“I’ve never liked this kind of film before,” recalls Alien director Ridley Scott. “Because in the end, there’s always just a man in a rubber suit. There’s only one way to deal with that. To make it about what you think you saw, rather than what you actually saw.”
What you saw in Alien (1979) was another plastic monster, only it was never exposed long enough for that to register. All you glimpsed was the slimiest, most carnivorous dentistry on film, an incisor-equipped, phallic gremlin exploding from John Hurt’s chest. And Sigourney Weaver in her smalls.
Based on a script by Dark Star writer Dan O’Bannon, Alien spliced the ‘50s space B-movie with contemporary effects technology, Ridley Scott’s visual flair and the obsessive psyche of Swiss über-goth artist HR Giger. The artist had first met O’Bannon during an abortive attempt to film Frank Herbert’s Dune in Paris during 1975.
After the project’s collapse, a penniless O’Bannon returned to Los Angeles and set about welding some abandoned ideas into a marketable script, provisionally called Star Beast. Soon the script caught the attention of director Walter Hill’s production company, which in turn approached Fox.
The film, now re-titled Alien, began filming in Britain on July 3rd, 1978 and was shot over 13 weeks with up to 300 people working on the project at any given time. Determined to make the film as unsettling as possible, Ridley Scott not only endlessly redesigned his monster but also persuaded the cast to needle lead actress Sigourney Weaver, in an attempt to toughen up her innocent, laid-back persona.
It worked. Released in 1979, the $11 million movie made $60 million in America alone, won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1980 and turned Weaver into an icon as the iron-willed Ripley – a role she would return to in the three sequels. But it’s Scott’s original that not only set out the elaborate template for its successors but became a sci-fi/horror benchmark, later remade as ‘Alien In The Antarctic’ (1982’s The Thing), ‘Alien In The Jungle’ (1987’s Predator) and ‘Alien Underwater’ (1989’s Leviathan). Moreover, Giger’s lethal biomechanical killer remains the inspiration for the genocidal aliens that populate the likes of Independence Day and Starship Troopers. The lurid sexual innuendo of his designs, meanwhile, pushed much of the film, notably the chest-burster scene, into folklore.
In 1975, I was in Paris, working on Dune, but it fell through, so I came back to Los Angeles. I went through old script ideas and found one untitled, half-finished script that was the first half of the finished Alien movie – the crew of a spaceship are automatically awakened before reaching Earth because of a a distress signal from an unknown planet. They land on the planet and discover the beacon is coming from a space-ship graveyard. That was as far as I’d got.
I mentioned this to [executive producer] Ron Shusset, whose sofa I was staying on at the time. He reminded me of another idea I’d had: a B17 is coming back from a strategic bombing run over Tokyo and something gets on the ship. So this thing works its way through the many bulkhead doors until it’s coming towards the cockpit. He said, “Why don’t you stick it onto the first story?” A friend of Shusset took the script to Walter Hill, and he liked it.
His production company took it to Fox, who’d just made Star Wars. They hadn’t expected anything much of Star Wars – but it was obviously a huge hit, so they lashed around for a quick follow-up. The only thing they had that was even close was my script.
Hill meant to direct it, but he went off to do The Driver, which was a shattering experience for him. So he pulled out of Alien. A load of other people were interviewed. Then [producer] Gordon Carroll screened The Duellists [Ridley Scott’s debut film] at Fox. Ridley showed up with these beautifully illustrated storyboards based on the Alien script. He was very keen, so he got the job.
I was contracted to do Zulu Dawn in South Africa. I was about to get into the taxi to the airport when I got a call saying they weren’t going to let me into South Africa. It was a mistaken identity. They’d confused me with an American called John Hurd, who was an anti-apartheid activist. Ridley came to see me two days later, and he sat up until midnight pitching the film to me. I was on set at 7:30 the next morning.
I’d been working on the visuals for months. I had [noted ‘70s sci-fi artists] Chris Foss, and Ron Cobb create hundreds of drawings. Their spaceships and artefacts were stunning, but I didn’t think much to their aliens. I was trying to get Fox to hire HR Giger, who I’d met in Paris. They were like, What’s his previous production credits? Who the hell is he, some wing-ding fine artist from Zurich? One day Ridley came in with this book of Francis Bacon’s paintings – I’m sure Fox would’ve had the same reaction to him. I handed him some of Giger’s work.
When you take on a subject like this, the problem of what’s it going to look like starts hanging over you. I ended up going through about seven months of pre-production drawings without finding anything I liked. Dan O’Bannon came in with a copy of HR Giger’s Necronomicon. I leafed through it until I came across this half-page painting [Necronomicon IV, a prototype full-grown alien] and I stopped and said, “Good God, I don’t believe it. That’s it!”
As an idea of what he wanted, Dan O’Bannon sent me a sketch he had done of this thing popping out of an egg [the face-hugger] – It looked like a flying omelette. I started with a body that looked like a giant sex organ – which is what it was. I did two paintings of it and sent slides of them to Dan O’Bannon
We spent weeks encrusting the Nostromo set with pipes and wires and tubing. A lot of the bridge is aircraft junk. For the sickbay, we purchased actual medical equipment. It wasn’t just a realistic facade. We were into practical technology – if you needed to see a real television within a console panel, you’d have to figure out how to work it in.
I passed out too, and Tom Skerritt [Captain Dallas] almost did. No-one believed us that there was a problem with the suits. We were just actors causing trouble. It was only when they used Ridley’s kids in the miniature suits for the long shots that they believed us. His kids just keeled over. Then they fixed the suits.
