Napoleon completists, beware. You will not see the entire story of the infamous Emperor of France in Ridley Scott’s two-and-a-half hour “Napoleon” (Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures). Scott’s screenwriter David Scarpa explains how the two men carved a movie out of this colorful slice of French history.

Anne Thompson: How did this project come to you?

David Scarpa: I had worked with Ridley on a movie called “All the Money in the World,” and his producing partner, Kevin Walsh, who ran his company, came to me and said that Ridley wanted to do a movie about Napoleon, and didn’t say much else. Like most Americans, I had only a high school basic knowledge of Napoleon or the history of the French Revolution. I had already read the [Stanley] Kubrick screenplay and knew that this was something that a lot of filmmakers had tried to do in the past. I went off and read a short biography of Napoleon.

What’s the challenge when tackling a biopic like this?

For us it’s difficult in 2023 to make what we call the prestige biopic, like “Gandhi” or whatever, which is the soup-to-nuts, grade-school book report version of some great man’s life. There was a time for that in the “Lawrence of Arabia” era, and I’m not sure that you can do that anymore. So the real challenge for me was, how are we going to get into this?

Did Ridley say anything about what he wanted? Or what his angle was?

Particularly if you’re Ridley, a lot of writers would simply say, “Well, I’ll do whatever you want,” right? So [Ridley] wants to know what you’re going to bring to it, what your point of view on it is. It was an almost impossible story to tell just in terms of the sheer sprawl of what Napoleon had done and his influence on European history and 45 battles fought and essentially writing the Code Napoleon, which is the basis of much of continental European society. So it would be almost impossible to tell the definitive version of that story within two and a half hours. And what I found myself most intrigued by was this little vignette in the book about his relationship with Josephine, his wife.

She was a notorious figure in Paris at that time?

She had a fascinating story, because she was married at the time of the French Revolution. Her husband was a quasi-aristocrat who was taken away and beheaded on the guillotine. She was taken to the most notorious prison in France, and she narrowly avoided being executed on the guillotine by days, right before what’s known as the Thermidorean Reaction, before Robespierre was killed. And so she was let out of prison and became one of the grand dames of Paris. It was a bizarre period in history, as the people who had narrowly avoided the guillotine wound up becoming celebrities in their own right. And so she with three other women became celebrity figures in France, and they wore these red ribbons around their necks to symbolize the blade, and they cut their hair short. The French fashion at the time revolved around reliving the trauma of what they’d just lived through. So she was a much more exalted figure in Paris than Napoleon, who had holes in his shoes. He was a military guy, but he was poor. He had just been promoted to general but he was a nobody in France and he attached to her and they obviously got married, but she almost immediately in a very French way carried on this affair with this man, lieutenant Hippolyte Charles, who was everything Napoleon wasn’t. It became this national embarrassment as Napoleon grew more famous.

The relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, how much did Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby bring to it? I understand there was a glint in their eye when it came to the idea that they were a little kinky with each other.

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.
Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of “Napoleon.”

That was always in the script. A lot came from his letters to Josephine, it’s pretty well documented. And when you’re working with somebody like Joaquin, there will be what’s in the script, but he has to make it happen on the day. So it has to be something that he spontaneously creates, as opposed to something that’s set in stone. But all that stuff was obviously in the script, in different ways.

Could you remember anything from the letters as an example of something that he would write to Josephine?

They were French. So they were bawdy.

So he would write things like, “I imagine doing this to you.”

Oh yeah. Absolutely.

This is what you and Phoenix settled on: this awkward genius who is sexually inept.

That is very much what it was like. Obviously, we took a lot of liberties across the board. But in the essence of it, it’s pretty close to what it was, particularly for somebody like Joaquin, who looks for the flaws and the weaknesses as much as the strengths in a character. That was something that attracted him as well.

The question is, what drove Napoleon? Is the movie suggesting that he was conquering the world to win the love of Josephine? Is that really his motive?

