Scott—a trim, ginger-haired man with just a hint of gray in his beard—came to his craft rather late, directing his first feature at 40 after a career in advertising. While growing up in northern England, he spent his Saturdays watching the works of Orson Welles, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. Upon seeing a film that struck him, he says he’d ask himself, “What was good about that film? Who was the guy who actually did it?” Ultimately, he concluded, “The guy who really did it was this credit that they run at the front, where it always said director.” Though he hoped to follow in the footsteps of his idols, there were no British film schools in the Fifties. “I wanted to make movies,” he says, “and I didn’t know how because there was no path.”
So instead, Scott enrolled at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, where he studied graphic design, painting and photography. After graduating he did a stint as a production designer for the BBC before leaving to direct commercials. In 1968 he and his younger brother, Tony (who went on to direct such films as Top Gun and Man on Fire), started a commercial production company, known today as RSA, which is considered one of the most respected creative firms in the ad world. Though it now has offices in London, New York and L.A., RSA remains something of a family concern, with all three of Scott’s grown children—sons Jake and Luke and daughter Jordan—working there as directors. (After two marriages, Scott has been involved with actress Giannina Facio for the past 17 years.)
Scott had never given up his dream of a film career, but even after directing more than 2,000 commercials he couldn’t land a meeting in Hollywood. So, in 1976, he used his own money to buy a script, The Duellists, based on a Joseph Conrad story, and set off to shoot in France with young stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.