Hollywood Flashback: Ridley Scott on 1979's 'Alien' and His Goal to "Take the Audience to the Edge"

Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Photofest
Sigourney Weaver, who played warrant officer Ripley, with Ridley Scott on the set of 'Alien,' the first of the five films in the series.

As the director revisits the horrors of space in May 19's prequel, 'Alien: Covenant,' he reveals that he was fifth in line to direct the original — behind Robert Altman — and reflects on the challenge of scary movies: "It's much harder to really frighten people than to make them smile or laugh."

In the late '70s, Fox had two big reasons to love sci-fi: 1977's PG-rated Star Wars and, two years later, the much more violent, R-rated Alien. Darth Vader looks almost cuddly compared to Alien's implacable star, designed by the Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger. "We used to say they were The Beatles and we were The Rolling Stones," says Alien producer Walter Hill of the blockbusters. "Our film had something people hadn't seen up to that point: the artifice of a B-movie done in an A-movie style." 

THR called Alien "extremely effective and scary as hell," which is what director Ridley Scott wanted. "It's much harder to really frighten people than to make them smile or laugh," he says. "The two great films for that are The Exorcist, because possession by the devil has a certain credence to it, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has flat-out horrendous violence that shocked the hell out of me. My goal was to take the audience to the edge of stress."

Scott, then 41 and with only one feature on his résumé, was fifth in line to direct Alien — behind Robert Altman. ("I could not see Bob doing this," he notes.) When Fox finally offered Scott the job, he declined to make any script changes. "You can easily give notes and turn a 'go' film into a development deal," he says. "I just said, 'I love it, I love it.' And we made it." He revisits the material in Alien: Covenant, a prequel out May 19.

This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.