Director Guy Ritchie, who made his name with movies that depict the violent antics of colorful British lowlifes—and is also famous for being married to Madonna for a while—has made his first war movie. Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (yes, that’s its full name) is set among the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, and examines the bond between U.S. Army Sergeant John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his Afghan interpreter Ahmed (Dar Salim).
Ritchie, whose movie output has spiked in recent years—The Covenant is his second movie in as many months— spoke to TIME from the Turkish set of another war movie, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Seated in front of the set of a town he was about to blow up, he discussed whether his new films indicate a more political turn, how he regards integrity, and what he really thinks about his experience directing Disney’s live-action Aladdin.
TIME: The Covenant feels more political than your usual films. Were you trying to raise awareness about the plight of interpreters who have been left behind in Afghanistan?
Ritchie: Politics implies a sort of polarization and tribal affiliation. I’m anxious not to affiliate. But the one thing I find endlessly interesting is a bond between individuals and what they’re prepared to do in order to honor that bond.
Did you approach the depiction of violence differently from in your other movies?
Not really. For me filmmaking is how do you get the composition right between being viscerally interested, intellectually stimulated, and emotionally inspired? I want to be entertained—and violence just happens to be one of those components that keeps me entertained. What I want is a compelling alibi as to why I’m watching the action. I just don’t want action porn for the sake of action porn.
Christopher Raphael/MGMGuy Ritchie, Jonny Lee Miller and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of ‘The Covenant’
You’re on set with another wartime film. Has making films about real conflicts, including one that you lived through, change the way that you feel about war?
I think war in general is so replete with emotional subjects, that it’s inevitable that it finds its way into a storyteller’s lexicon at some point. But it lends itself to my disposition, the subject, and it was such a simple story. And I quite like making a simple story.
Well, maybe The Gentleman was not simple. To pull all those different points together, all those different strands together, is hard work. And I quite like [The Covenant] because it was a simple emotional point. I’ve tried to I try to make it my business to do things that I’m unfamiliar with as much as I can.
If someone came to you and said, “Mr. Ritchie, you have an unlimited budget to make a war movie set in the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” where would you begin to look for a story?
The problem is, it’s too fresh, right? I would feel as though I didn’t have the requisite sensitivity to understand all the complications going on within that situation. What I liked about [The Covenant] is that you didn’t need to understand all the machinations of the political geography, you just needed to understand that one fella was profoundly motivated to service a debt that the other had bestowed upon him.
Speaking of that war, I saw that you had some Russian financing on this movie. Did that make things more complicated for you?
If I’m brutally honest, I have no idea where any of the financing ever comes from for any of my movies. I have very little to do with money, and I’m only really interested in the creative process. If we did have Russian money that’s news to me.
Threaded through your movies is this notion of loyalty. Why does that particular virtue interest you?
Well, because it’s so hard to be loyal. And I think people underestimate the complexity and temptations and the subtlety of being corrupted to lose focus on the simplicity of being loyal either to your word or to your bond or whatever. You say you’ll never do something and then you find yourself doing that something and then you create all sorts of alibis in order to make that happen. Loyalty starts with oneself and then it expands to really every relationship that you have in your life. So, again, a classical theme that one can’t get away from. If you really examine the complexity and nuances of loyalty, you realize that there’s all sorts of deals that you’ve made along the way that have not ultimately been in your interest.
Can you give me an example of a time where you were loyal to yourself, or where you weren’t and regretted it?
In a way, it’s much easier to find the examples where you’ve not been loyal to yourself. The curious thing about the word integrity is that clue’s in the word itself, and it implies that there’s more than one you that needs to be integrated. A part of you is desperately trying to have an honest relationship with yourself, but you have to take into account that the other part, which is trying to survive in a material, competitive, comparative sphere and has to make deals. So how do you integrate that relationship in an elegant fashion? It’s never as simple as being virtuous in an obvious sense. I think an ambitious life means that inevitably, you have to make these deals which, at the beginning, you’d insisted that you wouldn’t, and you feel as though you’re compromising constantly.
Christopher Raphael/MGMDirector Guy Ritchie on the set of ‘The Covenant’
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That’s still pretty abstract. There’s not one thing you can point to?
I mean, I’ve done things for money. But actually, in retrospect, I’m happy with that. I’m happy with an ambitious life where you clumsily find your way when you get there. Because another aspect of this is that you’re also terribly scared of what people think of you. I am of the firm belief that people, especially creative people, don’t do a lot because they’re scared about what other people will think of them. And then they just gotta keep chucking mud at the wall in order to develop creatively, and there’s a cost to that. Not everyone likes what you do and you have to grow a set and get on with not being liked. I think people construct compelling alibis as to why they don’t do things. I would have been much busier much earlier on, and I would have made many more films, if I cared less about how they would be judged.
Everybody’s going to read this and say, “Oh, he’s talking about Aladdin.” Do you want to clear that up?
No, Aladdin, I enjoyed enormously. That’s actually a good example. I wish I had made more commercial films earlier. You don’t want to do just one theme. You want to make big commercial films. You want to make small indie films. You want to make provocative films, you want to make entertaining films. You want to do as much as you can and then you then you actually have a wealth of experience.
A lot of your movies explore extreme male-bonding spaces—criminal gangs, military service, poker games, covert operations—and I wonder if this in any way is a response to the loss of male-only spaces elsewhere in the culture?
Not particularly. I mean, I make movies about things where I feel as though I’m relatively familiar with the subject. I’ve been making films about men for the last 25 years, I suppose. And the bond in there, but I wouldn’t think it’s gender-specific. Really, it’s about the bonds and complications of people’s relationships.
You are undertaking the sequel to The Gentleman as a TV series. We live in the era of the sequel. Why did you choose this one as your franchise?
The attractive thing about The Gentleman is it’s a TV series. I have to say that is a beguiling departure from just making films. When you realize how immersive you can become within certain worlds, TV does become very attractive.
Christopher Raphael Henry Golding, Matthew McConaughey and Charlie Hunnam try to make a gentleman’s agreement in ‘The Gentlemen’
Do you have a preference for the way you’d like people to consume it?
Yeah, I’m a binger. So I like to wait until it’s all there together. And then I’ll rattle through the episodes like bullets in a full magazine. I like to do the whole clip. I can immerse myself in just two or three days of hardcore TV.
Is there a character in your universe that you think could spin off? A character that you’ve created that you’ve thought, that’s a really interesting guy, I’d like to see him have his own movie?
Hugh Grant is rather interesting. He’s so watchable. He seems to represent something that very few people represent nowadays. He’s incredibly fresh, and he’s his own man.
Any chance he could be yummy again?
That might be a hard sell. Although, he plays characters, and they’re attractive to watch, those characters. So in that sense I think Hugh is still yummy because you end up watching him and enjoying watching him. He has somehow managed to retain that yumminess, but maybe not in such a conventional cliche fashion.