Sunday 3 February 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #4 - Alien (UK/USA 1979: Dir Ridley Scott)

These are the notes from my introduction to the 40th anniversary screening of the film at Screen 25 on 1 February 2019.

There are any number of stories about the making of Alien, but as you’re here to watch a movie and not to listen to me all night, I’m going to concentrate on how the film got from story to screen.
The birth of Alien came about when screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was at film school in California back in the early 1970s. His initial idea, originally called ‘Memory,’ wherein a group of astronauts discover a dormant creature, had progressed to a half-written script when O’Bannon met John Carpenter at the same school – and together they took some of the former's ideas, developing a small student film which eventually became the 1975 space satire Dark Star.

Dark Star shares some of the themes of tonight’s movie: namely a motley crew of grumpy space truckers; a scuffed, grotty space ship complete with lots of long corridors; and the tracking and hunting down of a recalcitrant alien (albeit one in the shape of an enormous inflatable beach ball).

Dark Star was modestly successful, but O’Bannon wasn’t satisfied – he wanted to take the space elements of that movie and make it darker, more like a sci fi version of an HP Lovecraft story, with the claustrophobia of Howard Hawks’ 1951 movie The Thing From Another World. And importantly he wanted to direct it.

The next character in the progression of our story is Alejandro Jodorowsky, he of El Topo and The Holy Mountain fame, who was putting together a now infamously un-filmed adaption of Frank Herbert’s sci fi epic Dune over in Paris in 1975. Jodorowsky had seen Dark Star, loved the special effects (and if you’ve ever seen that movie this might seem a bit of an odd comment) and wanted O’Bannon to join a posse of artists pulled together to storyboard the film. One of the other people involved with the project was HR Giger from Switzerland, whose grotesque, distended painted figures, skeletal beings with phallic heads against womblike backgrounds, had a habit of blowing the minds of all those exposed to this decidedly odd guy’s artwork. Dune fell apart in a haze of overambition and shaky finances, and the team involved all went their separate ways. But O’Bannon never forgot Giger’s work.

So at this point O’Bannon wasn’t in a great way. His health was poor and his temper worse. He was staying with his friend, Ron Shusett, and subject to violent pains in his stomach – sounds familiar? A terrifying time which would inform one of the most famous scenes in the film (O’Bannon was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s disease).

O’Bannon and Shusett produced a different treatment of the original story, now with the title ‘Star Beast,’ the script amended, featuring some kind of space parasite. O’Bannon got the artist Ron Cobb - who had also been part of the Dune gang - to mock up some set sketches, but the studios to whom they pitched it round rejected it as the special effects would be too expensive. So O’Bannon went back to the drawing board and changed the more complicated alien form into… well, a man in a suit.

O’Bannon’s script was later criticised for ripping off another earlier man in a suit space monster movie, 1958’s It! The Terror from Outer Space, in which an alien stows away on a spaceship. Others recognised more than a nod to a 1965 movie by Italian director Mario Bava called Planet of the Vampires, in which a spaceship is sent to investigate an alien world, which turns out to be full of creatures looking to escape it. But O’Bannon in later interviews was fairly candid that ‘Star Beast’ was influenced both by a multitude of films, pulp fiction stories and vintage comic books, borrowing a little here and a little there, into a screenplay that was pretty much what you’ll see on screen tonight. But we’re not quite finished with the story yet.

At this stage ‘Star Beast,’ as the script was still called, was being envisaged as a modestly budgeted sci fi B movie – indeed cult king Roger Corman had expressed an interest. A friend of Shusett’s advised the pair to think bigger, and eventually the script ended up in the hands of the Brandywine production company – big players on the scene with links to Twentieth Century Fox. Initially the company were nervous – a sci fi monster movie? But when both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were released in 1977, both of which did amazing box office, suddenly science fiction was big business.

The film changed from ‘Star Beast’ to ‘Alien’ – a title O’Bannon claimed for himself, but who knows? Walter Hill from Brandywine rewrote some of the script (introducing female characters for the first time, and also the character of ‘Ash’), the budget increased, and O’Bannon was no longer in the frame as director (although he did successfully fight to secure ‘screenplay by’ and co ‘story by’ credits after a long messy battle with The Writers Guild).

Hill was first choice for director but he was unable to commit as he was about to start work on the Greek myth stroke gang flick The Warriors. A number of other directors were approached, including Peter Yates, Robert Aldrich and Jack Clayton but they passed on it. The eventual choice of director was the then 40 year old Ridley Scott, a man with a background in TV advertising who had only previously directed one feature, 1977’s The Duellists. It was a big risk - an unknown director with an equally unknown cast - and was only finally given the go ahead when Ridley underwrote a lot of the costs himself.

O’Bannon was very much around during the production – some said too much (he was banned from the set at least once) – but his master stoke was introducing Scott, a man who had no real affinity with science fiction – to HR Giger, via the artist’s seminal work ‘Necronomicon.’ Scott was yet another person whose mind was blown when exposed to Giger’s art, and the film’s look, which is the key to its success, was nailed at the point where the Swiss artist came on board, finally providing the perfect antidote to the director’s worry that Alien would be seen as just another man in a monster suit movie. What Scott didn’t know was the O’Bannon had been keeping Giger – who hadn’t worked on a movie before - on the side-lines all the time, convinced that Scott would want secure the artist's services. He was also rather unhelpfully telling anyone who would listen about his ongoing battles with the Brandywine team.

When the film was released in 1979, although it opened to a lukewarm critical reception, it was a huge commercial success, making nearly $79 million in the United States and over £7.5 million in the UK on initial release – the fourth largest grossing film of the year. Its total worldwide gross has been listed up to $203 million. The film had left both O’Bannon and Giger nervous wrecks. Scott on the other hand said of the film: “There’s nothing very intellectual about Alien. That’s the point of the film. It has absolutely no message. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror…and more terror.” This rather sniffy approach didn't stop Scott returning to sci fi for his next project, 1982's Blade Runner.

Alien’s rise from a few scribbles on paper at the beginning of the 1970s to its position as top grossing movie of 1979, and arguably one of the most impressive science fiction films of all time, is really the story of one person – Dan O’Bannon – and his fight to get his dream realised. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who sadly died way too early at the age of 63 in 2009, from Crohn’s disease complications. And to think, he almost didn't get a credit!

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