Ridley Scott Revisits ‘Black Hawk Down’: “I Hope I Was Right”

Geoff Boucher

It was 18 years ago that Ridley Scott went off to war. It was in March 2001, less than a month after Scott’s Hannibal opened in theaters, when the acclaimed filmmaker jetted off to northern Morocco to begin principal photography on Black Hawk Down, a new type of war movie and an endeavor that courted controversy from Day One. Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s intention to make a combat film about the gruesomely ill-fated U.S. military raid in 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, promised to be an emotionally combustible and politically incendiary project  the cinematic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail  but even they weren’t prepared for an unexpected intrusion by national calamity. Halfway between the final day of principal photography in June and the film’s release at Christmastime, the suicide attacks of September 11 changed the context of any and every military and geo-political conversation involving American forces.

While Sept. 11 heightened the stakes for Black Hawk Down, there had never been anything meek about the project. The film was based on Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Signet Books), the 1999 non-fiction bestseller by journalist Mark Bowden that detailed the infamous downing of two U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu and the protracted efforts to rescue their crewmen efforts that escalated into the most intense close combat involving U.S. forces since the Vietnam War. In the movie, the American troops were portrayed by a deep cast that was crowded with young talent on the rise: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, Orlando Bloom, Sam Shepard, Ty Burrell,  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tom Sizemore, Ewen Bremner, Ioan Gruffudd, Jeremy Piven, Hugh Dancy, and, making his feature-film debut, Tom Hardy.

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Sony Home Entertainment last week released the first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray edition of Black Hawk Down and bundled it in an impressively expansive retrospective package. Scott was involved directly (and he signed off on the new remastering from the original camera negative) and on a recent Saturday he talked about revisiting the complicated legacy of the film and the 25th anniversary of the military raid that was originally called Operation Gothic Serpent but is better remembered as the Battle of Mogadishu.

DEADLINE: You depicted soldiers in battle since your very first feature film, The Duellists back in 1977, and you’ve circled back again and again to war and military characters of different eras with Gladiator, Robin Hood, G.I. Jane, Kingdom of Heaven, and, of course, Black Hawk Down. Have you found that the essence of war itself is unchanging over centuries? Or is its nature more elusive than that?

SCOTT: No, I do think the stupidity of war still stays the same. No one’s a winner. I always remember that at the end of it, even the victor is going to find that there’s some fallout. Ironically, I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it 10 minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really f—–g pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why.

DEADLINE: That sounds like quite a pleasant surprise, like getting a valentine from your past.

SCOTT: It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.

DEADLINE: That happens more often than not I’d guess…

SCOTT: Oh, yeah, how about every f—–g time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more [than the early ones] because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And this is all key on this  then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on an editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the way of preview and that’s it.

DEADLINE: So preserving that detachment – or maybe separation is a better word for it – helps the director hold on to his or her capacity for fresh appraisal?

SCOTT: Yeah, separated is a good word because the editor then gets paid to liven the stuff and then you come in and go, because you’re clean once again you’re kind of a partial virgin, you can say…there, there, there and the editor usually will say, “Oh, f—, okay, you’re right, you know?” Now, part of this abstract equation, of course, is a variable because there are a lot of f—–g crazy directors and a lot of bad editors so you can’t apply that to everybody. 

DEADLINE: Which are more prevalent in Hollywood, crazy directors or bad editors?

SCOTT: Listen, it’s like a sport. There’s good ones and medium ones and terrible ones.

DEADLINE: There’s an old saying that a great coach is someone who can his team and beat your team, or take your team and beat his team.

SCOTT:  Well, that’s it, isn’t it?

DEADLINE: Your team for Black Hawk Down included Hans Zimmer, whom you had previously worked with on Thelma & Louise and Gladiator. When you brought Hans in on Black Hawk Down, what were some of the priorities you conveyed to him? 

