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On the release of the Extended Edition DVD of Gladiator, Russell Crowe paints a candid and revealing picture of the enormity of the challenge, the battles and arguments that surrounded the process - and the life changing impact of the film on him and his career, in this special interview with John Miller.

What do you think of the new version of Gladiator on DVD?
I thought the extra stuff was great. I’d actually forgotten one or two of those scenes so to see them again was really interesting. There’s one in particular with Ralf Moeller (who plays Hagen) and we shot it later in the movie and he really had the character humming - that’s a cool moment to be added into the movie. But when Ridley [Scott] and I started talking it through, there’s quite a bit more still up his sleeve.

When you sat down with Ridley and talked it through, what were the memories that came back to you?

Making Gladiator was such a huge experience that it connected the two of us for life. When you are faced with such a daunting challenge, you know, a movie shot in three different countries, with a massive amount of detail, where we didn’t really have the script finalised before we started, it tends to weld you together, forge a friendship. You couldn’t really go into a project of that size in any more trying circumstances than what we experienced when we did it. But that is probably why our bond is so deep, because of that.

Was there a sort of ‘us against the world’ mentality?
Well, let’s just say that we know what it took to get certain things and we know the types of arguments we were involved in, and it’s one of those odd things, we could understand it because we were doing it day to day. Other people on the outside of the project, or close to the project but just not doing it day to day, couldn’t necessarily see what we were getting at until they saw the final movie. I remember feeling, I don’t know, it wasn’t necessarily pride, but it was some sort of immense feeling of achievement when I first saw the film in an editing room in Los Angeles. It was beyond the fantasies that were playing in my head whilst I was doing the film…

Really? It exceeded your expectations?
It was even beyond that. And it was a pretty big theatrical stage, when you think about doing those scenes in front of 5,000 extras, you know, and then when you multiply that so that it becomes this huge crowd of 50,000, and then it becomes something else that is even more incredible (up on the screen).

What were the challenges?
We were faced with so many challenges; how to keep the story going forward, how to keep the characters centred. We are both fairly philosophical about it now but we did both cop quite a bit of abuse while we were doing it. And there are probably things about my career, that are folk lore now in terms of negativity that come from that period of time when people were literally trying to distance themselves from me and Ridley because they thought we were a little bit crazy. Because we weren’t necessarily following anything that they saw would help that movie make any kind of money – we were making this sexless movie that is about violent vengeance that just happened to become really popular with women (laughs).

Presumably because you refused to stop fighting for certain things in the film…

Yeah. I knew that I was fighting the fight on behalf of my director but nobody else but my director knew that, because he would have to place himself politically in a certain way and then pretend (laughs) that we only did something in a certain way because I wouldn’t do it any other way. Which was not the case, it’s just that we knew that was the way it should be done. It’s so funny when you read stuff about the character being such a stoic, because there are some massively emotional scenes in that film, you know, when Maximus sees the crucified and burnt bodies of his wife and son for example. So it is strange that one section of people see it as this very simple thing but then obviously because we are still talking about it five years later, it has a resonance and a huge emotional power.

And it had a resonance for the industry in that it prompted many others to try and do a similar kind of epic historical film and curiously most of them haven’t worked…
Yes, it would be interesting to find the number for how many other films have used the Gladiator soundtrack for their trailers and stuff. And since the original Gladiator poster which is that one with the sepia browns and golds, you know how many other movies have come out with that same type of campaign? Which is obviously very flattering to DreamWorks and the people involved, and to Ridley. But with these stories it’s all well and good having the costumes and the scale, but if there’s a key to it, it’s the humanity, and that’s what every single one of our conversations were about when it was me and Ridley on one side of the coin and other people disagreeing with us. They were all about that same subject – they were all about the humanity and the reality of the individual characters. They weren’t about stunts and special effects and things like that, it was all about keeping the characters real. We had begun with 25 pages of script and we established pretty much all of the central characters within those 25, the Roman characters, and then it’s a matter of keeping to that, and not relaxing on that.

But it’s also about the believability of you in that central role as Maximus. Without mentioning names certain others haven’t carried an ‘epic film’ in the same way…
I think part of that has to do with, not necessarily commitment to the physical, but the reality of the physical. You know, you can do a lot of working out to play a warrior but if you look like you just got turned out from the New York Sports and Fitness Club then it doesn’t work. With Gladiator we did a lot of working out but it was all based on what that character would do. So it was all based on things that would replicate or assist in horse riding, carrying weapons of that weight and using them in a particular way. I mean, if you put a 35lb shield in one hand and a 35lb axe in the other and just do some basic things – move your arms up and down and around, you’ll feel that, with that weight at the very end of your limb. But those are the type of muscles you have to create if you are going to do that character and they are big, fat muscles to carry those sort of weights and do those sort of things. Whereas you do something like (James) Braddock (the boxer Crowe plays in Cinderella Man) and that’s a different muscular deal altogether, it’s much slimmer. But I don’t want to talk about anybody else, all I would say in comment to anybody else who has done one of these epic things that have thousands of moving parts is: “tough, ain’t it!” (laughs).

