Ridley Scott: Directing ‘Alien’ Through an Artist’s Eyes

The Making of "Alien". Interview with director Ridley Scott. Published in 'Starlog' n. 26, September 1979

by David Houston

Although Alien is only Ridley Scott’s second film, it plants him squarely in the midst of a rare breed of directors. While there is controversy over Alien‘s comment and content, the word critics are using most often to describe the film’s visual integrity is: splendid.
Twenty-odd years ago, Scott was a youngster with an artistic bent and no clear idea what to do with it. “I went to the Royal College of Art in London,” he says, “but at that time their film department consisted of a steel wardrobe with a Bolex camera in it and an instruction book. No classes whatsoever.”
His degree plan„ was in graphic design. “Halfway through I thought I might like to do a film.” Using the Bolex 16mm, he began to work on what today would be considered a student film. “It was called Boy on a Bicycle. My brother was chief equipment carrier and the actor, and my father was in it playing a blind freak.” The British Film Institute saw the work in progress and “gave me a little more money. I then completed the film— which cost 250 pounds.”
The film was used as an admission ticket into a television design course. “I figured it was at least one way to become a director.” His experience with Boy on a Bicycle had crystalized Scott’s talent and his goal. “Once you’ve done a film, it’s fatal. You don’t want to do anything else.” But there was a long wait.
“Eighteen years later, I was finally allowed to direct something. I’m serious.”
Following his employment at BBC, largely working in videotape, Scott opened his own agency for making commercials—and ultimately longer pieces of film. This led him to his first feature, The Duelists, and to Alien.
Alien came to me out of the blue, from (20th Century-) Fox. I think it had been turned down by about six directors. I don’t know why they turned it down. It was their misfortune, or perhaps they just missed the elements that appealed to me, personally. I was knocked out by the simplicity, the energy and drive of the story. The thriller aspects of it just leapt off the page. I found it very pure.
“It’s odd to hear that it’s my visual enlargements that make the film interesting. One must never underestimate the quality of that script. Hill, Giger, O’Bannon, Shusett —whoever—* had even put in enough characterization to make all the characters interesting—which I think is unusual in many thrillers, where characters are secondary. Characterization was in the attitudes, in the very spartan choice of language—and what they talked about. Like the first conversation after they wake up; it’s about shares of stock in the company. It seemed to me a very natural, very human kind of character painting.”
But, at the time, Scott was at work on another project, a ‘‘post-holocaust treatment of the story of Tristan and Isolde,” and had to shelve Alien. He assumed he would not do it at all. That was in November 1977.
“About Christmastime I had quite a problem with the Tristan thing. The writer dropped out. I thought: I’ve got to do something, got to do a film. So I called up Fox and asked what had happened with the Alien script. They said nothing was happening with it, and I said I’d like to do it. And I was standing here in Los Angeles about two weeks later.
“At that time the budget was something like $4.5 million. And I was very well aware that we couldn’t do it for that. There was a preliminary period of about a month or six weeks during which we had to work up a new budget.”
During that short time Scott took the script and drew storyboards for every key sequence in the film. “I felt obliged to do storyboards,” the artist-director stresses. “This was prior to the employment of any of the several artists who were later to contribute to the visual concept of the film.
“We originally told Fox we wanted $13 million, and they nearly died. Then we came back with the storyboards and asked for $9.5 million. And we said 17 weeks of shooting. That was totally objected to. We negotiated and finally arrived at $8.5 million and 13 weeks. Incidentally, it ended up taking us 16 weeks—which was closer to my original estimate. We slid a bit during the first three weeks of filming.”
Once money and time were agreed upon, the next phase involved the gathering together of an unusual number of artists and art directors.
“The biggest problem, of course, was: What’s the alien going to look like? I mean, you could screw around for two years trying to come up with something that wasn’t all nobs and bobs and bumps and claws, or like a huge blob, you know? When I went in to Fox for the first meeting, they had a book there by H. R. Giger, The Necronomicon. I took one look at it, and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. 1 was convinced I’d have to have him on the film.