Like many narcissistic figures, he was driven by insecurity. And he was driven to conquer her. His emotional attachment to her was as much a part of that insecurity as his desire to conquer Europe. The way you phrased it, that he was driven to conquer the world to win her, is a romanticized version of that. But on some level, she was the most important relationship of his life. And even after he divorced her, it continued in the background. And there was some aspect of having to prove himself to win her, that was present throughout his life.

I was trying to get a sense of where did I stand on on this guy. Like, is he Stalin? Robespierre? More than many other historical figures, there is an argument still ongoing as to whether this guy was a monster, or a genius. We have settled opinions on all these other people. But his legacy is still very contested.

Why is that? What is it about him? Is it because he’s ambiguous, ill-defined, that people still speculate about him?

One striking thing is, he’s the classic example of the benevolent dictator. There’s a dangerous allure to that, as the one military figure who’s going to come in and fix it all. Since then Napoleon has led a lot of societies down the wrong path. And yet, at the same time, he was never really a despot. He ultimately didn’t even kill the guy who was having an affair with his wife, right? There was just this completely tortured French sex comedy that was going on in the middle of all this. And it underscored how incredibly full and capable he was, and yet also how personally inept he was at the same time.

NAPOLEON,  2023.  © Sony Pictures Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Napoleon”©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Okay, so you whittled the script down to something that you could fit into two and a half hours. How many pages was it when you first presented it to Ridley?

It actually was not that long. I was assuming nobody would give us this amount of money to do it. So I came from the perspective of what we’re not going to get, we just made a movie for about $35 million. And these days, you don’t get $200 million dollars to do something, unless it’s a Marvel or a science-fiction movie. So I assumed that we were going to be doing this for $35 million. And lo and behold, it turned out we had quite a bit more. Going into the original version of it, the movies we talked about were ‘The Duelist,” which Ridley had made, and Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” which was similar: it was a movie that approached someone they would normally approach in a reverent way, in an irreverent way. Mozart was this almost infantile figure, he wasn’t handled in an overly fussy manner. And that was the approach that we wanted to take as well.

So you show the script to to Ridley and what does he say?

Mind you, before writing the script, I had locked onto this one particular take, and I had gone in and pitched it to him: the idea of a man who is profoundly capable and competent in the realm of battle, and yet profoundly incapable and incompetent in the realm of love, in the realm of human relationships, and how those two things play off of one another. And he loved it. I was writing pages and sending pages to him, he was off shooting “Gucci,” but he responds to things along the way. So there was a lot more dialogue along the way to creating a draft.

I love that you started with Marie Antoinette under the blade. It captures everything about that revolutionary moment.

NAPOLEON, Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, 2023. ph: Kevin Baker / © Sony Pictures Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Napoleon”©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s not how we originally started it. That’s Ridley’s own alchemy. We had a different scene that was 10 pages in. And at a certain point, Ridley decided he wanted to pick that up and move that; it all landed on this moment of Napoleon taking in the guillotine, and having this ambivalence about where democracy leads: this is where the rule of the mob leads us. Things in this movie get picked up and moved around, changed and shifted.

Napoleon used his military muscle to take over the government to become the Emperor. I was amazed at how easily he was able to coerce these people into doing what he wanted, they seemed sheep-like. There wasn’t much resistance to him.

NAPOLEON, Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, 2023.  ph: Kevin Baker /© Sony Pictures Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Napoleon”©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

If you were going to ask a historian, there was the trauma of the revolution. And that ultimately, the desire for one person who would come in and wrap it up and and make it all make sense and solve all the problems of France was there already. So he stepped into a breach that was there for him to take.

Why did you change the name from “Kit Bag”?

