SENSE OF WONDER
by Frederick S. Clarke
Alien has turned out to be one consolation in a dreary summer parade of rehashed horror, including Night-Wing, The Amityville Horror, Prophecy and Dracula, losers all. Of course, Alien does a good deal of its own rehashing. The only difference is, it does it well. And for that we have director Ridley Scott to thank, for putting back the tension and urgency of realism in outer space, perhaps better than anyone since Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Interviews with Scott, by Mark Patrick Carducci and Glenn Lovell, lead off this issue devoted to “Making Alien: Behind the Scenes,” and explain how Scott managed to make a ’50s science fiction B-picture credible for the ’70s.
Contrasting Ridley Scott’s sleek veneer of lived-in authenticity, are the film’s bizarre Alien designs by Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger. Giger’s concept of biomechanics refreshes old science fiction cliches by giving them a new visual aesthetic, much in the way Trumbull’s glowing UFOs made the refurbished ’50s themes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind more palatable. Glenn Lovell interviewed Giger during his U. S. publicity tour, and we sent our Paris correspondent, Frederic Albert Levy, to Giger’s home in Zurich to learn in detail how haunted images from the artist’s Necronomicon served as a guide for the film’s most disturbing elements.
Other interviews on Alien presented in this issue were selected to highlight the contributions of key members of the film’s creative team, who have not as yet spoken out in print about their work, despite the huge amount of publicity the film has garnered. Jordan, R. Fox spoke to mechanical effects expert Carlo Rambaldi in Hollywood to learn the story behind the articulated alien heads that made Giger’s Alien design come alive. London correspondents Mike Childs and Alan Jones talked with Bolaji Badejo. the young black actor who played the Alien, Roger Dicken, the talented effects man responsible for the small alien forms in the film, production designer Michael Seymour and associate producer Ivor Powell. And to clear up the controversy surrounding the film’s derivative screenplay, we interviewed producers Walter Hill and David Giler.
Ridley Scott Director
Walter Hill Producer
David Giler Producer
Carlo Rambaldi Creator of Alien Head Effects
Bolaji Badejo “The Alien”
Michael Seymour Production Designer
Ivor Powell Associate Producer
Roger Dicken Creator of Small Alien Forms
H.R. Giger Alien Designer
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“As soon as you accept a script like this, you begin to worry about what you’re going to do with the man in the rubber suit,’’’
by Mark Patrick Carducci and Glenn Lovell
With only two feature-length films to his credit, Ridley Scott, 39, is being hailed the master of visual stimulation. Before he made the transition to movies (with 1976’s The Duellists), the British director headed Ridley Scott Associates, a London-based firm that churned out some 3000 television commercials, many of which were prize-winners and, he boasts, “would still bowl you over.” He now credits his ten-year apprenticeship in the advertising field for teaching him how, in the least amount of time, to mold and direct viewer response. Alien, which he likens to “a nail being hammered into your head,” is the result of this early training. “It employs the ultimate science of viewer manipulation — a lot of the psychological elements I learned in advertising, specifically in the editing and lighting of 30-to-45-second spots.”
As did suspense/horror specialists as far removed as Alfred Hitchcock and Jack Arnold, Scott came to film following a formal education in art. It was while at the Royal College of Art that he first discovered a natural aptitude for the medium. His first film, financed for 100 British pounds, was a 16mm short tilled Boy on a Bicycle. Foreshadowing his present fascination with macabre “chance” meetings that more often than not terminate in senseless violence, it dealt with a boy playing hooky from school anti meeting a madman. Scott’s younger brother played the truant youth; Scott’s father the crazed stranger. The British Film Institute was so impressed that Scott was awarded a grant to expand and elaborate on the short. A job as set designer with BBC-TV followed shortly thereafter, a half-hour, 16mm version of Paths Of Glory, something completed as part of a BBC production course, netted him two episodes directing a series called Z-CARS, followed by working on the top-rated Informer series. After three years in television production, Scott (with the aid of his brother) struck out on his own in the more lucrative TV commercial business. Of the several hundred ads he personally supervised, he is proudest of those for Levi jeans, Hovis Bread and Strongbow Cider. The Hovis Bread spot, set in an old-time bakery and featuring sophisticated back lighting and eerie mist effects soon to become Scott’s trademark, is considered something of a classic in advertising circles. An offer from French television to direct an hour-long drama led to The Duellists, and a new phase in Scott’s career. Now, with a second feature under his belt, Scott vows he’ll never return to ad work.
Refreshingly unpretentious, Scott is perfectly happy hearing Alien referred to as a “$10 million B-movie.” He intended it to be a “vicious shocker”—an unrelenting experiment in pure terror which borrows brazenly from the technical innovations of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and, to an even greater extent, George Lucas’ Star Wars. Unlike these models, though, he agrees there is nothing enigmatic or benign about Alien; it is a dry scream of a shocker aiming to intimidate, manipulate. . . and frighten.
How did you become involved in Alien?
Almost three years ago, I was shown the reworked Dan O’Bannon script. At the time I was at a standstill with Tristan and Iseult, an Arthurian tale about knights and sorcery. So I was looking for something. I was immediately attracted to Alien for the same reasons I was attracted to Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Duellists. It was so simple, so linear, absolutely pure, an idea with no fat. The script was short and very specific—and unbelievably violent. It took me less than 45 minutes to read. That really impressed me. I sensed that it would play even faster than it read.
What little science fiction I’d seen had been too similar. 2001 was my personal revelation, and I began to speculate on what else could be done in space. Then came Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I realized the tremendous quality that was possible in making these films stand head and shoulders above the usual quickie space flick or horror movie. I saw something new in Alien. I was attracted to the theory of over-powering industrial influence, the conglomerate mass control, the Big Brother syndrome. Most of all, though, it was the thrilling aspect of the unseen, inescapable force of evil.
Were you aware, going in, of the similarities between O’Bannon’s script and Edward Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space?
Someone brought up that title about halfway through production. That title and others. But I’d never seen the film you refer to, and was not aware of it. So, no, I was not aware of any similarities.
Once committed to the script, how did you proceed?
In the few horror films I’ve seen, with the exception of maybe one or two, the creatures haven’t been terribly good. As soon as you accept a script like this, you begin to worry about what you’re going to do with “the man in the rubber suit.” So the alien became our first priority. We had to make it totally repulsive and yet scary as hell. I looked at sketches of blobs and octopuses and dinosaurs. They were all awful. We could have gone on that way for months. Just as I was ready to throw in the towel, Shusett and O’Bannon showed me H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon, the book by the Swiss surrealist. On the bottom half of page 65 I found a painting of a demon with ajutting face and long, extended, phallic-shaped head. It was the most frightening thing I’d ever seen. I knew immediately that here was our creature. That 1976 painting [Necronom IV] was the basis for the monster.
And the cluttered look of the craft itself—the empty beer cans, male pinups, wind chimes, etc.—whose idea was that?
The environment took shape almost by itself. If you look at some of my early commercials, you’ll realize I’ve always concerned myself with what seem to be extraneous things, tactile things. My obsession for detail angered a lot of people on the set—I wanted the lighting and props just so. But in the end, I think these small touches make an enormous difference.
Like the dunking toy birds. . .
Yes, like the incongruity of these people things, the paradox of plastic toys existing in the same ship with all-out terror. I was going to cut to the birds more often—for macabre humor, if you will—but I backed off because it seemed too pretentious. The cat, Jones, he was a pure red herring.
Could you elaborate on the scenes you edited out?
With horror films I’ve always believed less is more. Our rough cut was just too intense. So we cut out 11 minutes, including the episode in which Ripley finds Dallas, alive and begging to be killed, in the creature’s cocoon. Originally, there was a stronger degree of terror. Just subtle things, half-seen, half-heard things earlier in the picture. Consequently, you have the audience holding on from the beginning. That’s no good. There’s no break in the tension, as Hitchcock provides in Psycho. If it ran as we shot it, it would have created an almost nauseous feeling in the viewer. So we backed off. I happen to be a great admirer of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film was absolutely, utterly relentless—a real heart-stopper. But Hooper overdid it. If he had just eased back a bit, if he had let you off the hook a couple of times, he could have captured a much broader audience.
And as with Hooper’s film, repeat viewings of Alien prove that much more is suggested than you first thought.
The “chest-birth” is by far the most gruesome scene. The fights with the alien were staged like formal duels. Their stance—the crewmembers’— is almost eloquent and they wield weapons—the flamethrowers—like swords. I envisioned the final encounter, however, like a fight between alley cats.
Did you tone down the sex?
We did shoot one semi-romantic scene between Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerritt. Their antagonism early in the story leads one to think (or hope) they’ll wind up loving each other. But that’s not the purpose of the film. Ripley suggests to Dallas that she’d like a “release,” but that’s as close as we got to explaining sex in space. The scene was out as unnecessary. The viewer may assume that on a spaceship it’s a question of “sex for all” or else it’s bromides. One thing’s sure, melancholia is the end effect of space travel. Ripley does a modest strip once in the shuttle, but we kept that in to stress the vulnerability of a lady who’s pretty much a ballsy sort.
In almost all science fiction/monster movies, from The Thing to It Came From Outer Space, man attempts to communicate with the alien lifeform, despite obvious dangers to himself. It’s almost a “given” in the genre. Did you consider a variation on this traditional confrontation/meeting between science and the deadly unknown?
No. We consciously avoided those conventional areas. If they stopped to talk to the thing, it would have detracted from the thriller elements. So we consciously steered clear of the meeting you’re talking about. Remember, the crew is too busy surviving to think of reasoning with it. It becomes clear, I think, early on, that it was not designed to talk or reason—only to kill.
Were you trying to “say anything” in your handling of the film?
After what happened to The Duellists, I’d rather not help critics read things into my films. The Duellists was not an “art” film, but it was shown exclusively at “art houses.” I’d much rather have seen it as a B-feature on the same bill with a Clint Eastwood film. The same with my new film. There’s nothing that’s very intellectual about Alien. That’s the point of the film. It has absolutely no message. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.
What frightens you?
Claustrophobia frightens me. I can’t stand the thought of being restricted for a long period of rime. Obviously, then, I related to the dilemma of the crewmembers of the Nostromo. Even worse than facing the alien is the thought of being in those cramped quarters for more than a year’s time. You have to relate on a very personal level to what frightens you the most. I did that by consciously making their quarters even more cramped. I wanted Yaphet Kotto, who’s a very tall man, to feel my discomfort, to duck every time he walked into a new compartment.
Will you do another science fiction film soon?
My next film will certainly not be science fiction. My next one will be totally different. I’ll return to the Tristan and Iseult project. Only it’ll probably be called Knight. Again, the idea will be to steer clear of the trap of treating familiar themes conventionally. My knights will be treated irreverently—sort of like down-trodden cowboys rather than medieval heroes. After that one, I’ll probably return to science fiction. I still have a lot of ideas in this area that I want to bring to the screen. I tried to squeeze many of them into Alien, even though I knew they were completely irrelevant. For instance. I wanted to use small sensor crafts to carry messages between the space-tug compartments. We were going to call them “mice.” I came up with many ideas, but was slapped down because they were too elaborate, and would have upped the budget higher than Fox was willing to go. I’ll pull them out later. The important thing now for me is to keep working. The trap is in not making enough films.
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On the surface of things, Ridley Scott’s second feature as a director seems to be exactly the sort of science fiction film that’s stigmatized the genre for decades. One can already hear the collective, pained outcry of progressive purists everywhere, their feverish allegation that Scott “has set the genre back thirty years,” etc., etc. Exhibit A? Alien has a monster in it (one hell of a monster in it, too); and in order to tell the story it tells and depict what it depicts. Alien violates and/or completely ignores many a known scientific reality. But if Alien must be counted a throwback, consider this: in being so it returns us to certain of the genre’s most basic, elemental qualities. In this respect, the screenplay consciously tips its hand, opening as it does with a poetic, yet precise W. H. Auden epigram; “Science-fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes, then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket.”
But Alien is out of balance, as long on forward momentum and shock as it is short on logic, depth of characterization or at times even clarity. Paradoxically, the film’s strength, the Alien itself, is also its greatest weakness. The thing is too monstrous, too deadly, too awful. No amount of originality of plot, richness of character or faithful adherence to scientific fact can balance out its presence in the same movie. Whence comes the decision of filmmakers to concentrate their energies where they would do most good, on the simple power of the screenplay’s conflict. Alien’s triumph? We, the audience, are made to feel that we are next. Credit Ridley Scott for this.
What was the extent of your exposure to science fiction in literature and cinema prior to Alien?
It was minimal. I was never very involved with science fiction beyond knowing that someday, at some point, I wanted to make a film within that genre. Alien came right out of the blue, sent to me by Sandy Leiberson at 20th Century-Fox in London. He’d seen The Duellists.
Which draft did he send you? Dan O’Bannon’s original?
I read the Walter Hill, Dan O’Bannon, David Giler, Ronald Shusett version. By this time it was very much a compilation.
How did O’Bannon originally interest producer Gordon Carroll in the material?
O’Bannon and Shusett had been pushing scripts around for a while. They’d submitted Alien to Fox, but it had been rejected.
When the script was still called Starbeast?
I don’t know. Starbeast? Jesus! Well, somehow they got it to Gordon Carroll at Brandywine Productions, a company under Fox’s “umbrella” in which he was partners with Hill and Giler. Brandywine was obliged to hand over things they were developing to Fox for first refusal. I think it was Walter Hill who read it and was quite taken with it. To begin with, he did an editing job on it. He polished it and presented it to Fox, who then seemed to find it a lot more interesting. Coming from Walter Hill, it had more muscle behind it and they took it very seriously. Then Hill and Giler really rewrote it, took things out, added things. They introduced, for instance, the element of women, five men and two women instead of seven men.
After reading it were you immediately excited about directing it?
Yes, but I have to explain. I read it as soon as I received it because it came from Sandy Lieberson. There are certain people who, when they send you a script, you just know it’s going to be of interest, be an intelligent shot at something. So Alien bypassed a whole pile of scripts I was reading. I read it very quickly and got back to him with my opinion that it was terrific and all of that. But at that point I couldn’t do it because I was committed to something else. That something else fell through two months later, and I called him back and asked if Alien was still available. He said yes and two days later I was in L.A.
Was there a key image or scene in the screenplay that hooked you?
It was all of them. They were outrageous; absolutely outrageous. I mean outrageous right off the page, which very seldom happens. Hill writes a screenplay in a very communicative way. The image just comes bang at you and you understand absolutely what is going on. There’s a very linear quality to the way he writes. I got a great sense of the drive, the power of the script. And that’s unusual.
