BEFORE 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick had Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Before Star Wars, George Lucas had THX 1138. Before Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg had Jaws.
Before Alien, the only thing Ridley Scott had was The Duellists. And even that didn’t make much of a point, or stab into the hearts of moviegoers, given that Paramount had released the British film only in the San Francisco-Bay Area in December, 1978, despite its good box office and reviews in Europe. Not to mention a prize it won at the Cannes Film Festival. So ask any American back then: Who the hell is Ridley Scott?
Even by the summer of 1979, while millions of Americans were eagerly flocking to see Scott’s first major effort, Alien, hardly anyone was even aware of the name Ridley Scott.
For me it all started when I was taken for a ride. No, I wasn’t being conned, I was actually living through a moment that in retrospect would become historic. It was the month that The Duellists was about to open at the Four-Star Theater in San Francisco. I had gone to see an advance screening and was in the back seat of a cab with the film’s producer, David Puttnam. As we sped from the Richmond District, headed for downtown, he forewarned me about what was to come.
“Here’s the story and listen good. Ridley Scott, whose excellent work you just saw in The Duellists, is a genius behind the camera. Right now he’s back in England working on a science-fiction thriller. I predict it will become a major hit all over the world in the coming year. It’s going to be called Alien and it’s a variation on Agatha Christie’s detective novel Ten Little Indians [aka And Then There Were None], in which a handful of characters are trapped in a mansion with a killer. Only here the killer is an extraterrestrial life form, and believe me when I tell you it’s going to be the most frightening outer-space creature you will ever see in a movie. It penetrates the security of a space freighter and begins murdering hapless and helpless crew members one by one.”
After planting that information in my ear, Puttnam dropped me off at the San Francisco Chronicle at Fifth and Mission Streets and went on to become a major producer who turned out Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields. He would also eventually become the head of Columbia Pictures in 1986-87. It only lasted for that short a period because Puttnam became controversial when he put less emphasis on large-scale movies, preferring to turn out low-budget fare. And Hollywood didn’t care much for that attitude.
For the next six months I couldn’t get Puttnam’s prediction out of my mind as I waited for Alien to open, which it finally did in June of 1979. I all but fell out of my theatrical seat when I saw an advance screening, realizing instantly that I was watching a classic mixture of science-fiction and horror as a hideous form of E.T. gets loose aboard the space freighter Nostromo and starts making human mincemeat of the crew members [as Scott might phrase it] one by bloody one.
It was strictly the stuff of nightmares, with Scott cleverly playing off all our primal fears, often to the screaming point. The grotesque creature really made one’s skin crawl. And out of his cocoon of anonymity came Ridley Scott to San Francisco. We were to meet in two places: At the San Francisco Chronicle, and later at the Cinema Shop, where I would record on 16 mm film an interview to be played on my weekly TV series, Creature Features.
In a conference room at the Chronicle, Scott seemed bright-eyed and cheerful, dressed in simple blue jeans and shirt. He spoke in a voice tinged with a Scottish accent, explaining that Alien was his breakthrough after years of struggling in the film business.
“The important thing about science-fiction,” he told me, rubbing his fingers through his reddish beard, “is that it be made well so it will retain its respectability and not become something stodgy or undesirable to watch. Science-fiction . . . what an amazing theater of the imagination to work in.”
But, he added after a brief pause, “Alien is really a thriller, isn’t it? I mean, THX 1138 is a religious film, very real. Star Wars is on the other end of the scale. Anything goes in science-fiction as long as you do it right and make it stick. Otherwise it turns into hokum and we don’t need that.”
The creature in Scott’s $9-million film (for which 20th Century Fox was pumping out an additional $6 million in advertising and promotion money) is so nightmarishly unforgettable that one wonders how it was conceived. Scott explained that while the screenplay was by Dan O’Bannon, it was French painter H. R. Giger who conceived the external appearance of the killer beast. “That monster evolved out of several discussions, some of them on an intellectual level regarding alien shapes and societies, some of them on a biological level involving the various stages of gestation and evolution.
“We also asked ourselves key questions about our innermost fears. What scares man on a primal level? The answer can be very complex. It certainly is something more than a killer with a knife, isn’t it? It’s something deeply rooted within us. And that something is what I’ve tried to touch when you watch Alien.
“We tried not to think about traditional movie monsters. We approached the problem from a biological point of view. Once that was established, we could work backwards or forward.” The monster is seen in various shapes and sizes as it passes through an intriguing form of speeded up evolutionary process. It is a combination of forms. Or call them things. Reptilian, amphibian, humanoid, metallic . . .
Scott also admitted that the characters were portrayed as realistically as possible so the audience could identify with them. “This was achieved by ordinary clothing and a naturalistic flow of dialogue. The sets, all built to scale without the trickery of matte paintings, were also designed to be functional and realistic so that the eventual horrors would take place in a believable setting.”
