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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

The Substitutions of Sir Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott had to recast Napoleon after the pandemic affected industry schedules worldwide; the same problem affected House of Gucci, the British director’s previous film. Luckily production had not begun in either case, but Scott has in fact replaced key actors after the cameras started rolling in the past – not once, not twice, but three times (arguably four, as will be seen). This is the story of Ridley’s replacements. 

Made a couple of years before covid emerged, All the Money in the World was Scott’s part-fictionalised retelling of the kidnap, ransom and mutilation of John Paul Getty III in 1973 and the family and media battles that exploded around that event. Filming began in the spring of 2017 in America, Italy and England, and was complete by the autumn. By October post-production – the process of editing the raw footage, creating the soundtrack and adding any visual effects – was under way for a planned release in early December.


On 29 October, however, star Kevin Spacey was accused of historic sex offences by an actor outside of the Scott film and a media storm of another kind ensued. Less than a fortnight later Scott announced that Spacey’s performance would be removed, his role as J. Paul Getty would be given to Christopher Plummer and all of the scripted scenes that Spacey had been in would be re-shot.


Dozens of shots were affected, which required calling back other actors despite them being committed to new productions, obtaining permissions to return to locations previously visited and coming up with solutions where such mitigations were impossible. Some scenes were reshot entirely with Plummer and the other cast members together; others were reconstructed by combining new shots with old ones where Spacey did not appear. Some  saw a digital layering of the latter over the former. So tight was the deadline that the usual practice of re-recording dialogue in the studio where clarity was an issue on set was abandoned, although the sound effects of footsteps were redone to match Plummer’s gait and pace rather than Spacey’s.


In stitching half an hour of new material into the original footage and knitting everything together for a second time, only a single shot of Spacey was retained – a distant view, from the rear, in the desert, whose replacement was deemed unnecessary. Scott still made the original release date.


Almost twenty years earlier, just before the millennium, Scott was shooting Gladiator, a tale of revenge set in ancient Rome that melds the historical figures of Commodus and Marcus Aurelius with the fictious disgraced general Maximus. The film had already encountered difficulties with the script, relations between the actors and injuries incurred during production when Oliver Reed, playing gladiator school owner Proximo, died of a heart attack before all of his scenes had been shot.


This is not unusual – in 1988 another British character actor, Roy Kinnear, died after being thrown from his horse during the making of a film – and the emotional, practical and financial impacts are obvious. Rather than recast the role of Proximo, however, Scott saw it as essential to honour what had become Reed’s final performance and adjusted the film to achieve this.


The script was immediately changed to include the death of Proximo, and to provide a reason for that death that enhanced his individual story and was integral to the overall plot. Selected actions and lines that would have been his were then distributed amongst other characters, and two scenes were added in which – rather perversely in the circumstances – Proximo featured: visiting Maximus in jail, and being killed by Roman soldiers. As might be expected, each proved a challenge to realise with the first by far the more complex.


A body double performed for the actual shoot, opposite Russell Crowe as Maximus delivering his lines as usual. Visual effects firm The Mill then took over to complete the scene, a difficult task even though a decade had passed since James Cameron and Steven Spielberg revolutionised the field. The Mill extracted Reed’s face from existing footage and laid it over the stand-in’s, matching movement, lighting and physiognomy as closely as possible – darkness, muted colours and iron cell bars helped sell the illusion, an impressive feat given the company was already committed to the audacious digital recreation of the Colosseum (Maximus’s entry was to become one of the film’s signature shots).


The final touch was to have another artist record most of Proximo’s dialogue, mimicking Reed’s intonation. For the second scene, stand-ins were again used to perform the death with part of a shot from Reed from earlier in the film ("We mortals are but shadows and dust") reused to provide an aural epitaph.


And almost two decades before this, Scott also faced the need to replace his leading man, albeit for reasons far less dramatic than what awaited him in the future. Indeed for Blade Runner, Scott’s adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel about a detective hunting artificial humans in a grim future, both Harrison Ford and co-star Rutger Hauer found themselves replaced for portions of the final film, perhaps fittingly in a narrative that explores notions of identity.


Principal photography took place in 1981, mainly on the celebrated ‘New York’ standing set on the backlot of Burbank studios in California. This had been used in numerous productions over many decades, and was now heavily dressed to represent the rain-drenched, neon-saturated Los Angeles of 2019. Interiors were mostly shot on sound stages at the same studio complex, other than a small amount of location work at Union Station and other buildings in the real LA. But for one key scene, in which Deckard searches the apartment of a replicant or biological android, it is not always Ford who is seen on screen.

Clearly Ford, accompanied by Edward James Olmos as fellow blade runner Gaff, was filmed for the sequence of the two men exploring the threadbare room – their silence, and Gaff making no effort to assist, says much about their relationship. A newspaper and some photographs found in a drawer seems useful clues and that was that when Scott called cut on set in America. Some months later, however, whilst editing the film in England, Scott decided to modify the scene and our knowledge of both the apartment and its occupier in order to advance the plot further. A small bathroom set was built at Pinewood and Vic Armstrong, Ford’s stunt double, was called in to play Deckard. It is therefore Armstrong who is seen (in silhouette) finding a scale in Leon’s bath rather than Ford, and his shots that are seamlessly inserted into the middle of the Burbank material to make it appear as though Ford took the initiative as Gaff made his origami sculpture.


And Rutger Hauer’s own experienced of being substituted by Sir Ridley during the making of the same film? Well, that’s part of another story

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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