By the sword: ‘GLADIATOR’ producer reflects on 20th anniversary

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?”

Some may recognize these lines from Jay-Z’s 2003 track “What More Can I Say.” But cinephiles will recognize them better as the words Maximus Decimus Meridius shouted after he ripped through six well-armed opponents in the Academy Award-winning historical epic Gladiator

In May, the Russell Crowe-starring feature celebrated its 20th anniversary. It’s a historical epic that you can’t look away from every time it airs on network television. Now, Paramount Pictures has produced a fancy steelbook for its 4K presentation on disc. Watch as the newly sharpened imagery showcases the former Roman general rising above corruption to put Rome on the path to being restored as a republic. 

In honor of its 20 years of existence, we spoke with producer Douglas Wick, who accepted the Best Picture Oscar for Gladiator alongside Branko Lustig and David Franzoni (also co-screenwriter). In our interview, Wick details the impact the film had on his career and what it has meant to him. 

Douglas Wick

Preston Barta: Over the 20 years, it’s been interesting to see what new meanings Gladiator has taken on for me. I watched it earlier today in preparation for this interview, and I got really emotional because I am a parent now, watching this central character stand for what’s right with all this heartbreak sinking him into the earth. So many things rang more genuine for me and were harder and more powerful. Has the film taken on new meaning for you over the past two decades? 

Douglas Wick: “Yeah. I would say I have more respect for it from making a lot of other movies and just increasing awareness of how many things went right. Every movie, you have a lot of talented people working on it, and usually, you’re less than the sum of the parts. Everyone who worked on Gladiator managed to make it better. Starting with that first David Franzoni script, which was built on the historical detail of a wrestler killing an emperor, was the start to a movie set in the arena. [Franzoni] wrote a pretty good draft, but it was very early in what it would become. Then, John Logan came in. Speaking of being a parent, it was hard to create a character who you’d be sympathetic about as he killed his way through the movie. He’s the one who had Maximus’s children and wife die to build that revenge story. And William Nicholson solved the ending. 

And, of course, the more directors I work with, the more I’m just further in awe at the talent of Ridley Scott – the stamina, the professionalism, and how indebted the movie is to him. [Russell Crowe] wasn’t a movie star at the time. In retrospect, he’s the only actor in the world who could have played that part. So, I think, in hindsight, as a producer, I feel slightly in awe at how many things went right.” 

I saw an interview with Russell Crowe not too long ago – I believe it was during his promotional tour for The Nice Guys – where he said that Gladiator started production with only 20-something pages of the script completed and that production even shut down for a day when no pages were left to film. Is that right? 

“Completely inaccurate. We’d already done probably 30 drafts by then. The script still had challenges and was continuing to evolve. John Logan is a great writer and has had an incredible career. He was working on it at that time. [Crowe] still had issues. There were real challenges to having your protagonist die at the end, having that add up. And so there was a combination of great writers, [Scott’s] constant visual solutions for basically showing some version of Crowe’s vision of heaven so we could root for him rejoining his family.” 

“So, there were constant challenges and solutions by everyone involved. But, no, by the time Crowe was on board, we had a script that we were moving forward in. It continued to evolve. Everything wasn’t solved, but, again, you could already have filled a truck with the drafts.” 

Courtesy photo.

Is that a process that you learned from and found yourself changing the way that you produced films going forward?

“It was a very constructive group. It’s just a lot of times the new writer will – it’ll go sideways. So, it was just a rare circumstance where everyone who came in contributed significantly and made it better. As a producer, if there’s any lesson, it’s how to take a bunch of very talented, strong people in, I think, with any group thing and how to keep the process constructive and forward moving. I mean, look at politics as opposed to getting into any turf wars. And, again, of course, with Scott, a director of that acclaim sets the tone, so it demanded a kind of professionalism from everybody. And I think you see a lot of people doing their best work on that movie.”

You’ve worked on many impressive films in your career thus far. Just to have a film like Gladiator in your filmography is impressive. But you have movies like JarheadMemoirs of a GeishaThe Great GatsbyThe Craft, and there’s–

“Well, I would say Working Girl is a film, another movie, where everything went right. Did you ever see it?”

I have. I actually still have it on VHS.

“Yeah. So, director Mike Nichols and stars Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford – It’s just a movie that, over time, a lot of things went right. I mean, Stuart Little. So there’s a lot that I love. And, as a producer, again, with Gladiator, it was seeing that first research about the Roman arena, and Franzoni came to me with the idea of basically a German POW who was a gladiator killing the emperor. And it was only in the research, someone in my office in the research found these stories about generals, who if they angered the emperor, they could suddenly be a slave in the arena. And that’s where we went from a POW killing the emperor to a general who would fall. So, everything’s a process, and you just keep trying to make it better and get somewhere good.” 

Courtesy photo.

There’s that famous line in Gladiator about what we do in life echoes in eternity, and I wonder how important the concept of legacy is to you? 

“Not that much. Because I think everything is about just the privilege of trying to do work and continuing to try and do good work. Gladiator, if you read all the interviews, you’ll read a lot of people saying they get everything in a way that would contradict common sense. So, it’s like anything. You feel lucky that everything went right, you work on them all, and it’s like the circus. The real job is sometimes you get a pie in the face, sometimes you get an Academy Award, but you get up the next day and try to do more work.” 

The two-disc 4K steelbook edition of Gladiator is now available in stores and online. The release includes the theatrical version (155 minutes) and the 15-minute longer extended cut of the film, along with audio commentaries, deleted scenes, and numerous featurettes of Crowe horsing around on set and highlighting the film’s breathtaking set designs.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.