HIDDEN GEMS: 23. ALIEN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week science fiction horror ‘Alien’. You’re welcome.

Science Fiction and Horror? Together? Crazy I know, but that’s the premise behind Ridley Scott’s little known science fiction horror film Alien. The story was simplicity itself. The crew of an intergalactic truck awake from hyper-sleep to investigate a distress signal on a remote planet. Here they encounter a new life-form which attaches itself to a crew member. On board the ship, the crew member (John Hurt) seems to recover, only to get the worst indigestion of his entire life. And before you know it an alien creature with acid for blood is running around the ship killing crew members one at a time.

It’s easy to see why it wasn’t a great success. Gory and dark and all the backstory was to do with company bonuses instead of the characters endlessly talking about what they want out of life. The Alien itself looked like a penis mouthed bone cage with a cycling helmet on.  And that tag line ‘In Space, no one can hear you scream’!? We can hear spaceships explode and what not. Why not a scream?

Still, Ridley Scott’s second film deserves a re-watch – if you can dig up a copy. The performances are amazing – Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Koto and Harry Dean Stanton all deserved to be name-checked. Scott in collaboration with Swiss nutcase H.R. Giger gives the film a nightmarish strobed look. The blue collar industrial spaces of the space ship take on a dripping lost in the woods and down the rabbit hole feel.

Scott went on to a highly successful career. And yet I can’t help but wonder if he ever feels like returning to this early work, what marvellous possibilities there might be.

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THE MAKING OF ALIEN

HOLLYWOOD – In the latest in our celebrated Making of… series, we look at the behind the scenes drama that went into the making of Ridley Scott’s Science Fiction Horror film “Alien”.

The Idea

Dan O’Bannon had been writing Science Fiction scripts for some time. He had scripted and had a small part in John Carpenter’s debut movie “Dark Star”, but O’Bannon wanted to branch out and make a realistic drama about truckers driving across America with a cargo of coal. He wrote to his agent John Stutter:

Dear John,

Please find enclosed the treatment for the new screenplay “Alan”. The story is simple. A trucker called Alan is taking a cargo of coal across America. I see this as very much “Convoy”, but with coal and not as escapist as that film. Let me know what you think.

However, Sutter had not properly read the treatment and his note to O’Bannon was apologetic.

Dan,

Sorry to tell you this but I just glanced at the title of your treatment and got straight onto the phone with Fox. I thought the title was “Alien”. I think it was an ink smudge. Bad news, when I read the treatment I thought it deadly dull. Good news, Fox are sold on having a script from Dark Star writer Dan O’Bannon entitled “Alien”!

A disgruntled O’Bannon got to work and he re-used several characters from his coal convoy story along with the grungy feel he had been aspiring to but he resolutely refused to add an Alien which saw the script taken out of his hands and given to Ronald Shusett who added the Alien. Walter Hill’s production company got involved and a British commercials director who had just made an atmospheric Napoleonic drama called “The Duellists” was also interested.

Pre-Production

The key to the film was thought to be the creature of the title and Jim Henson, the puppet master who created the Muppets, was called in. Following Ridley Scott’s instructions to ‘go dark’, Henson produced the face-hugger, the fetus and the final creature in one 48 hour bout of creativity. However, fearing for his child friendly reputation he hired Swiss artist H.R. Giger to present the work as his own, a decision Henson would bitterly regret for the rest of his life.

Production

Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright,Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto were all cast after Ridley Scott got stuck in a lift with them in a Casino in Las Vegas and was impressed by the way they reacted diversely to the claustrophobic emergency. In keeping with the sense of immediacy Scott attempted to maintain a sense of spontaneity throughout the fourteen week shoot which took place between July 5 and October 21, 1978. Scott gave the actors only selective pages of script and would frequently spring surprises on them. The chest-burster scene was so disturbing that Yaphey Kotto pissed himself with fear. Harry Dean Stanton recalls:

The urine was everywhere and we were skidding around on it and almost falling on our asses, but Ian and John came from the British theater tradition and so they carried right on. And that was the take that Ridley used. Some of the looks of disgust on Veronica’s face for example, are because of the urine on the floor as much as the special effects.

Later filming the final sequence, Sigourney Weaver would shit her pants, though this was later revealed to be a prank she played on the rest of the cast and crew.

Reception

The advertising campaign for Alien was widely seen as one of the most successful of the late 70s although there is some controversy about who came up with the final tag line. Salman Rushdie claimed that he was the author and Gabriel Garcia Marquez said the line was his own. Scott settled the argument when it was revealed that Julian Lennon, son of Beatle John Lennon used to say to his father every night before he went to bed, ‘Remember dad, in space no one can hear you scream’ which would cause some of John Lennon’s most violent ‘bad trips’. The film was deemed a success and in 1987 the library of congress hired a video cassette of it and forgot to take it back the next day, which is considered by some to be the highest mark of honor.

Alien was released in 1979.

For more of The Making of… CLICK HERE.

MEMOIR: PECKINPAH PICKED A PACK OF PUNCHING PEOPLE

HOLLYWOOD – I’ll never forget Sam Peckinpah. Oh that I could. He was a maverick, a trickster, fighter, a visionary and a genuine pain in the butt. We were shooting Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. Bob Dylan and Harry Dean Stanton had been raising hullabaloo and had spoiled the take. Peckinpah launched himself at them, punching Dylan in the face, kicking Harry Dean Stanton’s legs from under him and jumped up and down on his head with both feet. H.D. lost his perfect cut glass English accent (often compared to Gielgud) and began to speak the way he does now for the rest of his life.
However, Peckinpah had a soft side. He didn’t have much time for animals and he despised children, and loathed women, but he loved delicate hand made dolls houses, which he would buy for huge sums of money and arrange around his house before smashing them all with a mallet he kept expressly for that purpose
We were making Straw Dogs in England and I remember Sam leafing through the catalogs for hours searching for a perfect replica of Chequers.
Dustin Hoffman made some off hand remark regarding the machismo of dolls houses. Sam through himself at him, kneeing him in the groin and the pulling him off the floor by a clamp like grip he had on Dustin nose. What he did next was a major factor in Dustin’s success in the role Tootsie, but as my old friend Sir Edwin Fluffer often says, that’s another story.

The Studio Exec recounted this story to Chad.