Was further work done on the script after you committed?
Obviously one has to make changes. One begins with the best of intentions, saying to a writer. “Look, this doesn’t need changing at all, it’s wonderful.” But reading a screenplay with a view towards directing it is very different from merely reading it.
Is it true you were still involved in effects shooting until very recently?
Yes. The entire picture was a killer to make, physically. I’ve only really eased off in the last month or so. We were still refining various effects until two months ago.
Which scenes were these?
To do with the end of the movie. Though we had two units going at once, a live-action and an effects unit, the stuff we did in the beginning wasn’t exactly what we wanted. Most special effects are a matter of doing a shot over and over in different ways. Gradually, through a process of elimination, you learn what not to do. The way to do the ending, where the ship’s exhaust blasts the alien out into space, came to me accidentally. I knew we would have to do this extraordinary ending, building shock upon shock, but I didn’t know how the hell to actually depict it. We were filming the scene where the Harry Dean Stanton character, Brett, gets it. He walks into this room dominated by a huge piece of equipment, like a big foot. In fact it was one of the ship’s landing legs, used in the planet exteriors. He’s walking around and there’s this rain, or condensation pouring down in there. I got some shots looking straight up at these four, very symmetrical round openings. They looked like jets or exhausts. And because the water was pouring down on us when we saw the rushes, it gave us a clue about how to do the ending. The water looked like plasma, because it was dropping in long, slow needles of light.
The way the alien just falls away from the ship, intact, one gets the feeling it may be indestructible.
I think it is indestructible. It just made a mistake, that’s alt. It was outraged.
Can you outline and talk about Alien‘s various production phases?
Preproduction was very fast. Alien was somewhat unorthodox in the way it got started. There was always a certain inevitability about it when I arrived in L.A. My presence, the director’s presence, was the missing link. If you’re around for months trying to develop something as a producer, it eventually gets very disheartening. You begin to wonder if it’s ever going to happen. And I came in representing a stab of new enthusiasm, which was just what they needed at that point. We started to move towards a hypothetical start date. We hadn’t even agreed on the budget yet. We had to have a very fast but accurate storyboarding of the script. It was very fast, but storyboarding is very helpful and I always do it anyway. We went with that board for budgeting and arrived at a figure of $4.5 million, a totally speculative and I thought unrealistic budget, I took hold of it and it escalated to $8 million. But we justified it with another board. By now we were casting and building sets and everything just funneled towards this frightening July 25 start date. At one point, we contemplated pushing it up a couple of weeks to give ourselves a chance to get things more complete before we started.
This was in—
May. Altogether we had four months prep on Alien, which was crazy for something like this. That’s working very quickly. But whipping along like that, with the adrenalin going and everybody working flat-out, it’s quite good; there’s a buzz to it all. We started shooting on July 25 and worked for sixteen weeks, which gave us all the main unit shooting with the floor effects, By floor effects I mean anything to do with the alien in its various forms, the various explosions within the ship, all of that. Special effects for the other stuff, the miniature work, were moving sort of slowly. At the end of that sixteen weeks, I moved into my editing period. This was in early November—I was editing while shooting effects with Nick Allder and his crew at Bray.
The effects shot of the alien falling away from the ship’s exhausts, that u as shot at Bray?
No. As a matter of fact, that was done on the floor of Shepperton, during main unit shooting. That was a wire job, the alien just hanging there with quartz iodine lights all around him, camera on the ground, shooting straight up. As I said, we used water for the exhaust effect, which sounded very illogical when we were discussing it. We couldn’t have done it with fire—well, you could have, but it would have looked like fire. As soon as you use fire, you’ve got yellow. I wanted that whiteness. And you wouldn’t have fire in space, would you?
I’ve several questions regarding the alien; both aliens. The first one seen sitting at that giant device inside the derelict spaceship, what is it exactly?
That one has nothing to do with the later alien, the main one. He was just one of the pilots of that vehicle. So if that was a ship with a crew, what happened to them was that they encountered this strange species when they accidentally landed on the planet. Maybe they had to land there for repairs. That crew was taken. The only one left managed to get to his seat and send out this warning signal. We might go into all this in the sequel.
Are you interested in directing a sequel?
Oh, sure. In many respects it’ll be more interesting from a pure science fiction standpoint. We’d get into more speculative areas, deal with two different civilizations.
So the alien of the film’s title was the dominant life form?
On that rock, yes. It may have waited thousands of years for some other form to come near. It’s only trigger, you see, is another life form. Another biological presence enables it to move on and develop. It truly does have a kind of abstract purity. And, also, it’s almost like a weapon; a product of biological, rather than bacteriological warfare. We never went into any of this but perhaps it was developed as a weapon and got out of control. Imagine a few thousand of those things.
In an early Walter Hill draft of the script, the character Ash was not a robot, but a human, just another crewmember. Mother had a voice like HAL 9000 in Kubrick’s 2001. The parallels to Kubrick’s film were quite marked.
It was logical to have a speaking computer—we have them right now as toys for kids. Our scientific advisor on this said all computers will someday speak, and they’ll take any voice desired. Eventually there’ll come a point where computers are replaced by something far more sophisticated, which is fairly staggering. He was talking about an intelligence explosion. This could make exploratory space travel outmoded. The computer will simply speculate, quite accurately, on what’s out there. But to get back to the point. I think HAL 9000 was a brilliant idea. The parallels to Space Odyssey were just too close. So we broke Mother down into Ash.
Who did and when?
Hill and Giler, quite early. I liked the original idea and we wrestled around with it but we all decided it was too close. We’d in all honesty have had to include an end credit reading, “special thanks to Stanley Kubrick.” Logically, one had to reject that. So Hill and Giler had Ash replace Mother, making her less important in that sense. She simply became the governing factor running the ship.
The alien’s metamorphosis eventually moves it in the direction of humanoid form. Why?
The logic was this: if let’s say, a dog had gone down into there, and the alien had smacked out on the dog, then it would have become dog-like. The human form was not only a host but a model. This doesn’t happen on Earth. I think it’s a biological impossibility.
But it has a nice symmetry. Did you know how you wanted the baby alien to look?
No, except that I knew he must resemble the big guy in some way or another. And people are quite stunned by the thing. One must give Roger Dicken credit for a marvelous job. Because we had to work backwards, I knew first what the largest, the final alien would look like. Someone said it reminded them of a dolphin.
The way a dolphin brings itself up to full height by flapping its tail in water.
When it drops onto Harry Dean Stanton it also looks like a dolphin. That’s one of my favorite moments in the film, where that out-of-focus sort of member comes down and you know it’s really strong, just incredibly powerful. That scene gives people an amazing feeling. That’s when they know they’re really in trouble. We were driving ourselves mad over the look of the little guy. Not even Shusett and O’Bannon got to see it. We kept it under wraps because what can happen is that one gets too many suggestions and comments, a case of too many cooks. I would drive way out to Roger Dicken’s house, which is far west of London. Dicken would not work in the studio, you see. I’d drive out every day to this gothic, Victorian house. Coincidentally, Dicken always wears black, the same as Giger. At first, Dicken had a tendency to go in the direction I resisted, a more classical notion of the monster, with warts and bumps and claws. But he had a marvelous technical expertise in model-making. Giger was along as well on these trips. Eventually he got more involved with the big guy because it was so difficult.
I think finally, when you want to be really scared, you’ve got to have a very private thought. You’ve got to think about what it is that physically makes you very uneasy, that upsets you in a primal way. And I’m not very easily upset. But we looked at various painters’ works, and the one that caught us was by Francis Bacon, the three fleshy necks with jaws on the end. The primality, if there is such a word, was what interested me. The model itself, when it was finally made, was very odd and spooky. The jaws of it were metal and a cable system operated it. I had to look at the creature quite a lot because there were quite a lot of rushes. Nearly always those things look hokey and you’ve got to cut away quickly. But I wanted to and was able to sit and watch it.
How did you make it run past the camera?
It was purely mechanical, a rail system to get him off fast. In that instance I wanted it to move with great violence across the table, so that you got the impression that, though he was small, he was lethal.
How did you achieve the sound effect of its bark?
A mixture of three things, which we then distorted: a viper, a pig’s squeal and a baby’s cry.
I remember being positive it was going to strike out at one of the crew at that moment.
It didn’t, you see, because it was bewildered. It was probably blind. All it could do was bite its way out of any difficulty. On the soundtrack, while Kane is having convulsions, you can hear it coming through. You can hear sinews and tissue ripping because he’s biting through.
Were there discoveries, changes made in editing, or did Alien cut together as you’d pre-planned it?
There were no real surprises. I don’t usually function like that. I’m very well covered. The cheapest element when you’re making a film is celluloid, so it’s madness not to be covered. Provided you are, cutting is usually fairly simple. Getting that real edge on a scene is difficult, however. And what it comes down to is just driving yourself and the editor around the bend, refining and re-editing and making various tiny changes.
Was deciding how long to hold on the alien at given points a problem for you?
What we wanted was to give an impression, although a very specific one. We always held onto him for as long as we could. When we would cut away, it was never out of embarrassment, but only because enough is enough—you didn’t need to see more of it. Physically, he always stood up very well onscreen.
How was proper matching in lighting achieved for the miniatures?
I was around for most of the shooting of them, finally, because much of what we did in the beginning wasn’t exactly what we wanted. There were no problems here. Nick Allder and his crew always saw our rushes. On balance, the miniature stuff is slightly grainier, because we wanted to keep away from the idea of clean surfaces in space; spacecraft will get dirty, burnt, corroded through various means.
What aspect of Alien took its greatest toll on you? You’ve already said that it was a difficult picture, physically.
Obsession with detail — detail in event area. You’ve got to have that. On a small unit, you’re dealing with maybe sixty people. On a large unit, like Alien, you’re dealing with a work force of something like 280. That means you’re increasing your chances of failure simply because there are so many people. Whether it’s the producer or the director, there has to be a central figure who is the anchor, the obsessive mainstay, someone to be the one to say, “No, that isn’t it. we’ve got to go again.” Because it’s easier than one thinks to say. “Fuck it, let’s go on.” Do that too many times and you come to the end of your shooting schedule with a film made up of compromises. So the key thing is obsessiveness with quality, and, of course, just simple physical stamina. If you tire out, you won’t be functioning well enough to keep the quality up. You’ll wind up saving, “Fuck it. I’m going to bed,” which, again, you just can’t do.
Was it Dan O’Bannon who was pushing far you to use the music of a composer named Tomita? Specifically, Tomita’s overwhelming rendition of Holst’s “The Planets,” the Mars, Bringer of War section?
Actually, I was. Tomita was first brought to my attention by editor, Terry Rawlings, who was my sound editor on The Duellists. He brought in “The Planets.” It was so powerful, so outrageous. That music said all there was to say about what the alien was. Imagine many of them, a lot of them, having the capability of getting about. Christ almighty! I think Tomita’s music evokes that. I was talked out of using it, finally, for various reasons, and went the more conventional genre route in film music. It’s worked out quite well, though.
A final question regarding the screenplay. Did its lack of character development, enhancement, worry you?
That’s always a danger. But some of the most successful films made are like that; Clint Eastwood’s, for instance. In a film like Alien, one has, I think, to take care to present only so much information about the characters. I mean, as soon as you cast an actor, that actor brings a certain amount of “character” to that part. Harry Dean Stanton, as Brett, brings by his very presence intrinsic qualities to the character, qualities the audience can recognize. We tried to make the characters believable as people by what they do. For example, we’ve all done what Brett does when he goes off to look for the cat. I’ve done it. I’ve got a burglar alarm at home. It went off once and the first thing I did was run downstairs with a sort of walking stick. If anyone had been down there, I might have gotten my head blown off. The logical thing to have done would have been to wait upstairs until the police arrive. But we always, most of us, do the stupid thing; not the macho thing but the stupid thing.
Mark Patrick Carducci
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“We saw Dark Star, which Dan O’Bannon seemed to take a lot of credit for, although he didn’t direct it. He said he’d written it, done all the effects, and when the director wasn’t looking, did most of the directing.”
by Mark Patrick Carducci
Tied inexorably to the production history of any motion picture is the authorship of its screenplay. In the case of Alien, Dan O’Bannon wrote an original screenplay with that title and many of the resulting motion picture’s events and images. The final shooting script, however, contains substantial amounts of new material, added jointly by Walter Hill and David Giler, partners with Gordon Carroll in Brandywine Productions. In parcelling out the credits, 20th Century-Fox recommended to the Writer’s Guild of America that Hill and Giler get screenplay credit, asking that O’Bannon be credited with “story by,” only. Such a request automatically triggers an arbitration, per Writer’s Guild rules, to decide the matter. Opines Walter Hill, “An arbitration is an unbelievably medieval process, in which a decision is rendered to which there is no appeal. The basic system, unfortunately, disenfranchises whoever writes the actual shooting script,” The WGA judgment awarded sole screenplay credit to O’Bannon, a decision that erred in accuracy as equally as Fox’s original request to give O’Bannon no credit for the screenplay at all. The fact is that three people are responsible for the script that Ridley Scott put before the cameras. But this is an old store, one certain of repetition until new rulings come down from the Guild regarding arbitration procedures.
Walter Hill has been on either side of an arbitration in his time. In the past, he has gone out of his way to cite his own limited contribution to produced screenplays that, due to the odd workings of the WGA, list him as the only writer. Hill has had a prolific career as a Hollywood screenwriter His first screenplay was Hickey and Boggs, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. He wrote The Getaway for director Sam Peckinpah, The Mackintosh Man and The Drowning Pool for Paul Newman, and The Thief Who Came to Dinner, which starred Ryan O’Neal and Jacqueline Bisset. Hill began directing his own scripts with Hard Times, followed by The Driver and, most recently, The Warriors, which he co-wrote with David Shaber, During our interview, Hill emphasized that he did not want to come off sounding either bitter or particularly resentful about the outcome of the Writer’s Guild arbitration over Alien’s screenplay credit. While disagreeing with the WGA decision. Hill takes a somewhat philosophical overview of the dispute, figuring that in the past he’s won a few and lost a few. Hill did suggest something that has been taken up here, an examination of three separate drafts of Alien— O’Bannon’s original, Hill’s own first rewrite of the original, and the final shooting script by Hill and David Giler.
Alien is an example of a neophyte writing talent hitting upon a concept it is unprepared to develop fully. Alien‘s plotline, structure and especially the brilliantly nightmarish creature at its core, are all courtesy of the imagination (or memory) of Dan O’Bannon, It must be admitted that Alien would not exist as a movie, in any form, if O’Bannon had not put pen to paper. He was certainly the source. But if his draft had been lensed, Alien would have been far more juvenile and derivative than it is, without ever having realized its potential as a shocker. It’s possible the property would have languished unproduced indefinitely, had Waller Hilt not been excited by its prospects upon first reading it. Hill was, if anything, reluctant to fan the fires of controversy, but couldn’t help recalling the early stages of his relationship with O’Bannon.