One final thing Scott stressed: “No animation, Ray Harryhausen style. We used a combination of gears and the human element. The teeth, for example, are mechanical – a cable system partly manual, partly air pressure. The same applied to various pieces of the creature. For the scenes where you see its entire body, we used a man 7-feet-3 inches tall.”
The sets of the alien planet, where the astronauts first find the alien within the remnants of a derelict spaceship, were also created by Giger. “Yes,” admitted Scott, “they’re full of sexual symbols. That’s not the way we set out to do it but the idea evolved after lengthy conversations. One gets quite evil-minded. The creature is very phallic at one point. Outrageously effective, which again hits some primal chord. You must plan these things . . . give them a background and a purpose. Otherwise you get bad, hokey creatures.”
(Around the time of my interview with Scott, Giger had made a public statement about his own feelings that helped him to generate the film’s imagery: “The alien creature is elegant, fast and terrible. It exists to destroy – and destroys to exist. Once you see it, it will never be forgotten. It will remain with people who have seen it, perhaps in their dreams or nightmares, for a long, long time. I even dream about the alien myself – so much that I’ve become frightened of going to sleep.”)
At one point, an unhappy ending was considered for Alien, but O’Bannon and Scott concurred it was important that audiences leave the theater feeling fulfilled and not let down.
Would Scott consider directing a sequel to Alien? “Sequels are dangerous, aren’t they? They’re rarely very good. Godfather II was an exception to that rule. A sequel to Alien would have to be speculative and deal with the motives of the alien. What will it do away from its home planet? What are the possible relationships with humans beside butcher-victim? It might be worthwhile to direct a sequel and I’m certainly thinking about it.”
Ridley Scott was born in 1939 in South Shields, England. His father was a British officer in charge of the Mulberry docking units used during the D-Day invasion in 1944. Eventually he was promoted to brigadier general. Ridley wanted to join the Royal Marines but his father advised him to seek a career elsewhere.
So Ridley studied at the Royal College of Art in London and was being trained as a TV set designer when he made his first short in 16mm, Boy on a Bicycle. After that his interest in photography became overwhelming and he worked his way into directing TV commercials. He was making so much money that he decided to start up his own production company. “I had 40 people working for me, I had an office in Paris, I had everything I needed to go far. But suddenly I realized I was blossoming out in the wrong direction, getting farther and farther away from the feature films I really wanted to make.”
With literally hundreds of TV commercials under his belt, and having established a strong reputation, Scott gave it all up to seek the most difficult thing facing all producers: raising the money need to make a feature film. He turned his company over to his brother Tony, who at the time was considered one of the “hottest TV commercial makers in England.” Ridley’s determination to make a movie paid off when he was offered 150,000 pounds to produce an historical TV drama. Knowing historical productions could be extra-expensive, he turned to public domain material, finding possibilities in Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel, based on a true incident from French history in which two Napoleonic generals feuded over a 40-year period.
What was first conceived as a TV film escalated into a feature – Scott’s dream had finally come true. Re-titled The Duellists, and starring Harvey Kietel and Keith Carradine, the film became a smash hit in Europe, winning a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Paramount, which had invested in the film, retained the American rights but never really gave it a decent release in America, choosing instead to shelf it and take it as a tax write-off.
Meanwhile, there was the story of Dan O’Bannon, a student at the University of Southern California who wrote Dark Star, which was made into a film in 1974 directed by John Carpenter (soon to become a major director of fantasy and horror films in Hollywood). O’Bannon’s next effort was the first draft of Alien, bu that was worked over by Walter Hill and David Giler. (Final screen credit was given only to O’Bannon.)
From the days he wrote his original script, O’Bannon had wanted to hire Giger to design the sets and costumes for the alien creature. They had first met while working on an ill-fated attempt to film Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune. Once Scott had been chosen to direct, O’Bannon was able to convince him that Giger was the man for the job, and in turn Scott convinced 20th Century-Fox to hire him.
Scott further revealed to me that “four or five” major directors turned down Alien before he accepted after a single reading that took him only 40 minutes. “I saw a germ of something big in the screenplay. I immediately said I wanted to do it. I just knew this was going to develop into an important film . The story’s linear and it’s lean and it really moves quickly. Also, to me it is more than a horror film. It is a film about terror.”
Scott regrets not being a bigger science-fiction fan. “I never could get into the literature. It was only after 2001: A Space Odyssey that I began to get the bug. Some fans have said I should be turned on to such classics as Howard Hawks’ The Thing or Them. But to me they didn’t quite have the elements of reality that make a classic, or even a good film. Establish your realism. Then the monster. Then it will come off. And so will the film.”
Scott’s final comment to me: “Look upon this as a genre brand new: Space Gothic.”
And now, here’s additional material from the mouth of Ridley Scott, footage taken from the Creature Features episode he filmed with me during his visit to the San Francisco area to promote Alien.