Luke Scott (RSA Films) was born into directing — literally. The son of Ridley Scott, Luke’s after-school activities included hanging out on the sets of Alien and Blade Runner. With all his exposure to movies about the future, it seems fitting that Luke Scott now has a role in the future of movie-making itself. With studios trying to find new ways to promote their blockbusters a new form of advertising has emerged: the “in-world short.” These shorts are big-budget pieces of original content that tease out the narrative of the feature film. Luke Scott has been a pioneer in this new field; directing viral shorts for features like Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner 2049 and The Martian. In addition to these shorts, Luke has also directed the feature film Morgan and dozens of national spots for brands like Burger King, Coca-Cola and Nike.
Zack Seckler: How has your commercial directing informed the work you’ve done with Blade Runner 2049, The Martian, Prometheus and so on?
Luke Scott: Here’s the thing—making a commercial is about brevity. It’s being able to tell a story in an extremely short amount of time. That was one thing I always struggled with. Like, ‘Fuck, you can’t do sweeping crane shots because they tend to take up about half the commercial!’ There are always limitations in that short form format. It’s notoriously difficult to make clear narratives and perform well and deliver the idea. But I think for the short films, and certainly for all the long films, understanding that brevity and how you can get in and around a situation without having to explain the whole thing is probably the best and most positive of the influences.
Also, in commercials, over time you learn that there isn’t just one ‘smile’ that you’ve got to shoot. There’s about half a dozen ‘smiles’ that you produce for the client and say, “What do you think? Which smile do you like?” “Oh, I like that one.” Choice is really valuable. The danger is to keep shooting the same thing over and over again. No one take should be the same unless something technical goes wrong, whether it’s time, pacing, or the little detail that changes enough to make a difference.
I read that as a boy you worked briefly in the cutting room on Blade Runner. And now you’ve come to a point decades later where you’ve directed two prologue films for the new Blade Runner 2049. What is it like to have come full circle?
I was honored, to be quite honest. It’s not something I was expecting. It was presented to me by Alison Temple at the great ‘film marketing agency’ 3AM, and I said, “Fuck, yeah! Are you kidding me?”
I guess being exposed to a lot of the movies he was working on throughout his life, whether it was The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner etc.
For instance, my brother and I both appeared in The Duellists and Alien. In Alien, I think I was about eight or nine years old, we wore miniature space suits to make the set look bigger. I was a PA on so many commercials over time, working for editing companies and things like that. So from quite a young age I was being exposed to this way of working.
I’ll tell you a funny story, which I always tell people, because it’s got a good point. This director, Marek Kanievska—he made a couple of great movies, Less Than Zero and Another Country, very skilled film director. It sounds weird, but every 45 minutes he wanted three quarters of an inch of a Snickers bar delivered to him by the camera. So you would take your ruler and a box cutter and you’d get the Snickers bar, and you would cut three quarters of an inch of the Snickers bar off and place it onto a very nice plate with a napkin, and you would take it to Marek to eat. This sounds like an urban legend, but it’s not, because I’ve done it.
Yes, I suppose it was a bit excessive. But the point is, it was actually a lesson, and the lesson was about detail: if you can’t get three quarters of an inch of a Snickers bar right, then you have no business being in the business of making images and movies. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about detail, and it’s about striving for that precision.
And about following orders too right?
Well, precisely. There is a reason. It’s unquestionable. I remember another director, another commercial, where they had made some coffee, and something went wrong with the coffee machine. I ended up making a pot of cold coffee, and I poured him the cup and he spat it all over the place. I was like, “What’s going on?” He said, “It’s cold.” And that was my error, my mistake. It might seem like a silly, insignificant thing, but it’s detail. It’s about precision of thinking. Keep thinking the thought through. Deliver that three quarters of an inch of Snickers.
How did you get into directing?
I had been mentored for some years by the great production designer, Norris Spencer. I worked in the Art Department under Norris on 1492: Conquest of Paradise and following this continued to work for Norris more closely on several of his own projects.
Listen—You could take the view that nepotism plays a part in this story. But on a technical level, I learned a great deal from Norris, designing his sets. But the draw to get into directing was strong. I started doing small music videos, small commercials, short films, all that kind of stuff.
I’m very fortunate to have the kind of access, but I suppose I do have to be able to do the job. It’s got to be somewhat good. But at the same time I recognize that my access was lubricated, so to speak.
A lot of these prologue films you’ve done have been successful in bringing awareness to these movies and helping generate fan anticipation. Do you see this as a relatively new genre of marketing and advertising for movies? Where do you see the future of this?
