Old monsters never die. They just become familiar friends. We’ve seen it happen with classic fiends from the early black-and-white era, like Frankenstein and Dracula, but what about more recent more recent movie monsters, like the titular creature haunting the spaceship Nostromo in ALIEN (1979). Does the passage of decades turn what was once frightening into what is now merely quaint nostalgia? Has even the best example of its genre mellowed with age? Has the subsequent advent of computer-generated special effects rendered the old man-in-the-suit technology hopelessly dated in comparison?
There is no doubt that our perception of a film changes over time, but it is far from inevitable that a classic film must become, eventually, nothing more than a time capsule of its era. There are some films that can still be enjoyed as entertainment, not as museum pieces, and ALIEN is one of them. I should know. I was there at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, watching the film on a Saturday morning during its original release in 1979. The historic Egyptian, one of the classic movie palaces from Hollywood’s golden era (it predates the more famous Chinese Theatre), was the perfect setting for the movie: the decor, suggesting a pyramid built from stone, was redolent of ancient mystery, which was abetted by the addition of props from the movie: alien eggs along the walkway to the entrance, space hardware strewn about the lobby, and (most impressive of all) the ill-fated alien “space jockey,” long dead but still seated at whatever mysterious controls it had operated in life.
The film itself was a galvanizing experience, with an intensity that never seemed to falter. In DRACULA, you could feels safe when the sun was up; in JAWS you could just stay out of the water. But in ALIEN there was no safe harbor, no safe time; you felt that the monster could strike anytime, anywhere. And worst of all, you could tell what the damned thing was! Extreme close-ups revealed what looked like row after row of metallic teeth, along with some kind of tongue that struck its victims with lethal force, and there seemed to be appendages (arms, les, and a tail – or was it a tentacle?), but only at the very end did you get a full-body view of the whole creature, one of the most memorable and elegantly designed monsters ever to grace the screen – as cool as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, although far less sympathetic..
Over twenty-five years later, the mystery of the alien’s appearance is long gone, as is some of the shocking impact, but the overall intensity remains, and the shock sequences ( the face hugger’s leap from the egg, the chest-bursters bloody birth) are still capable of sending first-time viewers leaping from its seats. If there was any doubt of this, it was overturned during a sold-out screening at the very same Egyptian Theatre where I first saw the film decades ago – part of a week-long tribute to director Ridley Scott, put on by the American Cinematheque. All this time later, ALIEN remains the definitive science-fiction monster movie, unsurpassed by the numerous sequels and rip=offs that followed in its wake.
Director Ridley Scott is pleased with how well ALIEN has stood up to the test of time. Of course, he and other filmmakers of his generation had an advantage over those of earlier eras: not only could they learn from the mistakes of the past, but also Hollywood was willing to give genre films the sort of major studio treatment seldom seen since Universal Pictures in the 1930s. Thus, the 1970s saw young filmmakers making big-budget version of the sort of movies they had loved as children: THE EXORCIST (1973), JAWS (1975), and STAR WARS (1977). Yet despite this trend, Dan O’Bannon’s script for ALIEN (which was developed with the help of executive producer Ronald Shussett and then substantially rewritten by producers Walter Hill and David Giler) was not immediately embraced as an attempt to make a lavish science-fiction, monster-on-the-loose movie. It was originally conceived as a low-budget film and not everyone saw the value of turning it into an expensive production. O’Bannon’s story combined elements from past films such as IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958), and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965). Scott acknowledges that he was influenced by science-fiction films from that era: ” THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THEM, and IT actually were good fun at the time and used to scare the living daylights out of me as a kid, and now are kind of collector’s items. The first science-fiction that rang a bell for me was Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie [in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL]. I registered that when I was a youngster and thought, ‘Hm, that was interesting.’