“Another illustrator—who had been working on Alien in America before I was brought in—was Ron Cobb. I liked a lot of the stuff he’d done. But while they were very nice drawings, good concepts, I felt they were a bit too NASA-oriented, not far enough into the future, too 2001-ish. But Ron has a really good technical mind for this sort of material, and I knew we’d need him. So he came along with us.
“I was fascinated by various French illustrators, and one in particular, Jean Giraud— known as Moebius. I thought, my God, I’ll get all these great illustrators!”
For Alien, the whole crew, prior to production, was a vast art department operating in London. “It was then that I hired the production designer, an Englishman named Mike Seymour.”
In that unusual art department, a division of labor resulted. “As the film involves three specific aspects—the planet, everything to do with the alien and the Earth ship—we decided that any one of those elements should be, a full-time job for a designer.” Giger worked primarily on the alien and the planet; Cobb on the Earth ship Nostromo; and Moebius on costumes and space suits.
“We had a constant battle—you always do, actually—to stretch the budget. There were certain script cuts we became obliged to make, to come within budget.”
The principle cut involved the removal of an entire scene—with its settings and special effects—from the action on the alien planet. “It’s the setting the original script refers to as a pyramid. Actually, it was to be more like a silo. It was a huge architectural structure like a beehive, a honeycomb. When the party landed to investigate the alien transmission, first they found the derelict with the dead alien crew, but not the alien. It needed a prognosis scene. Then one of them discovers on a scanner this strange surface feature. They investigate and find the hive. They go down into it and that’s where they find the alien eggs—originally. What we did was combine the two, put the eggs on board the derelict.’
The preproduction phases were, miraculously, accomplished in only four months.
“You ought to have a bloody year! We were railroading along, trying to involve the best people, toward the start date of July 5 [1978].
“While all that was going on, it became apparent that we’d need some quite sophisticated mechanisms for the alien—to make his face work. We brought in Carlo Rambaldi— just by the skin of our teeth. He came in for a limited period and then left a marvelous guy there, Carlo de Marcis, who then refined and honed the mechanisms Rambaldi had decided he’d need to make the thing function.”
When July 5 arrived, shooting did in fact begin—if a bit sluggishly. “We had a big problem in that we only had five sound stages. Star Wars had 13. It means you can’t shoot in sequence. We had to do it right the first time. There was this army of stagehands with hammers who would come and knock the bloody thing down immediately after we were through with it. Really—an army!”
Further complicating things, Brian Johnson’s miniatures department was operating at a different studio. “That’s never a good idea—being so separated from the action.
Not for me, anyway, because I like to be involved in everything that’s going on. Brian was off doing miniatures while I was working with Nickie Allder on the floor effects.
“Nothing was easy. We had, for instance, endless arguments about ceiling heights… especially as Gordon Carroll [co-producer] is seven-foot-six and I’m more like four-foot-two. We’d actually stand inside these corridors with Gordon saying, ‘I think we’ve got Scott’s rendition of the disengagement sequence. The director hopes to someday direct a a big problem here, Ridley: these ceilings are too low.’ I tried to explain that we were going after claustrophobia.
“Every step of the work had to be justified in my own mind—or to other people. Absolutely everything.”
Scott enjoyed the making of Alien, though, and names Kane’s death as the scene that delighted him most. (John Hurt plays Kane.) The filmmakers call this “the kitchen scene” or “the scene with the chest-burster”—in which the alien hatches out from within the rib cage of the dying Kane. (Their “pet” names for the various stages of the alien were: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster and the big chap.)
Scott explains the design, operation and shooting of that scene:
