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Making of Alien

The making of 'Alien' redefined the sci-fi horror subgenre and created a pulp classic.

So simple. One word that defined a genre. A simple concept, that of man against monster. A crew unwittingly lured away by pleas for help, introducing us to a new level of psychological horror and quite possibly propelling actress Sigourney Weaver to the role of first lady of science fiction heroism. Alien.

Although rudimentary in theme, Alien, with its ragtag team of space monkeys and new breed of menacing alien, presented to an eager audience a high-energy, dark, and foreboding drama of exploration and discovery. In 1979, the only truly original big screen science fiction movies were Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which still offered a physically bright and lofty future world. Until Alien, there seemed to be a creative, and financial, chalk line dividing the dark and usually idea-driven B-movie and the spectacle-driven and usually vacation-like blockbuster. Although a last vestige of that line remains even today, to which the overuse of sequels and special effects will attest, in Alien, and at least in science fiction, there appears a merging of methods—and one darn good action adventure epic which as Veronica Cartwright says, "just happens to take place in space."

Celebrating a Legacy

Now, on its 37th anniversary, we celebrate the movie that spurred three sequels and countless copies, and created the very template by which many a science fiction/monster movie is created. When Alien celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1999, Sci-Fi Entertainment talked with some of the people who made the magic happen, namely, Captain Dallas of the Nostromo spacecraft, aka actor Tom Skerritt; navigations officer Lambert, aka genre aficionado actress Veronica Cartwright; the man that set the dark ambiance, director of photography Derek VanLint, and none other than Alien screenwriter himself, deadline-stricken Dan O'Bannon.

Creating Alien

One must wonder how the pulp classic was created and where O'Bannon was professionally (and after watching Alien, one might say, mentally) when he crafted the story. "Alien was written at the lowest point of my professional life. I had no money, no apartment, no car, and I was living on Ron Shusett's sofa. Alien was written on spec as an original idea and submitted to various studios and producers."

"Alien was derived from a million science fiction movies and stories I absorbed while growing up, and also from my own deeply morbid interior." And was he conscious of writing what would become a genre template? "I did not think I was creating a new subgenre but following an old one. It is a little disconcerting to see so many imitations of it... I was trying to 'cap' the genre—make the 'monster-from-outer-space' movie that would put an end to the genre because it was impossible to transcend. I must have succeeded, because nobody has made an original horror film since. I must have traumatized the genre," O’Bannon adds. The writer also admits, "Alien pretty much made my subsequent career." There had been some speculation that Ripley was originally intended to be male, to which O'Bannon confesses, "It was my idea to have a kind of 'egalitarian' cast; whether Ripley would be male or female was not decided until pre-production." Another casting question would have made Tom Skerritt's Captain Dallas rather different had O'Bannon gotten his first choice. "Oh, I did have some notion of getting Anne Bancroft to play the Tom Skerritt part. But I didn't push the idea." We're sure Skerritt is thankful.

A Rocky Start

It’s ironic, considering all the praise for Alien by critic, audience, and actor alike, that no one took the project seriously when first approached. Why, Tom Skerritt, one of the first to "buy it" in an Alien movie, had to consider the budget and people involved. I guess this speaks to our introductory comment regarding B-movies?" [My] first reaction was that it was an interesting science fiction possibility depending on the budget for the production and the film maker involved. Neither of these issues were clear when I was first approached. When told later that the budget was substantial and that Ridley Scott was the director, coupled with the cast that was being assembled, it was apparent Alien would be a significant film," Skerritt recounts.

Actress Veronica Cartwright remembers apprehension for a different reason. "I thought I was playing Ripley because that's the only part I read for. When they called me to come in for a wardrobe fitting for Lambert, I said, 'Oh I think there's been a mistake. I'm playing Ripley.' So I said 'I don't know about this.' I called my agent and he said I was playing Ripley. But I had to read the script again with Lambert in mind and decided to play her."

Besides, with the right ensemble cast it proved a challenging role. "We were truckers in space, we were lost and had to get back home. We all had a past history and some burden to carry, and then add the conflict of having the alien there, all those background things we did came to fruition."

Even Ridley Scott's director of photography, a man with whom he'd worked numerous times, thought it a ruse. Derek VanLint admits, "When I first read the script, it wasn't what the film turned out to be. I actually asked Ridley if he was serious, if he was going to do the movie, and he said yeah, when we do it up he would in fact make his own film."