Yeah, absolutely. I think this format has opened up a whole world of possibilities, not just for moviemaking and movie marketing but also for advertising in general.
For movie marketing, companies like 3AM are at the vanguard of a brave new world of audience generation. What you have in these shorts and prologues is an incredible opportunity for universe extension. You have a really effective way of generating an audience on, say, social media. And from that I’d imagine it becomes a marketer’s dream, because if you use it correctly you’d be able to take a good look at what folks are saying, and to somehow try to fold it into either A, your overall marketing strategy, or B, how it forms your future strategies. For advertising, theoretically switch the ‘product’ of the movie to that of the brand …
So far it’s really only been sci-fi that seems to have embraced it. But I thought about this long and hard, and I think that you could extend this to pretty much any project. I also think that there’s a great way to develop new ideas, new characters by this audience participation, whether or not they do it consciously. That, I think, is why they work, and why I think they will be around for a while. Apart from anything, it’s great content. It’s brilliant. I think it’s fantastic.
I’ve been reading in the news about Hollywood getting deeper into short-form content across the video landscape. Do you have an opinion on whether short-form content is going to be more commonplace? If it’s something that’s going to be successful?
Absolutely, I think it’s going to be successful.
I think there is generally a massive shortage of good content. I read the other day that there’s about 10 billion hours, I think, of video consumed on Facebook and Instagram every day or month. Either way that is an astronomical figure. So what percentage of that, then, has value? What is the quality? Is it high quality, medium quality, or low quality? And I don’t mean in its resolution, but in its actual creative perspective and its execution and all the rest of it.
So, for filmmakers, this has got to be the golden age. If you can access the social video world and begin to build up a presence there, then this kind of thing is just going to blow up. I think you’re looking at the blurring of lines; you’re looking at an environment that blends feature length movies and studio projects with branded content, with unbranded content.
Here’s the thing—it’s a democratization of the space. However, what is really difficult is a unique, creative perspective that is delivered well. There’s a lot of content out in the space, but there’s also a great deal of it that isn’t really up to par with an audience as sophisticated as they are. And they are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Are you interested in short-form personally, as a director?
Absolutely. Are you kidding? I don’t think there’s a specific format that a director should be limited by. It’s been a fascinating journey working in this sphere, because initially you think, ‘God, are people really going to watch this?’ And then, shit, they really did watch it. And they want more.
Then we can come up with ways of extending that, from really long formats to shorter things; to documentary spinoffs, to merchandising spinoffs, to real-life experiences, to AR experiences in the real world. Augmented reality is a whole area that hasn’t really come to the fore. But when you have Jeff Koons’ dog appearing in Central Park, I think that’s fantastic. But even better than that, you get some artist who comes and graffiti’s the fuck out if it—like, damn, that’s cool.
So really, then, what is the value of AR? There are experiential events that can occur in that environment. That’s very exciting. For example, let’s say you get Daniel Day-Lewis to dress up and perform on camera as Lincoln; you go to the Lincoln Memorial and you put on your AR glasses, or hold out your mobile phone with your headphones on – then you can actually have Abraham Lincoln standing there talking to you. I think that is fascinating. You’re not shut out of the world—you’re in the real world, but you’re also there with Abraham Lincoln.
I can’t really, but I’m sort of getting a lot more into this world of universe creation that links these worlds of movies, theatrical narratives, and blurring the lines of brand new content—harnessing the power of social media and audience creation, social video.
You’ve got these fantastic TV series, like “Ozark,” for instance, which is a very captive experience. You’ve got movies like Blade Runner 2049, which is another captive experience. There is another world out there, where it’s an unconventional experience that isn’t necessarily so captivating, but it’s still telling stories to people as they sit on the subway. All those kinds of things. I’m really looking at that kind of world as well. I’m looking at everything.
You know what? No, I didn’t. I’m really tough, man. You know what was weird, though, was walking into HR Giger’s workshop where the construction of the Alien was taking place, the modeling of it. I always remember walking in, and there’s this extremely tall chap—I think he was 7 foot in his socks, or something crazy like that—already in the rubber suit, and they’re fitting the head on. There he is standing there in this sort of glistening sleeve of hyper-sexualized rubber, with this giant head, and it was fucking terrifying. I was eight years old, standing there looking up at the alien thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ But I went and saw the movie, and it was fun, it was great. I loved it.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Edited by Francis Carr Jr.