“It wasn’t physically possible for Giger to do all the stages of the alien; there just wasn’t time. But he had done some specific drawings of the four stages. He worked backwards; he designed the big chap first, then asked himself what a baby version of it would look like. Giger did the big chap and the egg—not the thing that comes out of it, just the egg. We finally chose a guy named Roger Dicken, an English special-effects man, specifically a model builder, to work on two of the alien elements—the face-hugger and the chest-burster, the baby, as it were. We worked for weeks on the baby. I knew I didn’t want something with bumps and warts and claws. You know, I find that most horror films have never really frightened me; and 1 tend not to be convinced by a lot of science-fiction films—specifically because of the effects. So I knew it had to be good, this baby. We decided that the big chap, in embryo form, would have a head either tilted down or tilted back. We tilted it back because it seemed more obscene that way, more reptilian, more phallic.
“Mechanically, it was dead simple, as it turned out. It was virtually puppetry—you know, hand-held.
“The actors kept wanting to see it, and I wouldn’t let them. They never actually saw anything until we were filming and they were involved with it. What you see on film is their genuine surprise and horror!
“We played the scene to a point, walked the actors off, got ready, walked them back on and took up the scene again from where we’d gotten to, and worked up to the progressive point of frenzy that was needed. And bingo! The actors’ reactions were really extraordinary.
“I also kept it back from the actors on Brett’s death. I rehearsed the actor, Harry Dean Stanton, usually without having the alien there at all—just talking in the abstract about chalk marks on the floor for position.”
Typically, a director will work closely with the cameraman, take a squint or two through the lens from time to time, and stand beside the camera during the filming. Not Ridley Scott.
“I do all the camera work. That’s why I so seldom use more than one camera. Usually there is only one position—from the light or the look or the angle of the shot. I find it’s swifter if I operate the camera, swifter to get the exact detail I want, the detail that is in my head.”
Scott is also essentially his own film editor. “There’s so often a fine edge for the director to decide about—particularly if you’re operating the camera as well. I mean, you might bang off a couple of elements within a scene not knowing whether or not you’ll ever use them, but there’s an instinct about them when it comes to editing.”
The editing process was constant and proceeded throughout the shooting. “When we wrapped, we were right up to date on the editing. I was able to show a cut of the film to Fox eight days after we finished shooting. Every time we showed any of it to Fox—and they came in continuously during the filming —we had to go through quite a sophisticated tap dance to make it look polished, even down to using dummy music tracks.”
But that cut, eight days after, was far from a ready-to-release movie. Model work was still being filmed at Bray Studios, and there were numerous inserts—close ups, special effects, etc.—to be filmed and added. “So we decanted the whole unit to Bray and started really getting into the special-effects work —which I was looking forward to. I hadn’t done miniature work before, and I very much wanted to be involved in it.
“We were also filming our inserts at Bray. We had to do it that way, unfortunately. For instance, when Ripley’s hand is on the destruct fuse of the Nostromo, that’s really Ripley’s hand, but it was shot five months after we’d wrapped and tom the set down. I know it’s pretty much standard procedure to do your inserts that way, but it’s murder to go back over old ground. Like the egg stuff. That was all done later at Bray, all the close shots. The process of re-psyching yourself is what’s so terrible about it. You get yourself psyched up to do a particular scene in just such a way, and you know that the special-effects bit is as key to it as the acting; so you see all the old footage and re-psych yourself later when you do the rest of it.”
Now Alien is finished. The headaches are over, and Ridley Scott—concept and storyboard artist, cameraman, editor, director— sees an Alien that is, in many ways, better than the version he had in his mind before the real work Began. “But there are always things you wish could have been better, or different.” Like the missing prognosis scene.
What’s next?
“I am now reading like a maniac—have been for months. And I’ve narrowed it down to about four projects. I most certainly am looking for another fantasy/science-fiction subject. Not next, necessarily, but in the future.
“I quite like working with special effects. I love it. That’s the old art director coming out in me again.”

* Walter Hill, co-producer; H.R. Giger, concept artist (see interview in this issue on page 26); DanO’Bannon, screenwriter; Ron Shusett, screenwriter.

Starlog n. 26, September 1979



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