Ridley Scott has made some of the most iconic movies of all time – Gladiator, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise – but has never directed a sequel. His new film, Prometheus, is the closest he's ever come. It's set in the same universe as his sci-fi/horror classic Alien, but it deals less with cinema's most famous carnivorous xenomorph and more with the origins of humanity. The plot remains a guarded secret, but we can say this: A team of explorers sets off into deep space aboard the ship Prometheus to find our extraterrestrial creators, and something goes horribly wrong. You can always recognize a Scott movie – the meticulous art direction, the visual ballet, the pessimistic worldview. And after four decades making movies, the 74-year-old British director has still got the perfect mix of schoolboy enthusiasm and master-craftsman confidence. "People say I'm a workaholic," he says. "But I think I just love to work."
Prometheus marks a return to the Alien universe you created three decades ago. Was this a place you always wanted to revisit?
It was in the back of my mind. I had one little niggling thought left after I did Alien: Who was the space jockey, the alien pilot you see with the exploded stomach? That was a glaring question, and no one bothered to answer it in the sequels, which is bizarre. Also, I just enjoy the genre of science fiction so much, it gives you license for "anything goes." Of course the danger about "anything goes" is that it's almost like having a meal with too many courses you can have a whole bunch of bullshit.
What do you think of the other Alien films that followed your original?
I don't count the last few movies. I know why they did it: to promote the franchise and, hello, it's about money. This is not denigrating any filmmaker, because it is hard enough, God knows. But I really was a little bit upset by how my baby was being misused. We came up with one of the best all-time monsters. Without that monster, I've got a nice, very well-acted, beautifully art-directed movie, but I ain't got that fucking heart-stopping son of a bitch that defies logic.
The stomach-exploding scene is now one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema...
It was a birth. I walked the circuit of the theater when I was previewing Alien, and I knew I had the tiger by the bollocks. I'll never forget, in St. Louis there was a group of couples that were literally entwined around each other in abject terror, and I knew I had done my job.
You started out in advertising in the 1960s. How has that affected your career as a filmmaker?
I was pretty good at advertising and am still in it, actually. My company [Ridley Scott Associates] is now in Hong Kong, New York, L.A. and London, and there's, like, 60 directors and all that.
What do you think of Mad Men?
As the show goes, fantastic. But, you know, when I was starting out, I wasn't the agency, I was the guy who carried out the agency's wishes. It was very, very competitive, because it's all about cost against creativity against "what are you going to deliver?" The hot agencies would go after these so-called hot directors, and I was one of them for 20 years. That was my film school.
That art-versus-commerce conflict could also be applied to working in Hollywood, couldn't it?
Yeah, it's creativity against commerce, and the problem is you're fighting both. There's one absolute: the investor. Of course they're going to say, "How much is it going to cost? $100 million? Fuck off."
You've had battles with the studios throughout your career.
Totally. Blade Runner in many respects was my most personal film, and I was combating the investors who were saying, "This is costing too much." By that time I'd done 2,000 commercials, I've got an office in New York, in London. I'm not an idiot. So I hate the fact that I went over budget, because it's not playing the game.
The Alien universe paints a very bleak view of corporations. I suspect that even though you've been working in Hollywood for so long, you've been secretly subverting the system from within.
No, no. Actually I think the reason why I've survived for so long in Hollywood is because I kind of get on with the studios. I understand what they have to do to keep their heads above water. I'm a business too.
Do you have a sense when one of your films is going to be a big box-office success?
No, you don't. Never. It's kind of like being a tennis player, really, because you are on your own and don't have anyone to blame. And one thing's for sure, you don't know shit.
Would you ever consider going back to the Blade Runner universe?
I am. It's already started. The problem is that Blade Runner is complete as it is, so therefore, where the hell do you go from there? The original writer, Hampton Fancher, he's still alive, and the son of a bitch still talks the talk ... We're startin' off, and we have a good idea.
When Blade Runner wasn't a hit, how did you recover from that disappointment?
Again, it's like the tennis player. You get beaten, you gotta go, "Motherfucker," and then you move on.
Your films haven't been very lighthearted. Is there something in your worldview that is particularly dark?
Well, I was born in drizzling rain in the northeast of England. The northerners are the Celts, and they're all nuts. It's a Celtic thing, you know you tend to be a bit "the glass is half-empty" rather than "the glass is half-full." That said, if you're going to make the big films, you've got to be a fuckin' born optimist.
Is there a genre that you haven't explored, or some that you'd like to?
Western – Western, Western, Western. I lived and breathed Westerns as a kid. I adored, you know, fuckin' Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and then Rawhide with Clint Eastwood. Now it's procedural detectives and fuckin' vampires and fuckin' zombies.
I've heard that you're a neat freak. Do you think directors have to be sort of a little bit OCD to be successful?
I don't know. Maybe I'm OCD. I am organized. Honestly, life's easier that way than walking around a pile of crap. So if anything stays here long enough, I have to paint it white or throw it out.
Egos in Hollywood are so huge. How do you control a huge film?
Good humor. My sets are always pretty amusing. The only one that wasn't, actually, was Blade Runner! With confidence comes humor. And I can walk on a set now, with a unit of two or three hundred, and really not worry about it.
Judging from the trailer, Prometheus seems to be your take on the human-creation myth.
Yeah, but remember, it's not a science class – it's a movie.