Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About Alien That May Leave You Rethinking That Space Shuttle Ticket
Not by design but rather coincidence this week’s entry was often referred to as “Jaws in space (Jaws), but Alien is more of a slow burn. Ridley Scott’s attention to detail, pacing and his ability to make so much of so little (equipment, set) produced a classic horror/science fiction film that holds our attention to this day, as evidenced by our rabid appetite for all news Prometheus. In addition to a gloriously, horrifying, morphing creature that kept us off-balance—unsure which version of the alien we’d see next—we were treated to a standout performance by Sigourney Weaver. Her Ripley was just the right mix of vulnerable and tough, kick-ass, sexy and smart.
1. The Alien script started out as a bare bones, half story written by Dan O’Bannon and was shopped around for years before several re-writes (by several parties). The story eventually became a collaborative effort that added an android, changed crew names, Ripley’s sex, and the entire ending. Saying it “helps him think on paper and pin down what he’s doing,” Ridley Scott storyboarded the full movie, which doubled the budget.
2. Scott was “the fifth or sixth director.” He didn’t know why he was chosen—“not a science fiction guy.” Scott said he was a fan of story writer, Dan O’Bannon’s (with John Carpenter) Dark Star and knew Dan would have loved to direct. The director wanted it to be “the most straight forward, unpretentious riveting thriller like Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby, or even the most brilliant B level like Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Masacre, but I want it to look—and I’m going to do this—like 2001. We’re going to watch together, all the classic scare movies so I can get the rhythm of how scares work.” Scott decided to keep it minimal, “…like the shark, don’t show too much of the monster.”
3. Executive Producer and writer Ronald Shusett related that the title sequence was originally bits of flesh and bone coming together to form the word, “Alien,” but it was decided to be too gory. Ridley Scott came up with the idea of the word being hieroglyphic; “something…but you don’t know what it is.”
4. O’Bannon said the corridors were built without blind corners—he insisted they be put in. They wanted the feeling of an old, battered ship; Scott wanted the set to be circular (“beautiful, but more expensive”). With a small budget, the corridors were scavenged from parts found in aircraft graveyards, assembled like sculpture and painted. When the ship landed on the planetoid, O’Bannon said it came very close to how he wrote it. He thought it would be novel to show the horrendous, dangerous process of landing, with the ship groaning and shaking, wrenching, and was very gratified by how it came out on film.
5. Scott highly recommended producers David Giler and Gordon Carroll; with them, “You’ll find every party in town.” The director acknowledged he is very meticulous about casting, saying “If you cast right, about fifty percent of your problems are over.” Everyone was nervous, they were very close to production and the lead had not been cast. One night, they (producers and Scott) decided to have dinner at a Japanese restaurant, suggested by Sigourney Weaver. The actress had been doing a lot of theater Off-Broadway. Scott described meeting Weaver: “This beautiful giant walked into the room…in she walked (before even speaking) and that was it.” Weaver was surprised at the revelation and added, “I was wearing my hooker boots, so that helped.” They did a whole test run through of the movie with Sigourney and ran it for 20th Century Fox President, Alan “Laddie” Ladd Jr. Ladd told them to pick a bunch of girls from the office (secretaries, assistants, etc.) and run it for them—see what they think. The ladies all gave good comments—with one of them saying that Weaver was like Jane Fonda—and so Ladd gave the film the go-ahead with the actress starring as Ripley.
6. On the very first day of shooting, Scott noticed Jon Finch (Kane 1.0) didn’t look well (but didn’t say anything because he thought “Finch was just naturally pale”). Finally, Scott asked how he was and Finch said “Not well”; medics were called over and the actor had to be carried out and taken to the hospital. It turned out Finch had an extreme case of diabetes—he was out of the film. At lunch time, Scott reconvened with his team and they tried to figure out who they could get. As it turned out their first choice for Kane, John Hurt, was in London. Hurt relayed that he had previously been asked to do the film but was unavailable, scheduled to do a film in South Africa. Strangely, he wasn’t allowed to enter the country. Hurt said he believed he was confused with actor, John Heard, who was (put on a list as) undesired because he disagreed with apartheid (Hurt: “Well, none of us do.”). Hurt came back home. When they met, Scott pitched the film to Hurt until 12 at night…the actor was on set at 7 a.m. the next morning.
