Still seen as one of the most iconic horror films of the modern era, Alien has re-written the book on what a Sci Fi Horror film could be, and in doing so, has launched the careers of several influential people in modern cinema. From its humble beginnings to its worldwide phenomenon- even 40 years after its release, Alien still has the power to terrify audiences to this very day.
The brainchild of writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the story of how Alien came to be is one of risk and timing. Dan O’Bannon worked on a student film called Dark Star with John Carpenter and it was through this that he got into contact with Ronald Shusett. Shusett had heard about Dark Star from a friend and contacted both O’Bannon and Carpenter. After a phone call with both, he found that he had more of a rapport with O’Bannon and invited him to his house. They both decided that they would like to work together on a project, and Shusett had acquired the rights to the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Meanwhile, O’Bannon had been working on his own script about an alien monster that systematically attacks and kills the crew of a space ship. He had written 29 pages so far and was stuck. Shusett read the initial pages and decided that they should focus on O’Bannon’s script as it would be a cheaper film to shoot.
Not long after they started working on the script together, O’Bannon landed a Special Effects job on the Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. This meant that he had to go to Europe to work on Dune which in turn caused work on the screenplay to be put on hold. Even though Jodorowsky’s film would ultimately fall apart, O’Bannon’s involvement in the film would provide a key ingredient to what would make Alien such a success. Whilst working on Dune, O’Bannon was introduced to H.R Giger. In his first meeting with Giger, O’Bannon was offered some opium. He turned this down and asked Giger why he took opium. Giger replied, “I’m afraid of my visions.” When O’Bannon questioned him on this, saying, “It’s only your mind”, Giger replied “That is what I’m afraid of.” Giger’s artwork would provide a huge amount of inspiration to O’Bannon and when the Dune project fell apart and he returned to the United States, he injected the screenplay with it all.
One of the early working titles for the script was “Star Beast” which neither O’Bannon or Shusett particularly liked. Every other title they came up with they hated as they all seemed like cheesy, B-movie sounding titles. One day, whilst doing a read through of the script, O’Bannon noticed that they consistently referred to the creature in the script as The Alien and had an epiphany for the title. One word- Alien. It was simple and both O’Bannon and Shusett loved it.
The biggest issue they had with the script was how they got The Alien onto the ship in the first place. The ideas of the Facehugger and Chestburster were created from that by Shusett, who had the idea of one of the members of the crew being impregnated by an alien and their child bursting out of his chest.
Once they had a draft that they were happy with they started to shop the script around to studios. They were frequently turned down. They were very close to signing a deal with Roger Corman Studios when a mutual friend, Mark Haggard, asked them if they could read him the script. He loved it and introduced them to a newly formed studio called Brandywine, where they met Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll. Once a deal was signed work began on getting the film made. O’Bannon had some tension with Walter Hill and David Giler; he felt that they were trying to have him removed from the script. Several re-drafts were done, but some of them were just changes to the names of the characters. The general consensus towards each new draft that Hill and Giler put out was that the script was getting worse with one exception- the inclusion of the robot, Ash, into the story.
The script went un-produced for a time but as Brandywine had ties to 20th Century Fox, they were the first studio approached to try and get the film produced. Fox were not interested in doing a Science Fiction film-until 1977 and a small film called Star Wars was released and decimated the box office. Fox greenlit Alien as a means of following through on the success of Star Wars (as Alien was the only spaceship set script they had). Walter Hill had originally been slated as the director; however, he was not a huge fan of Science Fiction and didn’t feel like he had the temperament to work with the Special Effects. Ridley Scott was offered the film off of the back of his debut, The Duellists, which impressed Hill, Giler and Carroll. Ridley accepted the offer and 26 hours later he was in Hollywood. Not long after arriving in Hollywood, Ridley was given H.R Giger’s artbook by O’Bannon. Ridley knew that he had to get Giger to work on the film and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
When it came to casting the film there was no mention of gender for any of the characters, but there was an assumption that the main characters -including Ripley -were all male. David Giler had the thought of flipping the cliché of the helpless female character on its head and making Ripley female and the main character. When they were casting for the role of Ripley, a friend of Ridley Scott had recommended that he audition an actress called Sigourney Weaver. He had seen here perform previously in a Broadway play. When attending the audition, Sigourney had accidentally gone to the wrong hotel and because of this, even though she raced over to the correct hotel, she was late to her audition. In the room they heard the fast footsteps of someone running towards the door and then they slowed and stopped. There was nothing for a few seconds and then Sigourney walked in. She towered over everyone, due to the fact that she was wearing high healed boots, and despite her flushed appearance from racing across town she managed to maintain a calm composure which was exactly what Ripley. Because Ripley was the last of the characters cast, she performed her screen test on the actual sets, which had been completed and were ready for filming to commence.