“Walter Hill was one of the producers. I was sitting in Fox, in one of their small theatres at lunchtime. It was very hot out. I was running TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, because I’d never actually seen it before. Funnily enough, as a child I was brought up not to see horror movies, because my parents classified them along with sex movies. I saw this poster in Piccadilly of the guy in the face mask with the buzz saw, and I just decided not to see the film. So now I’m making movies, and I’m sitting in Fox, and TEXAS CHAINSAW is running. Walter Hill came in behind me and said, ‘What are you looking at all this stuff for? Why don’t you get on with it?’ He had a large Coca-Cola and a hamburger, just as the film began, and when it finished, he hadn’t eaten the hamburger, and the Coca-Cola glass was warm in his hand – he hadn’t touched that either.
But the director wanted to make his film with a modern, high-tech sheen that conflated Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with George Lucas’s STAR WARS: “Totally. Stanley’s influenced me pretty much all through my life, in everything really.
I though the first STAR WARS was absolutely brilliant,” says Scott. “2001 was an absolutely different cutting edge of science fiction. Stanley’s was somehow entirely real, and STAR WARS is a kind of rather grand, beautiful, majestic fairy story.”
With Scott on board, 20h Century Fox was still planning to make the film on a relatively modest budget – which would have necessitated making major cuts in the screenplay. Fortunately, the director found that his experience at art school came in hand. “I’m able to sit down and do storyboards, and boards are useful to me because it helps me to think,” he says. “It’s a bit like having a blank sheet of paper and getting writer’s block – you just start drawing and it evolves. I storyboarded the whole thing in three weeks and actually doubled the budget. It was $4.2-million, so I went to London and came bakc with something on paper in about a month, and they doubled the budget. Shows the value of art school!”
Even with the additional money, the film still ended up stretching its resources in order to realize the extensive visual outlined in the script. “The [revised] budget started out at $.8.2-million and ended up at 8.6, which I think in those days was still relatively cheap,” Scott recalls. “We didn’t have the money to do pretty well anything. In those days, there was no CGI. Of course, with CGI today, it would have been easy to do anything; it would have been dead simple. We didn’t even have motion control. We had scaffolding bars with a chap pushing [the miniatures] along, saying, ‘No no no, mate, you’ve got to do it smoother.’ So all the shots of the space ship were basically a dolly being pushed with a good steady hand underneath the bloody model. So it was actually all hand-made. But in a funny kind of way, you get very clever when there is very little money, because it makes you think – there’s a big lesson there, somewhere. So when you complain about your CGI budget, think about that.”
Scott continues: “A good example of that is, Les tried desperately and there was no money left… it was up to Les to make the model of the planet. I walked into this stage at Bray Studios in mid-winter, and the heating had gone off. Les had done the alien planet. The mountains were about a foot high. It was ridiculous; it looked terrible. We sat staring at the model and the big croissant, which is what I call the alien spacecraft. I said, ‘Anybody got a home video kit?’ This is just about the advent of home video cameras. Somebody said he had one, so I said, ‘Get it.’ So I literally walked through the set with a home video camera held low, and approached the ship. That’s what you see on screen, and wow, I think it looks amazing! It looked good because you saw it through Ash’s eyes, through the head sets of the astronauts, because it was being televised back to the craft. That gave it scale and credibility.”
Scott stretched the budget by dressing up his two children in spacesuits for a scene of the astronauts leaving the Nostromo by an exterma; life: “By using two kids, the set looked twice as big. It was much cheaper to make two little space suits than to make a bigger set. We had to wire them to the set in case they fell off!”
Still, some sequences were lost, such as the storyboard airlock scene, in which the alien’s corrosive, acidic blood was to burn a whole through the ships hull, through which one character would be sucked out by the vacuum.
“We couldn’t afford it,” says Scott. “Besides, I couldn’t work out in those days (without CGI)_ how to squeeze a body through a hole that big – but they did it in Number Four,” he laughs, referring to a climactic moment in 1997’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION.
Whatever its budgetary limitations, ALIEN was certainly lavish when compared to its 1950s era antedecants, and much of the impressive looks is attributable to the design team. Ron Cobb conceived most of the Earth hardware, which was then realized by production designer Michael Seymour and art director Roger Christian (who went on to direct the dire BATTLEFIELD EARTH). The futuristic look of the spaceship Nostromo and its equipment was counterbalanced by the otherworldly alien imagery of Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, who was brought on to the project by Dan O’Bannon, over the objections of the producers.