“We saw Dark Star,” said Hill, “which O’Bannon seemed to take a lot of credit for, although he didn’t direct it. He said he’d written it, done all the effects and, when the director wasn’t looking, did most of the directing. Now I’ve never been around a movie, good, bad or indifferent, that the director didn’t direct! We allowed O’Bannon to be a part of the production over in London as a condition of taking on the screenplay. He constantly said he was interested in being the visual consultant, so we thought of some title to give him, some hoked-up thing because he wasn’t a member of any of the guilds.”
O’Bannon and his screenplay had been making the rounds for some time, and had been passed on repeatedly, when the thought of getting Walter Hill to take a look at it occurred to him. This was fairly inventive director-casting, considering the nature of Alien and Hill’s reputed specially, stylistically ritualized action-adversary drama. O’Bannon credits Hard Times, Hill’s first feature as a writer-director, with making him think of Hill in the first place. A mutual friend named Mark Haggard passed it to Hill through the office window one hot afternoon as he was passing by Brandywine’s offices. “The window store as reported in the Wall Street Journal is quite true,” explained Hill. “The O’Bannon-[Ronald] Shusett script was, in any kind of literary sense, remarkably unsophisticated. It had not even B-picture merit. That was its problem. Nobody could take it seriously. It wasn’t a professional job. It was poorly written. It had a ‘Jesus, gadzooks’ quality and no real differentiation in characters. But there was no question in my mind that they wanted to do a science fiction version of Jaws.
“It was put together with a lot of low cunning. To my mind, they had worked out a very interesting problem. How do you destroy a creature you can’t kill without destroying your own life support system? I thought this a good notion. But the script had a lot of junk in it, like holograms and other current ‘pop’ stuff. In one store conference I recall O’Bannon wanted the ship to sail into a kind of Bermuda Triangle in space. There was this genuflect to Pyramidology; the alien eggs were in the bottom of a pyramid. O’Bannon and Shusett presented their draft to us and we asked O’Bannon not to write anymore, to stay away from pens and pencils altogether. He didn’t seem to mind.”
O’Bannon prefaces his draft with a variation on the epigram, a definition: “Alien, adj.—strange, foreign, distant, remote, hostile, repugnant. His narrative, scene for scene, generally parallels the finished film, though there are crucial, major differences. Some of these might well be called “negative differences,” in that they represent ideas, action and dialogue that was dropped. Example: the skull of the fossilized alien is brought onboard the ship (called the Snark in this draft), referred to as “Poor Yurick” during the film, and later winding up in the shuttlecraft with the surviving crewman. There is even a stilted bit of dialogue about the skull being “proof for the skeptics back home.” Hill is quoted by O’Bannon [see 8:2:83] as once having said that one of his strengths in the project was that he knew nothing about science-fiction. If so, Hill must have cut O’Bannon’s material instinctively, sensing it was elicited without specific knowledge of the genre. We can perhaps be grateful to Hill and director Ridley Scott’s lack of exposure to the science fiction field. Their ignorance somewhat camouflages Alien‘s derivations and balances O’Bannon’s hardcore-fan’s tendency towards the trap of unoriginality.
In the O’Bannon script, the crew is all-male, which in retrospect must seem a miscalculation even to him, considering his intent to produce something commercial. The dialogue is verbose, lacking strong, declarative sentences and therefore lacking rhythm and tension. His concepts for Alien are clearly an outgrowth of a lifetime exposure to the genre, both in film and literature. He borrows freely from classics and clinkers alike: Forbidden Planet, The Thing; Fiend Without a Face and, of course, Jerome Bixby’s low-budget gem It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
Even a casual reading of this draft yields a distinctly non-contemporary sensibility with regard to the characters, peopled with a conscious or unconscious synthesis of the archetypal 50’s science fiction hero. The O’Bannon characters, Hunter, Standard, Roby, Faust, Melkonis and Broussard do indeed conjure up the “Jesus, gadzooks” quality that Walter Hill mentions.
The comraderie is tense, artificial. There’s a forced, take-charge, almost macho attitude on the part of the highest-ranking officer. It barely worked for Leslie Nielsen and is completely unacceptable today. O’Bannon’s essentially sterile, buttoned-down, duty conscious “heroes” are, in plain terms, corny. The following excerpt from O’Bannon’s script roasts an old chestnut: someone gets slapped and, in effect, says “I deserved that.”
ROBY APPEARS IN THE DOORWAY
Standard turns and looks at him. For a long moment the two men regard each other, then STANDARD STEPS FORWARD AND SLAPS ROBY ACROSS THE FACE.
The others are shocked.
Hey now, what is this?
(slowly puts his hand to his cheek)
I understand why you did that.
He wouldn’t open the lock; he was going to leave us out there.
Yeah. . . well, maybe he should have. I mean you brought the goddamn thing in here. Maybe you deserve to get slapped.
Excuse me. I’ve got work to do.
I keep my mouth pretty much shut, but I don’t like hitting.
I guess I had it coming. Let’s call it settled.
After a hard stare at ROBY, STANDARD gives him a curt nod and turns his attention to the machinery.
The O’Bannon script has other flaws. Poor plotting sends the men out of the ship no less than three times, and needlessly complicates matters by including a huge pyramid in addition to the derelict spaceship. Hill’s first draft expands the pyramid to an entire city, never fully explored. In subsequent rewrites with David Giler, he drops both the city and pyramid altogether, locating the ’eggs’ in or beneath the derelict ship. This also limits the forays onto the planetoid surface to just one. O’Bannon’s script suggests a dead, indigenous society through the discovery of “strange symbols” etched in the pyramid walls. This is intriguing but distracting, and was cut by Hill and Giler.
Later on in his draft, O’Bannon subjects us to several scenes almost obligatory to 50s science fiction. After returning to the ship, the men review holograms of what they’ve seen for the benefit of those who remained in the ship. It’s a lazy solution to the screenwriter’s problem of bringing characters not present during critical events up-to-date and it slows the script tremendously. In addition, it forces the audience to sit through something they’re already witnessed. Hill and Giler’s solution? Live television coverage of the planetoid’s exploration.
If this early script can be said to have a single, major weakness, it is its lack of action, the deadly intrusions of the Alien aside. There are interminable exchanges about “what should be done,” but very little happens. The script cries out for a subplot that would act as a catalyst when the Alien isn’t onscreen. Hill injected one into his first rewrite, a speaking computer called Mother. This excerpt from an early Hill rewrite details Ripley’s confrontation with Mother, written in Hill’s unique staccato writing style, which director Ridley Scott claims got him excited about the project in the beginning.
Your not doing enough, Mother. Your job is to offer us choices, and you haven’t offered us any.
You’re not feeling well. We’d better get you into the autodoc for a little chemo-analysis.
Ripley takes out a large screwdriver.
Begins bolting the plate in front of her.
I’ve got doubts about who you’re working for. When you doubt something, that’s a problem. . . I’ve got enough problems.
Mother locks the compartment door from outside.
Shoots the oxygen supply into the computer room. Ripley now in a vacuum.
Works the screwdriver furiously.
Pressure clamps falling away from the plate.
Her face swelling. Eyes bulging.
The plate comes off.
She crawls inside.
Row on row of circuitry.
Ripley starts down a long corridor.
Mother kills the lights.
Fires electrodes at her.
Ripley breaks into a run.
Still without oxygen.
Dodges and squirms through multi-colored tracer bullets.
Arrives at a series of raised crystals.
Each glass dome containing amber fluid.
She raises the screwdriver overhead.
Thrusts into the first crystal
Oh. That doesn’t feel good. You bitch.
Oh. . . don’t baby. Don’t.
Oh. That’s awful. You little cocksucker.
Amber fluid spilling out.
Ripley’s face now purple.
One more crystal stabbed.
Oh. That’s all. Please.
Audible snap from the outer door lock.
The hatch swings open.
Oxygen rushes back inside.
While O’Bannon’s version also contains a speaking computer, its functions are limited to answering questions and, at the climax, announcing the imminent meltdown of the ship’s nuclear reactor. Hill’s first draft dialogue for Mother, just before Ripley “pulls her plug,” gives a clear picture of what he meant Alien to be about—the acting out of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.
Ripley, lying on the deck, gasping for breath.
Tell me why.
It’s complicated. The highest ideal of science is understanding Nature’s laws. I have been taught to adopt this ideal in its purest form. We encountered an organism whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. . . my inclination was to observe and study rather than destroy.
It was clear that the organism was responding to the laws of natural selection. The Alien had already competed with the civilization which inhabited that planet. . . now the pressure of natural selection has been transferred to you.
I want some enhancement on your position.
What I have the honor of witnessing is one of those rare moments when a major evolutionary step is taken. Two highly successful species in immediate competition for resources and survival. In the interests of pure scientific research I removed myself from the struggle.
You don’t have the right. We built you. You’re part of our survival equipment. You’re supposed to be on our side.
I am loyal only to discovering the truth. A scientific truth demands beauty, harmony and above all simplicity. The problem between you and the alien will produce a simple and elegant solution. Only one of you will survive.
This sense of being about something is exactly what the O’Bannon screenplay lacked. Though, to be fair, it had qualities the Hill-Giler drafts had to do without, in the interests of a different tone and an intensified narrative progression. But Hill and Giler decided that turning Mother into a speaking, dimensional character was too close to the concept of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. So they shifted the material written for Mother to Ash, the science officer, but kept the machine vs. human conflict by making Ash a robot.
The following, semi-poetic interlude from O’Bannon’s script, a reuse of similar material from Dark Star, was retained in shorter form in Hill’s first draft but dropped in the Hill-Giler version.
INT. — OBSERVATION DOME VIEW OE OUTER SPACE
Melkonis is seated in the dome, upside down, peering down into space. Standard, upside-down, climbs into the dome. It is dark and eerie here, under the stars of interstellar space. A few glowing panels provide the only illumination.
I thought I’d find von here.
I was thinking of a line from an old poem. “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” All that space out there, and we’re trapped in this ship.
That’s the one about the albatross, right?
We can’t even radio for help. The carrier wave won’t reach its destination till long after we’ve died and turned to dust. We are utterly, absolutely alone. Can anybody really visualize such a scale of distances? Halfway across creation. . .
We came out there, we’ll go back. A long time by the clock but a short time to us.
Time and space have no meaning out here. We are living in an Einsteinian equation.
Let me tell you something: you keep staring out at hyperspace for long enough, they’ll be peeling you off a wall. I’ve seen it happen.
(smiles at him)
We’re the new pioneers, Chaz. We even have our own special diseases.
Hill’s first crack at cleaning up the O’Bannon screenplay was done very quickly, in two or three days’ time. It kept a great deal of O’Bannon’s material, which would later be cut—Poor Yurick’s skull, the Alien ransacking the ship’s food lockers, an attempt to poison the creature with gas, and other “busy action.” A note of discord was added, by Hill, which had the characters not like each other very much, the side effect of which was that audiences later shared the same view. The descriptions of action and dialogue were tightened, made terse, staccato. This style, Hill’s preference, moved Alien forward on the page, a key factor in turning Fox around in their opinion of the script. Hill’s draft of the chest-burster scene is lean and powerful.
Dallas’ voice strains.
I don’t know, I’m getting cramps.
The others stare at him in alarm.
Suddenly he makes a loud groaning noise, clutching the end of the table with his hands.
What is it? What hurts?
Dallas’ face screws into a mask of agony.
He falls back into his chair.
A red stain.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his tunic is ripped open.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The tiny head lunges forward, comes spurting out of Dallas’ chest trailing a thick body.
Spatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
Then the alien being disappears from sight.
Dallas lies slumped in his chair. Very dead.
A huge hole in his chest.
The dishes are scattered.
Food covered with blood.
What was that? What the Christ was that?
O’Bannon’s dialogue was altered and in some scenes rewritten from scratch. It was not, as previously rumored, simply ‘punched’ through Hill’s staccato format. Perhaps 60% of the O’Bannon draft was retained at this stage. The final Hill-Giler version would retain approximately 30%. The “Jesus, gadzooks” quality disappeared. Real people replaced O‘Bannon’s West Point cadets, right down to dealing with their sexuality—at one point Ripley and Dallas are seen post-coitus on a “pleasure bed.” This Hill draft was presented to Fox, getting Alien launched as far as development money, A guarantee of production was still being mulled. Hill had committed to be Alien’s director, but by the time Fox gave the green light, he’d committed to a western, the still unproduced The Last Gun. Hill was a bit relieved about not having to direct Alien.
“Even though I was intrigued by Alien,” explained Hill. “I’d grown out of love with the idea of doing it. It was, maybe, a long way from the kind of thing I do. Maybe. I think Ridley did a wonderful job directing the movie. It’s no secret that there were quite a few people contacted who didn’t want to do it. Finally, Ridley came into the running and, very wisely, he saw its commercial potential. The irony of Alien was that it was at all times conceived as an enormously commercial project. What David and I constantly said was that if you do this right, you’re going to make an awful lot of money. And those kinds of things almost never turn out to be commercial in the end. Once Fox believed we could make something of this comic book story, they supported it fully. But it took them awhile. It’s difficult to get a studio to commit to this kind of picture that typically has enormous cost over-runs. If you say ten million going in, they tend to think twenty million by the time you come out. Second, the picture was not going to have any well-known actors in it. And third, we wanted to go with Ridley, a director whose first film had been, despite its merits, totally non-commercial. That is a tough quinella for a studio.”
The first collaborative efforts of Hill and Giler took place at Hill’s home in the Hollywood Hills in the fall of 1977. Additional writing was done during preproduction in London, in New York just prior to Hill directing The Warriors, and later, during postproduction in London.
“David Giler was on the set constantly,” said Hill, “as was Gordon Carroll. Four days after I stopped shooting The Warriors, I flew to London to work on the postproduction dialogue. We had a lot of that. Certain things were perceived as problems with regard to audience clarity. This was another ironic turn because it really is a simply story. One of the most controversial aspects of postproduction turned out to be the big alien you see dead in the derelict spaceship. There were strong feelings about it. Would people understand it was meant to be a victim of the title creature? In my opinion, it was endlessly confusing, though visually impressive. I thought we had enough good visual stuff. The counter argument was, ‘how can we cheat the audience out of seeing this great thing?’ The answer was, don’t show it, and they’ll never know they didn’t see it.
