Crew Logs: Ron Cobb

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Though Burbank, California, lies only a few miles from the epicentre of the Western film world, it seemed all too far away for the adolescent Ron Cobb. His parents had moved there from Los Angeles in 1940, when Cobb was three years old, in search of a better life promised by the area’s mid-30’s property boom – when the Cobbs relocated in 1940 the city’s population stood at 34,337; by 1950 it would rocket to 78,577. But a middle-class life in a burgeoning Burbank appeared to Cobb to be “bleak and unexciting.” He saw worse ahead of him, remarking that, “The future held even less promise,” but fortunately he had an escape in his nascent imagination: “I began to notice out of the corner of my eye distant vistas of fantasy, of a world out there glimpsed through the wonderful window of television and E.C. comics. I daydreamed and nurtured my fantasies, and to make them more real I drew. At the same time I became introverted, a terrible student, and waited for something to happen.”

It was science fiction that provided inspiration and spurred Cobb’s enthusiasm for the wondrous. “When I was a little kid I would sit out in the back yard,” Cobb said in 2015, “and I swear I could see people signalling me from the moon. And I knew it was important somehow, but you know, you might say I had a science-fictional childhood, because I always thought about science as adventure, nothing more than adventure, and when it started to appear in movie pictures I was transfixed. I said, ‘I want to do that somehow.'”

Cobb found like-minded friends at Burbank High School with whom he formed C.D. Inc. (the C standing for Cobb, and the D for co-founder Tad Duke), a small club whose members held common interests in pranksterism, atheism and sci-fi — their first official club act was a trip to see War of the Worlds (1953). The group also busied themselves creatively by drawing and conceptualising a fictional history of fictional European country Donovania, along with its fictional prince, Chesley Donavan (apparently named after Cobb’s early influence Chesley Bonestell, whose 1949 speculative sci-fi book The Conquest of Space can be seen  in C.D.’s hangout.) Chesley Donavan retroactively became the namesake of the group, with C.D. reconfigured into the ‘Chesley Donovan Science Fantasy Foundation’, which was, according to Cobb, “a deliberately pompous and satirical name for a group of introverted and eccentric students.”

“Our mutual fascinations with science, astronomy, philosophy and theology kept us together until we were in our early twenties,” he explained. “Our involvement in C.D. drew each of us out of our introversions, while we nurtured and entertained each other.”

Ron Cobb, far right, in 1954.

Ron Cobb, far right, with C.D. in 1954. The group crafted their own uniforms and insignias.

After graduating from Burbank High School in 1955 Cobb, having been a poor student with an aptitude for art and imagination, sought work at Disney, who had opened their lot in Burbank in 1940 on the proceeds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). “I had always been fascinated by Disney and deeply influenced by Fantasia. The studio was clearly advancing the art of film animation, in those days, and I was very excited about being a part of it.” After spending two years working as an in-betweener and breakdown artist (notably on Sleeping Beauty, released 1959) Cobb realised that many of the animation giants and geniuses that had attracted him to the field had “retired or died off” and, after being let go by Disney, he decided to seek out opportunities in live action film. “I just didn’t feel like waiting 30 years to become an animator,” he told Starlog magazine. But first was a series of odd jobs and a stint in the US Army and a brief posting in Vietnam.

“I was a prime target for the draft,” said Cobb. “I had to decide whether to evade it as most of my friends had done, or become a member of the military, one of the truly evil institutions of the state, according to the tenets of C.D. This became my great confrontation/escape. I allowed myself to be drafted. It confirmed that my basic anti-militarism was correct, but let me recognize some of my prejudices were unfounded. I gained confidence in the army, but I hadn’t reckoned on spending a year in Vietnam.”

It was during the turbulent Sixties and specifically within the American counterculture that Cobb first found himself attracting artistic acclaim. His political cartoons, at first rejected by Playboy but disseminated through the underground newspaper The Los Angeles Free Press, presented future visions of the ultimate law and order state, the destruction of the American landscape and dark lampoons of Cold War-era doctrines like M.A.D.

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One early fan was a USC film student from Missouri named Dan O’Bannon, who reached out to Cobb after appreciating his work in the underground presses. “[Dan] had been following them and had wanted to meet me,” explained Cobb. “We shared an enthusiasm for film, science fiction and filmmaking.” O’Bannon and Cobb’s lives would not intersect again for several years, and in the meantime the artist kept penning celebrated political cartoons that were widely redistributed.

Ron also dabbled in science-fiction and fantasy illustration, drawing covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine including images of Lon Chaney Jnr. and Bela Lugosi’s Frankenstein and Wolfman, two-headed golems, the hunchback of Notre Dame and bulb-headed alien beings. He also provided the cover art for San Franciscan rock band Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album After Bathing at Baxter’s, (Cobb’s involvement with musical endeavours continued throughout the following decades; he won an MTV music video award in 1986 for his art direction on ZZ Top’s Rough Boy.)

His political work continued to attract acclaim and was showcased in an issue of Cavalier magazine that called him ‘The Toughest Pen in the West’, though Cobb denied being a political cartoonist (“because politics is too superficial”) preferring instead to be called a ‘social commentator’. “But whatever he calls himself,” Cavalier read, “he’s the only artist we’ve seen recently who has the force of conviction, the draughtsmanship, the intelligence and the necessary harsh insight into these harsh times to be a cartoonist in the great tradition.”

Cobb profiled in an 1969 issue of Playboy.

But Cobb was becoming disillusioned. He began to notice clichés and recycled content in his peers, and then recognised it creeping into his own work. An artistic block came over him. “I couldn’t paint or draw or think straight. I couldn’t snap out of it. I couldn’t finish anything. I was taking amphetamines. It was really an awful time. And I didn’t know what it was.” Cobb would later reflect that, “I had truly become sloppy with the content of the cartoons while conversely, growing in my attraction to the film medium. It wasn’t an interest in animation that pulled me. My two years at Disney taught me that animation lacked spontaneity. It was the writing, and possible directing, of live action short films or maybe features that intrigued me now.”

