Using real-life characters as a vehicle to illuminate broader themes about the human condition

Screenwriter David Scarpa’s craft lies in writing material with psychological themes that lend themselves to a sweeping cinematic experience.  With Napoleon, he uses real-life characters as a vehicle to illuminate broader themes about the human condition.

Born in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and raised in Tennessee and Connecticut, Scarpa is a graduate of the Film and Television Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he also attended the School of Dramatic Writing.

He previously worked with director Ridley Scott on All the Money in the World, He reteams with Scott for Gladiator 2.

With Napoleon, Scarpa and Scott discussed the key beats of Napoleon’s life and the specific version of the character that attracted them. It was clear from the initial meetings that Ridley saw this movie as an epic action film, but also the love story of Napoleon and Josephine.

David Scarpa

The chemistry between the actors Joaquin Phoenix (who previously played Commodus in Scott’s Gladiator) and Vanessa Kirby would create a tension and dynamic that, for Scott, would not only bring the characters to life but add volatile layers to Napoleon as he continues his epic quest to become master of Europe. The actors would breathe fire into the tempestuous and unconventional relationship on the page of David Scarpa’s screenplay, revealing Napoleon’s inner demons and an unseen side of history.

A Fascinating Life

One of the greatest military leaders of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte’s fascinating life has evoked both criticism and admiration from scholars, politicians, and his own subjects. Both his rise to power and his harsh and strategic military campaigns are infamous and have influenced the generations that followed, from Winston Churchill to Friedrich Nietzsche.

Ruthless in war, a tyrant in his country, but also a liberator who came from nothing and was one of the first in history to show that leadership talent could come from any class, Napoleon’s success on the battlefield has passed into legend. Such was his tactical brilliance and merciless reputation that the world required seven different coalitions of European powers to defeat him. But off the battlefield, his obsession with Josephine – his lover, his wife, his empress – would define his life as much as any battle.

For director Ridley Scott that story – the meteoric rise of a military genius, the chance to show his duality and psychology on an epic scale as few other filmmakers could attempt – is one that he has wanted to bring to the screen for many years.

“I have a preference for historical drama, because history is so interesting,” he says. “Napoleonic history is the beginning of modern history. He changed the world; he rewrote the rulebook.”

But more than that, Napoleon was a singularly fascinating character for a movie, because – like many of us – he was a prisoner to his own heart and emotions. “Apart from him being an incredible strategist, a marvelous, intuitive – and merciless – politician… I was fascinated with how a man like this – who’s on his way to take Moscow – could be obsessed with what his wife is doing back in Paris.”

Producer Mark Huffam, who has worked on many of Scott’s projects over the years, including House of Gucci, The Martian, and Prometheus, says that Napoleon is a film that requires the vision, tenacity, skill, and experience of Ridley Scott – and that there are few directors who are brave enough to make this kind of film anymore. “This movie has an epic scale that I don’t think you’ll see many times in the future,” he says. “There just aren’t many directors in the world that have the knowledge and experience to make this kind of film, and doing as practically – in-camera – as possible.”

And who can blame them? Napoleon is, famously, a subject that has intimidated some of history’s greatest directors – notably, Stanley Kubrick, whose famed Napoleon project never came together.

Producer Kevin Walsh sees in Scott a desire to pick up where Kubrick left off. “Kubrick is one of Ridley’s heroes,” he says. “Kubrick tried to make Napoleon, but it never happened, so when I asked Ridley a couple of years ago, ‘What is the film that you haven’t been able to make yet?’ His answer was, ‘Napoleon.’”

In every aspect of Napoleon’s life, says Huffam, there are conflicts and dualities. Start just with his legacy as a general and emperor. “Napoleon did great things for politics and the common man. He made it that anyone could become a general, or a politician, rather than just the aristocracy,” he notes. “But, of course, he was a dictator, and the blood on his hands is horrendous. That balance is something that we wanted to explore when making this film.”

And when Scott tells the story through Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, he adds dualities upon dualities. “He ends up sniveling in tears – the man we have seen command his way to the throne of Europe, the tactical genius, turned into this little helpless man, who is completely in love with the woman next to him on his couch, admitting he is nothing without her,” says Scott. “His letters to her are comically rude and juvenile, overly romantic, and even quite dirty. He was absolutely enchanted by her. And after they parted for the last time, she never even read them. When she died, they were all in a drawer by her bedside table.”

Napoleon is a spectacle-filled action epic that details the checkered rise of the iconic Napoleon Bonaparte. Against a stunning backdrop of large-scale filmmaking the film captures Bonaparte’s relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his one true love, Josephine, showcasing his visionary military and political tactics against some of the most dynamic practical battle sequences ever filmed.

Scott’s fascination with the leader and the period dates back to his very beginnings as a film director

His first motion picture, The Duellists, is set in the Napoleonic era. He says that was the film where he saw firsthand how and why audiences would respond to a historical story.

“History’s very interesting, because we don’t learn from all of our mistakes,” he says. In that way, says Scott, a historical film covering events two hundred years in the past, filtered through the perspective of the artist, becomes relevant for today.

And as a filmmaker, Scott knows firsthand from experience that he has a responsibility both to history and to art; he creates impressions of subjects that allow them to come alive for audiences. “About a year after I made Gladiator, I received a letter from a senior lecturer at one of the great universities,” says Scott. “He said, ‘ I want to thank you for bringing the Roman Empire to life.’ It had made his students enthusiastic for the subject.” Scott compares making a historical film to “a mathematical equation – either this could have happened or that could have happened; it comes from research and you make a choice.”