“Making two of the male characters female, changing Mother to Ash, the film’s noir edge, those were some of my contributions. I don’t think that was inherent in the material, but it was inherent in what David and I got into the material. And Ridley agreed that was a good way to go. Ridley solved the problem of getting the audience to take the material seriously by laying over it this absolute veneer of technique—enormous technique. I thought the visuals were remarkable beyond my expectations, particularly the last part, where Ripley is the only one left and makes that last run. That’s pure direction; performance and direction. I say performance, I mean personality. It’s something Sigourney Weaver is projecting in an absolute atmosphere of Ridley’s creation. You can write that kind of thing out and hope that it works, but it’s all in the execution.
Despite the vast improvement in quality, the new dialogue and new plot elements that Hill and Giler brought to Alien, the Writer’s Guild did not judge them as writers. They were judged as production executives. If they had been hired as writers to rewrite the script, with no other connection to the project, and they had written 33% of the filmed material, they would have earned co-credit. But due to their status as producers, and because they wrote as a team, they were required to write 65 to 70% of the filmed material to receive any credit at all. Obviously, there is an inequity here, but it is one that Hill and Giler accept. “I don’t have any hard feelings towards Dan,” says Hill. “Not at all. But as to whether or not he wrote the screenplay to Alien. . . I suspect a co-credit to David and I wouldn’t have been out of line. The idea that David and I didn’t contribute enormously is ludicrous.”
* * *
“The O’Bannon script was a bone skeleton of a story. Really terrible. Just awful. You couldn’t give it away. It was amateurishly written, although the central idea was sound. Basically it was a pastiche of Fifties movies. Walter Hill and I rewrote it completely. If we had shot the original O’Bannon script, we would have had a remake of It! The Terror from Beyond Space.”
by Glenn Lovell
David Giler, who wrote scripts for Myra Breckinridge, The Parallax View and Fun with Dick and Jane, always seemed to get his office located down the Hall from scriptwriter Walter Hill, and the two became good friends while they toiled over their respective scenarios. Each had a mutual friend in producer Gordon Carroll, and a lot of casual talk about forming their own company eventually evolved into Brandywine Productions, an association of which Alien is the first result. Carroll brings to the company considerable experience as a line producer, and both Hill and Giler contribute their expertise at screenwriting to find and develop properties for filming. Hill and Giler collaborated on the shooting script for Alien, based on a script submitted by Dan O’Bannon.
Giler came to filmmaking by way of television, doing scripts for The Gallant Men, Kraft Theatre, Burke’s Law, The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E, plus many others. He directed his first feature, The Black Bird, from his own script in 1975.
Who at Brandywine Productions saw to it that the Alien script was given serious consideration at Fox?
Walter Hill probably had more to do with getting the O’Bannon script launched than anyone. Mark Haggard at Goldwyn Studios asked him to read it, and Walter championed the project from then on. It was a bone skeleton of a story then. Really terrible. Just awful. You couldn’t give it away. It was amateurishly written, although the central idea was sound. Basically, it was a pastiche of Fifties movies. We—Walter Hill and I —took it and rewrote it completely, added Ash and the robot subplot. We added the cat, Jones, We also changed the characters around. We fleshed it out, basically. If we had shot the original O’Bannon script, we would have had a remake of It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
You mentioned that your rewrite changed some of the characters around. Could you be more specific?
Yes, of course. We made the crewmembers working class types. We made two of them women, thereby adding the feminist elements everyone is talking about. We gave the characters texture, functions. In O’Bannon’s draft, they were totally different, military types. All men. We changed all the dialogue. Every word of it. Nothing is left of O’Bannon’s draft. Not a word of his dialogue is left in the film.
In interviews just prior to Alien‘s release, O’Bannon argued just the opposite—that you guys took a nifty, low-budget idea and “inflated” it to the point that it lost all impact.
I would expect him to say that, he’s only out for himself.
Why this ongoing feud?
There’s no feud. O’Bannon’s a guy trying to make a buck. He’s capitalizing on the whole thing as much as he can. I can understand that. But we haven’t been fighting or arguing over the phone or anything like that. We bought his script a couple of years ago. That was the end of my association with him.
What about reports of O’Bannon being on the set, working with the actors, and changing major sections of dialogue?
He was there for a while, yes. That was in his contract; that he could hang around during production. That’s why we could buy the script so cheap. We optioned it from him for $1000. Later, he wanted every credit in the book. He wanted art director credit, director of special effects. He wanted a lot of stuff. Thankfully, the unions don’t permit that kind of thing. Finally, he settled for “Visual Design Consultant,” whatever that is. But I can tell you he didn’t change a thing when he was on the set. By the time I arrived in England, O’Bannon was gone. He was in disgrace. He was involved in a big foul-up. He was supposed to have done something with the computer read-outs. They finally had to be redone.
Why, if O’Bannon’s contributions were so meagre, did the Writer’s Guild award him sole screenplay credit? It doesn’t make sense.
You’re right, it doesn’t. I can’t go into what transpired with the Writer’s Guild right now. There isn’t time. We’d be here all day. All I can say is it’s a totally ridiculous and arbitrary process. You just can’t tell with the Writer’s Guild. In the end, the plot in O’Bannon’s Alien and the one is ours are the same. Basically the same. And yet, they’re as different as night and day. It’s something subtler than the Writer’s Guild is equipped to handle. Though the storylines are basically the same, what happens to the characters has been changed drastically. That is what has been altered.
Do you feel Alien was influenced by Star Wars?
Alien is to Star Wars what The Rolling Stones are to the Beatles; it’s a nasty Star Wars. We see it as a suspense-horror film. It’s a richly textured film, thanks to H. R. Giger’s work. We received an extra $2.5 million from 20th Century-Fox on the basis of his storyboard ideas alone. That’s how important he was to this project. His designs for the derelict ship and the alien were based on flesh, bone and machine—as if machinery were organic and could grow. It’s what he calls biomechanics. We used a 6′ 10″ native of the Gold Coast inside the monster suit designed by Giger. We used animal and human sounds mixed for the alien’s ‘voice.’ Composer Jerry Goldsmith added a conch sound. A local fish restaurant supplied the innards and viscera of the crustacean-like specimen examined by Ash (Ian Holm). The “chest birth” was simulated for the actors by surprising them with a shower of animal entrails. That’s why their looks of disgust and horror are so real. They had no idea what we were going to shoot that day.
You also mentioned the title It! The Terror from Beyond Space. . .
We only began to hear about It! The Terror towards the end of production. I haven’t seen it, but I know of it. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the alien-hiding-on-a-spaceship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in the western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.
Rumor has it the copyright owners of It! The Terror from Beyond Space are talking about suing Fox over similarities between the two films.
I haven’t heard anything about it. Nothing at all. The first I heard about the similarities of the two films was from you. I know some of the more esoteric science fiction magazines have commented on tie-ins between It! The Terror and Alien. But I’m not a regular reader of these magazines. Personally, I think it’s a question you ought to address to O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea, it’s them. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that O’Bannon stole the idea. I must tell you.
Was the cocoon scene cut from the film because it received a negative response from the Dallas, Texas preview audience?
No, not at all. That sequence was taken out before the film was shown anywhere. So no one except us has seen the cocoon footage. It was removed because it simply didn’t work. It interfered with the pacing of the film. It looked terrible, awful. So instead of redoing it, we decided to write it off as a bad idea.
Would you consider pulling a ‘Steven Spielberg’ and re-release Alien with the missing eleven minutes?
No. It runs the way we like it. Sure, the extra footage would fill in some blanks for those who read the novel. But it would, we believe, interfere with the pacing of the film. Look, I wrote the cocoon scene, and I’d love to see it replaced. Basically, it shows Ripley discovering Dallas and Brett in the alien’s lair. Harry Dean Stanton has almost been reduced to egg-shape, Skeritt is still alive but beginning to change. He begs her to kill him. She blasts him with a flame thrower. We didn’t show him burning, just a closeup of Ripley pulling the trigger. The horror comes from the idea of her torturing her closest friend.
Doesn’t the removal of the cocoon sequence with the egg make the thrust of the film‘s ad campaign a bit obscure?
No, I don’t think so. First of all, the ad people never saw the film with that sequence in it. In fact, they worked up the present ads before they saw any of the film. As far as we’re concerned, it’s just an esoteric image. It’s not supposed to be specific at all; the egg is a metaphor for the alien. A very general symbol for it. Originally, we had a Giger egg that we liked very much for the ad prototype. But the ad people finally couldn’t reproduce it well enough. We showed them Giger’s egg, but they ignored it and came up with their own version of it.
Hasn’t anyone expressed confusion over not finding the ad egg in the film?
No one has mentioned it—except, of course, you.
Do you feel the success of Alien, with its R rating, validates the concept of “adult” science fiction?
I couldn’t say. I really have no idea. Of course, I would like to think we have aimed for a more intelligent science fiction audience than many of the Fifties’ grade-B science fiction films. So in that respect I would hope any breakthrough made by Alien will be reflected in future science fiction films. I do know, though, that if we’d have gone for a PG rating, we’d have had to soften this movie. The same with The Exorcist, I suppose. That had some really strong stuff, too. I mean Jaws certainly should have been an R. It was really violent. I mean that opening shark attack and all. There’s a lot more blood in Jaws—especially in Quint’s attack—than in our picture.
Wasn’t Fox leery of an R rating, and wasn’t there pressure to tone down the violence, gruesomeness, blood and gore, and sex?
No, just the opposite. They weren’t leery of the R rating. Everybody knew from the start we’d get an R. It was always assumed. The rating aspect of our film has been inflated all out of proportion. I’m asked more about that than anything else. I can’t figure out why.
Wasn’t Walter Hill originally scheduled to direct? Does he have any regrets now?
No, he doesn’t regret not directing. He doesn’t regret it at all. The reports have been that he stepped down because of a schedule conflict with The Warriors, which he finally directed. Again, this is a media misconception. Conflict or no conflict, science fiction really isn’t Walter’s bag. He has no particular interest in science fiction. Never has. Nor is he particularly interested tit terror. Of course, I may be absolutely wrong. He may call me tomorrow and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ But I get that impression.
What exactly was Hill’s contribution to the actual shooting of Alien?
A certain amount of Hill’s contribution was flat engineer work—editing, casting, etc. But he wasn’t at the studio at all during the shooting. His responsibilities were mostly in the preliminary stages. He had an awful lot to do with selecting the actors. We talked about it all the time. Though he wasn’t involved in the actual shooting of Alien, his contributions, in my opinion, are not to be underestimated.
To what extent were you involved in the physical production of Alien?
I was involved in all the preproduction work. All the casting and that stuff. When they started getting behind in production, I joined them in London. I was there from late August [1978| to the finish—straight through the editing. I worked side-by-side with Scott in the editing room. Ridley and I got along very well.
The viewer is led in the end to think the cat has been taken over by the alien. Ripley’s foolhardy return to save Jones, then the emphasis on the pet being safely stowed in the shuttle supports this suspicion. Did you ever consider going with this trick ending?
Not really. We wanted a Sleeping Beauty ending. We thought it would be better to have a more lyrical ending, instead of going with the stock Hitchcockian twist.
And you’ve left yourselves open for a sequel. . .
Absolutely. We’re involved in preliminary discussion right now. But it’s still too early to say how it will unfold. Hill and I are working on it. I know a lot of people who think we intended the closeups of the cat in the shuttle as a hook for the sequel. Not so. It probably won’t have anything to do with the cat.
* * *
Creator of Alien Head Effects
“They use all the movements, but the head cuts are so quick, and the action is framed so predominantly in extreme closeup, that frequently it’s impossible to tell what you are seeing! In my opinion, I gave the director 100 possibilities, and he used but 20.”
by Frederick S. Clarke and Jordan R. Fox
Once Ridley Scott decided on Giger’s Alien for his film, he is said to have quipped, “Well, either my problems are over or they’ve just begun.” What Scott dreaded was the thought of using just another man in a rubber suit, which is basically what the alien seen in the film was. Scott’s solution to avoid this problem was a simple one: he wouldn’t show the suit. But he had to show something: enter effects master Carlo Rambaldi, with a marvelous mechanical head to instill life into Giger’s alien design. Fully 90% of the alien footage seen in the film involves closeups of, or action involving movement by, Rambaldi’s articulated alien head models.
Carlo Rambaldi is, of course, the effects genius who seemed to sprout out of nowhere to cop an Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. Although that film proved to be an effects disaster, the work done by Rambaldi, a huge and amazingly lifelike head and hand of Kong, was widely acclaimed. Unfortunately, at the same time, Rambaldi also received the brunt of criticism from angry model animation fans, who jumped all over him for designing an awkward full-size mechanical Kong for the film, something that was never really anything more than a publicity stunt in the mind of producer Dino De Laurentiis. But even in the eyes of model animation fanatics, Rambaldi firmly established his reputation the following year with a mechanical alien for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that matched even stop-motion techniques for fluidity and versatility of movement.
Rambaldi’s work for Alien, like that for Close Encounters, was in the role of troubleshooter, as one who was brought onto the production to save an impossible situation. “I got a call from the Alien production office in London,” said Rambaldi. “They asked for my help because it was impossible for them to get what they wanted over there.” Rambaldi agreed to study the problem, and was sent copies of Giger’s design paintings for the alien, indicating the action of its protruding, tooth-encrusted tongue. Rambaldi was asked to devise the mechanism to make it all work. After studying Giger’s designs, Rambaldi offered to come up with a solution in four weeks time and accepted the job.
Rambaldi began work at his Hollywood company with little collaboration from the production in England. In addition to Giger’s concept paintings, Rambaldi was provided with a “rough” sculpture on which to base his work. He began by sketching a schematic of the alien head and the mechanical parts required. Working from Giger’s concepts, Rambaldi devised characteristic facial movements for the alien that would suit its unique anatomy. Using these sketches, work was begun on designing the muscles and mechanisms involved. Rambaldi made his own modifications on Giger’s design, dictated by the mechanisms required, and sculpted a final version of the alien’s head out of clay. He forwarded a video tape of the finished clay model, showing all angles, along with copies of his design to the Alien production office in England for final approval.
