If Ridley Scott had not seen Star Wars on opening day in 1977, we might never have had Alien. We’d have Tristan & Isolde instead.
When the British-born director was in Los Angeles showing around his feature film debut, The Duellists, his producer pal David Putnam extended an invite to join him at a 2 p.m. showing of the new sci-fi film from 20th Century Fox at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Scott had heard a bit about it when it was shooting in London and thought, “Well, I’d better go and see it.”
“The theater was positively boiling with expectation. I have never seen such audience participation,” remembers Scott. “Because I had a very good time in France doing The Duellists, I was seriously thinking about doing Tristan & Isolde next. So I looked at Star Wars and thought, ‘Why on earth am I even thinking about doing Tristan & Isolde when this guy is doing this kind of movie? And it literally stopped me in my tracks. I was depressed for three months — that’s my highest form of accolade — to get very depressed first, then get very competitive.”
A few months after that life-altering afternoon in a darkened theater, Scott’s The Duellists played at Cannes and won the festival prize for Best First Work. But the film still struggled to find a good distributor and “virtually never got an opening.” Scott paused. And waited.
“And suddenly, out of the blue, came this script called Alien,” he says. “And I'm still, to this day, baffled about how someone who is at Cannes seeing The Duellists had put two and two together and said, ‘You know what? You might want to meet this guy, because he may be the right one for Alien.’ That’s how it happened.”
With Star Wars essentially a sleeper phenomenon and a runaway box office success, the executives at 20th Century Fox were determined to greenlight another outer space adventure ... and fast. Sci-fi was suddenly white hot and they turned to producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll, who had been developing a “Jaws in Space” story by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, originally called Star Beast. The tale followed a small, blue-collar crew shipping ore through space who respond to a mysterious signal at their peril.
To his credit, studio CEO Alan Ladd Jr. wisely did not seek to simply clone the heroic bravado storytelling of George Lucas’ space fantasy that audiences were lining up to see over and over and over — and producers were stumbling over each other to replicate.
“Laddie is honestly a formidably good spotter of good material,” comments Scott. “Look at his track record: Before Alien and Star Wars, you're looking at Omen, then you're looking at Star Wars, then you look at me, then you're looking at Braveheart. This guy’s clearly got good judgment on good material.”
After receiving the Alien script, Scott was flown in to Hollywood to “meet the team.” He didn’t think much of the screenplay’s lack of depth, but he saw the entertainment potential after blazing through the read in 45 minutes. “I thought the script had an inordinately good engine. I thought it was virtually no characterization whatsoever. It was, ‘And then and then and then.’ And then I got to a page where it says, ‘And then this thing comes out of the guy's chest.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This has put off four of the directors’ — because I was number number five on the list. Obviously, clearly, the previous four went, ‘What?!? This is ridiculous,’ and just put it down. Because I’m a bit of a designer, I could see the film and I knew exactly what to do.”
Scott felt that Alien should be “the antithesis of Star Wars and be kind of dirty spaceships in space, used craft that were no longer spanking new and no longer futuristic, but felt like, as we ended up calling them, the ‘freighter in space.’ I wanted to go in that direction. So in a funny kind of way, I was already reacting more subliminally, I think, than design-wise against the way that Star Wars had been done.”
With Star Wars “being the romantic version of space, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey being the reality of space,” Scott notes that after watching both seminal films, “It was the first time in my life I learned that computers are smarter than people.” Far from a self-proclaimed sci-fi geek or fanatic, the director drew some inspiration from Kubrick’s epic, metaphysical meditation in space and also zeroed in on the fantastic aesthetic of French illustrator Moebius.
“I was absolutely knocked out by [Moebius],” he says. “Moebius is probably the definitive of all comic strip artistes, and I would say without equal, honestly. … And I thought, ‘I’m going to apply Moebius to this film and that's the way to go,’ because the screenplay didn't rely on characters, but in fact relied on a monster.”
At this point, the story’s pivotal character of Ripley had not been discussed as being anything other than a man, and Scott’s focus was on the beast at the center of the film.
“My feeling was that you’ve got to get the monster right,” he says. “The big idea in The Exorcist was the possession of the body by the devil. That's a first. And since then, there's been 19,000 versions of that thing. And so I read Alien as a bit of a first. It was so outrageous in its idea and story — possession of a body by a massive insect that will lay eggs in you and create other insects. It was remarkable.” Several initial designs of the alien were sketched out by O’Bannon and conceptual artist Ron Cobb, resembling insectoid and crustacean-like, Lovecraftian creatures. Some looked daunting, some arguably looked whimsical.