7. Editor, Terry Rawlings said that although he thought Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, The Omen, Planet of the Apes , Total Recall, The Boys from Brazil) a genius, they didn’t always agree with the composer’s score. Instead of what Goldsmith submitted for Alien’s ending, they used his music from Freud; this angered Goldsmith. The score was nominated for a Golden Globe, BAFTA and a Grammy Award.
8. Ridley Scott described a guy crouched down, “wobbling” the actors’ seats (to simulate engine thrust), saying it irritated people and that everyone rolled their eyes. “Every step you make, everyone’s a Doubting Thomas.” Scott said he “…wondered how many people fall by the wayside because you can’t push your point home and don’t quite get what you want. Nobody respects you later for having been a nice guy and given up—you have to get what you want now, because you’re going to wear what you got. You can be very unpopular on the root, but if you’re right, all is forgiven.”
9. The director described the planetoid set as “not so good.” There was a little clump of rocks, only about a foot high and they just kept circling around them until he thought it was time to go in. He had someone get a domestic tape camera, used that, then fed the footage back into a film camera to get the effect and scale of the sculpture to look like more than it was. Scott said artist H. R. Giger’s (Swiss surrealist influenced by Dalí) illustrations were fantastic, but when translated onto film, they sometimes looked “too fancy.” The director liked it better when they got inside (the ship), saying the helmet lights helped a lot, so it didn’t look like a set.
Dry ice was one of the most useful effects, but it sucks oxygen out of tubes—they’d get out of breath even though they were assured it was safe. Of Scott, O’Bannon said, “Ridley is a master of atmosphere, texturing the scene. Without it, the movie would have been a much lesser picture.” The director went to a great deal of trouble with lighting to make set look like Giger’s drawings/paintings. He made sure the smoke was uniformly distributed. “People walked around with incense burners filling the area with smoke, then Scott himself waved cardboard around to distribute the smoke so it looked like thickened air, not just billowing smoke. Finally, he lit it perfectly—elaborate and careful lighting, with blue gray tone.”
10. With no technology or the money to run air into the space suits or helmets, there were lots of problems—condensation, heat, the actors would become short of air or claustrophobic. Tom Skerritt (Dallas) and Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) said they damned near suffocated; that they were supposed to have oxygen (pumped in by tanks), but that the tanks would malfunction. Cartwright described the actors walking around in the suits and helmets, having to carry oxygen tanks, wearing heavy, painted hockey gloves and boots. She said they were practically passing out all the time.
11. Scott described basing the alien in nature; whatever the alien would drop onto, it would take on those characteristics (dropped onto a human, it would look like a human, dropped onto an ostrich, it looks like an ostrich). He described watching footage of “a slice of bark—which, in our terms, to a human being, would be about 12 feet thick—and there’s a grub underneath the bark, between the bark and the tree. There’s always a space between the bark and the tree. Across the top of the bark was this insect, which passes over the grub, stops, backs up, and “feels” the grub is there let’s say, the equivalent of 8 foot below you. It goes up on its hind legs, produces a needle from between its legs, and drills through the bark and bulls-eyes right into the grub and lays its seed, so that the grub becomes the host of the insect. And does what comes out of the union between the grub and the insect, does that become a version of both? That’s what we basically went along with.”
12. Anton Furst (Batman , Full Metal Jacket, Awakenings) ran the laser beams in the egg chamber, an effect Scott was “blown away with.” (Furst, who won an Academy Award for his Batmobile design, committed suicide in 1991.) The inside of the egg was made of steamed cattle and sheep parts (delivered fresh every morning) and the fluttering movement caused by Ridley Scott’s surgical-gloved hand moving around.