Given the go-ahead, Rambaldi proceeded with construction by making molds of his clay sculpture and casting the head in a special mixture of soft polyurethane, which provides a natural flexibility for the flesh-like moving parts of the alien’s face. Rambaldi has developed his own custom polyurethane formula over the years, one that provides a texture that closely approximates living tissue in both stretch and appearance. Coloring, added during the mixing process, provides the alien flesh with its characteristic hue of metallic grey. The polyurethane casting of the head was formed over a strong skeletal understructure of molded fiberglass. Movable fiberglass parts, covered in polyurethane, such as the Alien’s face, jaws, and protruding tongue, were attached to the fiberglass head by means of interlocking joints. The Alien’s skull-like face is attached to the head at one pivot point which permits controlled independent movement in either a horizontal or vertical direction. This allows the Alien’s face to glance from side to side, or up and down, without making a corresponding movement of the entire head. The protruding action of the tongue is governed by a geared track for smooth movement, and operates independently from the action of the jaw muscles. The tongue could move slowly, and stop at any point, or could be shot away from and returned to the head in a quick movement governed by a powerful spring mechanism. Rows of metallic teeth are attached to the upper and lower jaw, and behind these, movable sets of additional teeth are placed on the end of the tongue, which opens like another little mouth and acts like a grappler. Rambaldi chose to fashion the Alien’s teeth out of polished steel for maximum reflectivity, adding just the right touch to make the creature’s appearance as a cold, vicious, nearly indestructible killer, more convincing. Controls for the upper and lower lips of the Alien were installed to permit the creature to bare its hideous teeth merely by curling its lips, Prophylactics, three on each side, were used to simulate the tendons which attach the jaw to the skull. Being translucent, they permitted visibility of the moving tongue inside the mouth from side angles. The final touch was a ½” thick, shiny plastic dome which covers the top of the head, from the nose up, for its entire length. Capable of being both translucent or opaque depending upon the lighting and camera angles employed, the dome gave the Alien an ever-changing appearance.
Rambaldi constructed three heads for use in the film: two mechanical heads used primarily for close-up work, and a lightweight, non-mechanical head for longshots. Of the two mechanical heads, only one was fully mechanized to perform all of the head movement functions he designed, and was the one that was used most of the time during filming. The second mechanical head was lighter in weight and easier to work with, but was rigged only to cause the creature’s lips to curl. Rambaldi delivered the completed heads to England and spent two weeks there conferring with director Ridley Scott, working on the painting and final detailing of the models, and instructing the production team on their operation and movement capabilities. Due to prior commitments, Rambaldi could not be on hand for the actual shooting, but brought in his collaborator from Rome, Carlo De Marchis, to train the crew and supervise the operation of the controls during filming.
Each movement of Rambaldi’s articulated Alien head is controlled separately by hand via the action of a flexible cable. A lever control causes the cable to constrict or release, causing a corresponding action on a muscle, tendon, or moving part of the model. The principle involved is the same as that which operates the cable release on a camera. Each cable runs up into the head through the neck opening, and is 45 feet in length, to permit both concealment within the suit as well as considerable freedom of movement for action scenes. During the filming of Alien, it took a crew of six operators to control all of the head movements for the most complex scenes. In contrast, only a maximum of seven operators were required to manipulate the Rambaldi alien seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and that involved torso and body movements in addition to those of the head, giving some indication of the much greater complexity of head movement capabilities designed by Rambaldi for Alien. Special techniques employed during the shooting which added a note of realism included running fluid through the mouth as the creature opened its jaws, providing a cascade of saliva; KY Jelly added a glistening, membranous appearance to the action of the protruding tongue; and oil was rubbed onto the head to give it a sweaty, reflective sheen.
Rambaldi designed and constructed the articulated heads with a wealth of fine detail to stand up under long camera scrutiny, from any angle. Most of this detail and the head’s potential for subtle, life-like movement is never fully exploited in the film. Laughs Rambaldi with some dismay, “When I show this head to my friends, they are surprised. ‘This is the alien?!,’ they all exclaim. They don’t even recognize it because you never get a complete view of it in the film. They use all the movements, but the head cuts are so quick, and the action is framed so predominantly in extreme closeup, that frequently it’s impossible to tell what you are seeing! If I had collaborated with the director, which was not possible in this case, I would have preferred more screen time for the audience to notice details. In my opinion, I gave the director 100 possibilities, and he used but 20. Perhaps he had a reason for this approach. Perhaps he felt the alien was better left to the imagination.”
One fine detail, not likely ever to be noticed in the film, and not evident from still photographs, is a subtle bulging jugular movement, as the creature opens its jaws. Ralph Cobis, one of Rambaldi’s assistants in Hollywood, who works primarily in the area of mold preparation and casting, points out: “These movements were of extreme importance because they totally eliminated the suggestion of the human form.” By concentrating his camera on Rambaldi’s articulated head, Scott was able to let himself off the man-in-a-suit hook, and avoided showing the basically human physique of the monster. Rambaldi is quick to credit H. R. Giger’s unique head design for the success of the Alien. “The head’s profile banishes any thought of a man in a suit,” says Rambaldi. “I prefer the image of the profile. From the front you have approximately the same lines as a human head.” Scott never once shows the alien directly from the front, probably for this reason, and frames it always from varying profile angles, showing it in its full glory for only one fleeting moment at the end.
The cable system used by Rambaldi to achieve the special effects in Alien is basically the same system he introduced to Hollywood in King Kong, and used later in Close Encounters. Rambaldi’s use of the system on three of his greatest effects achievements has led to the false impression that he specializes in this technique, to the exclusion of others. This is not the case. “Sometimes I use electricity, hydraulics or radio control as a triggering mechanism,” he explains. “The solution of a special effects problem depends on many things: the type of picture, the action of the sequence, the kind of movement involved, the director, whether filming will take place on a soundtage or on location, and the budget and time alloted. Many factors.” One of the projects for which Rambaldi has been developing effects is Robert Towne’s Greystoke, the definitive screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes saga. “For example.” adds Rambaldi in illustration, “if you have a creature that jumps from tree to tree, it’s not possible to use the cable system. You must use electricity or radio control, and that depends on the budget.” For Nightwing, Rambaldi used radio control techniques to operate a flock of mechanical bats. “Radio control is more costly,” he emphasizes, “but the quality is basically the same as cable.” Radio control becomes necessary when the nature of the operation of a model prevents the use of a cable attachment of any kind. For effects such as those seen in Alien, the cable system has the advantage of allowing the operator to develop a feeling for the controls. By varying speed and pressure in the hand-manipulation of cable levers, with practice, more subtle movements can be achieved than with the remote control switching system of radio control.
When Rambaldi came to this country in 1976 to work on King Kong, he was largely unknown, although he had worked for twenty years in the Italian film industry on more than 350 films and television shows. “I prefer working in Hollywood,” says Rambaldi. “In Italy films are budgeted much lower, and consequently must be made very fast. That means I had less time to do my work, which made it impossible for me to achieve the level of quality I have reached here. In Italy it was impossible for me to perfect an effect to its full potential.” Adds assistant Ralph Cobis, “There is a natural progression of discovery and innovation in effects work. In Italy, where time is short, you can’t take advantage of this learning process. You have to stop one-third of the way, and turn something in, because there is no time to make changes. Over here, Carlo can go all the way, because they give him the time.” The cost of an effect depends on the level of quality and sophistication desired. Because of lower budgets, Italian producers frequently demanded only second or third rate effects from the outset. “Here,” beams Carlo about America, “all productions want maximum level quality, strictly first class. This atmosphere is good for realizing my full potential.”
Rambaldi was born September 15, 1926 in Ferrara, Italy. In 1917, he graduated from Ferrara’s Vincenzo Monti Technical Institute, and four years later received a degree in motion picture art direction from Bologna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Assistant Ralph Cobis attributes Rambaldi’s great success in this country to his educational background. Says Cobis, “Carlo combines an understanding of mechanical engineering with a strong artistic background. Whereas here in Hollywood you find people who just work in makeup, putting on appliances like a mask, or who just works in special effects, using techniques like hydraulic movement and remote control. Carlo’s background brings these two fields together. With a strong grounding in art, he has been able to develop mechanical models for special effects drawing upon his knowledge of anatomy.” After his Oscar-winning work on King Kong, Rambaldi established his own Hollywood effects company, “Carlo Rambaldi—Sculptures and Electromechanical Creations for Cinematography,” and employs seven full-time specialists as well as thirty part-time assistants. Rambaldi considers his relocation in Hollywood to be permanent. “I have a green card now,” he says proudly, referring to his work permit as a resident alien, granted by the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Quips Cobis: “Yeah, no more raids.”
* * *
“There was one part where I was hanging from a wire about ten or fifteen feet above the ground, and I curled up. I was like a cocoon of my own, and I come out very slowly and stretch all out.”
by Frederick S. Clarke and Alan Jones
The Alien you don’t get to see in Alien was played by 6′ 10″, 26 year-old Nigerian Bolaji Badejo. Bolaji is a student of graphic arts ill London, and has traveled extensively with his parents, to Ethiopia where he studied fine arts, and to the United States, including a three-year stay in San Francisco. He landed the role of “The Alien” purely by accident, a turn of events that reads like a publicity agent’s tall tale. The production had apparently put out a casting call for a very tall, very thin actor. Bolaji bumped into agent Peter Archer while having a drink in a London West End pub. Archer thought of Alien as soon as he spotted Bolaji, and offered him the chance to try out for the part. “As soon as I walked in,” said Bolaji, “Ridley Scott knew he’d found the right person,” Scott had been looking at basketball players, and had tested Peter Mayhew for the alien, but it was Badejo’s combination of height, slimness and an erect posture that cinched him in the part. Bolaji was signed for the role in May, manufacture of the suit began, and the filming of the Alien scenes started in August at Shepperton.
Ridley Scott originally intended Bolaji to be part of a team of three artists needed to play the Alien, including a mime specialist and a karate expert. When other experts of Bolaji’s unique proportions could not be found, a stuntman was substituted for the dangerous and physically grueling action, and Bolaji began to take miming lessons. Most of the footage shot of the Alien didn’t work, but there is one brief cut of Bolaji going through one of his miming routines in the suit, in the sequence where he attacks Veronica Cartwright. “The idea,” says Bolaji, “was that the creature was supposed to be graceful as well as vicious, requiring slow, deliberate movements. But there was some action I had to do pretty quick. I remember having to kick Yaphet Kotto, throw him against the wall, and rush up to him. Veronica Cartwright was really terrified. After I fling Yaphet Kotto back with my tail, I turn to go after her, there’s blood in my mouth, and she was incredible. It wasn’t acting. She was scared.”
Bolaji worked approximately four months on the film, through final shooting at Shepperton in November. He usually worked only three or four days in the week, sometimes on weekends, and kept getting called back to redo shots when the action didn’t work. “They’d say, ‘Come back and do this shot again,’ but when you get there they’d want you to do something else. New ideas were always coming into their heads.” Only Bolaji and H. R. Giger were allowed to watch the rushes of the Alien footage with Ridley Scott, so they could work out problems together on how best to show the Alien and represent the movements and actions required. Most of the footage Bolaji filmed never made it into the movie, due to problems, “Ridley had a lot more ideas than what you see on the screen, but some things were impossible. There was one part where I was hanging from a wire about ten or fifteen feet above the ground, and I curled up. I was like a cocoon of my own, and I tome out very slowly and stretch all out. But I couldn’t do it. I was held up by a harness around my stomach, and I was suffocating trying to make those movements.” Scott tried to film the same action with the stuntman, for the scene where the monster comes down on Harry Dean Stanton from above, but failed to make it work.
Scott filmed several variations of his concept of the monster descending from above onto Harry Dean Stanton, but none of them worked. In one set-up, Badejo was strapped onto a large see-saw-like boom arm that could be raised from the ground to tilt straight up some 20 feet in the air. When it came down full circle, Bolaji was upside down, with blood just rushing to his head, feeling very dizzy. Enough was enough! Bolaji declined to repeat the stunt, so Scott got the stuntman to try it, but he fainted! Eventually, Scott rigged the boom arm with a dummy suit and tried to film the same action, but it wouldn’t work without a host to animate the Alien’s movements. Scott filmed some footage of the stuntman being lowered head-first on wires, picking up another stuntman doubling for Harry Dean Stanton, and whisking him back up to the ceiling of the ship, out of frame. In the end, Scott was forced to resort to closeups and quick cuts to suggest the action of the sequence.
H. R. Giger made the Alien suits worn by Bolaji and the stuntman out of latex, at a cost of more than $250,000. The suit consisted of some ten to fifteen separate pieces, worn over a one-piece black body suit, needed underneath to disguise the fact that the Alien fitted together in sections, and because you could see through parts of it, like the rib cage. The rib cage was put on like a sweater, over the head. The legs and hips were put on like a pair of pants, zipped up from the side. The arms were put on separately as sleeves, fitted over with gloves for the hands. The tail was attached separately and operated by a series of wires. Feet were worn like shoes. The head was placed on last. Bolaji likened wearing it to having your head stuck in the middle of a huge banana. “I had to keep my head up straight. That was the secret of wearing the suit,” he said. “The Nostromo set itself was only about 6′ 6″ high. I’m 6′ 10″, 7′ with the suit on. I had to be very careful how I spun around or did anything. It was terribly hot, especially the head. I could only have it on for about fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. When I took it off, my head would be soaked.” In addition to the non-mechanical head for action scenes, Bolaji wore Carlo Rambaldi’s articulated head for special effects shots. “It was all manual, remote controlled,” said Bolaji. “There’s still a space in it for my head, I had it on just to make sure nothing goes wrong with the posture of the head or how tall it is in comparison to the other sequences.
“They must have had about 2000 tubes of K-Y Jelly,” he laughed, “just to get the effect of that slime coming out of his mouth. A lot of it was spread around on the face. I could barely see what was going on around me, except when I was in a stationary position while they were filming. Then there were a few holes I could look through.”
Bolaji only wore the suit for sequences in which the Alien’s full body would be on view. For sequences where just an arm or part of the body was needed, anyone could double as the Alien by donning part of the suit. Bolaji, for instance, did not play the scene with Tom Skerritt inside the Nostromo’s cramped ventilation shaft, where only part of the creature’s crouched body is visible. For some sequences a dummy in the suit was used, such as the climax where the Alien is sucked out of the shuttlecraft and fried by the ship’s jet exhaust. The shuttlecraft sequences at the end of the film were some of the most interesting and difficult shots for Bolaji, and provided most of the usable Alien footage. Climbing into the cramped shuttlecraft bulk-head and then out again for each take put a lot of strain on the suit, which kept splitting. “Bursting out of that compartment wasn’t easy,” exclaims Bolaji. “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off! But it wasn’t much of a problem for them, because they had more suits. I remember I had to repeat that action for about fifteen takes. Finally, I said, ‘No more!’ There was a lot of smoke, it was hard to breathe, and it was terribly hot.”