A break came when he received a phone call from Robin Love of the Australian Aquarius Foundation, the ‘cultural wing of the 170,000 strong Australian Union of Students’ that primarily helped organise university festivals and counter-culture events. Cobb recounted that Robin had told him that his “cartoons [were] very well-known here” among the Australian counter-culture, and “would [he] be interested in coming to Australia?” Still in a slump in the States, his answer was enthusiastic: “I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come! I’ll come!'”

Cobb’s political cartooning however earned him the scorn of Australia’s Liberal government, who made attempts to ban him from visiting and touring universities, but thanks to Love and the AUS his Visa was not revoked and the tour commenced with protest singer Phil Ochs in tow (and occasionally supported by The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band). “I discovered a country on a human scale: unpretentious, hardy and social,” Cobb said of his tour. “I began to come out of a non-productive, post-sixties slump which had lasted two years. The exuberant and colourful political scene intrigued me, the air of anticipation of a change in government after over twenty years of conservatism was infectious.” He certainly was not missing the American counterculture. “It should be said,” he clarified in 2005, “I never identified that much with the counter-culture, the new left or ‘The Sixties’. I fully expected flower power to wilt and teach-ins to teach out. Some of what happened was partially effective like the women’s movement, but most of it was too faddish, emotional and self-indulgent (read, American) to really fit the complex mix of world events and thus, change things in all the intended directions.”

At the end of his stay in Australia, Ron and Robin moved in together, married, and moved to Los Angeles in ’73, living on Robin’s dime while Cobb sought involvement in the film industry. “I never expected Ron to make any money,” Love told the LA Times in 1988. “Ron could have been doing everything he wanted to do a lot sooner if he had hustled. But he is not an ambitious person.”

Ron’s first foot into film came way of old acquaintance Dan O’Bannon, who was toiling to assemble his student film Dark Star with director John Carpenter. “I met Dan some years back because of his interest in fantastic films, then didn’t see him again for a number of years,” said Cobb. “He contacted me next when he was in the middle of Dark Star, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in giving him some of my comments on it. When I got there, he had an exterior design for the spaceship, and I started suggesting things.”

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

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The brief collaboration was encouraging enough for O’Bannon that he kept Cobb vigorously in mind for future projects. When he was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to oversee the special effects for Dune, he recommended that Jodorowsky add Cobb to his artistic stable, which already included eminent artists like Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger. “I tried to get Cobb on to Dune,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films in 1979, “but it never worked out.”

“Transatlantic phone calls [to Cobb were] made,” O’Bannon said of the arrangements to get Cobb on board, “and a date is set for Cobb’s transfer to Paris. Cobb and his wife pack their bags, the date arrives, but no plane ticket.” While waiting to officially join the project, Cobb managed to submit designs for the film, but Jodorowsky apparently thought they were too Earth-bound, too realistic, “too NASA.” Still, efforts were being made to fly him out to. “A new date is set,” O’Bannon goes on, “it arrives, and passes. More phone calls. Altogether, Cobb and his wife were packed and ready to get on a plane for about three months. They had terminated the lease on their apartment. This was the position I had gotten Cobb and Robin into when Dune collapsed completely, like a pile of rotten sticks.”

For his part, O’Bannon felt incredible guilt for leaving Cobb in the lurch. When he too ended up back in LA, broke and despondent, he managed to bounce back with a position on George Lucas’ Star Wars and, while there, he put in a word about Cobb. Allegedly, Lucas, visiting his friend John Milius, saw one of Cobb’s paintings on the wall called ‘Man on Lizard Crossing Over‘, depicting a proto-dewback carrying a mysterious traveller over a desert landscape. “Lucas said that he had the idea [for the dewback design] before he saw the painting,” Cobb said in 2015, “and Milius said, ‘No you didn’t. I remember the night you came here and pointed at the wall.'” Cobb laughed, “But that’s Star Wars for you!”

Either way, the image must have tapped into Lucas’ own imaginative ideas for his space opera, and he agreed to a meeting with Cobb on O’Bannon’s recommendation. “It was Dan who was working on this crazy space opera that we had all heard about,” said Ron. “It was costing so much money and George [Lucas] was convinced it was going to be a flop because the budget had blown out so much.”

Ron's designs for Star Wars' Cantina aliens. “George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”

Some of Ron’s designs for Star Wars‘ Cantina aliens.

“George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went, ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said, ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”
~ Ron Cobb, ninemsn.com, 2014.

Dan rushed to Cobb again when his long-gestating screenplay for Alien was picked up by Brandywine Productions and then greenlit by Twentieth Century Fox. “The first person I hired on Alien,” said O’Bannon, “the first person to draw money, was Cobb. He started turning out renderings, large full-colour paintings, while Shusett and I were still struggling with the script – the corrosive blood of the Alien was Cobb’s idea. It was an intensely creative period – the economic desperation, the all-night sessions, the rushing over to Cobb’s apartment to see the latest painting-in-progress and give him the latest pages.”

“So basically, it’s all been Dan,” said Ron. “He went to work on Star Wars and Dune, and each time he tried to get me on those projects. But since I didn’t have a great deal of film experience, producers were quite reluctant to hire me—except for George Lucas, who’d been familiar with my cartoons … Then Dan finally sold his script, and Alien was underway. He suggested that they use me, and the same problem arose, but I was taken on sort of a trial basis for about seven months in California, before the entire production moved to London.”

“We were put through shed after shed after shed,” said Chris Foss, whom O’Bannon had hired for Alien after having previously met in Paris while working on Dune, “and they were going through director after director after director.” Cobb himself told Den of Geek that “I soon found myself hidden away at Fox Studios in an old rehearsal hall above an even older sound stage with Chris Foss and O’Bannon, trying to visualize Alien. For up to five months Chris and I (with Dan supervising) turned out a large amount of artwork, while the producers, Gordon Carroll, Walter Hill and David Giler, looked for a director.”