Oh, that was Ridley’s working title. I mean, it was never going to be called “Kit Bag.” But for whatever reason he liked the famous saying that every Corporal carries a General’s baton in his kit bag. This is actually a positive cultural thing that Napoleon gave to France, this idea of meritocracy, that anybody no matter how low born, if they had the skills should be able to advance and move from Corporal to General within his army. Previously most of the armies in the rest of the world were run by heredity: you’ll be given a generalship based on who your uncle or who your father was, and they weren’t necessarily the most skilled people. And he blew that up.

How did you decide which battles to use? Did you see a risk that the extraordinary battle with the frozen lake, Austerlitz, was going to eclipse or overshadow the final Waterloo battle?

Austerlitz is an example of, as John Ford says, printing the legend. That wasn’t the way the battle actually unfolded. The story of the cannonballs in the the lake is apocryphal. Most people agree it didn’t happen that way. And yet, that was the way the legend evolved around it. And that actually wound up influencing Sergei Eisenstein in another movie that he made [“Alexander Nevsky”]. It wound up becoming an iconic Napoleon moment. And in our case, we opted to use the thing that didn’t happen. And the perversity that I was interested in is that it’s considered his masterpiece. That idea of a battle in which thousands of people die as a masterpiece is the perversity and the insanity of the time, which is that this battle represented the high point of his genius. To me, it represented the low point.

Because his genius was killing people.

He’s killing people. And that was a fascinating contrast. We only have three big battle scenes in the movie. We start with Toulon, the moment that he becomes a star. And then we go to Austerlitz, which is arguably the high point of his genius, so to speak, but also, in a sense, a moral low point. And you get that with Joaquin’s performance. And then Waterloo has become a synonym almost for the point at which everything goes to hell.

And hubris leads you down a disastrous path. You could be smart and clever in many different situations and be misguided too.

Yeah, the two things go together because in order to be the person who did what he did, you have to have the hubris that is going to destroy, the two things are almost inextricable from one another. But in the case of Waterloo, we don’t get into it as much in the final cut of the movie, but he knew that he was in trouble at that point. Like, he had made this March of the 100, what’s called the 100 days, which is the escape from captivity. He made this daring escape, made this march back to Paris, took everything back, and that was his crowning achievement. And now he’s encircled by his enemies. He’s getting older, he had what may have been colon cancer; he was in incredible pain all that morning, he had to lie down on the ground. He was being torn apart, both by his enemies, but also internally by aging. He was getting to the point where everything was converging on him. So each of those battles represent three different points in his development, psychologically.

Do you have a theory as to why the Brits like the movie better than anyone else?

Ridley is British. Culturally, the British have always had a weird relationship with Napoleon, a mocking relationship to him, as this imperious French figure who had feet of clay. The movie corresponds more to their view of him.

Were you upset by what was left on the cutting room floor? And have you seen what the longer version of “Napoleon” would look like?

I have seen what’s in the longer version. It works better, like most movies, in a tighter form. It gained a lot through the editing. Forget what’s on the cutting room floor, there’s also what is not there from earlier drafts, a ton of stuff never wound up going before the camera. There were other battles and those I’m glad because we would have bogged down. But, all kinds of material that we generated. And then ultimately, we had to make choices in terms of what got shot, but also what winds up in the cut. I don’t think there’s any way that in the format of a feature film that you can possibly tell the entirety of this story. You could easily do five seasons of a series on Napoleon, and still not get to the end of it, in terms of the material. So inevitably, you have to make choices. And this is a pretty concise version.

You also wrote “Gladiator 2,” which is actually filming?

December 1.

Does it come right after the last movie?

It’s a rare case of a sequel coming 23 years after the original movie. Usually they come a little bit sooner. So that should tell you right there. It wouldn’t have been possible to tell the story directly after.

Are you involved in Denis Villeneuve’s “Cleopatra”?

There’s a long history of Stacey Schiff’s book by the same title. A lot of writers have taken their shot at that. I have no idea what Denis is ultimately going to do with it. There have been many scripts. And mine was one of them.

Leave a comment