NEW YORK, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- After making a string of big-budget blockbusters that included "Gladiator," "Hannibal" and "Black Hawk Down," Hollywood titan Ridley Scott is scaling back a bit with "Matchstick Men," an excellent, character-driven con-man film more closely related to his works "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Thelma & Louise" than his visually stunning classics "Alien" and "Bladerunner."
Asked what it was like to go back to working on a relatively small-budget --$40 million -- film, the 66-year-old British filmmaker described the process as "refreshing" and "easy."
"One tries to do that in between the big ones," Scott recently explained to reporters in New York. "That's part of the policy. To keep shifting, changing. Do what you haven't done is the key. Some people like to do everything, but it's always the same thing. That's another way. The study of the same thing. John Ford made a career of Westerns. My career seems to be of non-specific subjects, which are all over the place."
Scott admitted that the idea of filming a movie in America was also appealing, because he has spent the past several years traipsing around the globe on movie shoots.
"No one likes to go away for a year," he said. "When I'm doing a big movie, you're gone for 10 months out of the year. Your life comes to a standstill. So, I'm always trying to find something to keep me at home. 'Thelma & Louise' was that. This, to me, was like doing 'Thelma.' I only left Los Angeles for three weeks to go up to Utah, the rest of the time I shot in the Valley. ... The same occurred with this."
Recalling how he fell in love with the es brothers' quirky script (based on Eric Garcia's 2002 "grifters with issues" novel of the same name) Scott said his major reservation regarding the project was that the story was set in Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia, a little further away than he wanted to travel at that point. Not willing to dismiss the film because of this, however, Scott sat down with the screenwriters and asked if the story might play out just as well in California.
"And they said, 'Absolutely,'" Ridley related, adding that the writers only located the film on the East Coast because that was where Garcia set his book.
"Matchstick Men" is a serio-comic tale of two longtime friends and con artists -- obsessive-compulsive Roy (Nicolas Cage) and less organized, more adventurous Frank (Sam Rockwell) -- whose lives are turned upside down when the rebellious teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) Roy never knew arrives on the scene wanting to learn "the family business."
When it came to casting the film, Scott immediately thought of Cage, an Oscar-winning actor known for constantly reinventing himself on the big screen.
"He has a different, chameleon-like quality that not many (actors) have," Scott noted. "They try, but Nic really does attempt extremities from shooting and rolling cars (in 'Gone in 60 Seconds') to playing alcoholics in 'Leaving Las Vegas' to comedy. ... Nic is very smart, very film savvy. He directed a pretty good movie, 'Sonny,' last year. There's no answer for it. He just tackles everything."
Indeed. Scott said Cage was responsible for many of Roy's tics and mannerisms, adding that the actor researched the disorder extensively and modeled his character on someone he knows personally. That said, Scott emphasized that neither he nor Cage wanted Roy's affliction to be too prominent in the film because that is not what the film is essentially about. Scott said he also didn't want people who suffer from the disorder to think the film was making sport of them.
"I didn't want it to be sad," Scott said. "I wanted it to be about this jolly chap who has never actually really examined what he does for a living, which is (steal). He's a bastard, right? But he preys nearly always on people who are slightly greedy, so that's the hook. He says, 'I don't take their money. They give me their money.'"
In talking about the character of Roy, Scott also revealed that he bears some resemblance to the chronic neat freak. Explaining how he balked for years against getting an office because "I didn't want the responsibility," Scott confided that he can't even stand to have anything on his desk for more than a moment.
"I'm a neatnik. Neatness very often comes from lazineness," he reasoned. "It's much easier to be neat than a slob because eventually, as a slob, you're going to be walking all over stuff unless you're a super-slob and you have flies all over the place. I'm not like that. I'm obsessive. I don't even think about it. I just do it. At the moment, it goes in its place. There's nothing on my desk because I deal with it. So, Nic and I have been comparing notes about obsessive-compulsive behavior."
Playing the Oscar character to Cage's Felix in this film is Rockwell, star of "Heist," "Welcome to Collinwood" and the first "Charlie's Angels" movie.
"Neither are straight men," Scott warned, adding that hiring both Cage and Rockwell "were visceral choices."
"Who is the straight man between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau? They're both kind of neurotic. So, Sam is a bit neurotic although he seems like Mr. Cool. He's as neurotic as they come. So, Sam was always in the radar and I had just seen George Clooney's directorial debut ('Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' starring Rockwell) which I thought was really good and I thought there he is and I thought, 'This is going to be easy. Fantastic.'"
And he moved fast: "I make decisions fast now. I would have agonized 24 years ago over, 'Should it be him or should it be him?' and I don't now. I find it's better that way. You can agonize over everything and I agonize over nothing."
Next up for Scott is a medieval epic called "The Crusades," which he will shoot next year, followed by the eagerly anticipated "Gladiator 2" in 2005. Those fans losing sleep over how Scott will resurrect Maximus, the slain hero played by Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe in the original movie, can finally relax. The filmmaker said the second installment of the Roman saga will chronicle "the next generation" of characters.
"You've got such a colorful, dramatic Roman history. That's far more exotic than any wracking your brains over what we're going to do next. ... The only fiction (in 'Gladiator') was Maximus. Everything else was pretty well on target."
Scott pointed out that "Gladiator" seemed to revive the genre, noting that several ancient epics, including not one but two "Alexander the Great" pictures, were green-lighted shortly after the phenomenal success of his 2000 film.
"I think we kicked off a genre again with 'Gladiator,' where, frankly, everyone in Hollywood was sitting there (rolling their eyes). There hadn't been an epic like that in 40 years. I think the last one was 'Spartacus,'" he said.
But at the time he was shopping his idea around, not everyone shared his vision, Scott recalled.
"You'd be surprised who turned it down. (Agents) saying, 'I don't think I want my guy walking around in sandals and a short skirt,' and I said, 'Okay,' and I knew from the kickoff when they see Russell Crowe's face, they're like, 'Oh, ....!'"