“And he was doing some incredible stuff,”O’Bannon continued. “Wow! I was really happy during this period, seeing the movie appear under Cobb’s fingers. Of course, we usually had to go over and sit on his back to get him to do any work -otherwise he would just party on with his friends- but how beautiful were the results.” Cobb accompanied O’Bannon to England when Alien’s production went into full swing, having been personally recommended to director Ridley Scott by O’Bannon. “O’Bannon introduced me to Ron Cobb,” Scott told Fantastic Films in 1979, “a brilliant visualiser of the genre, with whom he’d worked on Dark Star. Cobb seemed to have very realistic visions of both the far and near future, so I quickly decided that he would take a very important part in the making of the film.”

“I made the two-hour round trip [to the studio] with [Cobb] every day in a miniscule red Volkswagen Golf,” said O’Bannon. “I hate to drive, so the first time I got behind the wheel I took off for London at about 70 mph and made it back in record time, through the most horrendous commuter crush and with all the traffic going the wrong way as well. Toward the end there, Cobb actually screamed, and cried out something about how I was going too fast. The next morning when he picked me up in the Golf, he told me firmly that he would be doing all the driving from here on out, so that took care of that.”

Cobb with Giger at the King's Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb with Giger at the King’s Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb, along with Foss, was tasked with realising the human elements of the film, but he also took a crack at the Space Jockey, Alien, and the Alien temple from O’Bannon’s version of the screenplay. In Cobb’s conception of the Alien temple, a hieroglyph depicts, in a Mayan-esque fashion, an insect-like creature prone on its back as another being erupts -depicted in glorious fashion- from its midcentre. Above the new lifeform’s head is an image of an Alien egg, deified and ensconced within an aureola. The pyramid was ultimately cut due to budgetary and time constraints, and Giger was tasked with its design when the silo was incorporated with his derelict craft (which Ron also took a shot at). Ron’s concepts for the planetoid, which hewed close to O’Bannon’s Mars-esque description in his screenplay, were also ‘ignored’ by the production when the planetoid was given a grey colour scheme (Dennis Lowe’s early effects work for the planet depicted it as a turbulent orange and red swirl, akin to the surface of Jupiter.)

Though O’Bannon loved Cobb’s other designs for the Alien and derelict ship, they were lacking what only Giger was able to provide: a tangible nightmarish quality. Cobb’s Alien was rejected in favour of Giger’s almost from the get-go. “I’m afraid Ron Cobb’s ego was sorely wounded when he didn’t get to do the monster,” O’Bannon told Cinefex in ’79. “He was endlessly frustrated because he could design aliens without number and they were all convincing and all unique and all startling to look at … His designs just weren’t as bizarre, or as bubbling up from the subconscious as the stuff Giger was doing. Cobb’s monsters all looked like they could come out of a zoo—Giger’s looked like something out of a bad dream.”

But Dan did love his concept for the Space Jockey, which he described as “Just perfect! Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore – and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.”

Ridley however was enamoured with Giger’s Space Jockey, and elected that the other conceptual artists focus on other areas of the film, namely the Nostromo, which had to have all the appearance of a functional and plausible 22nd century ship, but also had to convey the idea of being a haunted house, or castle; its comm towers and satellites would have to evoke a conglomeration of cathedral spires and other Gothic shapes. “I wanted the ship to look like a gothic castle,” Cobb explained, “but resisted that approach—it might have been a bit too much … I grew up with a deep fascination for astronomy, astrophysics, and most of all, aerospace flight. My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer (as well as a frustrated writer when it came to cinema design). I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function.”

Cobb, who was later quoted in the Book of Alien explaining that he preferred to “design a spaceship as though it was absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever,” found himself struggling to maintain a balance between his aesthetic preferences and Ridley’s more fantastical ideas. “They pressured us a lot to bend the technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars,” said Cobb. “Sort of half-believable, but rather highly stylized—or perhaps a better word would be romanticized. The interior of the ship finally looked like a deco dance hall, or a World War II bomber, and a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might really look like—or a combination of all of them. The theory was to give Alien more of a horror look, but I never personally agreed with that, and I didn’t have as much influence as I’d like to have had.”

Cobb’s strident rationalism impeded his attempts at the alien technology. “The only problem was that he was a rationalist,” O’Bannon explained. “I noticed this when we first started designing the picture. All these different things he as doing were coming out so well that I decided to have him take a crack at the derelict spaceship. But when I asked him to come up with an irrational shape he got very disturbed. He couldn’t handle that. He kept coming up with convincing technology for a flying saucer or some other kind of UFO.” 

For his part, Ridley also found that his flashes of artistic license caused consternation with Cobb’s more realistic design philosophy. For one, Cobb insisted that every detail on the ship be accounted for: how doors opened, where the screws went and how the pistons pumped, etc. Scott however tended to find himself fighting to retain ‘illogical’ images like the ‘rain’ during Brett’s death in the Nostromo’s leg room, reconciling it to dissenting voices as condensation from within the ship. He found similar resistances when it came to getting across his ideas of the Nostromo’s outer shell. “The concept was to have the hull covered with space barnacles or something,” said Scott. “I was unable to communicate that idea, and I finally had to go down there and fiddle with the experts. We gradually arrived at a solution.” It seemed that removing any ‘space barnacles’ was a concession Scott made to the artists. “I would have liked to see it covered with space barnacles or space seaweed,” he told Fantastic Films, “All clogged and choked up, but that was illogical as well.”

Cobb meanwhile figured that the resistance to exploring the stark reality of space travel came from disinterest or inexperience on the part of the production. “There’s a certain awkwardness in the naturalistic portrayal of the space flight,” he said, “Partly because most of the people involved in this film had never made one before. They didn’t understand what they were getting into, and were put off by concepts like no sound in space, and all the gravitational effects.”

“When I met Ron, he was very adamant that they were very realistic. He wanted a heat shield on the underside of the Nostromo lander. He wanted a contrast between the smooth underside of the heat shield and the detailed upper surface. However this was not to be. Our instruction was to encrust the whole craft. When it came down, we weren’t seeing a craft come through an atmosphere; there was no re-entry. Ron was concerned that it should be there if that type of action was present. Ron is very much into the believability of things. He created wonderful background histories about his designs.”
~ Bill Pearson, Sci-Fi & Fantasy FX magazine, Aliens Collector’s Issue (#48)

“I’ve always done future designs as though they’re real,” Cobb said, “and I’ve found the more realism you put into it, the more original they look, and most of the time you don’t do that you’re just recycling a lot of silly props from every idiotic movie that’s ever been made. We just covered the walls with drawings and, slowly but surely, Alien emerged.” The amalgamation of all these various aesthetics allowed for Alien to present a very believable environment with little bearing on issues like faster than light travel or time dilation: instead, the Company’s armada of commercial ships flit from one side of the galaxy to another in short spans (the film tells us the return journey to Earth from the planetoid would take “Ten months”) and the crew do little to expositise on the ship’s technology.