SCOTT: The main priority to me was not to sound Hollywood. And I don’t mean that in any detrimental fashion. You have to remember this film was an impossibly complex equation as I climbed into it. The movie had been offered to me by Jerry Bruckheimer, my friend for 50 years. I’ve known Jerry since he was producing for commercials and I used to make commercials for him. So my old friend says come on, do this, because the equation is impossibly complex. So when I climbed in, I realized, yeah, this is tricky because it’s constant, instant, same-time action that occurs in many places within a small space. So it’s like a fucking video game. It’s a videogame and yet it’s also the most marvelous example of the craziness of war. It’s a pocket-sized edition of the madness of war. I don’t care whether it’s a four-year process or some 36-hour or 48-hour operation, it’s all in there. So part of what came with that was a sense that I was going to be walking very carefully on the side of docudrama and that meant I need to have the music to be very effecting. And coming in, I had a very good run with Hans. We had done some good stuff. So with Hans I said, “There’s this guy called Baaba Maal…” Do you know Baaba Maal?

DEADLINE: He’s the singer and guitarist from Senegal.

SCOTT: Right. I told Hans we should get Baaba Maal. We had already gone after a big, very important musician to do the music. He is a major guy, the one who had done The Last Temptation of Christ…

DEADLINE: Peter Gabriel?

SCOTT: That’s right, yes. I went in to talk to him and we said, “How much?” and he said “It will cost X.” I said, “Dude, that’s way too much! For that much I can bring in Baaba Maal from Senegal. And his family.” We did. So Baaba and Hans and I sat in a Sony room and Baaba would say, “Okay, run it.” We’d run a section and he’d say, “Alright, it’s the pain of Africa. Give me a few minutes.” Then he would literally do a cappella, on the spot, immediately and powerfully. Now, Hans is very much a prepared, orchestral, knowledgeable musician and composer but Baaba was much more of a “from the hip” musician, because that’s how he functions. That’s how he works. He’s more about the passion. So we got the passion. I’ll never forget, when we begin the film I had to find some distressing bodies of people who are dying of starvation and malnutrition. Clearly, I couldn’t find them and I would not use AIDS victims because I’m not going to do that. That’s just too much. Funnily enough, we made the bodies. Very well made. I prepared that by slowly tracking across them and through this we actually introduced “the voice,” the opening voice of the agony and Africa. And that voice is Baaba Maal. It’s still knocks me out. Wow!

DEADLINE: It’s an extremely evocative way to make landfall in Africa.

SCOTT: Yeah. I was knocked down. The film hits all kinds of quadrants at every level. It’s one of the films I’m most proud of.

DEADLINE: When you’re dealing with people who are not just characters on a page, when they are people who have been alive in recent times and their families are still alive, I’m sure it changes the stakes and the responsibilities of the filmmaker. What else does it change?

SCOTT: Totally, yes, it does change things. Or it should. Today, I think there’s no respect. You have to have respect for the families. So a lot of biopics are happening right now, which is a type of thinking that gives me huge pause. I mean, God, the people are still alive! Have we no shame? I mean, where do we draw the line? I believe there is a responsibility, by all means there is. People say might say, “Why wait until they die?” I say, well, we have the newspapers for that and if there’s a bad guy out there then you rip them apart in the newspaper and if/when it goes into character assassination, then he’s still around and there’s good parts and bad parts in the balance of the conversation. But to do it in film, I think I have to hesitate. Right? So on this instance because we were talking about soldiers who were special forces and rangers who are there and, I have to believe, for the right reasons…and I met a lot of the heavyweights. Lee Van Arsdale who ran the ground force in Mogadishu at the time? He was with me throughout the shoot and I found very serious people, many who were very religious and their religion was very much a part of their make-up as was as their love and need for flag and country. So there’s an honesty to that need, and as a filmmaker you can’t knock it. Look, you can knock the army. You can’t knock the reason for the army, because if you didn’t have one you would no longer have the strength. I think [the military] is a necessity and if you’ve got a necessity then you better make sure you’ve got the best in them. So I was pretty impressed always by my relationship with the military. Listen, it’s so easy to be cynical. But if you think it’s easy then you fucking go to the front and carry 65 pounds on your back and get shot at. No? Then shut the fuck up. Am I right? And if you didn’t have a police force in L.A.? Guess what you’d be going to do today? Buying guns.

