After rocking staid British cinema traditions to their core with the one-two punch of brutal, funny crime dramas Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), director Guy Ritchie made an abrupt mid-career change of tack.
A marriage to (and disastrous film with) Madonna later, the 46-year-old filmmaker became the go-to-guy for taking an old, stuffy property and injecting it with kinetic, urgent life for a new generation with Sherlock Holmes (2009), starring Robert Downey Jr.
He’s doing the same thing to the King Arthur legend next and then 80s staple The Cannonball Run, but first up, he reintroduces the world to the 60s TV spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. complete with groovy fashions and a white-hot cast.
You’ve been working with the same producer (Lionel Wigram) since Sherlock Holmes. How’s the symbiosis in the relationship?
It works, funnily enough. We don’t really talk about it as much, but I think a big part of it is momentum, you know, we’re both hungry and we feel relatively experienced now.
So we’re both looking in the right direction. Marriages seem to work if you both want to do the same thing and if you both want to have a baby at the same time it takes a lot of pressure off the relationship. So I think what we have is we’re interested in doing, we’re interested in manifestation, we’re interested in creation. We’ve both got a momentum and a rhythm and it’s very hard to do this on your own.
So how important is it to demarcate the duties?
One says to the other ‘look, are you doing this or am I doing this? I’ll do it. I’ll have a go at it’. And then you have a look at it, then you take the piss out of one another for the job that you’ve done.
You’ve got to watch out, sometimes things fall between stools. You think someone has spoken to someone and then you turn up the day and ‘where’s the helicopter? I thought you were speaking about the helicopter?’ But that seldom happens. Otherwise it’s just delegation.
Your more recent work is quite different from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, but is there a creative or aesthetic throughline from those films to your later work?
I imagine so. I mean I started first of all making music videos, I didn’t do very many and they weren’t very good. But then I went on to making commercials, then short film, then Lock, Stock, then Snatch. All of those things inform you.
What’s important, particularly for an exceptional filmmaker, is that he creates an aesthetic that doesn’t have to remain the same, but he creates a voice that he’s confident of. Confidence has a lot to do with this because people will doubt you but as long as you’re confident then that confidence becomes contagious.
There seems to be a sort of balance for creating because of course the other danger is hubris. So you want to have enough confidence without being cocky. I mean, a bit of cockiness doesn’t hurt, but that sort of extreme confidence – there’s a fine line before that can turn into hubris and you see it in too many directors. Clearly no one has said ‘by the way, it’s a shit idea’.
So I think it’s a fundamental point that the director needs a certain amount of authority but not too much authority. If he’s got to ridicule people – which I do on a daily and minute by minute basis –the director also has to be held up to the same standard of ridicule and you’ve got to be able to wear it.
If you can’t wear it I think it’ll end up in the film in the long run. The relationship I have with Lionel, Lionel can ridicule me. Of course he’ll suffer for it later on with his own version of ridicule. But you do want the ability to take the piss out of one another. You run into choppy waters if you don’t.
Does being British rather than American contribute to that?
I’ve got to tell you, Americans don’t have an expression for taking the piss. It’s the weirdest thing, an Aussie will know what it means, a Brit will know what it means, and a Paddy will know what it means, but Americans are sort of…
It’s just we have a certain expression for it. I mean every culture will have its own way of ridiculing their own. It’s a system of checks and balances, isn’t it?
And it’s funny, I used to feel very negatively about the British press, then one day I was having a chat with Jude Law about something. Jude’s really got his feet firmly on the ground, you know, he’s a fucking great lad and he’s got no delusions of grandeur. I wonder how much that is to do with the British press? I wonder how much it is to do with it because you can’t get highfalutin?
I wonder if that makes you more suited to making movies in Hollywood?
No one really wants the piss taken out of them because it’s coming from a place of judgement rather than a place of love. So it seems to me that taking the piss is a fantastic culture if there’s kindness behind the motivation rather than jealousy. They’re two very different engines.
Truth is there’s a bit of both, and you could do with a bit of both but you can’t make it too concentrated with the green stuff. As long as the lion’s share of the slash taking is coming from a nice place then a little bit of spite doesn’t hurt.
But when it’s all spite or there’s just too much spite, it’s not feeling like it’s coming from the right place. The British press obviously has a lot of spite. You’ve got to watch out that you don’t crush people when you take the piss. They’ll become resentful.
Maybe as a Brit you’re better prepared to understand the difference between the spite and the love in it?
I don’t know and I’m cautious about saying I’m a guy you can take the piss out of because I’m probably not. I am within reason and I never want to be the guy that deludes himself that I am the guy that you can take the piss out of and in reality I’m not. So you never know where you are.
It depends on who you trust. And it seems like mateship is all about ‘alright lads, I’m ready to have the piss taken out of me’. And as long as you feel as though the environment that you’re in is conducive and everybody knows the rules, everyone likes a bit, don’t they? Lads like taking the piss out of one another.
Any desire to get back to the smaller, scrappier style of films like Lock Stock or Snatch?
The game’s changed. In order to have a voice you’ve got to have broad shoulders now, either that or you have a really unique voice that can somehow penetrate through the noise.
So you’d like to, there just isn’t as much opportunity?
I imagine that’s more the world of TV now. If you’ve got something that you feel is unique to say, cinema has become more about spectacle.
Won’t the fact that it’s a Guy Ritchie movie cut through the noise?
I love it. I don’t know though, is the answer to that. Tarantino is such a conspicuous name that it’s clear with him that his momentum of his brand is enough. I wouldn’t say I’m in that category.
A few of your recent films have been about brand name characters. When you sign onto a project are you thinking about it to that extent, all the way through selling and marketing and how it’s going to perform as a brand?
Pretty much. You just sit there for ten seconds and go ‘will this make it through the noise?’ And then if you reckon it will, that’s it. I can see the poster, I can see that having a voice, I can see people going to see that. And that takes about ten seconds. From that you retrofit.
Are you particularly looking for pre-existing properties nowadays?
I think we’re going through a period where we like the idea of taking off an old brand, dusting it off and representing it. I suspect that’s a period. I don’t imagine we’ll end up in this world forever.
But it’s a real challenge and a great challenge. You go ‘okay, there’s those ten properties, you’ve got to choose one’. So you pick one, dust it off and think ‘I think we can do something with this’.
Take King Arthur [Ritchie’s next film], what do you with that, you know? I can feel there’s something there. I don’t feel there’s ever been a good movie made about it so actually it’s more challenging than anything else we’ve ever done.
It feels entertaining, it feels current, honest to the essence of what the narrative is. I like to think that we don’t move brashly but I like to think that we will move and we won’t suffer from creative paralysis through fear.
So have you thought about what the next phase in your career might look like?
We’re always thinking but I’ve got to tell you, once you embark on one of these things, they’re time consuming. That’s the world and the space you occupy for two years.
So which comes first, do you approach a property with a view to what you can do with it or because if your personal history of being interested in the story from that world?
It’s both, but there is something exciting about taking a dusty property and going ‘how do we repackage that’? It’s how we crack it.
I like the use of the word ‘dusty’. Is that part of the fun, finding a way to take something previous generations liked and contemporising it?
I suppose now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that Sherlock Holmes was an obvious property. Fuck me I tell you what, it floated a barrel for a long time before anyone thought that. And, you know, it was Lionel who was aggressive about saying ‘look, there is something here’ and there was something there.