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‘Gladiator’ Turns 20: Producer Douglas Wick on the Anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Epic Masterpiece

June 15, 2020Ben MK

From the Golden Age of Hollywood to the 1980s, sword-and-sandal movies ruled supreme, with films like Spartacus and Conan the Barbarian conquering the box office. However, by the '90s, it was as if the genre had all but gone extinct. Then came Ridley Scott's Gladiator, which not only won five Oscars, including Best Picture, but which also arguably set the stage for movies and TV shows like 300 and Game of Thrones.

In celebration of Gladiator's 20th anniversary, I caught up with producer Douglas Wick to chat about the iconic film, as well as to get the latest on the in-the-works Gladiator sequel and to find our more about another highly-anticipated followup — Zoe Lister-Jones' remake of The Craft.

First of all, how have you been adjusting to the new normal and how have you been keeping busy during the quarantine?

Wick: Aside from the incredibly sad state of the world, [I've been] incredibly active because it's a great time to work on scripts, which is the most fun part of my job. So I'm constantly on Zoom with different writers. And it gives you much more time to get something really good before you deal with all the production stuff.

Looking back at Gladiator 20 years later, what do you think has been the film's primary legacy?

Wick: At the time, I was very aware of all the bullets we were dodging, since the first place I pitched it told me that sword-and-sandal movies were dead and I was wasting my time. It's also a fight movie, and the creative challenge of a fight movie is that every fight has to move the narrative forward. Then you have a protagonist who's going to be killing a lot of people throughout the movie, and not just his enemies, and how do you make that work and make him an honorable character.

But I think its primarily legacy is that it just works so well. And Gladiator, of all the things I've worked on, was the movie where the most things went right, from David Franzoni coming into my office to say, "Let's figure out a movie [about] the Roman arena," to the screenwriters — both John Logan, who's a great TV and movie writer, and William Nicholson — each [of whom] substantially made it better. We [also] got lucky with Ridley Scott [and the fact that] Russell Crowe happened to exist at that time. It's a little bit like politics. Sometimes this team of strong and talented people can negate each other, and sometimes everyone rows in harmony and you go really fast.

As I understand it, the script continued to evolve throughout the production. What were some of the ways in which the original vision of the movie differed from the final cut?

Wick: The original nugget was that Franzoni came into my office with this historical bit about this wrestler Narcissus who killed the Emperor Commodus, and talked about how he would be a German prisoner of war and he would be in the Roman arena and we would see him as a gladiator and he would kill the Emperor. That was the beginning. Then, as we looked at the research, we saw that a lot of people who could be the big shots of that society could suddenly be a slave in the arena to be killed, if they displeased the Emperor. So, of course, that immediately suggested a great performance — being able to take the most privileged person in society, strip away their armor [and] their privilege, and see what's left of them when that's all ripped away.

Early on, Maximus survived, then he escaped from the arena in an early draft and came back with that army that he had fought with in the beginning. But as talented people came on, it evolved. A huge thing was that Maximus would die in the arena at the end, and that became the visual challenge, which Ridley stepped up to — setting up this family in some idea of Heaven, so that at the end we see him rejoin his family. So the film had a spiritual component, but also some satisfaction of seeing your protagonist killed at the end. There were so many challenges like that, and we just kept finding, in retrospect, really strong solutions.

Of course, the movie wouldn't be the same without the dynamic between Russell Crowe as Maximus and Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. How did their involvement in the film come about?

Wick: Starting with Maximus, we didn't want a conventional movie star. We felt like if it was Mel Gibson in a leather skirt you'd just be thinking about Mel Gibson in a leather skirt. And in the casting process, Russell was pretty singular. Sometimes when a movie really becomes successful, you'll notice that it's a movie where a movie star breaks out, and that was true of Gladiator and the fact that Russell had done extraordinary work before then. You believed his gravitas and he's a brilliant actor, so he became fairly obvious early on.

For the Emperor, it evolved. The original Commodus was a tall, blonde hunk, but he was also a very dark, complicated guy. Initially, we talked about people like Jude Law. But as we started to get into that, Ridley, most of all, had this really strong instinct about Joaquin Phoenix and that he would be able to portray the full dark complexity of Commodus. The studio was a little anxious about that at the beginning but finally trusted his instincts.

You're also attached to the upcoming Gladiator sequel, which I believe is set 25 years after the original. Why is now the right time to make a follow-up and what can you tell me about it?

Wick: Basically, I can tell you that we'll never make it unless we get a great script on the page. We all have a little awe for how well everything worked on the first one, so we're discovering what that story can be, and we're working on it. There's a lot of challenges, because the first one had such a particular chemistry. It's set in the arena, it feels relevant today in terms of how the politicians used the arena to distract the people from the deeper aspects of society. So it's a challenge but we're working on it, and it will only become something if we can get something great on paper.

You're also producing a remake of The Craft. How is that one going to pay homage to the original, which remains a cult classic, while at the same time reimagining it for a new generation?

Wick: We're cutting that one now. But it was all about Zoe Lister-Jones, who came in with a real vision for what the next incarnation could be. We were really looking for a filmmaker, preferably a woman, who had a real point of view, so that's what made us decide to embark.

Last but not least, how do you think Gladiator continues to speak to moviegoers, especially in these uncertain times?

Wick: I think it's ultimately a story of a pristine character in a very corrupt and complicated time. So, in that sense, it's going be very relevant for a long time. And I suppose, if we were doing it now, we would use a lot of [Donald] Trump in Commodus — the vanity, the corruption. So I think it has a lot of timeless relevance. Because those will always be issues — the politics of greed and the power of one decent man or woman.

Gladiator: 20th Anniversary Edition is available on 4K, Blu-ray & Digital HD June 16th.

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