Ridley Scott: I was addicted to Coca Cola – I still have one a day when I’m making a movie

'I am blessed with an eye': Hollywood director and now winemaker Ridley Scott
'I am blessed with an eye': Hollywood director and now winemaker Ridley Scott - Giulia Frigieri

In the gleaming basement of a winery in Provence, an assistant is explaining the movie memorabilia seen above neat rows of barrels. Here, three Napoleon costumes as worn by Joaquin Phoenix in director Ridley Scott’s latest epic. There, a scale model of Rome’s Colosseum that was used for the wide shots in Gladiator. We examine heavy-looking armour from another Scott film, The Last Duel. ‘Plastic. The only thing that’s not is the sword. If the actor were carrying something light, they wouldn’t have the right posture, and Ridley Scott likes things to look authentic.’

Sir Ridley Scott, I also know, having spent the morning talking to those who work for him here on his vineyard on the slopes of the northern Luberon, has an opinion on the way everything looks. This includes the interiors of the three rental properties here on the Mas des Infermières estate. Also the architecture of the new winery, whose high, circular windows, two metres across, were inspired by Fontfroide Abbey, a location for The Last Duel, his 2021 medieval French epic.

The director – knighted for services to film in 2002 then made a Knight Grand Cross in the most recent New Year Honours list – is apparently always rootling around stoneyards and Provençal antique markets. Winery staff are used to him turning up with finds: a huge stone fountain, or bollards to edge a vineyard dirt track.

Scott himself arrives, trim in a casual navy jacket with a head of hair men half his age would kill for. He looks younger than his 86 years. He also gets in the first question: ‘Where are you from?’ I hesitate – does he mean which publication I represent, or is this a geography question? – then answer both possibilities. ‘Bradford? Posh, then,’ deadpans the man who now has property in London and Bel Air but is originally from South Shields, Tyne and Wear. Then he twinkles.

We are just north of the craggy Luberon mountains, in the part of Provence made famous by the late Peter Mayle (author of A Year in Provence), who moved to a farmhouse in nearby Ménerbes in 1987. Scott bought his place in 1992, after selling a nine-bedroom house in the Cotswolds because the rest of his family never wanted to go there: ‘It rained, rained, rained. I didn’t mind it. Everyone else, I think, was fairly miserable.’

Scott bought his Provence home in 1992
Scott bought his Provence home in 1992 - Giulia Frigieri

Scott and his new neighbour already knew each other from their careers in advertising; Scott made more than 2,000 commercials before turning to feature films in his 40s. Inevitably, perhaps, they ended up collaborating. He explains how the 2006 romantic comedy A Good Year, about an investment banker (Russell Crowe) who inherits a château and vineyard in Provence, came about: ‘One New Year’s Eve, at Mayle’s house for dinner, I had prepped the idea [and told him it]. He said, “This would make a very good book.” I said, “That’s why I’m telling you it. You write the book and I’ll make the movie.” Nine months later we were filming. Fast.’

Fast is how Scott likes things to happen. He makes decisions instantaneously – ‘no agonising’ – and, in his ninth decade, still uses every second: ‘To me, lying on a beach reading a book would last about a day before I started getting bored and antsy.’ He sleeps only six or seven hours a night. He says he makes ‘the best scrambled eggs you could possibly imagine’ but mostly doesn’t cook. ‘It takes up too much time. And dinner parties are a pain in the ass because there’s the cleaning up afterwards. I’d rather take people out to a restaurant.’

He bought Mas des Infermières as a place to holiday; it just happened to come with vines, which were then under contract to a local winemaker. Later, in 2009, he began to collaborate with another producer to create a Mas des Infermières label. Then in 2017 he made the decision to go all-in as a fully independent producer, hiring staff and constructing a winery within 18 months, ready to make the first vintage in 2020.

Meanwhile, he’s still cranking out the films at a spectacular rate. The recent Napoleon has a tangential connection to Mas des Infermières: the estate was once owned by General Baron Robert, a health officer in Napoleon’s army. Scott finished the final edit of Gladiator II the day before we meet. ‘It will be mass-ive,’ he says with gusto.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe on the Provence set of their 2006 film A Good Year
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe on the Provence set of their 2006 film A Good Year - Landmark Media

Scott famously brings rich visual detail to his work. ‘I am blessed with an eye’ is a refrain in his interviews. He paints vivid word pictures too. For instance, as a child in South Shields, where the shipyards were bombing targets during the Second World War, he remembers sleeping under a steel table in the kitchen. On one occasion he saw ‘a Messerschmitt fly over the house. With its cowling back. I saw blond hair softly waved, and on the side [of the plane] was not a swastika, it was a cross.’

How much attention does he pay to the senses of smell and taste? Scott films are so visceral you can practically smell them. Are the visual fragrance cues – such as the vase of stargazer lilies and cup of coffee that appear in one scene of Napoleon – conscious?

‘To me, it’s all one big picture. People don’t think of it, but all sound is a form of music, dialogue is a form of music. If I can get an excuse to squeeze in the idea of fragrance, I’ll do it.’ His tone changes as he acts himself directing a scene, ‘Can we do that again? There wasn’t enough steam off that cup.’ He mimics a begrudging sigh from a crew member then barks, ‘Just do it!’

Smells he remembers from childhood include the toasty scent of the steelworks that permeated the neighbourhood. His food awakening came after the war, when his father, who worked in the military, was sent to Germany as part of the Marshall Plan. The whole family moved first to Hamburg, then to Frankfurt, where Scott Senior worked with Eisenhower and his American staff. ‘So [my dad] takes me and my elder brother out and said, “This is called a soda fountain.” He introduced me to deadly stuff, which is my favourite drink, Coca-Cola. I became addicted. I’d drink a six pack a day. I had raspberry milkshake, a wad of gum, and I experienced the American magic.’