But nothing would come close to what would ultimately become one of the most terrifying and influential creature designs in the annals of cinema history, courtesy of H.R. Giger.
“The guy who brought him to my attention was Dan O’Bannon,” says Scott. “Inside of a book called Necronomicon, there was the alien. I said, ’It's designed. This is it.’ [Producer] Gordon Carroll and I flew to Switzerland and we went in to meet Giger at his house in Zurich. And that's where I met H.R. and found him to be a gentle man, sweet man, who showed me his work, which is extraordinary. And I just said, ‘Would you come and do this,’ and he said, ‘I don't fly.’ I said, ‘Don't worry about it, we’ll bring you by train.’ He came by train from Switzerland, and stayed with me in Shepperton Village for nine months, and that's how it happened. He wouldn't get on a plane. I had to persuade him.”
Scott adds, “Fox at the time thought Giger was a bit obscene and a bit rude and a bit sexual. And I said, ‘This all sounds good to me,’ which nearly saw me off the case.” But Scott persisted, and Fox relented.
Though Giger’s original painting of the alien provided more than enough nightmare fuel, the eccentric artist insisted on altering his Xenomorph design: “He kept saying, ‘I can design something better.’ I kept saying, ‘No, this is it. You’ve got enough to design with facehuggers, chestbursters, eggs, etc. And by the way, I'd like you to take on board designing the planet and the ship.’ I said, ‘Listen, let's put this alien to rest on the basis that I think we have it. We can always come back to it.’ Gradually, I think he realized that, in fact, he had already done it. And so I stuck to my guns on that one because he still had to do the other stuff. And also, because I was a designer, I knew that one designer couldn't handle everything.”
With a green light and the ball rolling on pre-production, Scott sequestered himself in London to visually map out the story.
“I'm pretty surgical and I move pretty quick,” says the art-school-trained director. “I spent the next three-and-a-half, four weeks doing a storyboard. The budget at that moment was squeezing around just under $4 million. I went back to L.A. with a fully flushed-out film on very specific drawings. At the end of that meeting, the budget jumped to $8.2 million. So that’s the power and punch of drawing. When you know if you've got it, you know what you're doing, and if you can draw it, it's very, very useful.”
When it was time for casting Alien, Scott says he was not very familiar with “the American universe of who was out there” and wanted to see as many actors as he could. Meryl Streep, then a notable up-and-comer, was considered for Ripley, now changed to a female character — a progressive choice in terms of the time and traditional cinematic archetypes — thanks to Ladd. But Streep was not courted since her significant other, Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather Part II actor John Cazale, had just passed away from cancer.
Lining up the likes of Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, John Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton to play the hapless starship Nostromo crew, Scott wanted actors who could shoulder the acting chores themselves while he’d focus on the gargantuan production requirements. But the casting process took considerable time to get right, as Scott is a stickler for doing his research: “If I’m working with a film actor or actress, before I meet them I’ll have seen anything or everything worthwhile that they have done, so when they walk through the door, I know who I'm talking to.”
As his casting team labored, Scott quips, “I think I drove them crazy by saying, ‘Nah, nah, nah, yes, yes, yes, yes, yeah.’ Then one day — I believe I could be wrong, but you can quote it because he’d probably be quite happy — Warren Beatty had called up David Giler and said, ‘Listen, I’ve seen this young woman onstage off-Broadway called Sigourney Weaver, you should see her.’ I believe that's what happened. Because then the next thing is I'm going to meet Sigourney and in walks somebody who's got to be at least six foot one and dwarfed me. And that's how I met Sigourney.”
An incredibly visual director with a designer background who also functioned as camera operator, Scott acknowledges that his predilection for mise en scène over working on character motivation did not sit well with select castmembers.
“I wasn't too popular with some of the actors because I’d say, ‘If it catches you, it's going to take your head off and stick it in a dark place. That's your motivation.’ I wanted it to be very icy in terms of, ’It’s only this.’ I don't want to know about where you came from, who your mum and dad was, all that crap. I avoided all that conversation. They didn't like that. But, you know, at that moment, I'm responsible for the film.”
Despite having doubled his initial budget, Scott still struggled with matching his vision with financial limitations and had to resort to some creative alternative measures to build the illusion.
