Return of the 'Alien' Mind

Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott

One of Hollywood’s greatest (and most elusive) directors, Ridley Scott breaks his silence on his complex 3D space odyssey "Prometheus," revealing never-seen footage — and a rarely seen candor.

That oversight, after his success with Alien, taught him to read a contract "like a lawyer" -- which subsequently allowed him to amass a fortune, with homes in Los Angeles, London and the south of France; a production company behind movies such as Body of Lies and American Gangster and TV series including Numbers and The Good Wife; and commercials that account for more than $100 million in annual billings.

Making Prometheus, however, meant persuading Fox to pay several hundred thousand dollars for research as Scott hired conceptual artists to probe what a future eight decades from now might resemble.

In late 2008, the studio hired Jon Spaihts to script the film after the neophyte had drawn acclaim for another screenplay, Shadow 19, set in a future where two remaining superpowers fight for remaining resources.

"I would go and write my draft, and then Ridley and I would sit for weeks, wrestling the story into shape," Spaihts says. Scott frequently dug up pictures that captured his imagination. "He has a fascination with the uglier forms of parasitism, dark examples of anatomy from subterranean creatures with staring eyes and jaws."

After two years and five drafts, Scott started to rethink the project. It was then that he contacted Lindelof, who, in a lengthy e-mail, argued against making the film a direct predecessor to Alien: "I don't like the word 'prequel' because it communicates to an audience that they already know the ending."

Now he in turn spent three to four hours a day with Scott. Initially, Rapace's character was called Elizabeth Watts (she became Elizabeth Shaw to avoid confusion with Fox executive Emma Watts). And in the Spaihts draft, Lindelof notes, the ship was the Magellan. They considered the names Paradise and Icarus before opting for Prometheus.

The new ship is quite different from Alien's, with its tall, refinery-like towers that Scott says he sketched rapidly, thinking of a floating tug. By contrast, the Prometheus is massive and resembles a Hawker Hunter jump jet, which is "pretty interesting in the way the engines tilt and fold," the director observes. As to the film's creature, it takes on at least four different forms as it grows and changes, sometimes "organically" in a way that Rapace calls "every woman's worst nightmare."

Scott began casting in late 2010. Rapace was at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont when she received the screenplay. "It took my breath away," she says. "I felt I was holding a diamond for 1 ½ hours."

Fassbender had impressed Scott in Hunger (2008), after which they'd had tea. Now the director asked him to play the android David. "Ridley told me: 'This guy is a sort of butler. Have you seen The Servant?' " Fassbender recalls, referring to the 1963 drama starring Dirk Bogarde as a malevolent valet. "He just gives you flavors, a hint of something, and lets you go away and work with that."

At Theron's suggestion, Lindelof and Scott refined the actress' role as the villainous Weyland Industries representative Meredith Vickers. "Vickers had a specific corporate agenda, which is very familiar in the Alien movies: someone representing the interests of the company," Lindelof explains. "But Charlize said, 'Can there be more to her?' And then we wrote three scenes just in service of that character."

With MPC Film and Peter Jackson's WETA Digital leading the effects element, shooting in 3D got under way March 21, 2011, at England's Pinewood Studios. Scott opted for his characteristic use of multiple cameras (usually four), though for the first time he filmed with the Red digital camera. "I loved it," he says.

Rapace, arriving at Pinewood before the rest of the cast, was stunned to discover a huge set had been built for the ship and the giant caverns leading to cathedral-like rooms on another planet when she'd been expecting greenscreen: "I felt we had a whole village, that we took over Pinewood." She became a "guinea pig" for costume designer Janty Yates, testing various spacesuits that would allow the actors to run and fight. "They were quite heavy," the actress adds. "I was dripping sweat."

In one storm sequence shot outdoors at Pinewood, she got hurt. "I was hanging in a harness and thrown around. There were so many cuts and bruises, I don't even remember them. When I finished, my knees were filled with liquid, and I had some nasty thing hanging from my elbow."

After months in the studio, the Arab Spring forced a shift from Morocco to Iceland. There, Scott filmed at the Dettifoss waterfall and near the live Hekla volcano -- where an earthquake erupted as the crew was right beside it. Having grown up in Iceland, Rapace wasn't scared. Nothing fazed her until the movie wrapped July 22, 2011, and she discovered that a mass murderer had gone on a shooting spree in Oslo. Until then, "I felt I was on this spaceship with Ridley."


Scott once joked that he was similar to his frequent collaborator Russell Crowe: "He's angry all the time, and I'm angry all the time. We don't mean to be irritable, but we don't suffer fools gladly."

None of that is evident at Abbey Road, where there is an ease to the half-dozen technicians around him as they record some 40 choristers' unearthly sounds. But Scott has formed a thick carapace, developed early in the industrial north of England, where men were from Mars and he, a pure artist, was from Venus.

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