Decades later, Coca-Cola is still a treat. ‘I give myself one a day when I’m making a movie. It has to be in a bottle, it has to be small and it has to be glass.’

The architecture at Scott's estate has a monastic feel
The architecture at Scott's estate has a monastic feel - Giulia Frigieri

Wisely, when estate director Christophe Barraud began to draw up a plan for Mas des Infermières, he lined up a tasting of wines from the Rhône, Languedoc and Provence regions to understand Scott’s tastes. Then he planned the planting and wine­making accordingly. Thus, in white grapes, Barraud has planted roussanne and rolle (aka vermentino) and bought a plot of chardonnay to add to the grenache blanc and clairette already on the estate. In red grapes, he has planted syrah and marselan and acquired cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which are on new land the estate has bought; there is also grenache and carignan.

The wines he is making are a diverse bunch, taking in sparkling as well as still rosé, a fresh still white, and an oak-aged red, among others. There is even a no-added-sulphur red, named JoJo after Scott’s dog, which itself is named after Joséphine Bonaparte.

I’ve been told that Scott instructed Barraud to run Mas des Infermières to prioritise the bees. This has meant not going for organic certification because one particular treatment in the organic programme is not bee-friendly. Does he share fellow filmmaker and vigneron Michael Seresin’s deep concern for the environment and the climate crisis? ‘I think we’ve done it. We’ve done it.’ He means, passed the point of no return. ‘It’s insane. I’ve got flowers in my garden [in early February]. We are at war now with the climate. I don’t know how you are going to reverse it.’ Has he changed his behaviour because of this? ‘I’ve been driving electric cars 16 years. I’ve got three Priuses. You’ve got to start somewhere. The biggest plague are people. We’ve got too many people.’

We return to aesthetics, a subject that finds Scott at his most comfortable. Growing up before technology glued us all to screens, ‘I was constantly drawing, constantly. My dad had a really good hand. He liked mapping ink, then he’d  colour with watercolour.’ Scott studied at the Royal College of Art, where David Hockney was a contemporary. ‘I was going to go painter full-time and couldn’t stand the loneliness of an empty room and a packet of cigarettes and looking at a canvas of what you did yesterday and hating it.’ Scott says he loves the work of Lucian Freud. ‘His hand on paint is absolutely stunning. Go to an exhibition of his and you want to touch the paint, rub the canvas.’

The first Mas des Infermières vintage was produced in 2020
The first Mas des Infermières vintage was produced in 2020 - Giulia Frigieri

In the past 10 years, Scott has returned to painting. What’s his favoured medium? ‘Oils.’ What does he paint? ‘Dogs. Do you want to see my dog JoJo?’ Out comes the iPhone, a surprisingly old model, and he shows me the screensaver, a moving image of a toffee-coloured labradoodle turning molten eyes to camera. Scott’s painterly stamp is also found on his wines, whose labels all feature one of his artworks, or ‘phone doodles’, as he dismissively calls them.

Scott’s prodigious talents and confidence appear to have motored him so easily through life. What has been most challenging? ‘The early days, when I hadn’t made a name for myself. Doing Alien was a bit of a nightmare because every move I had to explain… I was 42 years old and independently well off, so I don’t want a Hollywood producer telling me what to do… Doing The Duellists [his first feature film] I’m asked stupid questions. Doing Alien I’m asked even bigger stupid questions. So I get ferocious.’ He chuckles happily.

The biggest bonuses of getting older are, he says, increased confidence, and not being questioned. He says his competitive instinct is as sharp as ever. He watches a film every night – ‘my bedtime story’ – partly to check out the competition, partly for research; at the moment he’s watching the American crime drama Griselda.

What about the wine competition? What does he think of Brad Pitt’s Provence wines? If he has tasted them, he’s not saying so. Does he talk to Pitt about wine? ‘I don’t know him well enough to talk about that. I’ve only worked with him twice. In Thelma & Louise Brad was then an extra and I couldn’t find the guy [to play JD, the convicted robber and Thelma’s one-night stand]. Brad looked right. But then can he act? And his humour got me immediately. Very laid-back – 17 minutes of cinema history right there.’

A legacy project? Scott would like his children to be involved in the winemaking business
A legacy project? Scott would like his children to be involved in the winemaking business - Giulia Frigieri

Is the winery, I wonder, a legacy project? Something for his family to continue? Scott has two sons, Luke and Jake, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Jordan, from his second, and is now married to the actor Giannina Facio. ‘Totally.’ How involved are his children? ‘I’d like them to be more involved. Listen, dude, the big red bus could hit me any time, you’d better start paying attention. I’m always alive to the big red bus.’ I’m not totally sure who the dude is here. Me? His children? Scott himself?

Scott has talked a lot about his ‘eye’ and the importance of intuition. I do not have an eye. I take terrible pictures. Can anything save me? ‘Nothing,’ he says bluntly. And then the legendary filmmaker good-humouredly goes through the awful phone pictures I’ve taken of his vineyards. ‘That one’s not too bad… I don’t know what you are photographing there. What were you doing?’

Um, I’m not sure, I liked the vine root and I liked the tree in the background. ‘Indecision. I wouldn’t try to do foreground, you’re not up to that yet. If in doubt, make a symmetrical shot. Symmetry.’

With that, he gets up to leave. And I am certainly not asking him to pose for a snap for Instagram.