In the end, the Nostromo’s design was not coalesced from various concepts by its artists, but by frustrated technicians tired of waiting for something to build. Cobb explained that “Brian Johnson, the special effects supervisor under pressure to build the large Nostromo model, went into the deserted art department and, out of frustration, grabbed all the Chris Foss designs off the wall and took them to Bray Studios. There he would choose the design himself in order to have enough time to build the damn thing … Well I soon found out that Brian found and took all of my exterior design sketches as well. About a month later I was told that Brian had used my sketch, ‘Nostromo A’, as the basis for the model, even to the extent that it was painted yellow. Ridley found the colour a bit garish and had it repainted grey.”

Some of Cobb’s interiors were replicated from the page directly onto the screen, so his sketches for a passage on the Nostromo’s A deck–
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–was rendered faithfully as below:

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Cobb’s creative contributions extended beyond the look of the film: he also inspired O’Bannon to give the Alien acidic blood, coined ‘Weylan-Yutani’, and crafted with costume designer John Mollo all manner of fictional corporate insignias and emblems intended to give the film additional depth, even though the majority of their work would not be seen or even referenced on screen. “One of the things I enjoyed most about Alien was its subtle satirical content,” explained Cobb. “Science Fiction films offer golden opportunities to throw in little scraps of information that suggest enormous changes in the world. There’s a certain potency in those kinds of remarks. Weylan-Yutani for instance is almost a joke, but not quite. I wanted to imply that poor old England is back on its feet and has united with the Japanese, who have taken over the building of spaceships the same way they have now with cars and supertankers. In coming up with a strange company name I thought of British Leyland and Toyota, but we obviously couldn’t use Leyland-Toyota in the film. Changing one letter gave me Weylan, and Yutani was a Japanese neighbor of mine.” The Company would be called Weyland-Yutani in the following movies, with the ‘d’ added sometime during Aliens’ production by Cobb for an unspecified reason – perhaps it was an error, or he was no longer shy about the ‘Weyland/Leyland’ allusion.

For the Company’s logo Ron figured that “It would be fun to develop a logo using the W and Y interlocking. We tried a lot of variations and came up with some very industrial looking symbols, which were to be stenciled all over the ship. By that time though Ridley was already set on using the Egyptian wing motif. We tried some combinations, but they didn’t really work. Weylan-Yutani now only appears on the beer can, underwear and some stationary, so the joke sort of got lost.” Though it’s not obvious at a glance, Cobb’s Egyptian motif logo appears on virtually every piece of equipment on the Nostromo, including dinner bowls and coffee cups. The crew wear blue Weylan-Yutani wing emblems on their chests, except for Kane, who wears a silver patch, and Dallas, whose gold patch is possibly coloured to denote his captaincy.

Cobb and Mollo also conceived a pseudo-historical backdrop over which Alien takes place, creating space corporations like Farside Lunar Mining and Red Star Lines that went virtually unseen and absolutely unmentioned in the film, but which, for its creators, helped flesh out the unseen universe permeating the movie frame. Cobb also designed a flag for the United Americas -the union of South, Central and North America which took place in 2104, at least in the Alien universe- which is essentially the stars and stripes with one unitary star rather than fifty.

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“I think Dan will be pleased. You know, for a while they strayed pretty far from his original concept, but eventually they found their way back into the primary science-fiction/horror framework. By the time the principal photography was finished, everybody was looking forward to seeing how all the pieces fit together. At the very least, Dan won’t have to sleep on anyone’s sofa for a while—I hope.”
~ Ron Cobb, MediaScene, 1979.

“On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the way my ideas were eventually realized,” Cobb told MediaScene on the film’s release. “It was fascinating to watch the process all the way through, even some of the set dressings. I was pleased with things I had a fair amount of control over, but those I didn’t oversee were a little disappointing … Then there was always surprising contributions from draftsmen and other people who would occasionally design a set that would turn out very, very well. It was a mixed bag of many styles and many approaches.”

Alien’s success unlocked doors that had been frustratingly barred to Cobb for more than a decade and the eighties saw a boon for him: he designed Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian age in John Milius’ film of the same name as well as Conan’s weaponry and armour. He was a production artist on Raiders of the Lost Ark, contributing concepts for the Nazi airplanes, designed the interior of the Mothership in the Close Encounters special edition, and he created the initial concepts for the time-travelling DeLorean in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

While working on Conan the Barbarian in Spain Cobb would visit Steven Spielberg, who was down the hall working on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I first met Spielberg when I was working on Alien,”  Cobb told bttf.com. “At one point Spielberg was considered as a possible director for the original Alien. It was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested.” With Spielberg Cobb would find himself able to express his directorial ambitions. “I would suggest angles, ideas,” he said, “Verbalize the act of directing — ‘Let’s do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.’ Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered.” One day, Spielberg told him, “I think you can direct. I want to back a film for you.”

The film, a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind built around a nebulous idea that Spielberg had about the Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO Incident, was quickly nixed when the family at the centre of the event threatened to sue. The desire to make the film remained, but it was in need of a new story and characters around which to frame the tale of a terrifying alien visitation. Cobb then pitched a concept to Spielberg and John Sayles wrote the script, titled Night Skies. However, Spielberg hired screenwriter Melissa Mathison (soon to be Harrison Ford’s wife of nineteen years) to rework the story with a new title: E.T. “I realized that Steven had changed the script a lot,” said Cobb. “He went back to a story he had told me about years before: An alien is abandoned and protected by a little boy. It wasn’t scary anymore. It was kind of sweet. Finally, [Spielberg producer] Kathleen Kennedy called to say, ‘Steven doesn’t know how to tell you this, but E.T. is very close to his heart, and he wants to make that his picture next year, and he’s decided to direct it himself. So what we would like to do when you get back is work out another picture for you. Because Steven really wants to back your career.'”

