CS Interview: Producer Douglas Wick Talks Gladiator
It’s hard to believe that Gladiator turned 20 years old this year — 20 years old! And the film still looks and feels like something that could have been released yesterday. To commemorate Ridley Scott’s classic achievement, we sat down and spoke with Academy-Award winning producer Douglas Wick, who discussed the making of the film, its legacy and where he stands on a potential sequel.
Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, exploded into theaters on May 5, 2000, and went on to become a smashing success. The film grossed $450 million worldwide, and hauled away five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe, who went on to become a household name. The sword and sandals epic holds a 77% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, though audiences awarded it with an 87%.
ComingSoon.net: So we’re coming up on 20 years since Gladiator came out, which just blows my mind. I saw it in theaters and it blew me away when I was a kid and it still blows me away to this day. The one thing that I always notice when I look back on the film is the level of talent that you guys had. How were you able to bring Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Richard Harris, among others, together for this picture?
Douglas Wick: First of all, sometimes you just get lucky. So in retrospect, you have to have a lot of luck. Also, it was a really strong idea, which was basically, you know, to recreate the Roman arena. And so, it was an idea that started to attract really good people. Basically the Roman arena was like our space program in that it was such a focus of the political and economic and social life of ancient Rome that so much of the growth of society would use to create technologies for the arena, like drainage. So it was a real focal point of society. So anyway, it was a good idea for a movie. We had a script. We went to Ridley Scott fairly early on. We brought in a painting from the 1890s, a copy of a painting of the Roman arena. Ridley looked at it and said, “I’ll do the movie.” I said, “Don’t you want to read the script?” He said, “No, the script will catch up with us.”
And so, then you take one of the great directors in the world, who is really into world creation, who just immediately knows he can create this world. So once we had Ridley, basically a movie he was born to direct, and you think his first movie was The Duellists and then you take the brilliance of Blade Runner in terms of world creation and the movie is just really lucky to have that guy as captain of the ship. And then one of the things looking back that I’m most proud of is that with each challenge, there would be writing challenges, each new member of the team added significantly. And with any group project, often, just look at politics — you don’t become more than the sum of the parts. So again, writers delivered fantastic work. And then casting. I mean, you’re going to say who’s Maximus? Well, we discussed a few people. No one wanted to see Mel Gibson in a leather skirt because you would just be saying, there’s Mel Gibson.
So we were saying, can we do Maximus with a breaking actor? And just the fact that Russell Crowe happened to exist, and was so perfect for it, that’s where sometimes a movie gets lucky. I don’t know who else the backup choice would’ve been. Anyway, and it went on from there. Then it was figuring out how to get to the dark heart of Commodus and his complexity. Ridley had a very strong instinct about Joaquin Phoenix. And Commodus in real life was a tall, blonde kind of dramatic looking guy and with an incredibly complicated, complicated and tortured inner life. Anyway, Ridley was right about Joaquin. So it’s just each decision that could’ve been disastrous became an opportunity.
CS: Russell Crowe really became Russell Crowe with Gladiator. Is that a fair assessment?
Wick: It’s a totally fair assessment. And by the way, back to your first question, when you talk about movies that break out, so often you’ll find that when a movie really breaks out, there is an actor ready to break out for whom this is the vehicle. And it’s like Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. So absolutely. Russell is the perfect actor and he created the perfect Maximus. And needless to say, the role served him. There was a really interesting moment where we screened the movie in Rome. And I was there after the screening and the movie hadn’t come out yet. And afterwards, we were sitting in a café on the Roman sidewalk having dinner. And several people passed by, moved past Russell and said, “Are you Ridley Scott?” to Ridley. And after about the third one left, Ridley said to Russell, “You realize” — the movie was going to come out in a week — “you’re a week away from this never happening again for the rest of your life, so enjoy the privacy on the sidewalk.”
CS: I love that. And to this day, he probably misses that opportunity just to be able to sit in private and eat some food, right?
Wick: Well, you know, Ridley’s been around. He knew what was going to happen.
CS: Right, right, right. And so, when you talk about some of the storytelling issues you were going through during the production, is it true that you guys went into this with 32 pages of screenplay –?
Wick: That’s preposterous. We had so many drafts of the script. And part of where everything worked well is the script continued to evolve. So David Franzoni did a great start. John Logan continued to evolve it. There were real character issues. Like the audience has to feel comfortable with a leading man who’s killing a lot of relatively innocent other men within the arena. So how do you motivate him? Hence the killing of his family to make sure the drive was strong enough. And then, you know, all the issues, mostly Ridley, of making sure Russell seemed a little reluctant to take blood. So there’s a million challenges like that, but it was all about evolving. We had a perfectly good version of the script, where Maximus escapes at the end of the movie, leaves Rome, finds his army setup at the beginning of the movie and returns to bring down Commodus with his army. It would’ve been a perfectly workable end of the movie, it just would never have had a chance at transcending and being a movie you’d remember in 20 years.
CS: That’s interesting because it is that third act, the finale of the film, the battle between Maximus and Commodus that really gives that film so much weight. At what point did you guys make the decision to switch to that ending?