We were trying to do that scene, and Yaphet kept slamming his gun down and walking off. And Sigourney was getting angrier and angrier. At one point, he just looked at her and said, “I’m black, I weigh 250Ib, I have a following – you can’t just sit there and tell me (girly voice), ‘I’m the captain of this ship.’ Fuck you.” He got her so angry, but it worked.
There was a scene that was cut where I had to hit Sigourney across the face. Every time I went to do it, she would duck or turn the other way. Ridley came up and said, “You get her this time.” So when she turned her head away, I waited till she turned it back and clocked her right in the face. She was not very happy about that.
There was supposed to be nudity. Which I was all for because I thought that it would underline the difference between the vulnerable human and the dirty, hostile environment. The alien would see this pink thing emerge from the green suit and be transfixed. Then Fox said, “No, We’ll lose Spain. We’ll lose Italy.” So I wore the underwear.
I drew a graph before I started making the film, showing what scenes would get the emotions of the audience and when. The stunner, the alien coming out of John Hurt’s chest, is about one hour into the film. Giger’s drawing of the chest-burster looked hideous. The problem was that it was only great on paper.
[Roger] Dicken [designer and model maker] usually works everything like a glove puppet, so he brought the model of the creature in and propped it on his knee. While he was talking, he kept moving the head around, so the bloody thing kept looking back and forth across the room – from Gordon Carroll to me and then up to his nose. I was terrified at the thought of getting a giggle at this time in the film. So we started the model again.
Ridley went over to Roger’s house one day to have a look at it. It had a head that was pretty much a miniature version of the big one and an elaborate body with legs. It was in clay at that point. Ridley pulled off the legs, wadded up the little pieces of clay-like dolphin flippers and stuck them on either side behind the head. He said, “That’s it.”
The reactions to it were the most challenging element. If an actor’s acting terrified, he never entirely goes over the top, and you don’t get that authentic look of raw animal fear. What I wanted was a hardcore reaction, and I thought it best to give the actors an edge by not familiarising them with what was going to happen. When we started the scene, all three cameras were on the actors, not the table.
Being put into the false chest was uncomfortable because I was bent double through a hole in the table. It was amusing to watch the crew get the alien prepared. You had two prop men and the alien, basically, at the end of a stick. It’d be (puts on removal man voice), “Is it comin’ through yet, Eric?” And Eric would look down and say (voice again), “Nah, can’t see it yet, Albert.” It wasn’t as hi-tech as you might have imagined.
The rest of the cast looked like they were being led to their execution. The crew gathered round, ran the cameras, John began working up his agony, and the rest of them started shouting. Ridley said, “Hit it!” And the head started bumping against the shirt. But it wouldn’t breakthrough, even though they’d weakened it with acid. There was blood spreading all over the shirt, and this thing was bumping around inside – that was enough to scatter the actors.
All the stage hands applauded, rushed in and picked Veronica off the floor. She was completely limp and looked like an accident victim. Giger had done all these paintings for the big alien and figured that was all he had to do. They hired some poor schmuck who’d made a couple of cheap dinosaur movies to make them [Dicken, who’d worked on The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis]. He didn’t follow Giger’s paintings, he thought they were just suggestions. About that time, Giger flew in from Zurich, out of curiosity.
We interviewed karate champions, a mine artist, we even considered one of those tall, skinny fashion models. Then we got a call from an agent in London and went to meet him and someone he told us about. So we were sitting in the pub and this man [African graphic design student Bolaji Badejo] came through the door practically on his hands and knees. When he straightened up, he was 7ft 2in. And the agent looked at us, looked at him and said, “How would you like to be a movie star?’
Ridley still loved the Necronom in my book and wanted something like it. I liked the long head and I gave him a long tongue with teeth. My first design had a large black eye but then we decided to make it eyeless. We thought it would be more frightening to have a monster that was blind but could still find exactly what it wanted. So the eye became a translucent shell that covered the top of its head.
I watched Giger build the alien. They went off and brought him six grade-A medical skulls from India. He pulled out these plastic-wrapped skulls, unwrapped them and lined them up. He gets out a hacksaw and starts cutting them up and sticking them together in all sorts of funny ways with wires and tubes, until he got something he liked.
I wanted to have some subtle movement in the creature’s brain, so I thought we could fill the cranium with white maggots. Even Giger went “Eeyuk!” at that one. We couldn’t make it work though because the heat from the lights would put the bloody things to sleep. Afterwards, I thought we should have tried sprinkling LSD on sugar because maggots love sugar.
In one scene, there was a big plate-glass window behind the model of Tom Skerritt. Now, Sigourney had a real flame-thrower. I watched her practice – it could shoot 20ft of flame. When we were doing the scene, she got about 4ft away from the glass and Ridley told her to fire it. The special effects man immediately screamed “Cut!” at the top of his lungs. The flames would’ve bounced off that window and she would have been a crispy critter along with the crew. Ridley fired the special effects guy on the spot. But he was back the next day.
Fox loved the film. They didn’t care that it was much darker than Star Wars. It had a spaceship in it; what more do you want? When the picture was completed they held three previews. Ron Shusset went to one in Texas and said that when the chest-bursting scene occurred, an usher fainted, fell back into the aisle and remained there for the rest of the movie.
In its day, Alien was novel and frightening. A genuinely effective scary movie. Anybody who watches it today will say it’s like everything they’ve seen. All things which are good end up producing trash rip-offs in enormous amounts, because every half-talented asshole tries to imitate it. Yes, I think it’s one of the finest horror or science-fiction movies of all time.