In truth, Cobb was relieved: the new script was far too different from his pitch, far more “cutesy”, and the final film itself too saccharine for his tastes. Spielberg did allow him a cameo in the movie as one of E.T.’s doctors (“I got to carry the little tyke out”) as well as a generous take of the resulting profits. The first cheque to drop through the door amounted to $400,000. “Ron spent all those years doing cartoons and not getting paid,” Robin Love told the LA Times, “and then he gets a million for not doing anything. Friends from Australia always ask, ‘What did you do on ‘E.T.‘?’ And Ron says, ‘I didn’t direct it.'”

In 1985 James Cameron enlisted Cobb to design Hadley’s Hope, the Atmosphere Processor, and some of the Colonial Marine gadgetry for Aliens. Though many Alien stalwarts returned for the sequel (including Brian Johnson, Adrian Biddle, and stuntmen like Eddie Powell among others), Cobb was the sole conceptual artist to provide continuity with the first film.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens.

“Jim always had a strong vision with all his scripts and features,” said Cobb. “However, he was always open to good ideas from just about anyone (but they had to be damn good ideas). If I could submit an idea or design that collaboratively enhanced his vision (something I always endeavored to do on any film project) Cameron was quite receptive.”

Cobb found working with Cameron fruitful and straightforward enough (“his talent spanned smoothly from science to art, a mix I have always aspired to,” he told JamesCameronOnline) that he also drew concepts for The Abyss (1988) and True Lies (1994). He continued to design for film throughout the nineties and the new millenium, with Total Recall, The Rocketeer, Schwarzenegger’s late nineties effort The 6th Day, the animated Titan A.E., Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 being added to his already impressive oeuvre.

Ron Cobb’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy films from the 70’s onwards has been profound, though he remains relatively obscure in comparison to celebrated figures like Ralph McQuarrie or Stan Winston, and even his early cartooning career remains an often unknown element to fans of his film work — probably due to the immense success of his reinvention from an underground social commentator to a visualiser of some of the most evocative and memorable science-fiction environments, creatures and contraptions of the last four decades.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.

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Wrapped in Plastic: Kenner’s Alien Toys

Alien figurines being packaged. From Cincinnati magazine, December 1979.

Alien figurines being packaged. From Cincinnati magazine, December 1979.

“I keep trying to imagine it…Alien dolls? I don’t see how they have any merchandising potential whatever. But I’m sure they’ll find it—maybe a little rubber Alien doll that sneaks across the room and bites your foot off. Great for people with kids and pets.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, MediaScene, 1979.

Bizarrely for an R-rated feature, Twentieth Century Fox hoped Alien’s release would encourage the sort of toy craze that had come in the wake of Star Wars (some promotional materials boasted ‘From the producers of Star Wars!’ possibly in a hope to lure kids to the shelves). MediaScene reported the high hopes Fox had pinned on the film’s merchandising, saying that, “The merchandising aspect of Alien is not being left to chance either. Charles Lippincott, whose position was to oversee the licensing and publicity for Star Wars, is performing the same function for Alien.” There were Alien egg puzzles, Alien picture viewers, Nostromo baseball caps, blaster target toys, various Alien puzzle and jigsaw sets and more that you can see in Alien Ads from Yesteryear. But most infamous of all is Kenner’s Alien figurine, released Christmas 1979.

The 18 inch figurine’s appearance was remarkably faithful to the movie’s creature, though perhaps too much so for parents to handle. Sales were reportedly low and the toy poorly constructed: the back-pipes and tail would snap off (not ideal when your packaging reads: ‘Movable tail to swing by!’) and the translucent dome was prone to falling off and going missing.

While adults shook their heads at the distastefulness of trying to make such a monster appeal to young children (another packaging blurb read: ‘Spring loaded arms… to crush its victims!’) I have never seen anyone gifted it grow up and regret its inappropriateness as a child’s toy (here’s one kid who looks absolutely delighted — Alien toys were quite common in stores when I was young, having been born in the late eighties, but I distinctly remember seeing -and wanting- a plastic Freddy Krueger glove, never realising the strangeness of wielding a child murderer’s weapon on the playground.)

Amusingly, Kenner were not allowed to show images of the Alien on their packaging throughout much of 1979, resulting in early promotional materials that replaced the creature with an amorphous cloud from which only the Alien’s hands reached out. One jigsaw set replaced it with a question mark and an explanation to assuage buyers that their children were not being asked to assemble images of punctuation marks.

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While the 1992 toy line would find more success (Alien variations included Gorilla, Bull, Scorpion, Panther and Snake Aliens, and were probably considered hokier as a result) Kenner’s original remains a more memorable and perhaps endearing attempt at rendering the creature in plastic, probably because of the toy’s fidelity to Giger’s original Alien and the inherent strangeness in prohibiting children from seeing a film and yet merchandising said film to them. As such, it remains a popular collectors item, with unboxed figurines going for as much as $2,000 on eBay. Other industrious fans have taken to restoring broken originals, with AVPG’r Windebieste chronicling his restoration of an original 1979 Kenner Alien over at Mego Museum.

Often regarded as a marketing failure, Kenner’s attempt provided a precedent for merchandising R-rated movies for younger audiences. The Terminator endoskeleton, Rambo, and Robocop would all become action figures throughout the late eighties and early nineties, with the latter two even boasting their own cartoon shows — plans for an animated Aliens series were made on the back of the new toy line’s success, and the project even entered production, but never came to fruition.

“One day, I happened to be wondering if I had any impact on the world at large. I was shopping at a drug store and I saw a plastic toy version of the Alien. That is when I realised I had reached out and in some small way, put my mark on history.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Starlog #228, July 1996.

alienbox

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David Cronenberg and David Lynch on Alien

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In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) a deranged scientist creates a parasite that enters the bodies of his apartment block neighbours thanks to the promiscuity of his young mistress. Spread by sex, the parasites begin to infect the entire building, causing their hosts to react violently against the remaining human occupants until, at the film’s closing, the city of nearby Montreal is at risk of infection and so too, presumably, is the world.

