The real-life narrative depicted in All the Money in the World is quite the yarn — after his grandson is kidnapped, oil baron J. Paul Getty blithely refuses to pay the ransom, spurring his daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams) and former CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to take matters into their own hands — and yet, the story behind the making of the film is just as dramatic. Director Ridley Scott originally cast Kevin Spacey as the 80-year-old Getty and covered him in prosthetics, but after the actor was the subject of numerous sexual-assault allegations in October, Sony pulled All the Money in the World from its planned premiere at AFI Fest. A wide release seemed untenable, and a delay of the film could have meant that Trust, an FX mini-series covering the same story, would come out first.
That’s when Scott settled on an unprecedented gambit: He would cast 88-year-old Oscar winner Christopher Plummer to take over the Getty role, convince Williams and Wahlberg to come back for reshoots over the Thanksgiving holiday, and quickly integrate the new footage into the movie so it could still hit a 2017 release date. Astonishingly, the results are seamless. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could have pulled it off besides Scott, who puts out a big-budget film nearly every year, and at 80 years old, is somehow more prolific than he’s ever been. I met with Scott recently in Beverly Hills to discuss how he did it, and what I found was a filmmaker who has the stamina of a man half his age and an octogenarian’s give-no-fucks bluntness.
You’re known as a fast filmmaker. But I would imagine that for these reshoots, you had to work even faster.
Oh, yeah. Easy. The Martian I did in 72 days. Normally, that would be 100.
How do you do it?
You plan, you know exactly what it will look like, and I think it helps me enormously that I still do something as basic as storyboard my own stuff. It forces me, on paper, to make decisions. My boards are now insured for $6 million! I literally draw “wide shot,” “medium cross,” “long shot,” in detail. I’ll get a great frame, snap my fingers, and move on to the next one. You’re filming on paper before you even begin, so when I walk on set, I know exactly what I’m going to do. That gives me a confidence with the actors, and the actors smell it.
I’ve even heard you record the rehearsals, and sometimes use them in the final cut.
Because it’s fuckin’ real!
You originally had finished, edited scenes that included Kevin Spacey. Did you show those to Christopher Plummer?
You have to protect the new actor. I would never show Christopher what Kevin did. I want him to be his own man. He is his own man in this one, and a lot of that comes from the inherent nature of Christopher, who is essentially very charming, has that twinkle, has that smile, and when he’s playing with those words, is a motherfucker. He can give it a bit more depth. Kevin — who, without question, did a great job — was colder. The humor was cooler, except he was quite nice to the boy who he walks around the park of Hadrian’s Villa. That was a nice scene with Kevin. That was the softest I’ve seen Kevin.
You basically sprung your reshoots plan on the studio. Did you use the reshoots to smuggle anything else into the film?
[Whispers] All the time.
All the time? Tell me how.
I adjusted a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and they don’t even know it’s happening. I’d never tell them that.
Give me an example.
I always felt there was an implied relationship between Gail and Chase. When you spend that much time together and you’re roughly the same age, and Chase was a very presentable kind of guy, and Gail was a very presentable kind of woman … they’re two people going into battle, and the implication that something could evolve is there. I told [Michelle], “So, when you come out and he’s at the flat, kick your shoes off and get a beer. Walk past him in stocking feet. Immediately, that is sexy. Take the earrings off and talk about your son.”
There’s all this implication, all these little things are happening, right? And then, near the end, if you watch her very closely, she’s standing there melting when she says to Chase, “We always think of you as family.” How far can you go to let me think that maybe there’s something you wish could have happened?
And that’s part of the reshot material?
Yes. Well, that’s what I do when I’m working. I push and pull.
How many days was the reshoot?
Nine days. Should have been 23 or 24. My crew is fantastic.
If you can film things that fast, then why do movies take so long to make?
They shouldn’t, that’s why I do two a year. We did Alien: Covenant, which is a very complicated film, in 73 days. That would normally be 130 days. What the fuck are you doing, you know?
How did you get involved with All the Money in the World to begin with?
This came to me off the shelf. They hadn’t managed to get things going. Same with American Gangster, that had been on the shelf for four years. So Steve Zaillian called me, he’s a friend, and said, “Just tell me I’m not fuckin’ crazy, can you read this script I think is good?” And I read it and went, “Damn!” — so I made it. It started to move, and it had to, because what happens is it gets written and it goes in for notes, and if you don’t watch it, they rub it into the fucking ground. They’ll numb it into inertia. The worst thing is the corporate wheeling and dealing can make everything inert.