For the Space Jockey set, the fossilized creature design could rotate 360 degrees on a disc to obtain more angles, thus a full derelict ship set did not have to be built. Prior to that, the life-sized landing area of the Nostromo on the alien planet soundstage simply did not sell the idea of the scale of the ship, so Scott came up with a scheme to cheat the perspective.
“When you’re a designer, whatever size it is, the thing turns out to be it's always not big enough,” says Scott. “That’s metaphorical, but it's true. I walked in and looked at the the landing leg of the Nostromo. And the ceiling height in the studio to the gantry would be about 50 feet. I said, ’It’s not big enough.’ And they said, ‘What, it’s 50 feet!’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, not big enough.’ So we made three cheap spacesuits — one was the cameraman’s child, and the other two were my kids — so that I can put them on the open elevator that’s coming down alongside the landing leg. Suddenly, the leg looks 80 feet. It worked! So I had moving miniatures.”
Anyone who has seen Alien — or has only just heard of Alien — knows that the iconic chestburster scene is the showstopper of the movie. Scott details how the one-take event almost derailed once cameras rolled and almost ruined the orchestrated surprise for the unwitting cast’s organic reactions.
“I had four or five cameras running that morning on that set, and there's power lines, air lines, that will blow blood everywhere,” he explains. “I knew once that happens, the white set will be decimated and will take probably two weeks to clean up. So there was no second take. So I positioned everything the way I felt is going to happen, where it was going to come out. And poor John Hurt was lying strapped down on the table under an artificial chest. And we shot and I honestly had to cross my fingers.”
Scott yelled, “Action!” — and quickly realized something was terribly wrong.
“The T-shirt didn't open,” he recalls. “All there is, is this bump in the T-shirt that flashes out and then it goes away. So I scream, ‘Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut!’ And all the actors start laughing, but they're kind of nervous because they haven't seen it. I go back and say, ‘Clear the set!’ They all go off the set. I crawl in on top of John Hurt — poor bugger lying there — and I’m razor-blading the T-shirt so it will pop when the alien hits the back of the T-shirt. We went again. And it was perfect.”
Working with first-time feature editor Terry Rawlings, who had served as music editor on The Duellists, the initial rough cut of Alien was over 140 minutes long. Aside from fine-tuning the film’s pacing and cutting out the “cocoon” scene with Tom Skerritt (which would resurface in Scott’s director’s cut many years later) to deliver its 117-minute theatrical running time, Fox pushed to cut back on certain moments of blood and gore. Unfazed, Scott links his overall approach to Alien with his experience watching another ‘70s horror staple that got considerable fear-mileage without buckets of blood.
“I don't know, when you're doing a film like [Alien], if you can have too much blood,” he says. “It is very difficult to really scare me. I watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was prepping for Alien one Saturday afternoon in the Fox studio in a small theater. It was horrendous, and it scared the shit out of me. I think I started with a hamburger at lunchtime and never took a bite. But that was into overdrive and overkill. There's a lot of people eating people and there's a lot of violence — it’s tantamount to blood, I think. What’s the difference, frankly? But Tobe Hooper did a [great] job, and it was my challenge to say, ‘How do I get that scary?’
Still, with that rough cut, Scott says, “It may have been a bit long, but we knew we had something. It clearly had formidable stuff there.” However, when it came to releasing Alien, the filmmaker shares his discontent with Fox’s distribution strategy.
“They wanted to preview and preview and preview it and I didn't know why, because clearly it worked like a sonofabitch,” he says. “And they even held it back for six weeks, which absolutely baffled me, because they said it’s a special film, needs special handling. I don't know who the hell thought of that one. … The actual overthinking of when you've got it — go for it, don’t hesitate! There was a bit of holding back, and so I got a little bit angry with that, actually. I think they should have put it out full bore, immediately. The same with Star Wars. They overthought Star Wars. They held back Star Wars and released it on 72 prints. What?!? That's what happened in those days.”
But the previews most definitely served their purpose, and stories of moviegoers screaming, running from the theater, and even passing out began to circulate. “Good pandemonium,” beams the filmmaker. “Dude, I loved it.”