The film contains many Cronenbergian hallmarks: the ugly amalgamations and distortions of flesh, infection via sexual contact, and the uneasiness of eroticism, but it’s also familiar as another riff on invasionary paranoia à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or a precursor of sorts to the paranoia and rending of flesh seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing remake (1982), or even as an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (also 1975). But Cronenberg himself was less interested in where his film’s influences came from or what they paralleled and was more concerned with where they were going — and they went, in his estimation, directly into 1979’s Alien.

“I have to say that some of my images like this [parasite] ended up in things like Alien, which was more popular than any of the films I’ve ever made. But the writer of Alien has definitely seen these movies, Dan O’Bannon. The idea of parasites that burst out of your body and uses a fluid and leaps on your face, that’s all in Shivers.”
~ David Cronenberg, David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg, 2006.

From the get-go Cronenberg expressed frustration with Alien. “It has no metaphysics, no philosophy,” he told Fangoria in 1979. “The creature winds up as a man in a crocodile suit who chases a bunch of people around a room. I think that my own films do a lot more in touching a deep seated nerve, more than the simple reaction that you don’t want a crocodile to eat you. Alien was just a $300,000 B-movie with a $10 million budget.” The pivotal chestburster moment also came under fire: ” The parasite device isn’t used in a metaphorical way, it wasn’t used to evoke anything,”Cronenberg said. “In Alien, John Hurt has the parasite in him, he goes about his business as usual. In Shivers, the parasite stays inside the people and changes their behaviour and their motives. It’s used for something more than simple shock value.”

But Alien’s lack of philosophy bothered him less than the alleged plagariasm of its writer. “Dan O’Bannon knew my movie,” Cronenberg insisted in an interview with thefilmexperience.net. “In a case like that you wouldn’t mind a little credit for it. But beyond that, if you are influential –and I’ve had many young filmmakers say that I was a big influence and sometimes their movies do remind me of my old movies– you take it as a compliment. You obviously touched a nerve. It’s nice to have people be aware of that. But beyond that it’s inevitable; things become communal understandings, let’s say. The whole parasite thing. I mean there are movies called Parasite. But I did it first but, you know, whatever.”

Cronenberg often reiterated that he did not know and had never even met Dan O’Bannon, yet he was resolute that Dan had seen his films and deliberately plagiarised from them. His source, he revealed, was An American Werewolf in London director John Landis. “John Landis told me that [Dan] knew very well what he called ‘the Canadian films’, by which he meant Shivers and Rabid, when he wrote Alien. And so I know he stole all the parasite stuff from Shivers. And Ron Shusett said, ‘He never saw those movies and knows nothing about it’ … Dan O’Bannon later denied that he had ever seen those movies, but John Landis swears that he talked about them all the time and knew them very well.” Cronenberg has told this story several times, always referring to the oblique ‘Canadian films’ which he took to specify his own films. “I mean, everybody steals from everybody else,” says Cronenberg, “but he was apparently a very aggressive sort of hostile character. I don’t know, I’ve never met him.”

But Alien, though it certainly employed body horror (“a human subject dismantled and demolished,” Kelly Hurley defines it, “a human body whose integrity is violated, a human identity whose boundaries are breached from all sides”) merely uses it as a launching pad for its plot rather than as a fulcrum. The creatures in Alien and Shivers (home-grown experiments in the latter, of unknown alien origins in the former) are also quite distinct from one another. The facehugger in Alien is but one transitional stage of the Alien’s lifecycle; the parasites in Cronenberg’s film do not undergo metamorphosis: they slither from body to body in order to spread and survive, whereas the Alien can be more accurately described as a parasitoid or protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”

“As far back as Alien, for example, which totally ripped off things from my movie Shivers – Shivers featured a parasite that lives in your body, bursts out of your chests, jumps onto your face, and jumps down your mouth, and suddenly you see this in a studio film, which was hugely successful, Alien. The writer of the script, Dan O’Bannon, had seen Shivers, we know that he had seen my movie and, shall we say, appropriated it. So this is not new stuff for me.”
~ David Cronenberg, Collider, 2015.

The creation of the facehugger and chestburster has been covered extensively on Strange Shapes, along with the insect influence on the creature’s life-cycle. Dan’s Crohn’s Disease, undiagnosed but certainly afflicting him at the time, also influenced the Alien’s agonising birth process, as did the various comic strips that he had read in his youth, many of which featured alien spores erupting from human bodies to run amok.

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‘Defiled’, Death Rattle Vol I, 1972

Despite his distate for Alien, Cronenberg was approached by Fox to direct Alien Resurrection, an offer he found temporarily appealing. “It’s tempting for a minute because they’re begging me to do it,” he told combustiblecelluloid.com. “And it’s Fox, and I’d love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. It’d be great fun. [But] the problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film or studio film is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. I’m innately honest, I think. If I’m gonna do Aliens 4, then I’m gonna deliver Aliens 4. I’m going to try and make it the best version of Aliens 4 I can. So I’m not going to try and subvert it and make it something else, because why spend $80 or $100 million of the studio’s money, and just be deceitful and be fighting them all the time, and have them combat at you, and then end up with something that isn’t really good either way … I actually said to them, ‘You know, I don’t even do sequels to my own movies; why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?’ I didn’t do The Fly II. Why would I do Aliens 4?”