And although that suggests a deviation from O'Bannon's idea and perhaps some friction, the writer is quick to keep things straight. "My original script was pushed around quite a bit before and during filming, though not by Ridley. Getting Ridley as director was one of our greatest strokes of fortune." 

A Satisfying Project

However, once on board, everyone could see the possibility they were creating, leaving Alien as one of their most satisfying projects. "Alien is one of several significant film projects I've had the good fortune to be connected with over the run of a long career. I can only say I'm very grateful and appreciative for all of it." This is perhaps surprising for Skerritt to admit since he's not your typical sci-fi-bred actor. "Sci-fi is not a genre I chose, it chose me. I simply had the good fortune to participate in a classic of film making."

Of course when you think of Alien you see the alien and the detailed sets—two elements that did not go unnoticed by cast and crew, as Cartwright remembers. "The set was interesting because everything was connected. I mean, once you were on, you were on. Everything was on a massive scale and Ridley is very detail oriented... It was a hard shoot, long hours and incredibly grubby. I mean, they'd spray you down with glycerin."

If the foulness of the set didn't set the mood, then the psychological torture both for the audience and cast alike would, as Cartwright shares. "The idea that the beast had such a short life span and grew at such a rapid pace gave it a purpose to create more of its own, and to do that it had to use humans as incubators. Then we were not bothering to communicate with it, that's where the friction set in and makes it different. And you don't see everything, you see bits and pieces, so as an audience you are creating what that monster looks like. Do you see it or don't you?—which is very Hitchcockian because you're allowed as an audience to use your imagination which is much scarier than if you just see it. And every beast you see in many other movies looks just like our alien... I don't think any of us realized at the time... I think that's what worked in the first one: You saw one alien, then you weren't sure if you saw it and you made it up in your mind and it was terrifying."

Not Fitting the Mold

However, as VanLint remembers, although he and Ridley enjoyed the look, the folks at Fox almost put a hex on the project, since after all the dazzle of Star Trek had gone before it and the next Star Wars would follow, Alien didn't quite fit. "Ridley had explained what he wanted in terms of kind of light. They were deep in space, and unlit space and everything had a pretty low light level... You can achieve an alien look by the amount of lights you switch off and get that darkish look, grubby everything up and don't overbuild your sets and things like that. Ridley will always push the envelope... [But] right at the beginning Fox wasn't madly happy with what we were doing; They were expecting another Star Wars I think. We were the gap between Star Wars and Empire. Consequently, when they saw the rushes, I got a message that I had to lighten the movie up so they could see all the actors. I said I was afraid I couldn't do that, and if I did the director would fire me because that's what he wanted."

Fortunately, someone must have been listening because he adds, "I think we started with $14 [million] and they cut our budget leaving us with $11, then I believe took it back up to $14 when we were all into it." Even Cartwright seemed to remember a budget hike. "Apparently they put another $11 million into the movie after seeing the first 20 minutes of film he had shot.” 

The Cast and Crew

The fact that cast members were kept in both physical and figurative dark in some cases made Alien a most memorable experience for them. And with the exception of Skerritt, the chest burster was the most ingrained scene of the film for most of the participants. O'Bannon will set the scene; VanLint and victim Veronica Cartwright will cap it off. "The part of filming I remember best is the chest burster scene, where Veronica Cartwright got the blood hose full in the face and fell down behind the sofa with her feet sticking up. After Ridley called 'Cut,' the cast looked like accident victims."

As the man behind the camera, VanLint had a unique view. "The chest burster alarmed me and alarmed everybody on the set. I think only David Watkin, and some people in special effects, and Ridley knew exactly what was going to happen. Although we saw it being set up, it was the actual force of what happened and blood going everywhere. We were shooting a two-camera technique; Ridley was doing the wider angle and I was shooting back toward Ian Holm and Veronica Cartwright. I saw Veronica Cartwright turn a pale shade of green when it came through the chest and she got splattered with blood. It stunk because it was actual blood and pig's liver and things like that."

