- Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is a look at the military commander’s origins and his swift, ruthless climb to emperor, viewed through the prism of his relationship with his wife and one true love, Joséphine.
- Editor Sam Restivo has been talking about the process of making the film alongside editor Claire Simpson, including a longer Director’s Cut, honing in on the love story, and keeping up with the multi-camera volume of rushes.
- Scott talks about why he storyboards every frame, and reveals that a scene involving Joaquin Pheonix and an Egyptian mummy contained an incident that he hadn’t planned for.
Napoleon achieved a kind of fame very people in history ever attain, but in Ridley Scott’s take Bonaparte’s life and personality is filtered through his addictive and often volatile relationship with his wife Joséphine.
“It always came back to the relationship between Joséphine and Napoleon,” editor Sam Restivo said during a panel discussion for the Academy Conversations series. “We wanted to contrast this really brilliant military strategist with one who is so inept in his personal life.”
Speaking to IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill on the Toolkit podcast, the director elaborated on his reasons for making this version of the famous saga.
“The man was all powerful, all conquering, great politician, a great bureaucrat,” Scott said. “A lot of French laws are still Napoleonic. But I’m not interested in people who have it all. I’m interested in people who have a fragility to them. And the one thing that seemed to be the Achilles heel was Joséphine. And so I began exploring why and how such a powerful man can have such a vulnerable center.”
Restivo is one of two editors on the epic, the other being Scott’s regular, Claire Simpson. The British editor, who won an Oscar for Platoon, has earned the reputation as a legendary collaborator for first Oliver Stone then Ridley Scott (via Tony Scott), a mystique embellished because she rarely gives interviews.
Restivo first worked with Simpson as her assistant editor on Scott’s TV series Raised by Wolves (2020). From there, she brought Simpson as her assistant to Scott’s The Last Duel and then House of Gucci (2021) before getting the promotion for Napoleon.
“I’ve been working for Claire for the last five years and she’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time,” Restivo told Hemphill. “She’s the one that promoted me on this film. Having two editors was really the only way we were going to survive the amount of footage that that we were getting hit by on a daily basis.”
While the great Stanley Kubrick harbored plans to make a Napoleon biopic, it was his period drama Barry Lyndon that served as the “North star” for much of Scott’s creative team. In particular, that film’s “ironic sense of humor” was the main thing the editors leaned into, as Restivo explained in an excellent chat with Matt Feury, host of The Rough Cut podcast.
One example, bordering on the “ludicrous,” as Feury puts it, is when Napoleon retorts to a British General, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”
Restivo admits, “We were threading the needle a bit with that. They are definitely lines that are very literal and very funny. When we got the dailies, Claire and I were just kind of seeing what the actors were giving us. So whenever something really amused us, [we decided to] see if it could stick.”
Another instance is when Napoleon is courting Joséphine and she draws their own battlelines. “The one where Joséphine says ‘look down, you’ll see a surprise,’” Restivo says. “The first time we showed Ridley he was in stitches, but he said, ‘This is it. This is the tone. This is what we want.’
“Because it’s just a beautiful contrast of the stately, presentational kind of way of people had to go on a date versus [the crudity of her actions]. She’s also showing the power that she has and being kind of a seductress toward him.”
The film isn’t meant to be a detailed historical account but it is clear from interviews with Scott that he has done his homework, rifling through many of the 1,000+ books on his subject. The filmmakers also employed historians to guide and fact check the narrative. At the same time, Scott is clear on wanting to make an entertainment and to short circuit the story to keep it within a reasonable runtime.
The truncated opening sequence that brings us up to speed on Marie Antoinette and the French revolution was one such instance.
“We were trying to figure out exactly how many lines there should be to set the world in which we begin the film with,” Restivo recounts. “We needed some element of letting people know that Napoleon himself was not actually French that he was Corsican. And then we were trying not to overwhelm people with dates and settings. But we knew that there had to be a level of that just to accomplish the passage of time and to orient people with what was going on.”
Certain key characters like Charles Talleyrand are given titles on screen explaining who they are. “Again, we didn’t give more cards [to more characters] because we didn’t want to overwhelm people with too many things,” Restivo adds.
Even at over two-and-a-half hours, there’s a lot of story to tell considering that the film attempts to convey the strategic genius of the military commander in epic battles and his somewhat more inept and intimate relationship with Joséphine.
Unsurprisingly, the first assemblies of the battles were twice as long. “Not because there were more story beats, just because there’s more battle,” Restivo said.
Scott’s penchant for multi-camera work went to the extreme of rolling 11 cameras for the scene recreating the battle of Austerlitz. That meant the editors had to review 11 frames for each shot.
“When we were watching earlier cuts of it, it’s like, ‘Man, this is exhausting stuff,’ and we needed to rein each of them in to a certain degree, so that we could lean into more Napoleon and Joséphine and try to always center it back on their relationship.”
Apple TV+ has apparently lined up a four-hour Director’s Cut, signaling that this film, like Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon — also for Apple — straddles the line between theatrical feature and streaming series. It’s a problem that perhaps neither filmmaker manages to resolve.