Bolaji regrets that no one can recognize him as the Alien in the film, but thinking back on Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, or other successful actors who began their careers by playing grotesque monsters, he adds, “the fact that I played the part of the Alien, for me, that’s good enough. Legally, I’ll be given the opportunity of doing a follow-up, if there is one.” Although he is training for a career in graphic design and commercial art, he exclaims, “Not if a film comes along!”
* * *
“There was always this difficulty about the alien though, because inevitably, however well you do it, however beautifully-designed the suit is, it is still going to look like a man dressed-up.”
by Alan Jones
Michael Seymour started-off wanting to be a painter. He went to the Royal College of Art for three years and took a course to train as a designer for television. He started as an assistant at ABC Television in London, now called Thames Television. “But I didn’t like TV,” he says. “It was too factory-like even then. So I went to Greece for a year.” When he came back, after working for some time as a photographer, he saw Viva Zapata for the fifth time, “and my eyes were opened to film as a working medium.” Seymour had worked in TV commercials before graduating to feature films, his first credit as assistant art director on Richard Lester’s The Knack (1965). Seymour worked in preproduction on Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), but production delays forced him onto other projects and kept him from working on Richardson’s big-budget costume adventure: Robbery (for which he aided director Peter Yates in planning an elaborate car chase), The Bed Sitting Room (1969), The Loves of Isadora, Soldier Soldier (an unfinished Orson Welles feature), Blow-Up, Gumshoe, Rosebud, and he converted an old theatre in Putney for Theatre of Blood. After work for director Claude Chabrol fell through on The St. Petersburg-Cannes Express when the film was cancelled, Seymour accepted an offer from associate producer Ivor Powell to work on Alien.
Seymour had worked with Ridley Scott on television commercials, and was very pleased to work with him again: “I have an enormous admiration for Ridley. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, he is the most exceptional. Working with someone who is visually-oriented and who communicates in those terms is very stimulating.”
Seymour started on Alien and literally didn’t stop from that moment on for seventeen weeks. “On reading the script, the film seemed a mammoth task for all of us,” he recalled. “I had understood the budget was around $8½ million. But as we got into it we realized that was in fact not a great deal of money.” Seymour took the trouble to research the production ills and budget problems of Fox’s previous spare-bound bonanza, Star Wars. “They had more money than we did, but we had the same amount of problems,” he said, pointing out that with the effect of inflation, the budget he had to work with would buy less production value today. Of course, alter reviewing the budget and re-evaluating the ambitions of the Alien project. Fox executives shelled out additional funds, giving Seymour and Scott a chance to do the movie the way it should be done.
“In the meantime,” explains Seymour, “I began the design process. Dan O’Bannon was with us at this stage, and Ron Cobb was concept artist. Cobb had produced some sketches that were clever but not in the way in which we had decided to treat Alien. Ridley and I had had long discussions on the spacecraft, and had decided that it was to be an intergalactic super-tanker schlepping its way through space. We wanted to avoid anything slick or shiny.” Seymour had made models of the Nostromo interiors before meeting Cobb. “Cobb was useful,” he says, “because you could pass him an idea or a model, and he would do an excellent sketch for people who can’t understand plans or models. I was really heading a design group on this picture in which everybody contributed, from the draftsmen, when he adds details as he draws something, up to the plasterer on the floor of the soundstages. Over a two month period, we all built up the concepts.”
Seymour did layouts of the Nostromo where the various decks would be located, where the quarters would begin, end and intersect one another; this master plan included the bridge set, which Seymour feels was the most complicated aspect of the set design. “You never quite get the feeling in the final film, but we put so much effort into the finish of the ship’s interiors. We worked it out so carefully. There was the deck with living quarters where the bridge was, the next one down was the electronics deck, and the lower deck, where Harry Dealt Stanton gets it, we called the under-carriage room. It housed one of those huge landing feet. We built one life-size foot and hung it front the ceiling in that set. We worked out carefully the placement of each compartment, where it would be below or above in relation to the next deck.” Seymour developed the sets with an eye towards practicality, blocking out the three soundstages used in Alien so the crew wouldn’t lose track of the maze-like system of corridors and levels. The interiors were all completely self-contained and enclosed: the rooms were four-sided and had ceilings— according to Seymour, “You really were in a real ship. We aimed at that all the time, to create a convincing environment that we believed in and that therefore the actors too would believe in. A lot of the interiors were broken-down aircraft sections remodelled almost like metal sculpture.”
H. R. Giger worked with Seymour on the designs based on Giger’s biomechanics, including the concept of the planetoid’s surface, the derelict ship, and the Alien. “I found his imagination amazing,” says Seymour. “There was always this difficulty about the alien though, because inevitably, however well you do it, however beautifully-designed the suit is, it is still going to look like a man dressed-up.” Ridley Scott and Seymour had plenty of discussions regarding the alien, finally deciding that they wouldn’t reveal it until the last possible moment, and if they could get away with it, they would not reveal it at all! Seymour explains, “The creature looked amazing but it was impossible to show it full-length. Very early on, we talked about stop-motion animation, but ultimately made the decision against that mainly for economic reasons. I think we made the right decision. We kept the alien as subliminal as possible and I think that it worked.”
Despite the lavish and expensive look of Seymour’s art designs, his department was constantly on guard in case Fox called tip and complained that the costs were too high. Seymour did have to pare the art department budget down from original estimates; the actual cost of producing the designs was considerably more than anyone had ever estimated. The original predicted cost was about £900,000 plus £250,000 for props. Seymour had to reduce that figure by forty percent to £620,000 and £150,000 for props. “Fox would ask every couple of weeks or so how it was going and insist that we reduce our costs by reusing our sets and adapting existing items. We did a lot of recycling on the film, but you would never notice.
“Fitting everything into the budget was the biggest problem on this film. It was a conjuring trick in the end to get the amount of production value we did out of what was not a large budget.” According to Seymour, Giger’s “space jockey” was a big problem. The cavernous interior of the derelict spaceship was supposed to have been much larger, but space, time and money made Seymour arrive at a successful compromise: he came up with the idea of placing the creature on a turntable in the center of the set, allowing for shots with the actors from seemingly different angles, which gave the illusion that the set was fully enclosed on four sides. The fact is only one stationary wall section was built. Says Seymour, “That was a very elaborate piece of construction.”
After production began, an original shooting schedule of thirteen weeks had adjusted itself to a more realistic period of seventeen weeks. For Seymour, it was seventeen weeks working every weekend, either on Saturday or Sunday, and for eleven weeks working seven days a week, sometimes until midnight. “There was no way you could leave it alone. I was always making decisions. Once you’ve started a building program of 110 construction workers and prop men, it’s a formidable thing to keep up with. I was fortunate to have the people I worked with — they contributed on every level.”
Seymour is not displeased with the way some scenes were edited from the film—“From my point of view, there wasn’t much that wasn’t used. The scene of Tom Skerritt encased inside the alien’s cocoon look place in the under-carriage, but the effect was not a great expense. And there were some scenes of the landscape we did which later I see were done as model or glass shots.”
Since Alien has been released, Seymour finds that he has yet to become truly objective towards his work on the film. “When I see it in five years’ time, I might be able to get it into perspective.” He is, in the meantime, “bowled over by people’s reaction to the film. I really thought it would have a limited audience. When I saw it in America, I was amazed by the audience reaction. There it was, like a football match—you couldn’t fail to get carried away by it all. It definitely has the makings of being a cult film.”
Recently, Seymour has been moving into the area of film direction. He worked second unit on The Coming, a film by Robert Fuest (Dr. Phibes, The Last Days of the Man on Earth), in which Seymour directed a 4½-minute sequence of a girl melting. He is interested in directing a “period piece,” or perhaps a documentary. As far as science fiction films are concerned, “It was interesting but I don’t think I’m in love with that sort of hardware. It’s funny but with all these effects involved, you begin by not knowing anything, and end up, because you have to know them, being a minor expert.”
* * *
“The Alien script was wonderful to read, written in Hill’s blank verse, linear sort of style, but it was very violent. At this stage, heads were being twisted off bodies and the still-kicking torsos were dragged off down the ship’s corridor. Very reminiscent of The Thing, I thought, but with 70’s gore.”
by Mike Childs and Alan Jones
Lexington Street, in the heart of London’s West End, is where Ridley Scott Associates can be found. It is also where the associate producer of Alien, dynamic Ivor (pronounced E-vor) Powell, can be found. Powell, who could quite justifiably call himself Ridley Scott’s closest friend and confidant, has been in the industry for eighteen years. “I worked for the BBC for awhile,” says Powell, “and I got my ticket. But in all honesty, I hadn’t really stayed in a particular position long enough—I was a struggling second assistant director. I got a call one day from Roger Karras, who was for want of a better description, Stanley Kubrick’s “exploitation” public relations director. He’d heard I was looking for a job, and Kubrick needed an assistant. Kubrick was my hero so I was there like Speedy Gonzales. I worked with Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first six months of its production, in the art department with supervisor Tony Masters and set dresser Bob Cartwright. I was the production liaison man between that department and companies like IBM and Honeywell. I was troubleshooter, albeit in a junior capacity, bringing in these companies on hardware and publicity deals. I learned more on that picture than I will ever learn.” Powell met Ridley Scott while working together on a commercial for BBC-TV, “and we got along like a house on fire,” Powell was first assistant director at Ridley Scott Associates, as well as on The Optimists (1974) and some feature documentaries. This led to becoming associate producer on both of Scott’s features, The Duellists and Alien.
Were you familiar at all with science fiction films before working on Alien?
Yes, I’ve always been a fan. In the winter of 1977, Sandy Lieberson at Fox sent Ridley the Walter Hill-David Giler script version. I was trying to wrestle it from his hands, saving I was the buff, not him. But all I kept hearing were screeches and him saying it was amazing. He read it in 45 minutes and then I read it. It was wonderful, but I said it was a rip-off of It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Ridley had never been interested in this sort of film before. The Alien script was wonderful to read, written in Hill’s blank verse, linear sort of style, but it was very violent. At this stage, heads were being twisted off bodies and the still-kicking torsos were dragged off down the ship’s corridor. Very reminiscent of The Thing, I thought, but with Seventies gore.
Was Scott able to work up a fresh approach to the material nonetheless?
One of the good things about Ridley was that he hadn’t seen a Hammer film or any other horror films for that matter. He used his own approach, and I think it works. O’Bannon did show him The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, mainly to make Ridley realize the extremes to which you could go on the screen.
We had been unsuccessful in getting Tristan and Iseult off the ground and, even though he liked the Alien script, Ridley wanted to do Tristan. He phoned Sandy Lieberson and said that if he hadn’t been obligated to Tristan, he would have seriously considered doing Alien. Then we had another set-back with Tristan and Ridley got cold feet, as he suddenly realized the length of time he was having between pictures. And he said yes to Alien out of the blue.
What was your involvement with Ridley once the production got underway?
I can imagine what the American producers thought when they heard that Ridley had a sidekick. “Oh my God, not another hanger-on.” The truth of the matter was, Hill wasn’t around, Giler had not produced a movie before, and his title of producer was more of an arrangement with Brandywine Productions. It was really Gordon [Carroll] and I, but Gordon was executive producer, executive in the way that he wasn’t a working producer, as you can’t come over to a foreign country and crew-up a movie. So I did the day-to-day running, scheduling and budgeting, ably assisted by Garth Thomas, who usually works with Alan Parker. It was a tough movie to make, you’ve obviously heard all the rumors about the pressures and agonies, but after actually getting through it all, through the arguments and different camps that formed, I still hold to the belief that sometimes imperfect conditions for making a movie creates a soup, a spark. And that makes for a great picture.
And for a great deal of pressure.
I felt the pressure more as I got to know Fox, and they got to know me. At first, Fox thought of the film as another of The Omen-type. I don’t think any of us, O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett included, were aware of what Ridley had in mind and the class level he was going to take it. The initial budget was $4½ million, and when we came to grips with that and realized it wasn’t going to be enough, there was a feeling that Fox would pull the plug and wrap it. It was only Ridley’s ability to storyboard that pulled us through. He showed them the Tristan and Iseult storyboards just to give them ideas. A lot of ideas for Alien came from that other film. The space suits, for example, were based on Samurai armor, interlocking colored pieces. They are a work of art. Jean Giraud, who designed the suits, was given all the ideas by Ridley. In turn, I introduced Ridley to Heavy Metal [magazine] while we were readying The Duellists in the Dordogne. When he saw the magazine, he said, “Why don’t they make science fiction films to look like this?”
Getting back to the point, why didn’t Fox pull the plug on Alien?
We did a screen test for Sigourney Weaver that gave Fox a jolt, and certainly sold Sigourney Weaver. The test cost very little money and was quite effective. Fox didn’t have a principal picture for this year, and they were banking on Alien being the one to come between the two Star Wars, but in that sense I think they were hoping that Alien would make back close to what The Omen made. Touch wood, but I think we’ll do in excess of the $60 million The Omen made. I always had a good feeling about Alien. It was the perfect subject to make at this moment. I thought until recently that I was mad and everybody else was right. Everyone used to look at me reading science fiction paperbacks and mutter under their breath that I’d actually admitted to seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still about eight times. Now, of course, this attitude is normal, it’s okay to like this sort of movie. I hope with Alien we’ve gone some way in redressing the balance, as this kind of film is always thought of tongue-in-cheek.
How would you describe Alien?
Alien is a hardcore adult cartoon. I’ll get murdered for using that word, cartoon, but that’s what I think it is. The criticism leveled at it, regarding character uninvolvement, stems from the style it was originally written in. We tried to actually break that, and tried to make them behave more humanly, but Walter Hill writes in such a cold fashion. Look at the hero in The Driver. It’s a style you either like or don’t like. It was stark when we took it on, and mixed with Giler’s cynical approach, the characters were full of slick remarks. Our fears were consolidated when the actors arrived: they had to watch a stomach rip open and then pass wisecracks. They all thought this was strange. Considering the circumstances, you would be stunned, you wouldn’t pass comment. We brought it to a warmer level, but that coldness is part of it. It doesn’t go as far as Heavy Metal, but it goes as far as it can. Ridley knew what he could get away with. This is one of the advantages Ridley has over Stanley Kubrick. Ridley was an art director. He brought British commercials to the standard of the highest acclaim in the world. He is capable of drawing. One of the in-jokes on the set was Ridley and his smoke gun. He kept adding it and adding it. The producers couldn’t believe it; they thought he’d cracked.
What was your working relationship with Dan O’Bannon?