During casting, H.R Giger was hard at work designing the four stage Alien. The concept was Egg-Facehugger- Chestburster-Alien, and Giger designed all four stages. When it came to the final stage Alien, Giger designed it as to intentionally omit any kind of eyes, as he felt that to not include them made the Alien more dangerous. Without visible eyes you could never tell where the Alien was looking, which Giger found to be a terrifying concept. On top of the Alien itself, Giger also designed the interior of the Alien ship. He wanted the ship to be very organic in nature and to look more like a living creature, however, he wasn’t happy with some aspects of it as it looked more like a carving than an organic being. Despite this, he was very happy with how the egg chamber turned out. The blue laser effect in the egg chamber was created by a piece of a light-show that The Who were testing in the soundstage next door. Giger himself unnerved a lot of the crew as he reminded them of Dracula, and rumours began to circulate about him- including one that his fiancé had committed suicide and Giger had kept her skeleton.
Once production had started they needed to replace Jon Finch (who was originally cast as Kane) due to a severe illness, and John Hurt was brought on board. The film itself was shot in Shepperton Studios, England, with a mostly British crew. The shoot would last 14 weeks and would be stressful for both cast and crew. Ridley intentionally kept the cast on edge throughout the shoot to help inform their performances and keep their tension more genuine. One of the ways he did this was to have cast members interact with each other off camera in a way to build tension between them, Yaphet Kotto regretted annoying Sigourney off camera because he was actually quite fond of her. However Yaphet also had a habit of improvising his lines, and when it came to shooting his death sequence he said to Ridley, “I’m not going to die today, I’m going to kill that son of a bitch!”
The person cast to play the Alien, Bolaji Badejo, was actually discovered in a pub by the casting director. He was 6 foot 10 inches tall and slender which was the exact type of frame that they wanted for the Alien. Badejo was a graphic designer with no acting experience and he ended up working on the film for 10 months. He sadly passed away in 1992 at the age of 39 in Nigeria.
In order to get across the scale of the Nostromo, Ridley requested a 58 foot landing leg. When it still didn’t look big enough, Ridley had them put together smaller space suits and put his own children inside them. Due to a lack of proper ventilation on the suits, and the shoot taking place during a heatwave at the time, during one take the children actually passed out. It was at that point that they installed proper ventilation on all of the space suit costumes, to the relief of the principal cast. The set of the Nostromo was not several parts, but one large sweeping set of long corridors. This allowed them to shoot in a more fluid way, but also enhanced the feeling of claustrophobia, as in order to get on and off the set you would need to walk through the long corridors of the ship as if you were really there.
One of the most pivotal sequences in the film was the Chestburster sequence and how they captured this has become stuff of legend. They filmed the sequence in two parts; starting with the bit where Kane starts choking and convulsing. Then they took a lunch break. The cast returned to the set to find the crew were all wearing waterproof raincoats and the set was covered in plastic sheeting. According to one of the crew, the colour drained out of a lot of the cast’s faces when they returned to set and there was a definite atmosphere. The sequence of the Chestburster actually penetrating the clothing was done in one take in order to capture the true reactions of the cast. None of them knew how much blood there was going to be, there is a very quick shot in the film of Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert, screaming. This was a real reaction because a jet of blood hit her straight in the face. What didn’t make it into the film was her then falling backwards over a piece of furniture. She freaked out and went into shock. The other actors didn’t have as severe a reaction to the scene as Veronica but their real genuine reactions of terror were caught on camera. This creative choice to not let the actors know what was happening amped up the horror and terror of the scene.
