Jake Scott’s childhood sounds like the stuff of a film fanatic’s fantasy. As the son of Ridley Scott, he got to play an astronaut in Alien, during a school summer break, and to drink beer with Stanley Kubrick in the editing room on Blade Runner. When he took the step of directing his own feature film, however, things went horribly wrong.
The story of two 18th-century highwaymen, played by Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller – both hot off Trainspotting – 1999’s Plunkett & Macleane was to critics like a fox is to a pack of hounds. They pounced on its visual excess and MTV-style ticks, and tore it – and the young director – to pieces.
Although he was already a successful music video director, with promos – for R.E.M., Cypress Hill, Tori Amos and The Rolling Stones, to name a few – under his belt, Scott found himself being framed as a product of nepotism. Twelve years later, with his second feature, Welcome to the Rileys, about to open in the UK, there is still a hint of hurt in his voice as he recalls how the attacks got personal.
“[The critics] fucking eviscerated me. I got disembowelled and it was horribly vicious… They referred a bit too much to my father and the silver spoon,” he sighs. “People think it’s easy but [Dad’s] a tough Northern bastard. In school holidays, he wouldn’t give us pocket money, and said, ‘You’re bloody working.’ So I did actually work hard growing up. I worked on camera crews. I worked in the art department. I did everything that everyone else did, sometimes more. So you just think, ‘Wow, they’re really not liking me.’”
Because of his experience he was concerned for his sister, Jordan, when she released her directorial debut, Cracks, in 2009. She’s “really vulnerable and delicate… and I was really worried that the same thing was going to happen to her. But it didn’t, thankfully. They were really kind.”
Not that the critics had got everything wrong about his debut. “To be honest, I wasn’t ready to make a film at that point,” Scott says. “And the reality is I didn’t feel very good about Plunkett, either.”
Unfortunately, this realisation hit him while he was still cutting it. “I kind of knew then that it wasn’t going to be that good. So I was like, ‘Shit, I’d better get another film right now.’” He pitched for American Beauty. But “Mr Mendes got it, and did a better job on it than I probably would have done at the time.”
Plunkett left Scott unable to get another film off the ground at home, and for the past 20 years he has lived in the US. His plan was to “make a film in the States and hopefully then I’d be able to come back when I had redeemed myself”.
It took ten years before he finally got something into production, although “it wasn’t for lack of trying, man,” he says wearily. “And I kept trying, kept trying, kept trying.”
He got close to making an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abair’s play Kimberly Akimbo, about a girl with progeria (a rare genetic condition wherein symptoms resembling aspects of ageing are manifested at an early age), for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, to the point where he’d lined up a cast of Zooey Deschanel, John C Reilly and Lucy DeVito, and had prosthetics made by Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). However, the project was scuppered at the last moment.
“Tonally, it was very close to Juno. And when that came out, I was in despair,” he groans. “I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to have to go and become an art teacher or something.’ Which wouldn’t have been bad.”
When Ken Hixon’s script for Welcome to the Rileys came along, it felt like a perfect fit. Plunkett had failed partly, Scott suggests, because he hadn’t found his own voice, and he’d discovered, mid-flow, that in trying to do an action-adventure film, he wasn’t being true to himself.
“What I have realised, as I have gotten older,” he says, “is that in some ways those experiences [growing up on movie sets] hinder you. Because you meet young film-makers and they really had to roll their sleeves up, and really struggled, and didn’t even go to film school, but they have a very clear point of view. Unfortunately, when you have a life like mine, you’re kind of fucked.”
“I’m the eldest son, I have one brother, and for me, and maybe it’s just my problem, the issue has been about finding a way to step out of the shadow and find your own language and your own point of view.” Welcome to the Rileys is his attempt to “make something that was truthful to me, as a person”.
Restrained where Plunkett was flashy and kinetic, heartfelt where Plunkett was hollow, and character-driven where Plunkett was all about the plot, the film stars James Gandolfini as a grief-stricken husband whose listless marriage to Melissa Leo’s melancholy agoraphobe is saved by a young stripper (Kristen Stewart) he meets in New Orleans.
Stewart – who had yet to achieve global stardom in Twilight when Scott was advised during a drunken night out in San Francisco to check her out by Sean Penn, who had just directed her in Into the Wild – is the film’s biggest revelation.
“I met her the next day and she’s very twitchy,” laughs Scott. “But I knew immediately that she was the girl.” Her performance will shock and delight Twihards: slutty, fragile, bruised, foul-mouthed and real, her character, Mallory, could hardly be less Bella-like.
On set, Scott had three different acting styles to contend with. While the Method actor Gandolfini – “I adore him,” says the filmmaker. “He’s f***ed up. He hates himself, I think, as an actor. But he is amazing” – was very script-oriented, the more instinctive Stewart “wouldn’t follow her lines, ever. You’d have to say, ‘Kristen, the scene’s about this. Not about that.’” Meanwhile, Leo was “like a fine character actress who brings so much experience and so much knowledge and grace and kindness.”
Scott laughs. “So Jim would be punching walls. Melissa would be, ‘Oh, don’t worry about Jim.’ And Kristen would be, like, twitching in the corner. It was a madhouse.”
The results are engaging, and a huge step forward from Plunkett. But whether Welcome to the Rileys will achieve Scott’s hope of enabling him to return to the UK to make another film, remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has been tapped to direct a biopic of the tragic American singer-songwriter, Jeff Buckley.
One thing that is sure is that this time round, Scott is not taking any notice of the critics or taking it to heart when people bring up his background.
“You get judged and it’s always going to happen, and you can’t really get around that. I just now have learnt not to listen to any of it, and I don’t read press, whether it’s good or bad. And I’ve only been able to say that about this film, because I’ve only made two.”
Welcome to the Rileys opens Friday