And presumably there is a direct link between Gladiator and Cinderella Man. I know you suffered a dislocated shoulder which required surgery and delayed the start of Cinderella Man. Was that the shoulder you first injured on Gladiator?
I’m not sure. The first tearing of the shoulder, the first operation I had, was while I was prepping to do a gymnastics thing in Flora Plum (a film which was to have been directed by Jodie Foster but has yet to be made) but this thing is the same shoulder but the original repair is still in place. It’s the other side of the shoulder. I didn’t re-injure an old injury, if you understand me. But see, the things you forget … this is what happened when me and Ridley started talking, there was reams of detail and you forget things. And yeah, you’re right, I did injure my bicep tendon actually. I tore my bicep tendon on Gladiator. I forgot about that. It actually popped out of the groove in my shoulder, I could see it, you know, usually it’s in one place and you can’t see your bicep tendon, but it had popped out of the groove so it was above the bone, it was really odd, like a thin lump less than a centimetre wide about two inch long line. It went back in. Actually I pushed it back in the first time but it had a habit of coming out after that.

Ridley was saying that with DVD you can give a longer version of a film because people watch DVDs in a different way to seeing a film in the cinema. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree with that. It’s very obvious and you only have to look and see that the sales of DVDs are getting larger and larger. One of the indicators with Cinderella Man recently was that when they were doing the pre release awareness interviews, 37 per cent of people had already decided they were going to wait for the DVD to come out instead of going to see the movie. Thirty seven per cent – that means over a third of the movie goers in the demographic that the film is perfect for, had already decided they were going to show it on their home theatre, that it’s the kind of thing that they would like to have the family around for and do it that way. Now when you add up the price of the tickets, parking, popcorn and whatever goes with the movie experience, the price of a DVD looks pretty good. And like I say, with this latest version of Gladiator it does add something more to the film, so it’s a different experience.

Do you like watching films on DVD yourself?
One of the essential things about a positive movie experience is when it says ‘the end’ you don’t want it to finish. So it’s a fun thing to do. There’s a lot of great movies from the past and imagine if you could have an extra twenty minutes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? So I think from that point of view, it’s great. To me, nothing beats the community experience of a big cinema, 1,000 seats, a gigantic sound system and you are all going ‘woooo! ‘ and ‘ha ha’ together because that adds to the experience, I think. However, from a sound quality and a picture quality point of view, you can definitely get a similar experience with what you can buy for the home. And I do understand as well, like we were talking about, the extras in Gladiator, the added on expenses when you can make the experience as much fun for your family at home, but at the same time pause so you can all have a toilet break and have a chat at half time (laughs).

Presumably filming the tiger scene was an experience you are unlikely to forget?
Absolutely. I remember we had scheduled something along the lines of six principal shooting days and three days of second unit for the tiger sequence. Which actually began as a rhino sequence.

What happened to the rhinos?
One of the major things outside of the essential sentence ‘you are a Roman general, it’s 185 AD and you are being directed by Ridley Scott..’ the rhino sequence was the thing that when I saw, I thought to myself ‘you know what? I can chuck away all of this other stuff that doesn’t work, and the character’s name that doesn’t work and the situations don’t work and a lot of other stuff that is way too modern, but give me the opening battle sequences, the relationship with Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and the rhino and I can make this guy work.’ (laughs). And part of the way through when we were shooting in Morocco, the rhino gets the chop and we moved to tigers instead. So there we were, shooting it and we stretched out to something like 21 main unit shooting days plus another nine second unit shooting days. Because it’s all well and good to write ‘and then the tiger does this..’ but you have to get the tiger to do it and that’s the old cliché about ‘and then the Indians came over the hill…’ it’s very easy to write but quite a few days of logistics to set up and shoot.