DEADLINE: When you and I talked in the past I was fascinated by your artwork and how integral it is to your process of blocking out a film. Was that the case with Black Hawk Down or, since there was video footage of the raid area and its aftermath, did you have a different entry point?

SCOTT: No, I have all my scribbles insured and they’re in a vault. My storyboards for Black Hawk Down is a stack six inches thick. So, when I know I’m doing a film…I’m kind of preparing a film now, the way that happens, I’ve always, because I can, I’ve got a very good facility for perception, at least I should have. I draw very, very, very well and very, very quick so I can literally do a scatter page like a kneejerk reaction to what I’m going to do for a scene and I expand it into real board. So when I knew I was going to do Black Hawk and I stared at the equation and every minute where there’s many things happening at once, it had to be a connection to be in the editing room where you literally put the whole board on a wall, which fills a whole wall. In this instance, it filled three walls. You can walk around saying, “If you take that up there, it could go two minutes prior or 30 seconds after this.” Things like that are available with that process because it is fundamentally filmed on paper and I’m carrying it in my head.

DEADLINE: You shot in Morocco, a locale you knew fairly well by that point…

SCOTT:  I was pretty intimately aware of many places in Morocco. I had shot there already, I had done four big ones there so I knew that in Rabat, across the river, there’s this place called Salé and I went into Salé with a deal that I’m going to employ 1,500 local people who will be actors on the ground running with AK-47s and shit like that and there will be breakfast, lunch, and dinner for guys for 12-15 weeks. So we employed all locals immediately and they loved it and it’s amazing, as you watch the scenes, all that crowd are moving like the real thing. I could not believe the natural form of their acting and passion and, what’s spooky about it is, because I had a lot of people there from the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, they all knew how to use machine guns. They had the look down: AK’s in flip-flops and running in flapping cloaks and shit. It was amazing seeing them come down the street at you. Lee Van Arsdale sat with me a lot, he was always a great support and was fascinated by the process because we were so efficient. Remember, too, I was using, always, 8 to 11 cameras. Had to, otherwise I’d still be shooting. If I had one camera I’d still be shooting. I know where to put the cameras because it’s geometry. If you’ve got it in your head you know where to put them when you get there.

DEADLINE: It’s billiards, essentially.

SCOTT: Quite right. It’s absolute billiards.

DEADLINE: The crowd scenes you’re talking about are extraordinary, too, because that’s a component that is usually lacking or thin in a film like this. That’s not a place where you expect to see a lot of strong performance moments.

SCOTT: Weren’t they fantastic? The raid on the grain trucks when they begin to fill the commons with Josh and his buddies in the helicopter and they machine-gun the crowd. I mean that crowd? That’s extras! I was blown away and because of that. You also kind of become friends with them. They love it. They walk on, they’re going to do something. They all want to play this game. You know? I always remember at the end of this film, a couple of the guys that I’d see every day and I said to one, “Have you enjoyed it?” and he said, “Yep.” And I asked why he seemed glum and he said, “Because tomorrow, you will be gone and I have nothing to do.” This was a local kid, maybe an 18- or 20-year-old. He was going back into a vacuum tomorrow. He turned up every day, loved the process, loved the organization, loved the focus of the day. He had alive with function. Then it went away. Unemployment with zero to do is a disease.

DEADLINE: The cast of the film was impressive at the time of release but now it’s even more impressive in hindsight. So many of the actors have gone on to major careers and acclaim. Can you talk a bit about the cast and your view of them?