And poor Veronica... she did say the setting helped her get motivated... "The blood jet was pointed at my face, 'Oh you'll get a little blood on you,' they told me. Yeah! So all those are first reactions. Everything was covered in plastic and it was disgusting. We had the real goods and boy did it stink because they took so long to set John up, they had to pack his chest and all that, and everything was in formaldehyde. It turned your stomach as soon as you walked in. It set the tone, and then being left upstairs for so long and then coming down and everybody was wearing raincoats, I was starting to get a little suspicious of what was going to happen. We were all leaning in and that blood jet plastered me. But it worked for the movie. We knew the beast was coming out, it was in the script, but I guess had we known too much we would have anticipated. As it was, we did not anticipate."

Let's not forget Mr. Skerritt, as he got away with a less gory memory. "The vision of seeing a very thin 7' man dressed in the alien costume, minus the head, wearing bright blue tennis shoes, walking to lunch with a 5' wardrobe person carrying the alien's tail. How's that for a visual?"

Remaining a Classic

We all saw the movie, have our favorite scenes, and cast our couch-side critiques—but what exactly do these creators think has made Alien endure, inspire, and remain a classic?

"Alien still is all that you suggest. That was the intention. That's why it's a classic. The common nightmare of the fearful creature in the unknown darkness that lurks in all of us children, and a film maker that knows the shades of gray that encourage that fear," suggests Skerritt.

VanLint agrees: "I think people like to be frightened. Ridley made a... physical and psychological horror-type film and since then films have become more and more spectacle." 

And for Cartwright? "That beast is certainly a classic, obviously copied time after time. Giger and Ridley really came up with something [there]. It's a classic because there's actually a story with people an audience can relate to... there was actually a story [as opposed to] where many of these things it's just how to scare people. That's probably why it's endured the way it has... The detail was, in a strange way, beautiful."

Speaking of the beast, that is, the movie's namesake, it both helped influence the way the movie was ultimately shot, as VanLint proposes, and helped motivate the actor's hysteria, as Cartwright vividly recalls: "We had a guy dressed in the alien suit, he was about 7' 3"... put him on the set, and Ridley had him crouch in certain positions... It looked like a guy dressed up in a head piece," VanLint admits. "So I don't know how much that influenced him in shooting it the way he did where we just saw sections of it and just had a feeling of it. But I know when we got to the escape module I used unsynchronized flash lamps to photograph that to break up its recognition, to disguise the look of it."

As usual, it seems Cartwright has the most gruesome story to tell. "That made it easier to work on. I mean, when I have the death scene with the alien, all I had to think of was being caught in some back ally because the man who was in that rubber suit, Ridley had sent him off to tai chi and mime lessons. He looked absolutely gorgeous, 7' tall, very thin, and very elongated, so that suit fit him. I mean, his arms were that long and when he stood there with all the dripping stuff, and when he'd move just a little bit it was not hard at all to become absolutely panic stricken. It was great."

You might expect then, after having read about the affection both cast and crew have for their Alien achievement, that the sequels just did not hit the mark. VanLint says: "In the first one we introduced the character and its almost indestructibility, how hard it was to put it down. I think once that is established, then the machinery that was used in the other films became spectacle." Skerritt simply suggests: "The saga must forget about topping itself and simply allow itself to become a part of film history." And Cartwright ends the matter by saying, "I thought the second movie was pretty good, except I think they showed too many aliens because then it looked like a bunch of men in rubber suits. The third one I couldn't get through; It was very dismal. The fourth one I saw one night on HBO... it was fine, until you saw them all swimming through the water, then it was stupid. I like the script that Dan O'Bannon wrote, it just happened to be in space."

Whatever your take on Alien, it cannot be disputed that the movie both delighted an audience ready for change and upped the ante for filmmakers who would follow its lead.

Recommended Reading

Now that you have heard the film's story from its creators themselves, continue to explore the dark and dismal world of Alien be learning even more about the original and delving into the sequels. Alien the Archive: The Ultimate Guide to the Classic Movies takes you further into the process behind creating the landmark sci-fi films. 

Alien the Archive: The Ultimate Guide to the Classic Movies by Titan Books

A gorgeous celebration of the landmark Alien films, Alien the Archive takes an in-depth look at the making of all four films. The volume features storyboards from Ridley Scott, exclusive concept designs by Ron Cobb and Syd Mead, behind-the-scenes imagery of the creation of the xenomorphs, deleted scenes, unused ideas, costumes, weapons, and interviews with several of the masters behind the films.

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