There was another famed director by the given name of David who also, apparently, found O’Bannon’s film to be uncomfortably appropriative. David Lynch has never, to my knowledge, publicly spoken about Alien, but HR Giger, eager to work on Lynch’s adaptation of Dune after two failed attempts under Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, tried to reach out to Lynch in the early 80’s. “Through friends I asked Lynch if he was interested in my co-operation,” Giger told Cinefantastique magazine. “I never heard from him. Later I came to know that he was upset because he thought we copied the chestburster in Alien from his monster baby in Eraserhead, which was not so. Ridley Scott and I hadn’t even seen that film at the time. If one film influenced Alien it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would have loved to collaborate with Lynch on Dune but apparently he wanted to do all the designs by himself.”

babe

The Eraserhead (1977) baby, a sickly, mewling creature, is similar to the chestburster in that they are embryonic, apparently serpentine, monsters, but Lynch’s baby frightens because of the juxtaposition between its humanity and inhumanity: it is frighteningly monstrous and yet helpless. The relationship between the viewer and the baby is one of unease, disgust, and pity. No such relationship exists between the creatures of Alien and the film’s viewers: the Alien is an interloper that uses human bodies both brutally and impersonally.

“People have asked [Lynch] about me,” said Giger, “but he isn’t really enthusiastic about my work. I’ve been told that he thinks we stole his Eraserhead baby for the Alien chestburster, but that’s not true. I told Ridley Scott that he should see the film, though he never did. David Lynch said that it was filmed exactly as his was, but it couldn’t have been because Ridley hadn’t seen it! Lynch talked like it was some sort of homage to his work … He doesn’t seem to want to be friendly to me, and I don’t know why.”

Ever gracious, Giger, who took every given opportunity to exalt Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, finished by saying: “I think he did a great job [with Dune]. I admire Lynch tremendously. I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers and I would very much like to work for him some time.”

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Crew Logs: Dan O’Bannon

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Tracing Alien to its origin leads us to many disparate and far-flung places: one is 1940’s Chur, where Hans Ruedi Giger is stumbling upon the museum mummies and dreaming the claustrophobic nightmares that would inspire his art. Another is Teesside, an English chemical and steel hub where the industrial landscape was being soaked up and stored in the imagination of a young boy called Ridley Scott. And another leads to the Ozarks of Southern Missouri, where Dan O’Bannon relegates himself to the back of a school bus with the tomes of HP Lovecraft on his knee and stacks of Weird Fantasy by his side. There are many people whose contribution to Alien is indispensable, but for now these three are the most central, recognisable and pertinent. As for Alien’s beginnings, they lie rooted, undoubtedly, in Dan O’Bannon — removing the film’s director or conceptual artists would have made for a very different movie, but without O’Bannon’s involvement there would have been no grand collaborative effort between this trio, no mind for the Alien to germinate and spring from, and no film at all.

Dan…

Daniel Thomas O’Bannon was born September 30th, 1946, in Shannon County, Missouri, to parents Thomas Sidney O’Bannon and Bertha Lowenthal O’Bannon. “I grew up in a small town in Missouri named Winona,” Dan told The Washington Post in 1979. “A dreadful place. We moved to St. Louis during my adolescence. That was even worse. If I had my finger on the button, the first place I’d blow up would be St. Louis. The whole medium of social interaction in St. Louis is games of humiliation. The ambience is depression, despair. For me the world is shaped like a funnel and St. Louis is at the bottom. It’s a fight to keep out of it.”

“My father was a carpenter with an IQ in the genius range,” he continued. “He was multi-talented in the arts, but he’d grown up too poor to be able to express himself. He always put people ahead of principles, but my mother was the reverse. She was physically violent. She’d throw me to the wolves for a principle.” Thomas O’Bannon kept a running journal (a habit that Dan would also pick up) that documented the formative years of his son’s life. Within its pages he recounts his son’s birth (Thomas checked his wife into hospital and passed the time seeing a Marx Bros. movie) as well as his flowering imagination:

“This morning we were discussing the green cheese and the man in the moon and kindred subjects. During the discussion the boy came up with the startling information that the man in the moon so loves green cheese (of which the moon is composed) that he eats up the whole moon every twenty-eight days or so and has to order a new one. So far as I know this little notion is original with him. He says he never heard it anywhere. Not bad, huh?”
~ Thomas O’Bannon, ‘The Book of Daniel’, excerpt from Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value.

Danny, as he was known at school, grew up without a television and with Hollywood itself seemingly “as remote as the moon”; the O’Bannons therefore entertained themselves by visiting the local cinema several times a week. “There was one theatre, and a drive-in outside of town,” Dan explained. “Movies were probably the single most important influence of my childhood; I loved them and wanted to make them, but I had no idea how one would go about getting to be a filmmaker.” Meanwhile, he busied his childhood with filmmaking games (his friends serving as stuntmen and actors) and scanning the night skies for UFOs. His father encouraged his wonder for the inexplicable, running a tourist trap outside Winona known locally as Odd Acres that sold magic tricks and promised alien sightings and other celestial phenomena. Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon told bloodsprayer.com that, “Odd Acres also included things like a stream of water that flowed uphill and an off-kilter room where you could have a picture of yourself taken standing at a gravity-defying angle.” One sign on the Odd Acres property read: ‘Impossible Hill! That strange place! You are tall. You are short. You can’t trust your eyes. And gravity goes crazy!’

In addition to running shop, Dan’s father also encouraged extracurricular mischievousness. “He also helped his father fake UFO landing sites on their acreage and watched as his father took UFO believers and the press around and told them about the landing he had witnessed!” (apparently, a Tom O’Bannon is listed as the witness of a 1957 UFO sighting in Winona, MO — the UFO was revealed to be a chicken brooder. The photograph can be seen in the publication Man-made UFOs 1944-1994.) In other photographs displayed at the Shannon County genealogical website a young Dan can be seen grinning as he seemingly suspends from a ‘gravity-defying angle’ and Bertha O’Bannon’s legs magically depart her torso.

The O'Bannon's at Odd Acres.

The O’Bannon’s at Odd Acres.

Even from a young age Dan was discerning what did and didn’t work for him concerning the horror and sci-fi films that revolved through the local drive-in and theatre. One thing that turned him off was incessant gore and scenes of pointless torture. “There was a lousy, crummy little film called Horrors Of The Black Museum,” he said in 2007, “whose high point was a pair of binoculars that shoved needles into someone’s eyes. I saw that as a kid and I just found it sort of disturbing in the wrong way, just disgusting and unpleasant. You can divide horror movies into two general categories: sadistic or masochistic. In the sadistic films they invite you to enjoy the mutilation and to empathise with the monster. In the masochistic film you are invited to empathise with the victim, and to not like mutilation. Well, I make masochistic horror films.” In addition to critique, he was soaking up whatever he could from the great filmmakers of the 40’s and 50’s. “[Filmmakers] these days [have] the monster doing terrifying things, but there ends up being too much of it,” he explained. “The terror still comes from the ‘in between.’ [Howard] Hawks obviously understood the whole idea of the ‘Terror in Between’, because the creepiest moments of [The Thing From Another World] arose from the interaction of characters between appearances of the monster. You weren’t sure of what the people trapped in that camp would do to each other when faced by the threat from outside.”