Also known as “development hell.”
The great thing about Netflix right now is that it’s like a catapult, because they just want content and lots of it. Do they care so much about the quality? Less about it, and they should keep their eye on that. But they’ve got $8 billion to spend next year, just on content.
They’ll be putting out nearly two new movies a week next year.
And I see a movie a night, so it’s perfect.
You’re their target audience!
I’ll be there, 1 o’clock in the morning … click. It’s a bedtime story! I love the advent of Netflix and what it means to people like me. It suits me down to the ground. I’d love to do a ten-hour mini-series myself, personally. [David] Fincher’s got the best show on the air right now.
Yeah. Fincher’s a bit like me, very anal, compulsive. But he’s very good, and that proves that audiences want good. They don’t want shit; they want good.
You’re very different than Fincher in the amount of takes you ask for, though. You want no more than a handful, and he can sometimes go up to a hundred.
He overdoes that a bit. There’s a great English director, Ken Loach, and he loves 40 takes. He goes until the actor is fuckin’ exhausted. Imagine it! I think he likes to exhaust them until it’s “real.”
How are you with downtime?
Pretty good, because I paint now. I was into tennis for a long time, so my weekends would be two days of tennis — never with friends, I would always play a pro. I played pros for almost 30 years, and I could really fuckin’ play, but then I wore my knees out. So now what I do is, I rediscovered painting, because I was at college with Hockney, Kitaj, all those fucks. I mean, it was a serious college! I would watch Hockney fuckin’ paint. So I’ve been painting a lot.
Does that satisfy you in a different way than filmmaking?
Oddly enough, it helps me. Painting is like writing a book. Are you writing anything, a book or anything like that?
Do you go over what you did yesterday like, “Fuck, that’s good”?
Painting is worse because you go over what you did and go, “Fuck,” so you adjust it. The worst thing is when you had it really good and you fuck with it, and you fuckin’ fuck it up.
You have a tendency to go over what you did years earlier and tweak it, like you have with your different cuts of Blade Runner. What you’re describing sounds like your approach to filmmaking, in a way.
Painting and filmmaking are self-analysis.
What did you make of the way Blade Runner 2049 was received?
[Whispers] I have to be careful what I say. I have to be careful what I say. It was fucking way too long. Fuck me! And most of that script’s mine.
The story, or the script?
I sit with writers for an inordinate amount of time and I will not take credit, because it means I’ve got to sit there with a tape recorder while we talk. I can’t do that to a good writer. But I have to, because to prove I’m part of the actual process, I have to then have an endless amount [of proof], and I can’t be bothered.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 follow in the next paragraph.]
But the big idea comes from Blade Runner. Tyrell is a trillionaire, maybe 5 to 10 percent of his business is AI. Like God, he has created perfect beings that, for all intents and purposes, there is no telling the difference from humans. Then he says, “You know what? I’m going to create an AI. I’ll have a male and female, they will not know that they’re both AIs, I’ll have them meet each other, they will fall in love, they will consummate, and they will have a child.” That’s the first film. The second film is, what happens to the baby? You’ve got to have the baby, you can’t have the mother, so the mother has to inexplicably die four months after she breastfeeds. The bones are found in the box at the foot of the tree — that’s all me. And the digital girlfriend is me. I wanted an evolution from Pris, who is inordinately sexy in the original, right?
I would say iconically so.
I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.
You’ve watched other people take over franchises you’ve made. How often are you asked to do that? Has Kathleen Kennedy offered you a Star Wars movie?
No, no. I’m too dangerous for that.
Why is that?
Because I know what I’m doing. [Laughs.] I think they like to be in control, and I like to be in control myself. When you get a guy who’s done a low-budget movie and you suddenly give him $180 million, it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s fuckin’ stupid. You know what the reshoots cost?
I can’t imagine.
Millions! Millions. You can get me for my fee, which is heavy, but I’ll be under budget and on time. This is where experience does matter, it’s as simple as that! It can make you dull as dishwater, but if you’re really experienced and you know what you’re doing, it’s fucking essential. Grow into it, little by little. Start low-budget, get a little bit bigger, maybe after $20 million, you can go to $80. But don’t suddenly go to $160.
One of the problems with the studio system at present is that there isn’t that middle ground anymore. There’s low-budget, and there’s $160 million.
And you get killed.
You put out two movies this year. I’ve heard you were asked to come aboard a third after the director was fired. Was it Bohemian Rhapsody, the Bryan Singer film?
I can’t answer that.
Finally, a question you won’t answer. That might be an answer in itself.