Scott says that he was as attracted to the idea of exploring the psychology of the character of Napoleon as he was with filming the spectacle of his epic battles. “I think one of the reasons people are still fascinated by Napoleon is because he was so complicated,” he says. “There is no easy way to define his life. You can read a biography to know what happened, but what interests me as a filmmaker is his character – going beyond the history and into the mind.”

“Ridley allows himself some creative license, but it is always grounded in the truth,” says Walsh. “We did a ton of research with historians and our writers, people that really delved into the history to make sure it was authentic.”

Ridley Scott on set of ‘Napoleon’  Credit: Sony

To create the epic scale of the movie, Scott reunited with several of his past collaborators, who have worked with him many times over the years. Screenwriter David Scarpa, whom he worked with on All the Money in the World, and reteams with Gladiator 2, production designer Arthur Max (an Oscar nominee for his work on Gladiator and The Martian), costume designer Janty Yates (who won an Oscar for her work on Gladiator), director of photography Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World, Alien: Covenant), and two-time Oscar-winning special effects coordinator Neil Corbould (Gladiator and five other Scott films) all returned to help Ridley achieve his vision.

You might think that Scott is able to attract these top artists by their desire to work with the great director, but Scott insists it is a two-way street. “All of these elements are incredibly important,” he says. “I’m grateful to have these great, extremely talented people, who seem to still want to work with me. When I know that these departments are in such capable hands, I can be super-efficient.”

“Ridley is incredibly well-prepared,” says Huffam. “He storyboards all of his films himself, which is a huge advantage to every department. He knows exactly what the finished product will be – cutting the film as we’re going along.’

“Ridley shoots the movie in his head,” says Walsh. “You see him, in any down moment, just planning, and creating. It’s not a job to him; it’s creating art.”

Ridleygram of the Battle of Waterloo scene for ‘Napoleon’Credit: The New Yorker

To prepare to shoot the movie, Scott assembled his team in a war room – which in this case was as literal a war room as can be when the subject is making a movie. With large-scale models of the sets for battles at Waterloo, Austerlitz, and Toulan, art department drawings, models, Scott – who is an excellent artist and has always storyboarded his own films – brought the entire team together to share his vision and direct his crafts team in the images he is looking to achieve. On Napoleon, Scott would employ up to eleven cameras at once.

Ridley Scott (Director / Producer)is a renowned Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker honored with Best Director Oscar® nominations for his work on Black Hawk Down (2001), Gladiator (2000) and Thelma & Louise (1991). Scott most recently directed The Last Duel (2021), starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Jodie Comer, and House of Gucci (2021),starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver. He produced Death on the Nile (2022), starring Kenneth Branagh, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, and Annette Bening, and Hulu’s Boston Strangler (2023), starring Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, and Chris Cooper. He next will direct a sequel to Gladiator starring Paul Mescal for Paramount.

In 1977, Scott made his feature-film directorial debut with The Duellists, for which he won the Best First Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival. He followed with the iconic science-fiction thriller Alien (1979), and the landmark film Blade Runner (1982), which was added to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1993.

Additional film credits as director include The Martian (2015), which received seven Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture, a DGA Award nomination, and 6 BAFTA nominations, including Best Director; Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton; The Counselor (2013), written by Cormac McCarthy and starring Michael Fassbender; the acclaimed hit Prometheus (2012), starring Michael Fassbender; G.I. Jane (1997), starring Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen; Hannibal (2001), starring Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore; Body of Lies (2008), starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; Robin Hood (2010), marking his fifth collaboration with star Russell Crowe; Alien: Covenant (2017), the sequel to Prometheus; and All the Money in the World (2017), starring Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams.

Scott and his late brother Tony formed the commercial and advertising production company RSA in 1967. In 1995, the Scott brothers formed the film and television production company Scott Free. Upcoming Scott Free projects include Berlin Nobody, a thriller written and directed by Jordan Scott starring Eric Bana and Sadie Sink; a new movie in the Alien franchise, to be directed by Fede Alvarez; A Haunting in Venice, from Kenneth Branagh starring Branagh, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, and Michele Yeoh; Outside, a feature adaption from bestselling Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson; and The Chronology of Water, to be directed by Kristen Stewart.

On television, Scott executive produced the Emmy, Peabody, and Golden Globe-winning hit “The Good Wife” for CBS, as well as its critically acclaimed CBS All Access spin-off “The Good Fight”; the series adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic “The Man in the High Castle” for Amazon; AMC’s anthology series “The Terror”; and Steven Knight’s gritty adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic “Great Expectations” for FX/BBC1.

In 2003, Scott was awarded a knighthood from the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his contributions to the arts. He received the 30th American Cinematheque Award at the organization’s annual gala in 2016; the Lifetime Achievement Award in Motion Picture Direction at the 2017 Directors Guild of America Awards; and the Academy Fellowship honor at the 2018 BAFTA Awards.

Screenwriter David Scarpa’s (Written by) craft lies in writing material with psychological themes that lend themselves to a sweeping cinematic experience. He uses real-life characters as a vehicle to illuminate broader themes about the human condition.

Three of Scarpa’s produced screenplays, including All the Money in the World, have been selected for The Black List. His future projects include Gladiator 2, which re-teams him with Napoleon director Ridley Scott.

Scarpa’s screenwriting career began with an original screenplay for DreamWorks that became The Last Castle, starring Robert Redford, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo. Since then he has written numerous features, including Scott Derrickson’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Scarpa was born in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and raised in Tennessee and Connecticut. He is a graduate of the Film and Television Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he also attended the School of Dramatic Writing.