I don’t know Dan O’Bannon very well. I like to think I get on well with most people, but there was a suspicion between us. Dan had never worked on a picture before in which one had to a certain extent conform. He was also not used to a shadow being next to the guy he always wanted to speak to, which was me. He must have thought I was a real hatchet man. I never really persuaded him to realize that I was as much a buff as he was. He’s always remained faithful to Ridley. I think he is delighted that Ridley took the film way beyond his wildest dreams. Dan, as we all know, feels he was badly treated on Dark Star. I think the last time I saw him, he was in a euphoric haze thinking about all the money that looks to be flooding in. That must help him live down Dark Star.
Did you ever contribute to the plot or script of Alien in any way?
I can very discreetly claim some credit for the film’s ending. In most forms, the ending of the script had Ripley in the shuttlecraft, leaning back in the chair relaxing, when suddenly the alien’s hand appears over the back of the chair. She runs into the locker but the alien gets distracted by the cat box and begins ripping it to shreds. Ridley could never bring himself to film the Alien sequences in ways he’d done before. He always resisted that sort of shock effect, where a door opens and there’s the alien. When Ridley had the idea of the alien coming down front above like a huge bat, that took the film up another notch for me, and that ending had the same kind of approach. They both fall out of the airlock, both hanging on a cord. Ripley scrambling to get in, the alien leaking acid everywhere. It gets its hand caught in the door as she closes it. You couldn’t do that logically—the acid would eat through the airlock. So I said, what if the alien is like a chameleon, and he’s going into another stage. Giger’s concept was biomechanoid, so if you front lit the alien, so the audience could see it, but also not see it, that would be an amazing coup. I got team points for that idea, though the tragedy is that so few people realize it’s there, amongst the machinery. There was also some contention as to whether the space jockey on the planet was the next form of the Alien, but it’s a far better detail him being the victim. Ridley would like to return to that planet in the sequel. That’s where the follow-up would begin logically—to investigate the inhabitants of the derelict ship that was attacked by the alien forms in those eggs.
Hate you witnessed any audience reaction to the film?
We held a preview in Dallas. I shall never forget it. Several women hurtled themselves out of the theatre during the “chest-burster” scene. When Ash gets his head taken off, one of the ushers fainted and knocked himself unconscious. There was panic among the Fox ranks: “Are we going to get lynched?” was the big question. I honestly don’t think the film is the most violent or terrifying ever made, as there is only one show of blood and gore. It is intimidating and harrowing but that also has a lot to do with the sound and the editing. The film should definitely win an Oscar next year for editing. After the “chest-burster,” the audience is definitely in a state of submission.
Scott’s next project, Tristan and Iseult has fantasy elements placing it m a category near Alien. Yet it won’t he as coldly calculating as Alien?
The strength Tristan has is that the story has heart. After The Duellists, we were to launch Tristan immediately. I spent day alter day in science fiction bookshops, raking in all sons of pictorial stuff and information while Ridley drew up the storyboards. We were not having an easy time getting the screenplay for Tristan to the point where it worked right. We wanted a really classy, intelligent script on what is a very unique and difficult subject. Its plot is set in a no-time, no-place setting, which means science fiction, I suppose, but it’s more sword and sorcery. You know, we get sent so many scripts, rip-offs of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and in all of them you don’t give a damn about the characters or the situation. But Tristan has a very strong story and characters. Before Ridley decided to direct Alien, we presented Paramount with a half-completed Tristan screenplay, and they really didn’t understand it. And at the time, Ridley didn’t have the confidence to push it. Now, after Alien, he’s beginning to realize what can be accomplished with special effects and models. And even there we scratched the surface, because Alien isn’t an effects movie. It’s a psychological film. “Jaws in space” really is an apt description.
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Creator of Small Alien Forms
“A fortune spent and I don’t feel, after seeing the film, that it was warranted. What did you see of the alien? Nothing! If I had been left to my own devices, I certainly would have given them visually what you see now, and I’m sure a lot more. For all the aggravation involved, I think Fox blew it with their beast.”
by Alan Jones
Roger Dicken describes himself as a loner. His other characteristics include being forthright and more than a trifle cynical about the industry he works in. As he says, “You spend so much time trying to get into the film industry, and then you spend so much time wanting to get out.” Dicken is dedicated and serious about his craft, describing himself as a “simple effects man.” He lives in a converted Gothique mansion called “Pellucidar,” in a Berkshire village, and it’s here among the wood-paneled rooms that he built the miniature alien forms for Alien. They now hang downstairs in his cellar-cum-workshop, between the octopus from Wardlords of Atlantis and the skeleton of The Evil One he created for The Creeping Flesh.
Dicken was no more than a fan of modelmaking, and the producer of 8mm special effects epics, when he read that effects craftsman Ray Harryhausen would be in London to work on Mysterious Island in 1960. After visiting with Harryhausen at his model animation studio, Dicken was convinced that he, “wanted to make monsters and get into the film business.” First landing a job on Gerry Anderson’s TV series Thunderbirds, Dicken also worked on the feature film spin-off, Thunderbirds Are Go, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Building ice cliffs and the lunar landscapes”), The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, The Conqueror Worm, Scars of Dracula, and with Jim Danforth on When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (“Jim and I hit it off straight from the start. I made the models for the film, working from Jim’s designs, which is something I don’t like to do today. He’s a buff and so am I, and he was pleased to come to England and work with probably the only guy here who knew about everything that he did. I had great fun on that picture—both Jim and I do our work from the heart”). Producer John Dark came to him in 1975 and said he wanted to do The Land That Time Forgot, but that he didn’t want stop-motion animated dinosaurs. “I came up with the puppetized monsters for the film,” says Dicken, “which John Dark liked. It’s not the best process in the world. I’m the first to admit it: it’s something that is involved purely with budget and time.”
Recently, Dicken worked on Alien from February through early August of 1978, creating the small alien forms and making them come to life onscreen, “As my credit goes up on the screen,” he says, “miniature alien creatures co-designed and made by Roger Dicken—it doesn’t mention ‘and activated by,’ which I’m most annoyed about and have told Fox so. Nobody would know that I did special effects, too. I was under the lamps, sweating blood like everyone else. I was in the studio, I activated my monsters and should have credit to that effect.”
Dicken is also not sincerely proud of the finished film: “As far as the completed Alien goes, it’s very slick, but let’s face it, everyone knows it’s an expensively-made B movie plot. I couldn’t identify with the characters at all. I thought the crew were so slovenly, they would never have gotten the craft off the ground in the first place. It doesn’t say much for the American space program, it was all suspense, no pause, no backchat that made you care. You wanted one of the guys to pull out photographs of his kids.” In addition, Dicken is not too personally satisfied with his own work on the film. “Ridley and Fox were happy with my work, but just because the film is a success doesn’t mean I’m reversing my colors and jumping on the bandwagon of self-congratulation.” Roger Dicken prefers the simple approach to effects work: “I don’t believe in gears, hydraulic rams and pulleys. They can go wrong. Look at the egg in Alien. That was all gears, but for what you see of it, it could just as easily have been four wires pulling the flaps open.”
Throughout the production of Alien, Dicken worked on all aspects of creating and motivating his ‘small’ aliens, of which he claims, “I’ve never spent so much time doing so little.” He feels working on the film was quite trying, “a boardroom picture where nobody really knew what they wanted. Also, the atmosphere on the studio floor wasn’t very nice.” Dicken’s “face-hugger” creature, which attaches itself to John Hurt’s face (and was fastened to the actor’s head with elastic bands), was based on an original design by scenarist/visual design consultant Dan O’Bannon. “I think I made it on the table in my lounge,” says Dicken. “Ridley Scott came up [to Dicken’s studio-home] quite a few times to make suggestions about altering it, but basically the fingers-on-the-side was O’Bannon’s idea. In the scene where it’s examined, [special effects supervisor] Nick Allder’s effects boys supplied it with guts from the abattoir.” For the scene of the “face-hugger’s” finger getting sliced open, Dicken constructed six spare ‘arms,’ hollow, with tubes in them, blocked off at the tip. An extension piece was added so the liquid could be squirted down. “I went to the studio quite a few weeks before that scene was shot,” explained Dicken, “rigged up a fake piece of metal girder, and an alien ‘leg,’ for a demonstration for the producers. I cut it, liquid squirted out, and this ‘metal girder’ bubbled and melted. They were knocked out by it, but I didn’t get to do that shot in the film. What you see in that scene as it is now looks like cellulose thinners thrown onto what appears to be polystyrene. You don’t really get the feeling that the ‘blood’ is melting metal.” Although Dicken is primarily responsible for the “face-hugger” model, he did not have anything to do with its initial exit from the alien egg, or in the scene of it falling onto Sigourney Weaver’s shoulder near the autodoc.
The secondary alien form, the “chest-burster,” which explodes from Kane’s body, was built by Dicken from a design suggested to him by director Ridley Scott. “Ridley decided the ‘chest-burster’ should look something like the Giger drawing with the elongated head,” says Dicken. The creature was tried with all sorts of variations: without eyes, with eyes, with tails. Dicken fiddled around with sticking the tail on the head, trying it without arms, with legs, eventually coming up with something the producers liked. Its arms came off, and Scott wanted the body to have spastic-like lumps; also, to make it look as lifelike as possible. “I made it breathe by installing gills and a chest that was inflated up and down.” As the large alien came equipped with those huge metallic teeth, Dicken had to fashion some chromium dentures for the smaller version, which were snapped onto the monster’s porpoise-like face.
As for making the “chest-burster” move, Dicken was set up underneath John Hurt and the spot where the beast would chew its way out of Hurt’s false chestpiece. Dicken moved the model, while other effects technicians operated the creature’s gills and other dribble gadgets meant to simulate the grisly death scene. For the shot when the creature makes its exit, the dinner table was split in two, the side to the camera being higher than the other. Special effects men built a trolley for Dicken to lie down upon, which was yanked across, underneath the table, as Dicken worked the model across the tabletop. “I made a tail with a tube inside it,” says Dicken, “and [effects technician] Allan Bryce connected it up to an air bottle for me. I had the tail taped down around my hand, and when the compressed air was turned on, it made the tail thwack around. We did three takes on the whole scene.”
Fox executives think the “chest-burster” is the most realistic creature Dicken has ever made. “Personally, I don’t feel that,” laments Dicken. “I’ve no real love for the work I did on that film at all. The only reason Fox thinks the way they do is because the effect was involved with animal flesh and blood in such a close shot with the actor. It looks more realistic than it actually is. It I’d had my way, the creature would have literally pulled himself out of the torso. Not a shock cut, and nothing terribly gratuitous, but a shot of his little hands coming out and pulling himself up. That would have been much more horrifying.”
Dicken was originally to do the big alien, but decisions on how it should look dragged on and, according to Dicken, “they [the producers] didn’t know what they wanted. For instance, first they said no tail on the alien, but then in the end it had one!” He sent a letter to the producers explaining that he no longer wished to be involved on the full-size alien. “Pandemonium broke out,” says Dicken. “They said I was letting the picture down. But I told them honestly, that I wasn’t going to give myself a nervous breakdown making a creature when I had no idea exactly what I was trying to make.” Dicken was replaced by, as he describes it, “a whole team,” led by H. R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi. “Rambaldi did the head, but I heard a rumor that someone was building another head in Europe in case his didn’t work out. A fortune spent and I don’t feel, after seeing the film, that it was warranted. What did you see of the alien? Nothing! If I had been left to my own devices, I certainly would have given them visually what you see now, and I’m sure a lot more For all the aggravation involved, I think Fox blew it with their beast.”
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“I think that, for an artist, film is the most terrific medium. I like seeing my work in three dimensions.”
by Frederic Albert Levy
Many articles published in the press said that Giger had horrible nightmares while working on Alien, because he was haunted by the monster. “That’s pure rubbish,” says Michele, dubbed Mia, Giger’s secretary-girlfriend-model-muse. “But one thing is true,” she says, “He used to have nightmares and would even talk in his sleep because of the terrible pressure imposed on him by the production.” Joining the Alien team must have brought, indeed, quite a new pace to Giger’s life. For not only is his home situated in a particularly quiet district of Zurich, it is also conceived, ‘designed,’ as an isolated place. Very few windows, if any, especially in the atelier, and one dominant colon black. Giger and Mia are dressed in black. The ceiling is painted black, and so is the furniture. The walls of the living room offer lighter hues, however, as they are the support of Giger’s most famous paintings, like The Spell.
Despite this Necronomicon’s decor, and though he confesses with a smile he wouldn’t want to belong in his paintings as a character, Giger’s declared aim is not to disturb people, but to give them peace. He is rather a nice person who often laughs and smiles. At the time of our interview in July, Giger was busy preparing the publication of Giger’s Alien, largely based on Mia’s photographs taken on the set. This report and analysis of Giger’s part in the making of Alien will be published in November by Big O Publishing, London, in association with Sphinx Verlag, Basel.
Giger was brought into Alien by Dan O’Bannon, probably O’Bannon’s greatest contribution to the project, Giger had met O‘Bannon once, briefly, in Paris, while both worked for Alexandro Jodorowsky on his aborted film of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Says Giger, “I haven’t been contacted by Jodorowsky since. He just sent back my slides and sketches, but never paid me for them!” O’Bannon called Giger from Los Angeles in August 1977 and asked him to design the monsters for Alien. “He promised to pay me in advance,” laughs Giger, “so I agreed. I made three paintings and some sketches, based on the story he told me over the phone. I liked it particularly because I found it was in the vein of Lovecraft, one of my greatest sources of inspiration. In the beginning, for example, the eggs were in an old pyramid. But the producers didn’t believe in me yet. Someone reportedly said, ‘There are fifty Gigers around town.’ Only when Ridley Scott was chosen to direct did I become really involved—he had been fascinated by my book Necronomicon.” On February 8, 1978, Scott met Giger at his home in Zurich, and the artist began his design work for the picture in earnest, later traveling to Shepperton Studios in London to work intensively on the film’s sets, miniatures and special effects.
“As for Dune,” says Giger, “I haven’t given up on the project. Dino De Laurentiis contacted me to design some creatures for his Flash Gordon. I turned the offer down, because I do not know the world of Flash Gordon very well, and because I just couldn’t start working on a new film right away, after the exhausting experience of Alien. But I let him know that I would be interested in participating in bis production of Dune, now that he has acquired the rights, and is said to be looking for a director to start filming next year.”
What elements in the film did you design?
I designed the alien planet, the landscape, which I made out of a mixture of bones, tubes, technical stuff, in order to achieve what I call my biomechanics. I made the derelict spacecraft, interior and exterior, the cockpit, and under this derelict ship, the egg silo. Originally, as I told you before, the story was different and the eggs were in a pyramid. But this was thought too close to the Egyptian myths, and we had to combine the derelict ship and the hatchery silo. I thought we could place the egg silo under the ship, a bit like termites do. I also made the egg, and the cocoon. But the cocoon ended up on the cutting room floor.