Once the film got to post production it was clear from the rushes that they had something impressive. Terry Rawlings had worked with Ridley Scott as the Sound Editor on The Duelists. He was offered the same role on Alien but declined, saying that he wanted to cut the actual film itself. He was given the job after a meeting with the producers. Rawlings editing style was to start with using long shots with very little editing, that would slowly draw the audience in, before slowly ramping up the tension and then finally-in his words- attacking them. The first cut of the film came to 3 hours and 12 minutes; this would later be cut down to 1 hour 56 minutes.
Jerry Goldsmith was brought on to compose the music for the film. During his viewing of an earlier cut of the film, he said the sequence where Brett was looking for Jones the cat built so much fear up in him- to the point where it scared the shit out of him. Goldsmith’s initial idea for the score was for it to be quite romantic and not horrific, as to provide a contrary feeling for the audience who were seeing these horrifying images, but being presented with this beautiful music alongside them. However, Ridley wanted more of a conventional horror score and because of this Goldsmith rewrote the opening theme he had taken three days to write with one that took him a few hours to write. Because Terry Rawlings had used a lot of Jerry Goldsmith’s music in the temp score, they sometimes found that what had been used in the temp score fit better than what Goldsmith had actually composed for the film.
For the effects work, Ridley Scott wanted to shoot them himself and anything that had not been shot by Ridley ended up being discarded. One day during Principal Photography Ridley and his cinematographer, Derek Vanlint, went to visit where the effects were being shot and had a look at the set up. After a short look Vanlint determined that they weren’t using the right lighting. The reason for this was due to the production company trying to save money and not allowing the effects guys a big enough lighting budget. Vanlint threw out their current lighting and made sure that they were given more funding for a better light set up. This was important to both Ridley and Vanlint because they wanted the effects to look as best as they could and the cheaper lighting was damaging this.
Due to the low effects budget they couldn’t afford to use motion control cameras or a starfield, so they used different methods to get around this. One method they used for the shooting the Nostromo was to shoot up close and use smoke to simulate movement. Of this, Ridley was quoted saying that someone told him “But there’s no atmosphere in space,” and his response was “Well there is now mate.” The Nostromo model was said to weigh a quarter of a ton and it had to be lifted by a forklift truck. The effect of the Nostromo pulling away from the refinery was done by covering the forklift truck in black velvet and simply driving it away. Sometimes the simplest method was the best as well; when they were filming the scene of Kane’s body being ejected into space it was achieved by firing a miniature with a fisherman’s catapult.
Once the post production was completed, they scheduled in a preview screening. When they presented the film there was a lot of disappointment with the sound mix. It was later discovered that the issue wasn’t with the sound mix itself, but the fact that the cinema the film was previewed in had two speakers that weren’t working. The second screening was much more of a success, and they started to notice that the audience were getting up and walking to the back of the theatre. They weren’t leaving- they just didn’t want to be so close to the screen. During the scene where Ash’s head is knocked off, an usher fainted in the aisle. Once it was officially released The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood ran the film non-stop for 48 hours, and there was a constant queue of people around the block in that 48 hour period.
The film was a critical and commercial success and also well received by the film industry itself. O’Bannon and Shusett were approached by Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty after a screening and commended on their work on the film. Alien has become a defining moment in cinema history; it was the first Sci-Fi Horror film to really cross the line from the exploitation B-movie to a critically lauded A-movie. After Alien, many other films would try to capture the same raw intensity and innovative design. Very few of them would come close to matching Alien. It spawned several sequels, spin offs, video games, books and graphic novels. When approaching the sequel, they knew they wouldn’t be able to replicate the same horrific feeling of the first one, which is why Aliens went in a completely different direction from horror to action. To this day Alien has the ability to terrify its audiences. I always enjoy watching Alien with someone who has never seen the film before and watching their reaction to the film. I have recently just purchased and viewed the new UHD Blu-Ray and the image is beautiful; it’s by far the best the film has ever looked on a home media platform and I highly recommend it.
In the last 40 years the cast and crew of Alien have moved onto other projects and received accolades for their work. However they are still clearly proud of the work they did on Alien. Ridley Scott returned to the Alien universe with Prometheus and Alien Covenant, but neither film was as critically or commercially successful as the original Alien. Alien was a perfect mixture of writing, direction, editing and design all coming together with exceptional performances to create a unique experience that will most likely never be captured again.
Matt is a huge film and TV buff who studied film and moving image production at university. In his spare time he enjoys reading comics and books, the occasional gaming session and writing novels.