13. Once they’d gotten going, with some money to start filming, O’Bannon (in LA) contacted Giger (in Switzerland—O’Bannon met Giger while working on a failed production of Dune). O’Bannon wrote out simple parameters of what the facehugger was—a small octopus-like thing that would leap onto someone’s face, wrap tentacles around a person’s head— and it would have an organ depositor, which it would shove down a person’s throat. A few weeks later, Giger mailed photographic transparencies that came through customs (who didn’t understand what they were and were alarmed so O’Bannon had to personally go to LAX to pick them up). He finally got the photographs, held them up to light and was stunned at what he saw. Instead of tentacles, there were fingers. As soon as O’Bannon saw those, “he knew he’d do whatever he had to to get it on film.” After conferring with Scott on what the director wanted (Scott pointed to one of Giger’s drawings) O’Bannan set himself up at a drawing board and drew a human head, then all views of the facehugger, copying Giger carefully. Concept Artist Ron Cobb helped O’Bannon draw out how the fingers would connect to the body, then O’Bannon finished it. After getting Scott’s approval, the drawing was delivered to sculptors. A few days later they had a clay sculpture, made a cast of it and noted it was the color of human skin. Thinking it novel and unusual, instead of painting the cast they left it flesh-colored.
Finished product on film:
As to the alien itself, as soon as O’Bannon showed Scott Giger’s Necronomicon, the director knew it was what he wanted. Bolaji Badejo (a student) was discovered in a bar—he was just the right size (7’ 2”) to pull off the alien costume.
14. The dinner scene was played as if nothing was going to happen. Tom Skerritt had seen how it was set up, so he had an idea, but the rest of the cast was kept “locked away.” Four cameras were set up and the scene was done in one take. Veronica Cartwright was told she was going to get a little blood on her face. Everyone loved the look on Veronica’s face; her reaction was completely real. There was a guy on a skateboard under the table who had the alien on a dolly and whipped it out of the room.
15. Scott used a German Shepherd on a leash to get the hissing reaction from Jones (the cat) right before the alien kills Brett (Harry Dean Stanton).
16. O’Bannon didn’t want the typical film where the alien was bullet-proof, with ammunition bouncing around in the ship—but they needed a reason why the alien couldn’t simply be killed. Concept Artist, Ron Cobb came up with the idea of it bleeding acid that would burn through metal—then they couldn’t kill the alien because it would melt through everything, the ship would lose oxygen and they would all die.
17. Though analysis over the intention of particular sexual connotations continues on, Scott himself described Ash’s method of trying to kill Ripley as suppressed/inexpressible desire. The director liked the idea that Ash always sort of wanted to, but didn’t have the part to have sex, so he does it with a magazine.
18. Ash’s innards were were pasta, thin rubber tubes, glass marbles, cheap caviar and milk.
19. Scott said Veronica (Lambert) was great at being two steps away from complete terror and a heart attack. In fact, the director had planned for Lambert to crawl away, hiding in a locker and to die of a heart attack. The shot of the alien’s tail going between Lambert’s legs is actually footage of Harry Dean Stanton’s legs.
20. The film was meant to be over when Ripley goes into the ship, with the explosions (graphic design on a card!) and the ending score, but Scott said he couldn’t possibly end it there. He asked the studio for four more days to add a fourth act, saying “It will change the way film is made” (referring to audiences thinking it’s the end, but wait, there’s another end!). Weaver asked not to be told what was going to happen so she would be surprised. The actress said they wanted to have more of a quasi-sex scene, but someone from Fox came and gave them a a stern look, telling them they had two days left to finish. Weaver wanted the alien to come and look at Ripley and be kind of turned on by her softness, but Scott said he never thought about the alien in that way. It was Sigourney’s idea to sing something (You Are My Lucky Star) to herself, to hang onto her own sanity.
Cindy Davis is convinced she could kick an alien’s ass. (Same hair as Sigourney)