I designed the three alien forms: the “face hugger” [which attaches to John Hurt’s head], the “chest burster” and the big alien. I gave the first one a tail the shape of a spring, because its function commanded that it could jump out at the face, and also two hands so it could grab a hold of the head. Ridley Scott took some inspiration for the second beast from a painting by Francis Bacon, where the face of a character is limited to a mouth, as this second alien has literally to eat its way out of the chest. The big problem was that of the monster. More often than not, in horror films, they show the monster for much too long, and once you have seen it, you can leave the theatre. There is no point in watching on. And Ridley Scott would often say, “I don’t want to have a movie monster.” So we decided to show the monster very briefly, detail by detail, reserving a full view for the end. Otherwise, the film may well have been dull.
Was the idea of showing the monster only fleetingly due to any aesthetic conception of yours?
No, that played no part in the decision; I give a “full view” of my monsters in my paintings. It was not conditioned by the story, either, as, when at one point a character is killed by the alien, he can see him completely. But I totally agree with this ‘cover-up’ policy. I had very long discussions with Ridley Scott, and for us, the monster undoubtedly was the most important aspect of the film. We decided not to show him, in order to keep some tension in the spectator. To create a final surprise. And I have heard that some people went to see Alien up to six times with the mere purpose of figuring out, of seeing what the monster is like.
Did you work personally as much on the alien which attaches to John Hurt’s face as on the full-grown alien?
No, that was mainly Roger Dicken’s work. I had made a plaster-cast for this alien at the same time he made one. But I did not go on with my work on that. I simply did not have the time.
Did you work with Dicken at all?
No, I didn’t work with him. Originally, he wanted to build the monster; but when I saw the kind of things he had done, I thought he couldn’t do the monster, and I decided that I should build it myself. Roger Dicken is very gifted for models of real, or rather, known animals, such as dinosaurs, but not for imaginary creatures. Let’s say, at least, that in this domain, he does not work in my direction. I must say, at the beginning, I was not too satisfied with his work, but, with director Ridley Scott, I supervised him, and I was finally entirely happy with what he turned out. He worked from my drawings, and I met with him quite a few times, with director Ridley Scott, but what we may have done together was nothing more than corrections. He also made the “chest burster,” and his experience enabled him to achieve very good results for the animation of this third monster, mostly air-controlled.
How did Carlo Rambaldi become involved with the “Alien Head Effects?”
After Star Wars, everybody was busy and working on different films, and they just could not find a monster-maker for Alien. Finally, producer Gordon Carroll came up with Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on King Kong, and who brilliantly devised the mechanical apparatus to animate the mouth I had designed for this monster. He did most of his work in Los Angeles, but flew over to Shepperton for a week, during which time we worked together in close collaboration. We devised the muscles for the mouth of the monster. Originally, we wanted to make it transparent but we couldn’t get the manufacturing facilities, and had to make do with the plaster shop. But I insist that I made the monster myself. I used a kind of skull to represent the sexual organ. It all depends on how you look at it.
Did you do any work in collaboration with Carlo DeMarchis and Dr. David Watling, credited for “additional alien mechanics”?
Carlo DeMarchis was one of Carlo Rambaldi’s assistants. When I modelled the alien’s head, he made about six copies in polyester, which he sent to Rambaldi in Los Angeles so that he could workout the inside mechanism. And when Rambaldi came over to Shepperton for a week, DeMarchis helped him put the parts of the mechanism together. David Watling was asked to make another head, for reasons of security, but we didn’t have to use it.
What materials did you use to make the alien? And, did you have any assistants?
I used quite a lot of materials: polyester, rubber, animal meat, real bones, and oysters. I was helped by Peter Boysey, who was very good. I’d say he was the best of all the modellers who worked on the film.
What about the metal jaws? What inspired those?
I did that myself, too. Those teeth are also in polyester. They were chrome-plated, so as to give them a metallic shine. I imagined them that way because for me the monster is both human and mechanical—more human titan mechanical, though. So giving him steel teeth was a way to convey this two-fold nature.
How did you deal with the fact that a real actor was playing the alien? Was it easy for him to get into and out of the ‘suit’ you designed?
The making of this ‘suit’ was certainty one of the most complicated things to achieve. We took a plaster-cast of the whole body of actor Bolaji Badejo. Then, from this cast, we made a kind of statue, upon which I put tubes, bones, etc. to obtain the shape of the monster. Then a rubber mold was made out of this statue-with-accessories. And only then, finally, from this rubber mold, was the suit proper realized. Badejo, in fact, was not the only one to don this unusual type of clothes; it’s him you see when the monster walks, but when the monster comes down from the ceiling, the man in the suit is a stuntman. Anyway, for both of them, getting ‘dressed’ was a terrible ordeal. It took them at least an hour to get ready. The stuntman, especially, didn’t have a good time in the scene where he is hanging, or you’d better say, ‘is hung’ from the ceiling. He couldn’t see a thing, and he had to move by following instructions shouted up to him! These sufferings the stuntman and an actor standing in for Harry Dean Stanton had to endure for the two weeks it took to film the scene.
Who controlled the movements of the tail?
That is a special effect. The original idea was to have a mechanized tail. But that would not work. So a ‘normal’ tail was used instead, and animated with a system of wires which, hopefully, the spectator cannot see!
What was your inspiration for the design of the egg?
The egg is related to my work insofar as it is an element essential to art nouveau, of which, in a way, I am a representative. In O’Bannon’s script, the top of the egg wasn’t organic, but completely mechanical. I didn’t like it that way. So I built up this egg with a top like a vagina. But when the producers turned up in my studio, they exclaimed, ‘Oh, that’s too specific! We can’t show such things in Catholic countries. Can’t you change the egg just a little bit?” So to satisfy Catholic audiences, I modified the egg, and made the opening a cross on the top. I like the opening of the egg in the film. They used real meat from a slaughterhouse, mmmm.
How come the producers never objected to the Alien’s head being the shape of a penis’ Or is this perhaps why the creature is shown so briefly?
Any long thing is phallic, in a way, and what you say for the head is not so obvious as the vagina was for the egg! There was no censorship whatever about it, and I repeat that the Alien is shown very briefly because it was Ridley Scott and Hans Giger’s idea, not anybody else’s.
Did you work with supervising model makers Martin Bower or Bill Pearson on the derelict spacecraft miniature?
No, they belonged to Ron Cobb’s team, in charge of the making of the Nostromo. And that’s just one thing I should like to point out: I went my own way to make the derelict (and it’s no coincidence if it looks like my paintings), and Ron Cobb went his own way for the Nostromo. These two tasks were entrusted to two different artists so the two ships should look totally different, giving the impression they came from two different civilizations. The derelict had to appear as a non-human construction—so I did it!
Are you ever disappointed that, because of the cuts, this feeling of another civilization does not really come through in the scenes of the planet?
I am a bit disappointed, but I think the film comes off alright as it is now. We had made a lot of little models, but very few were actually executed full-size. And, due to lack of time, the one made for the landscape is not really biomechanic. But, at least, it is full size. Only in one scene is a model used for the landscape: when you see the three men with the derelict in the background.
Can you tell us about Swiss Made, the science fiction film you worked on before Alien?
Swiss Made was filmed in 1969 by F. Murer, with a very small crew. The picture is distributed here by a firm called Nemo. But the story is so complicated I can only give you the main lines. An extraterrestrial comes to Earth with his extraterrestrial dog. The dog is wearing some clothes, which indicate how polluted our atmosphere is. I used a real dog, and I made the clothes in polyester. With a camera the alien has instead of eyes and a tape recorder he has in his chest, he records everything he comes across. But he is arrested by security people, who take him to a hospital. All these events are seen through his camera, in a subjective way. I think he dies at the end, but I’m not sure. He is examined by the people in the hospital, but when they turn his limbs, they discover there is nothing there! It was filmed in 35mm. The story, somewhat in the vein of Orwell’s 1984, is very complex. It is in fact the combination of seven different stories, none of which are told entirely!
You were an industrial designer, originally. Could you tell us what led you to the cinema, and was that industrial training useful for Alien?
In Switzerland, the word ‘artist’ is not taken seriously. If you’re an artist, you do not have a real profession over here; you must be one of those guys who just drink too much and play around. But mind you, even in Los Angeles or at Shepperton they were surprised that a Swiss could be something other than a cheese-eater or watchmaker. Anyway, my father insisted that I have a true profession. So I looked for something where I could do some drawings. I learned architectural design first, and then attended courses in a Zurich school where you are taught photography, and all forms of design. I more or less specialized in interior architecture. This training gave me the capacity of translating my designs into three dimensions; I got used to working with plastics, for instance. And all this turned out to be very useful for Alien.
Your designs, as a painter, are immobile. How did you deal with the fact that your pictures, here, would be part of a moving picture?
As an industrial designer, I always consider what kind of function an object has. If you look at an object, its form should be enough to tell you about its function. That’s the way I work. Admittedly, the difficulties you come across when you realize a normal, an ‘ordinary’ painting (shadows, lines, etc.), multiply in an incredible way as soon as you know you have to move it. That’s why the director had to concentrate on the monster first, as it was to be the most difficult thing to show.
Did you have any influence on the script?
Not really, but on many occasions I insisted that the visual aspect of the film should come first because, for me, a film like this needs a succession of very strong impressions. Ridley Scott is, like me, a very ‘visual’ man, and we had to fight together against screenwriter Dan O’Bannon quite a few times. O’Bannon kept saying it wouldn’t work if some points of the script were dropped. He once said, for example, that because of the script, the hatchery could not contain more than six eggs. And I had to convince him that a hatchery with six eggs was preposterous. Also, I had to change the spacecraft once without being given any specific reason. Very often you are confronted with a lot of people totally impervious to artistic viewpoints.
Do you establish a hierarchy in your different types of work, and what place is occupied by your film work?
I don’t draw any lines, actually. The cinema forces me to create in new domains. For instance, I had never designed a spacecraft before Alien.
You very often mix elements of different epochs in your painting—machine guns unscrupulously gang up with antique cathedrals, etc. How did you approach the question of Time in Alien? Would you call it a science fiction film?
It is a kind of science fiction film, but for me, it’s more a horror film. Ridley Scott called it a gothic novel, and he often referred to my Necronomicon book to show people how they should work. “Moebius” (Jean Giraud, another member of the Dune nucleus) did the designs for the astronauts. They wear a kind of Japanese armor and helmets which could belong to just about any period of time. Space, here, is just a means to express a feeling of claustrophobia.
Outer space and claustrophobia seem to be a very odd couple.
The events of the film take place inside the spacecraft, mostly. Little time is devoted to the planet, not more than twenty minutes. Alien is about the situation of people locked together inside a very limited space. They would like to escape, but they can’t. Claustrophobia was already there, in the script, but it just falls in with my own personal fantasies. As a boy, I would dream every night that I was in a white room, from which I could escape only through a small hole in the ceiling. But even when I had managed to reach this hole, I was stuck inside the wall and couldn’t breathe. I freed myself from these obsessions when I began painting my Passages.
How many designs did you do for Alien?
About thirty-five. But some of them were just guides for the matte artist [Roy Caple, who painted the matte element of the long shot of Kane (John Hurt) descending into the mammoth hatchery beneath the alien ship], I had a photograph of my drawing blown-up, and then showed the matte painter how to work. I also did a lot of paintings. As to how much time I spent on all this Alien work, I couldn’t say. Quite a long time, really, including more than five months at Shepperton Studios.
What matters most to me is that this film enabled me to go beyond what I usually do, to live a new experience. Like Cocteau, I hate being limited to a particular genre. And that’s why I am preparing a very precise report on my various activities during the film, which will be published in book form as Giger’s Alien.
What do you think of the current science fiction craze, and, if this book is titled Giger’s Alien, in what way is the film yours? And what is your relationship with the public, now that you’ve done Alien? Before, you were Hans Giger, the painter.
Obviously, Alien has brought me a lot of publicity! Nowadays I think people like science fiction the same way they take, or would like to take drugs or whatever to escape from reality. People need science fiction because it makes them happy. It shows them to areas they would be too afraid to explore otherwise. Many people find my designs horrible at first. But if they look at them a little longer, they eventually accept that world they had not seen before, and admit there is some harmony to it. It’s just another kind of peace, but not so well-known. I don’t want to instill trouble into people’s minds. I don’t appreciate that kind of science fiction where every element is invented. That’s why I wanted the landscape of the planet in the film to be biomechanic, a mixture of our technology and some kind of magma, so as to create the feeling that maybe something has happened before on that planet, maybe a technical civilization has been destroyed. Unfortunately, as most of the landscape footage has been cut by Ridley Scott, I doubt whether all that can be felt anymore.
I will call my book Giger’s Alien because I like to think my biomechanics could be the new style for this century. I’d like to invent a new architecture for this century.
You said that after Alien you were not in a hurry to embark on a new film. Why?
I sincerely hope that I can work on De Laurentiis’ Dune, because I like the book very much, and I understand that Frank Herbert would like to do the screenplay himself. For me, that could be a new incentive to work out new concepts and elaborate new directions. You see, I have accumulated a lot of skeletons in this house recently, and they are just waiting to be transformed into pieces of furniture. I have some designs, for instance, for a bed which would he composed mainly of skulls. Perhaps a film version of Dune could he an excellent avenue for such ideas. But I doubt whether the contents of the Dune trilogy could be put into one film, and think that two or three films should be made. The task, anyway, will be a difficult one.
Do you still like the cinema? As a spectator, I mean?
The last film I have seen is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. It’s called Eraserhead; unfortunately, it seems to be presented in New York City only, as a Friday night late show. I also never forget that I got my first fantastic impressions while seeing Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or, rather, stills taken from the film, published in an issue of Life magazine circa 1945. American soldiers had brought us chewing gum and Life magazines. I was five years old then. And, as a matter of fact, many of my designs could be called “Beauty and the Beast.”
There is, indeed, a female face in practically all your paintings. But I see no beauty in Alien, just a Beast.
Who knows? The Beast might well be the Beauty! For me, it was a hybrid. But Timothy Leary, in the preface he has written for Giger’s Alien, assumes that the creature is a woman.
Do you believe that Alien will impress some people the way that Cocteau’s images impressed you?
No, I think not, because Alien contains too much reality to conceal something in the background. It may pertain to art for some of its details, but on the whole it is essentially an entertainment film—but a very successful entertainment film.
Cinefantastique, Vol. 9, Number 1, 1979; pp. 10-39