“Yes” is the answer to that. It’s funny, as I’ve been on the road with this, usually my first question is about U.N.C.L.E. and I get a lot of compliments on U.N.C.L.E. And I’m thinking, “Where the fuck were you when the film was released?”
Maybe it just took longer for it to click with people.
I think what happened is it hit TV and once it was on rotation on cable or whatever it is, people saw it. They weren’t aware it was there [in theaters]. So, if you’re governed by result-orientation, then that was a cold pool to be in when that film came out. Here you are, three years later, and now the pool’s warmed up a bit. So there’s no point in being attached to the result whatsoever anyway, because both reactions are … well, “illusory” may be too strong of a word. But they certainly shouldn’t have as much currency as they have. That’s the essence of the story of King Arthur, which is the essence of what you and I are talking about: How independent are you from the opinion of others?
Arthur has this crew around him and there are several scenes where they just stand around, looking at Arthur, asking, “What’s the plan?” It’s not unlike being a director.
Yes, but he’s put on a hat. It’s not real. See, I like my job when I’m just another cog in the wheel. Once there’s a sense of, “Listen, my part is more important that another person’s part,” it becomes less fun. [Movie-making is] not really real, if you know what I mean. It is real, because you take the job seriously, but taking it seriously is different from it being … It’s a funny word, “real.” Because it’s ephemerally real.
You keep saying “ephemeral” as though the most dangerous thing would be to take it too seriously.
I think so. Then you lose objectivity, and filmmaking is only about objectivity. When I go and watch another person’s film, I’m just thinking, “Oh, if they only went left, if they only went right. Couldn’t they see that this joke was inappropriate?” You know?
But when you’re in too deep on a movie …
… you lose the objectivity. So, I can empathize with all of that, but obviously, the lighter that you hold that, the easier it is to be objective. It’s not about life or death, although it feels like life or death. Are you with me?
You described the process of directing as putting on a hat, so I have to wonder: Is the Guy Ritchie who is on set a different sort of Guy Ritchie than the one who’s not shooting a film?
No. I set myself quite a high standard when making films, and I’m quite pleased I did, because I could see that the more control of the process I had, the less room there was for volatility and people getting upset. I used to make $5,000 music videos, and I realized that my only enemies were other people on set that just wanted stuff for their own showreels. Those agendas often slowed down my agenda, so rather than getting sniffy about the whole thing, what I did was galvanize the troops and take full control. You stop acting like a child because you realize that you’re the adult in the room, because if you don’t make it happen, no one’s going to make it happen. And then it’s funny, with that position, all the characteristics that are inherent with being an adult follow.
How do you mean?
What I mean by that is you don’t lose your temper. I’ve never lost my temper on a film set, and the idea is so alien to me that it has no traction with me as a concept. Now, I can get a bit hissy sometimes, and I can put on a hat and pretend that I’m angry, but it’s very clear and it’s a very easy hat for me to put on and take off. I go, “Right, children, we’ve all got to work harder,” and the hat goes on for 30 seconds. You pretend you’re angry, like you do with your kids, and you take the hat off again and you’re not angry at all. I set a bar of acting like an adult and I haven’t stooped below that, and my fear is if you ever do, once you’ve broken the seal, it’s your go-to position. So I’m aware of the fact that I’m a good-natured director, because I hear the appalling stories of those that aren’t, and while I can empathize with that in other aspects of my life, I just can’t empathize with it as a director.
All that said, once you do finally lock picture and the film is done, is that when you might start thinking about how it will be received?
And now we’re back to another cliché: It’s about the journey, not the destination. Now, I’m not saying that I won’t, every now and then, slip into [wondering about] the destination. You’ve just got to keep sobering yourself up and remembering it’s about the journey.
Does it help when you have another project locked and loaded, as you do with Aladdin?
Yes. Yeah, it does. Because you can just distract yourself as much with that as you can with anything else. And my job is not to release movies. My job is to make movies.