“Dan took me aside, like he was showing me a dirty book,” Scott recalls. “It was Giger’s book, which is NECRONOMICON. My eyeballs nearly fell out.”
Images form NECRONOMICON were used as inspiration for the alien landscapes and the alien itself, which Giger designed and sculpted. Although the studio executives were woreid that they might be hring an eccentric artist unable to work on a tight production schedule, Scott found Giger to be “far more straightforward than you could possibly imagine. Despite the strangeness of his work, he’s incredibly reliable, and never once let me down.”
The alien was brought to life with the same technique used for classic movie monsters from the ’50s. “In those days, it boiled down to a guy in a rubber suit,” Scott recalls. “The thing that I had always worried about was that the monster wouldn’t be good, because they rarely are. Probably the last great monster was the little girl in the bed in THE EXORCIST. But all you had to put on her was the voice of Mercedes McCambridge – that one trick was chilling.”
The head had mechanics by Carlo Rambaldi to bring it to life, but the key to creating a convincing creature was hiding the human proportions of the man inside the costume.
“We started with a stunt man who was quite thin, but in the rubber suit he looked like the Michelin Man. So my casting director said, ‘I’ve seen a guy in a pub in Soho who is about seven feet tall, has a tiny head and a tiny skinny body.’ So he brought Bolaji Bodejo to the office, and he was actually from Somalia, funnily enough,” Scott remarks, having much later directed BLACK HAWK DOWN, which was set in Somalia. “I said, ‘Do you want to be in movies,’ and he said sure. And he became the alien. I had him for two months. In the cockpit, there’s a pack of cigarettes that says ‘Bolaji.'”
Giger also built the egg from which the face-hugger emerges, but his alien landscapes fell into the hands of the film’s second art director, Lesley Dilley. “I figured it made it sense to have Mike and Roger be the art directors on what I called ‘Earth matter’ – that would be everything involved with the Nostromo – and Les would have the difficult task of taking Giger’s drawings and interpreting them into actual sets,” Scott explains.
“You can take a great visual – which is one thing – and then you can convert it into a set that can look like a really bad ’50s coffee bar. I think Les took what Giger had drawn in very exotic visuals and made them real. That was a hard thing to do.”
Another point that separates ALIEN from its ’50s forbearers is the presence of a strong woman protagonist: Ripley, played by then-unknown Sigourney Weaver. Scott, however, takes no credit for this; in fact, the character was originally sciprted as a man. “After a couple of weeks at Fox, they said, “We’re ruminating on the idea of making Ripley a woman.’ I just said, ‘That’s a good idea,’ but at that point I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of that to the female world. It took me until THELMA AND LOUISE to realize that was a good point.”
Rather like the B-movies that inspired it, ALIEN did not rely on marquee names, but it did have a solid cast that lent credibility to the characters, who are revealed to us only through their actions, not through any revelations about their back story. (This is in keeping with producer Walter Hill’s early work as a writer-director, such as THE DIRVER, in which the characters do not even have names.)
As Scott says, “This film was so brief in terms of each piece of characterization: that’s the sign of a really good script: there’s no fat; it’s all lean. The actors are able to squeeze in as much as they have to for this kind of film.”
Scott adds that , upon re-watching the film, “It struck me that we had a really, really special cast. I was just watching tonight, thinking, ‘My god, how good they were – all of them.’ Everyone one of them had his own bit of individual, built-in subtext and implicit story that he didn’t have to voice. It was all just part of the character.”
The final element that lifted the film ot the level of an A-class production was the orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith. Despite their “stormy” working relationship, Scott credits the composer with making ALIEN work. “I was just thinking again tonight, ‘Thank god the score is absolutely brilliant.’ And I’m not yanking his chain. I think it’s one of his best scores, because it truly does nurse you through this story and leave you in a constant state of tension. I think without that score I couldn’t have let scenes run so long with nothing happening. I decided I wanted to stick to a certain rigid pace and not hurry it – just let things happen – and I think it’s pretty successful. To be perfectly honest, I was surprised how well it stands up.”