Guy Ritchie doesn’t make movies the way he used to. His breakout feature, 2000’s wild crime comedy “Snatch,” was made for $10 million over the course of less than a year. As Ritchie has moved away from such indie-minded features and firmly into the blockbuster world, that part of moviemaking has been lost to him. He’s a blockbuster guy now, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still pushing for his own creative vision.
“When I made ‘Snatch,’ it was a year from beginning to end,” he said in a recent interview. “Three months to write it, two months to shoot it, three months to edit it, bosh! This is three years later, this movie.”
He was talking about “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” Ritchie’s bombastic big screen take on the early years of Arthurian legend, starring Charlie Hunnam as the man who would be king. The film was shoved off the release calendar twice – originally set for July of 2016, it was later pushed to February of this year – before landing in early May, where it will arrive at the multiplex that’s still crowded with blockbuster offerings like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Fate of the Furious.”
Ritchie, however, is upbeat about the summer season placement of the film, having experienced far worse situations in the past.
“We got burned on the release date for ‘U.N.C.L.E.,’ so I care about release dates,” he said. “You have a good movie, or what you think is a good movie, and if you don’t have a release date, you get in all sorts of trouble.”
Needless to say, with “King Arthur” facing hordes of negative reviews and weak box office prospects, Ritchie would much rather talk about the blockbuster efforts that seems to have turned out better for him — although it took some time to get there.
Ritchie built his film career from the ground up, ducking out of secondary school to start working low-level jobs in the film industry, gathering enough experience to start directing commercials in the ’90s. His debut feature, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” was financed after he slapped together a 20-minute short for investors that hinted at his snappy, rollicking style. Aided by a bigger profile, he cast major names in his 2000 followup, including Brad Pitt, Benicio del Toro, and a rising Jason Statham, though the film shared plenty of tonal and visual sensibilities with its predecessor.
The filmmaker took a wild, ambitious left turn with his third and fourth films, including the 2002 remake “Swept Away,” which starred his then-wife Madonna. The pair worked together often, and Ritchie even directed a music video and a short film starring the pop icon. The film was a massive bust, earning less than $600k at the box office. Even his next effort — “Revolver,” another snazzy heist film — fizzled out and made a staggering $85k at the domestic box office (it fared far better globally, earning $6.8 million).
By 2009, Ritchie was itching for something new — he confessed that he had reached a point where he said he’d direct the next thing that landed on his desk — and an unexpected new take on the Sherlock Holmes stories weirdly fit the bill. The film allowed Ritchie to hang tight to his unique visual style and panache for telling stories from shifting perspectives, this time fit inside a much larger Hollywood machine. Suddenly, Ritchie’s love for fun and “razzle dazzle” had a new place: Hollywood.
Ritchie’s big screen “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” starring Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill, arrived in theaters smack in the middle of August 2015. The long-teased take on the popular ’60s-era television series was years in the making, languishing in development hell for two decades and routinely cycling through a series of attached directors that included Quentin Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn, David Dobkin and Steven Soderbergh. Ritchie signed on in March of 2013, and he began filming in September of that same year.
The film was a box office disappointment, making just $109 million worldwide on a $75 production budget. It grossed a mere $45 million in the U.S., a far cry from the hefty returns Ritchie saw on his “Sherlock Holmes” movies, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide combined. Recently, though, an outpouring of affection for the film has surfaced, enough late-breaking hype that even Hammer has begun talking about the possibility of a sequel. There’s nothing that Ritchie would like more.
First, however, he’s got to wrap his head around the fact that people actually like it. “I had no fucking idea,” he said when asked about the recent uptick in interest in the feature. “I had no fucking idea! Fuck it, I love the movie.”
The filmmaker himself still enjoys watching the movie – a slick, fun, fast-moving spy caper bolstered by winning performances by Hammer, Cavill, and Alicia Vikander, pre-Oscar win – and that’s not always how he feels about his work.
“I felt pretty confident about that film,” Ritchie said. “I sit there, I watch it, I can pick it up at any point, and it just jollies on. I’ll think, ‘Oh, I really enjoyed that.’ ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ is one of those movies.”