Restivo says, “In this case it was always our intention for a theatrical release and we thought two and a half hours was basically the most we could put onto a captive audience. Having said that, the screenplay was like 130 pages long with 239 scenes in it, which is crazy. Like it was just such a huge thing. So we had a lot of different options, editorially, that we could go in. We were not going to have a 25-minute version of Waterloo. We were always going to focus on the relationship with Napoleon and Joséphine. But for a streaming environment, there are plenty of different extra bits that people at home might actually enjoy seeing if they’re fans of the film.”
In the September issue of Empire Magazine, Zack Sharf reports at Variety, Scott reveals that he has a “fantastic” cut of the movie that runs nearly four-and-a-half hours.
As reported, Scott’s near 270-minute cut “features more of Joséphine’s life before she meets Napoleon.” The director said he would love for Apple (which funded the film) to eventually screen it.
READ MORE: Ridley Scott Has a ‘Fantastic’ Cut of ‘Napoleon’ That Runs Four-and-a-Half Hours and Features Way More Joséphine (Variety)
Scott drew the entire movie as key frames, or “Ridleygrams,” which formed a reference for the edit as well as cinematography.
“He gives us the roadmap for what the movie is, these hand drawn storyboards, in conjunction with the screenplay,” Restivo informed The Rough Cut. “So we know kind of where he’s going. But he lets us run wild with it and go in the direction that we want. That that very first screening we show him is always the most important because we are trying to show him what he shot, but also something out of the box as well, some kind of some kind of surprise, and he absolutely loves that.”
The sheer amount of footage made it almost a necessity to have two editors. Restivo explained that during production the pair endeavored to keep up to camera despite “the breakneck pace of shooting” by dividing up the dailies and showing each other work in progress before receiving feedback from Scott each week.
“Once we got to that point where we had the assembly done, then it was the two of us sitting together at one Avid and we would trade who’s driving on a certain day and just go start to finish the whole movie. Ridley would come in and watch something. That’s how it was for the entirety of the rest of the cutting.”
There’s an economy to shooting multi-cam, which is fewer takes. That and thorough planning, along with a director who is energized by restlessness, meant that they filmed the whole picture in 62 days.
“This would normally be 110. Some think 130,” Scott told IndieWire. “The multiple four cameras every day is four times faster. I discovered quite a long time ago that actors do not want 39 takes. And if you cast well, any actor you’ve already cast properly, will have done their goddamn homework.”
You also get the impression that for Scott, the shoot may be the most boring part of production. He has already shot the whole thing in his head and then onto those Ridleygrams.
“I do something rare, I think, that no one else does. I personally storyboard all my movies. I don’t publish volumes with stick figure drawings and shit like that. These could be comic strips. So this storyboard of Napoleon is probably two inches thick. It’s an eight frame for each page with close up, medium shot, wide shot. The film is already filmed in my head.”
READ MORE: Ridley Scott’s Multiple Cameras Gave Us Joaquin Phoenix Grunting Like a Pig in ‘Napoleon’ (IndieWire)
Not always though. Relating how the iconic image from Gladiator of Russell Crowe’s hand brushing the field of corn came about to Mike Fleming Jr. at Deadline, Scott said it was simply chance.
“It was discovered the last day of shooting, spontaneously. I consider spontaneity to be essential to what I do, you’ve always got to be watching. That’s not on paper. And so suddenly that becomes the editing room and then the theme happens.”
One little bit of magic wasn’t planned on Napoleon either. In Egypt, shooting a scene in which Napoleon confronts a mummified Pharaoh, which draws obvious parallels to Bonaparte’s own aspirations, Joaquin Pheonix climbed up on a box and took off his hat.
“He put it on top of the casket, and stared closely at the Pharaoh. Then he reached out gently to touch the surface of this skin that looks like brown paper at this point. And the Pharaoh suddenly slipped to one side and gave Joaquin a hell of a shock. But I let it run. And he played with that momentarily, got down off the box, and when I said, cut, he said, ‘did you do that?’ I said, no, it was an accident. It was fantastic. It scared the sh*t out of him. I said, ‘no, no, no, I didn’t do that.’”
Fleming also encouraged Scott to talk about some of his other career highlights, including Bladerunner and Alien. The director is currently in production on the Gladiator sequel with Simpson editing. Fans of the Oscar-winning original will be pleased to hear his comment to IndieWire, “It’s good. It’s gonna be good.”
He has also already drawn his next one. “I’ve used the downtime of the strike to quietly sit down and address the next script. So I’m already about 100 frames in on what I’m doing.”
The 84-year old dismisses criticism of his film by historians and says he doesn’t care what film critics say either. He recalls to Deadline that he was stung by a review of Blade Runner by Pauline Kael. “She taught me a lesson. I thought I’d done something very special. And I had. I know Blade Runner is very special. It’s evergreen. So many big ideas in there that now people feed off it constantly for other movies. I was very happy with it. I’m not a person with a big head, conceited. I’m not like that. I knew it was tricky, but I knew it was special. And she destroyed me, in four pages. You could not ignore it, and so I was down for a while. I was wounded, and then later I framed it to keep it in the office to remind me the only thing that matters is, what did I think of it?”