SCOTT: I’d seen Eric Bana in Chopper in Australia and Russell Crowe had vouched for him. I couldn’t find his agent so I just f—–g called him up directly. I said I’m a director and asked him if he wanted to do a film and he said yes and that was it. I didn’t know why but I kind of pinpointed him as being somewhat unique, quiet form of character that suited this man he played perfectly. This man existed then and I think he’s alive today. He went back in to find out where the three bodies were left and he hid them, identified the spot and then alerted forces who could come in to reclaim the bodies. So that goes in line with the “Leave no man behind” code. Interestingly, I think this was Tom Hardy’s first movie. I put he and Ewen Bremner together and they’re the two buffoons that get left behind because they moved off. They were forgotten. To hold the fort in the high streets, is no fort to hold. I don’t know whether Bremner or Hardy says it but one said “Let’s get the f— out of here and get to the guys.” 

So they run across town together back to the troops. It was, of course, chaotic and that had that sort of comedy in the process. Bremner and Hardy were a good team, our Laurel and Hardy if you like. There were a lot of guys. They all wanted to do it, which is interesting. I remember Ewan McGregor said, “I want to do it.” Well, there’s not a lot for you in this, dude and he said, “I don’t care, I want to do it.” Ewan’s got a great timing, a great sense of comedy, so I thought he’d be terrific as the guy who wants to stay in the front office. There’s no f—–g way he wants to go out. He has to keep saying, “I would like to go out.” and then they say, “I broke my hand, so you’re going out this evening, dude. Isn’t that great?” He goes, “Uh, uh, yeah.” Then he goes out and I always remember the funny thing. He’s holed up in an old, grubby café where they’re stuck.You make shit up like that: So what are you going to do once he’s in the café? So rather than just have him sitting here, clamped into a corner,  we begin this thing about his expertise making coffee. He’s made coffee through the Gulf. He’s made coffee through Sudan. He’s an expert coffeemaker in the front office. So we apply that. He’s stuck in this horrible little hole while he’s trying to find coffee beans to make coffee while he’s being blitzed. So you build this stuff up into the reality of the situation. Myself, I ask “If you are being shelled are you really going to be studying coffee in the corner? You should be finding a wet bar, right?”

DEADLINE: The physicality of the solder experience in the film is something that really struck me when I saw the film when it came out. It’s visually frustrating to see them scramble and stumble in these environments with all that gear.

SCOTT:  Yeah. You’ve got three chalks, they call the groups “a chalk,” either 12 or 16 men. In this sense we had four chalks, 16 men, four men in each chalk. I think the chalk term probably comes from a blackboard where they draw the chalk in the morning with the overall plan for the day. It’s planned out like football. It’s a play. The four men as a group going down the street, all four of you are looking at all four of the quadrants where attack can come from. So if you all have your eyes north, south, west, east as you’re running over the thing. So it’s a great logic to process the procedure. I kind of like that because I apply that to what I do. Making a film is like a military operation, right? You don’t plan for when the winning is going good, you plan for the losing moments and what you’re going to do about that losing. That’s like a football game. I’m not planning about winning. that takes care of itself. I’m planning about what the f— am I doing because I’m behind and running out of time.

DEADLINE: Sometimes the best plan is to get everybody back on the team bus and get them home in one piece. That’s a reaction I suspect a lot of moviegoers had to Black Hawk Down.

SCOTT: Yeah, you know when were done with the movie it was run at the White House, so of course I went out to the screening out of curiosity. The president [George W. Bush] couldn’t be there but Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were there. So I always looked at that with interest. I didn’t have much of an exchange with them, rather a “Good film” comment and that’s about it. There was a lot of military there. And you remember, at the time of the actual events in Mogadishu, Clinton had just come in weeks before that and he removed the American army like pronto. For that, he was an irritation to the American army because they could have gone in and cleaned out the place and finished what they set out to do, which was to take out this man [ Mohamed Farrah Aide] because he was practicing genocide. They had a reason to be there and they wanted to finish that job. So I want to believe that the special forces’ reason for being in there was for the right reasons. I hope that was right.  

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