Wick: Early pre-production. And again, that’s where you’re just lucky. We had DreamWorks, which was a brilliant partner. You know, obviously it’s run by [Steven] Spielberg, so you have a filmmaker at the helm. And when they heard the idea, which again, you know, from them in terms of commercial viability, that was a challenge and a risk. And then of course, you’re looking at, can you pull it off? And you know, there’s very few directors in the world like Ridley who right away said, “Yes, I could pull out the after life. I can make it as if Russell’s coming home. And hence, Ridley came up with that idea at the beginning of the movie of Russell putting his hand over the tall grass. And so, he said, “I can make this feel satisfying at a kind of transcendent spiritual level so the audience won’t be disappointed.” Well, you know, if a filmmaker without his skillset said that, you’d roll your eyes. When he said it, you know it’s going to work.
CS: Yeah, when the director of Alien tells you that, you’re like, for sure.
Wick: I’ve heard a lot of bullshit from a lot of different people, but yes.
CS: Were there certain sequences that you wished you would’ve been able to put in?
Wick: Well, the only one that I mention in the past was that Ridley really loved the idea of having a rhino in the arena because they were in the arena. And so, we were calling animal trainers and talking about the practicality of getting a rhino to Malta and how workable they are. And the trainer said, “Well, they’re okay,” he said, “but just once you get it moving, you can’t stop it.” And so, then we looked at a CG rhino, and it was just too expensive. But I would say even though the ending was brilliant, that I had a little sadness about, because we were two thirds of the way through the movie, Oliver Reed, a great English actor, was giving a performance that would’ve completely revitalized his career and he’s brilliant in the movie. And when he dropped dead in a bar, we had shot two thirds of his performance, but we hadn’t gotten his redemption. So we all scrambled to find a way to tell the rest of his story. Ridley said, “I can take closeups from earlier scenes and repurpose them.” So suddenly we had Oliver Reed talking to Maximus through the prison door and releasing him. And then, we killed a body double saying goodbye to Proximo. And at the end of the movie, as scripted, it was Proximo around the old arena, like sort of an old geezer guy cleaning up on stage after work. And that would’ve been very touching for that actor, as it was Juba was fantastic, but that would’ve also been a beautiful ending I would’ve loved to have seen.
CS: Interesting. Okay, so as a film score junkie, I have to ask you, were you able to work with Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard at all on this film?
Wick: Oh yeah, Hans is an old friend of mine.
CS: That’s cool.
Wick: And so, I know him very well. And everyone will say he’s one of the most purist talents in the world.
CS: So what was his approach to the film, and is he one of those guys that you just kind of let him do his work?
Wick: No, it’s much more fun than that. You go into his studio and he will start to play sounds and themes against different scenes, and you get to see how they work. And so, one of the things I learned after being a film student is how much each new talent brings a whole other layer to the movie, like a production designer is a storyteller. Hans is a complete storyteller. So sometimes he’ll bring levels that you weren’t even quite anticipating. But no, it’s one of the most fun things in the world and Hans is ego-less. So he’s actually able to watch the movie, feel it, and only want to service it. You know, some people, you feel them fighting to just get their sound on it. He only wants to support it from within and make it more of what it wants to be. So it’s a thrilling experience. And we started to talk about those vocals, and also the spiritual level of the movie. The movie has a slightly metaphysical level that needed to be served. It wasn’t so airy fairy that it got in the way of the audience members, but it was definitely a level that was important to the movie working on all cylinders.
CS: Okay, so I have to ask this, and I know you’ve been asked this a million times. There’s been talk of a sequel ever since the film premiered. Do you have any news or anything that you can share with us at all on that front?
Wick: No, I could just say that we would love to find one. I actually spoke to Ridley this morning about it. We were having a conversation about it. And you know, we’re just really clear, if we can get something down on paper that’s worthy, we will do it. We just have too much respect for the movie to just, you know, do some sort of cynical moneymaking venture.
CS: Why do you think Gladiator continues to resonate so well with audiences? And do you think the film, notably its politics, are relevant today?
Wick: Yes, I think when you dig deeper in the work, it usually becomes archetypal. And part of the original attraction of the story was a whole population who’s distracted by entertainment while the more serious issues of the world go unattended to. So, you know, that couldn’t be more of our culture with people looking at video games and ignoring Black Lives Matter — a whole culture asleep at the wheel. I mean, it couldn’t be more relevant, and again, that’s where it does have a timeless aspect. And the great ambition for any movie is can you ever create something that will defy gravity?
CS: I know you’ve talked a lot about Gladiator throughout your career. Is there some interesting tidbit that you’ve never shared with anybody that you would happily share with us?
Wick: I could make up one.
CS: Go for it.
Wick: I’ll just tell you one that I’ve only mentioned once before ever in the world, which is that one of the highlights for me as a producer was I was in Malta and we recreated a Roman arena, and there were hundreds and hundreds of extras all throughout the stands. Russell was in full garb, arena floor, and he was doing a scene with a tiger. The animal trainer forgot to bring a tranquilizer gun in case somehow there was a disaster. So we had to wait for 40 minutes. And someone had a football on the arena floor. So, Russell and I start tossing the football, and there’s a tiger watching. And all the fans, all the extras are so bored sitting in their garb in the arena stands, that if you caught the ball, hundreds of people would cheer, and if you dropped it, they would boo. So I mean, that was just like, it’s as fun as it could ever get for a producer.