He failed to elaborate further. Instead, the filmmaker seemed more inclined to marvel at the unpredictable nature of the film industry and his own changing role in it. At one point, he jogged off into a longer discussion about cable versus streaming, trying to grasp where exactly people are finding the film, how they’ve come to enjoy a feature he chalked up as a jolly, pleasurable failure.
“Tell me how I don’t know this,” Ritchie asked. “When you’re telling me that it’s popular, what does that mean exactly?”
What it means is that Ritchie, like any good blockbuster filmmaker, wants people to see his films, and it’s very difficult when they don’t.
“You do make movies for an audience, so… I’d like not to,” Ritchie said. “I’d like to not be emotionally attached, because you shouldn’t be, really. If you’re lucky enough to make the damn thing and you have a lovely time doing it, it’s all plus, plus, plus. But all those pluses should equal another plus.”
His early forays into blockbuster filmmaking were filled with those pluses. His 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” is still his highest-grossing domestic film ($209 million), while its 2011 follow-up, “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows,” netted him his biggest worldwide ($545.4 million). Together, the movies put Ritchie on an entirely new path as a mass market entertainer.
“When I made ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ I knew what people wanted, so I made it, and then people went [to see it],” he said. “You [know] can trust your sensibility. ‘That’s what I like!’ So when I made ‘U.N.C.L.E.,’ I thought, ‘That’s what I like.’ And people went, ‘What?'”
The response to “U.N.C.L.E.” dinged Ritchie’s confidence behind the camera, though he was a bit slow to admit it. “You gotta watch out for that,” he said. “There’s only so much confidence a filmmaker’s got.”
When asked why he continues to gravitate towards attempts to make over established properties, Ritchie kept it simple.
“I see them like school projects,” he said. “The teacher in art class would go, ‘Today we’re going to make a collage of whatever,’ and you scramble and cobble it all together, and at the end of the day, you’ve got your collage. The challenge of that, I find to be fun.”
“King Arthur” is at its best when it’s letting Ritchie do his own thing, and the most amusing parts of an often flat medieval journey are his trademark quick-cutting montages. An early one set to Daniel Pemberton’s percussive score zips through young Arthur’s childhood in the minimum of time and with the maximum of style, and is most indicative that it’s Ritchie behind the camera, not someone else hopping to cash in on “Games of Thrones” similarities.
Ritchie likes to keep things moving, but he also likes to keep them tight. That “King Arthur” is an origin story speaks to Warner Bros.’ franchise hopes, but Ritchie was set on telling a singular story that provided room for more films, but didn’t require them.
“Before you know it, you’re running after the Holy Grail with 15 iconic characters. You’re better off dealing with one guy, extracting a sword from a stone,” Ritchie said. “You can fill two hours with that, fine. It gives you plenty of nutrition for something else.”
Ritchie showed no interest in leaving the franchise world any time soon, and he remains eager to make a third “Sherlock Holmes” feature with his cast and crew (turns out, Robert Downey Jr. is a busy guy). He also admitted that he’d still like to do a sequel to his “Rocknrolla” and the idea of another “U.N.C.L.E.” sounded more appealing than ever.
Next up, he’s on deck to direct Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” feature – “another challenge,” he said – and to put his own signature spin on it. (When asked about rumors that the studio is only seeking out Middle Eastern actors for the lead roles, Ritchie deflected. “I don’t know yet, I’m sniffing around. I’m interested that the right person get the job,” he said.)
Mostly, though, Ritchie is adamant about what he really likes to do, which is work, and he’d gladly keep banging out films “one, two, three” if he could. “I like working,” he said. “I like working more than I like talking.”
The studio world has been very kind to Ritchie, and he knows it. He’s particularly grateful to Warner Bros., who has released his last four films.
“To be fair to Warner Bros., they’ve never done anything to discourage me from doing my thing,” he said. “The committee has never interfered. The committee, at times, will go, ‘Should we have a chit chat about this?’ and we’ll sit down. If you’re articulate, everyone goes, ‘Oh, right, that’s what you’re thinking.’ And if you’re not, then you should start worrying.”
He added with a laugh, “I haven’t had a bad experience with studios, just release dates.”
“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens in theaters on Friday, May 12.