How close were the tigers when you were filming?
There were some really scary experiences, but for the most part you are a goodly distance – and I guess a goodly distance was ten metres. How long does it take a tiger to do ten metres? Plus you are also doing aggressive, active things in front of them and what are you told if a big cat is attacking you? You have to be still. So what we are doing is bound to piss them off; we’re rolling around the ground and jumping up and down and we probably looked pretty tasty every now and then. We had some really close experiences - one that was a real heart stopper but that particular tiger didn’t have any claws and I was really happy about that (laughs). But that was more good luck than good management. There were some funny things with the tigers, man, because we had this whole system set up with the tigers going forward and there were three guys per chain with the chain wrapped around the tiger’s neck that could hold him back. Not for a minute did any of the guys when they were working out the logistics of that, assume the tigers would get pissed off with being choked and turn round and chase the three guys yanking the chains (laughs). That was a pretty special day. And then we would be doing the takes and they would release them a little bit early because there are quite a few moves in that particular fight and timing was essential. You had to be careful to release the tiger early enough so we could complete a particular move, and move into another position as the tiger rose out of the hole. And every now and then, they would come out way, way too quick (laughs) so I would just accelerate the moves as much as possible. So one day the guy I was fighting got a big slap across the ass from a tiger. It knocked him over but it didn’t seem to worry him, he seemed more amused than anything.

Bearing all of this in mind was it an enjoyable experience?

I had a similar experience on Gladiator to the one I had on Cinderella Man. In that pretty much daily I’m in pain, I’m getting challenged all the time – far more so with Gladiator in terms of the script. But the similarity of the experience between the two films comes from the fact that even though you might be in pain, even though you have giant logistical problems you are trying to work out, it’s still really enjoyable. It was amazing for me to inhabit that world of Gladiator. Amazing. Every time I stepped on to a new set it was incredible. I mean, I would go and visit the sets on my days off – not while they were shooting, but the places I would never see, like Commodus’s palace or inside the Senate. Arthur Max (production designer) is such an incredible designer that I would just be intrigued to go and have a look, and there wasn’t a single set that didn’t in some way take your breath away in terms of its detail or it’s palate. It was an amazing experience.

What do you think the film meant in terms of your life?
Well, it’s a big change, isn’t it? I was only getting used to a different level of attention from LA Confidential, a few years earlier. But that different level of attention was an industry thing and it was about being recognised more within the business rather than on the street. Then The Insider was another step that happened where that industry interest and attention went to awards and nominations and stuff. But you know, those experiences were great gear shifts in my life but nothing equates to the earth shattering zeitgeist moment of Gladiator’s release. That is when my life changed dramatically and it wasn’t as much mine as it used to be (laughs). You know, so many things shifted with the success of Gladiator. And it’s actually probably unquantifiable how much my life changed.

Was it quite poignant looking back at the film? Richard Harris, Ollie Reed, David Hemmings, all no longer with us…
Yeah and me and Ridley were talking about this. We were chatting about another project and casting it in our imagination and cursing ‘wow, those guys are gone…’ It’s very sad. It would have been so great to have been able to do more work with Richard and every time I seen that scene behind me and him and I hear the dance music that is going on between these two characters, you know…Because you don’t often get to work like that, you don’t often get to work with such intense attention to detail so effortlessly. We virtually only had the one scene together but that created a bond with us that lasted beyond the grave.

And that scene was the heart of the film in a way, everything came from there..
Well, it was a great beginning. And that’s the thing. Once we’d established what we did for the first few weeks in England then Ridley had set a very high bar for himself and he was just in that frame of mind that this one, of all the things he had done, was going to be seen through. You know, Ridley just had that real, dogged determined attitude on behalf of a narrative that essentially didn’t exist anywhere but in his imagination.

One of the striking performances in Gladiator, amongst many, is from Joaquin Pheonix..
Gladiator is the film that makes Joaquin Phoenix the great actor he is today. Because he faced so many fears, fears about letting his imagination run, trusting his imagination, being trusted by a visionary director like Ridley, being respected by his peers from Oliver Reed to Connie Nielsen to Richard Harris, and very definitely myself. It was a watershed moment for him and he stayed with it and he was incredibly focused. That was the other great thing, the other actors in this film were just as determined about what they were doing and it wasn’t screen time or anything to do with that, it was all about ‘I’m in a funny costume, speaking in a strange way..’ (laughs) ‘and I’ve got to fully understand the motivations and detail behind my character so I can communicate that..’ I don’t do it, but I would imagine it would be easy on an epic movie to kind of get kind of lulled by the responsibility, lulled by how much work you’ve got to do and lulled by what is in front of you and you get into some kind of acquiescent rhythm where you just let it take you along, as opposed to you driving it. And that’s the difference with a Ridley Scott epic – you know somebody is driving it every day. There was a trickle down effect, a collective energy, you have a leader who is dogged, determined and has a vision and is going to do his best to not have that interrupted or perverted. I know these are big words and it sounds like strong language, but the effect of that, is that all of the performers are involved and when it’s the type of attitude that Ridley had, as director of the film, it just encourages everyone to do their best. The inspiration comes from the top, it’s as simple as that. If your director is open and flowing and on the top of his game then you tend to get that from your cast.

Published September 29, 2005


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