Two years to the day after Ridley Scott sat in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to watch Star Wars, Alien hit theaters on May 25, 1979 in limited release. It went on to gross more than $60 million domestically, and more than $100 million worldwide. While excitable audiences responded with shrieks to the visceral thrills of this inventive sci-fi/horror hybrid, film scholars descended to suss out the socio-political themes, like all great sci-fi stories have. But Scott insists that any sense of contemporary allegory was furthest from his mind as he was crafting his own masterpiece.
“I never even thought about it, honestly,” he admits. “It's hard to scare people. If the order of the day is to scare people for fun, it's no more than a roller-coaster ride.”
Soon after its release, Alien not only permeated the pop-culture conversation, but it entered the zeitgeist slipstream with many references, ripoffs and parodies (Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs diner scene with John Hurt gives Scott an especially good chuckle). And the overwhelming success cost Scott his anonymity.
“You know, one doesn't realize the moment you become well-known, other than people kind of treat you in a weird way, walk up to you the street,” he says. “That takes a while. And once it happens, one doesn't like it. So one tries to avoid it.”
Scott actually looks to the box office fumble of his follow-up film as the real seismic shift in his career trajectory.
“Blade Runner to me was the biggest lesson,” he offers. “You know, one thing's for sure that nothing is for sure. Right? And when you think you've got it, guess what? You haven't. So it's a good lesson in life, actually. It's taught me to be inordinately philosophical. And at the end of the day, doing what I do for a living, you have to also become your own critic. In other words, you have to know what you did for yourself was OK. And whatever anyone says after that is their opinion, but no more. But consequently, I rarely read press because I've been hurt too many times. … That isn't demeaning what you do for a living, it’s good advice: If you want to keep your own head on your shoulders, stay with it. It’s a bit like being a painter. You slave over something and somebody says, ‘Rubbish.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ You can't let that happen. You’ve just got to carry on painting, don’t you think?"
Scott returned to the universe he cultivated three decades later with the critically polarizing prequel Prometheus in 2012 and its follow-up, Alien: Covenant, in 2017. He acknowledges that the experience of helming both films has sharpened his focus in terms of responding to fan feedback, but he also points out that he’s acutely aware that the original can never be topped.
“There’s only ever the one,” he explains. “It’s like trying to do a sequel to 2001. Fundamentally, you can’t. Really, with the greatest respect to Star Wars, the best film by far is the one that George directed, right? By miles. It was unique. It was absolutely wonderful to me. It was the fairy story of all fairy stories in space. And to follow through is a tough call. So, same with Alien.”
He adds with a self-deprecating laugh, “Interestingly enough, I was never asked to do the sequel. Maybe because I was such a tough guy when I was doing it they didn’t want me back. But I was also in the habit of not wanting to do a sequel then either. So I would never have done it.”
Ruminating on the immediate future of the Alien franchise, now that Disney has acquired 21st Century Fox, Scott confirms that there are discussions for future installments, but warns that if the basic premise of “the beast” does not evolve like the Xenomorph itself, the “joke” gets old.
“You get to the point when you say, ‘Okay, it's dead in the water,’” he says. “I think Alien vs. Predator was a daft idea. And I'm not sure it did very well or not, I don't know. But it somehow brought down the beast. And I said to them, ‘Listen, you can resurrect this, but we have to go back to scratch and go to a prequel, if you like.’ So we go to Prometheus, which was not bad actually. But you know, there's no alien in it, except the baby at the end that showed, itself, the possibility. I mean, it had the silhouette of an alien, right? The alien [origin concept] is uniquely attached to Mother Nature. It simply comes off a wood beetle that will lay eggs inside some unsuspecting insect. And in so doing, the form of the egg will become the host for this new creature. That's hideous. But that was what it was. And you can't keep repeating that because the joke gets boring.”
Scott admires the tenacity of another enduring sci-fi franchise, Star Trek, in comparison.
“When I watched Captain Kirk 50 years ago thinking, ‘Who the hell's that guy? That guy really knows what he's doing,’ I have to admit I paid great attention to Kirk and his cohorts,” he says. “So here we are, 50 years later, god bless them, they’ve kept that alive and kept going through its evolution. But it's harder to keep the beast going for that long. I think it’s just tough. The joke wears out. Once you've seen it twice, three times, it’s no longer frightening.”
Inexorably tied to the Alien franchise for 40 years now, Scott insists that pushing a fresh take and not overly rehashing the nostalgic may just be the key to maintaining multiple life cycles in the future. “Go on, leave that behind, and see where it can evolve,” he declares. “So we're looking where we're going to evolve.”