Other influences were literary. Specifically, pulp literature and comics. At twelve, Dan came across an anthology of horror tales (“Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Groff Conklin,” he recalled) that included HP Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, and a lifelong obsession with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic horror took root. “I stayed up all night reading the thing, and it just knocked my socks off,” he later enthused. “One of the elements in the story is of course, vegetation growing out of season, and when I read it , it was mid-winter and we were living down in the Ozarks. Next day when I got out, the whole ground was covered in snow, and when I went out to look around, I found a single rose growing up through the snow, and it really spooked me, ‘Oh my god.'”

His adoration for Lovecraft would find its ultimate expression in Alien which, as he expressed in his essay ‘Something Perfectly Disgusting’, “Went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones’ home world, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth”; but, for now, he contented to dream about being a filmmaker, an actor, or an artist. He would later comment that exerting his creative energies by writing helped him process feelings of anger about his surroundings: his mother was allegedly harsh, and school became unbearable when the affable, playful Dan felt the spotlight suddenly turn against him in a dreadful epiphanic moment. “I could always make people laugh, in high school,” he told The Washington Post. “Then I began to discover that people were laughing at me rather than with me. I got angry. That anger has accelerated. I used to make a lot of jokes, I could stand up on a stage and make people laugh. But I mistook the laughing for people liking me, and I began to get angry … All through my childhood and my teens I was constantly picked on, attacked, assaulted.”

Despite these struggles, O’Bannon was averse to retorting with violence: when a classmate smeared shaving foam in his eyes he gave chase, held him against a locker, but was unable to bring himself to physically strike the bully; years later, an angry girlfriend would point a gun at him (“a .22 Colt varmint pistol”) but all he could do was disarm her and then beat himself with his fists. “I abhor violence,” he explained in ’79. “I don’t think I could portray it if I didn’t abhor it so much.”

The great turning point was 10th grade, I’ll never forget it. I was sitting at a play rehearsal, and I asked an upperclassman why I didn’t have more friends. He said, “If people don’t like me, fuck ’em.” That’s when it began. I went home to think about that. Fuck ’em.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, The Washington Post, 1979.

As a young man Dan enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, the school of fine arts, where he studied with the intention “to be the next Norman Rockwell”, an artist famed for his depictions of American domestic scenes: cozy grandmothers, slumbering mutts, apple-cheeked Boy Scouts and the like. “I soon learned that the world only needed one Norman Rockwell,” he realised, “so I decided to try for the movies.” He enrolled at the University of South California film department, typically acronymised as USC, in 1968.

… Dark Star…

USC at the time was a hotbed of ambitious young would-be filmmakers including, among others, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and George Lucas, “who was a year ahead of me and therefore not of my tribe.” Francis Ford Coppola had graduated before O’Bannon’s enrolment, and Steven Spielberg had been rejected admission for poor grades, but graduates tended to hang around after completing their studies (usually to capitalise on the filming equipment and eager volunteers) and they brought similarly talented friends into USC’s orbit, which all coalesced to create an energetic environment that was spilling out as one contributory arm of what would be called ‘New Hollywood’ — it was a revolutionary movement in American cinema, and O’Bannon was in the thick of it. “[W]hen I was studying there the auteur theory was the big thing – the director has to do it all. And I believed them, and in fact I taught myself how to do every job on a movie.” His first student films included 1968’s ‘Good Morning Dan’ (“Set in the then distant future of 2006, an old man reminisces on his days at USC”) and 1969’s ‘Bloodbath’ (“A slovenly young man commits suicide out of curiosity and boredom”); the latter film was shown in a class that included student John Carpenter, who decided to seek out and befriend O’Bannon — the two had already worked together on ‘Good Morning Dan’, on which Carpenter operated the camera, but it was O’Bannon’s later project that compelled Carpenter to strike up a creative relationship.

Carpenter, like Dan, had been exposed to science fiction and horror films as a kid, visiting the cinema to check out the latest in the big wave of monster movies that were besieging the screens throughout the 1950’s. Later, his enrolment at USC would further expand his interest and awe. “We had directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford come down and lecture us,” Carpenter told Deadline in 2014. “It was unbelievable! Roman Polanski was there with his bride, Sharon Tate, in 1968, with Fearless Vampire Killers. To sit and listen to Orson Welles … man, oh, man.”

Dan also found the frequent celebrity drop-ins to USC useful, passing his first script, a Western titled ‘The Devil in Mexico’ (which centred around “the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce into Mexico during the Revolution of 1917”) into Welles’ possession. “I had in mind it would be directed by David Lean,” Dan reminisced. “Orson Welles did see it, liked it, and passed it around, but nothing came of it.” William Froug, a TV writer and producer whose credits included The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island, also met O’Bannon on campus when the young student was passing out copies of his script. “One morning after my USC class was over, one of my students approached me,” he wrote. “Thin, emaciated, skin too pale, he looked like death lurking. He said his name was Dan O’Bannon. His cheeks were sunken, color pallid, his eyes dull. He handed me a screenplay and asked if I would read it.” The screenplay was, again, ‘The Devil in Mexico’. Froug suggested changes and O’Bannon agreed. Froug spent some time reworking and trying to sell the script, but, according to his autobiography, it was quickly picked up by Peter Ustinov, who claimed it as his own, and the film was never made. Still, O’Bannon remained friendly with his former tutor and managed to pay direct homage to him in Dark Star, when his character Sgt. Pinback draws up to the camera and says, “I should tell you my name is not really Sgt. Pinback, my name is Bill Froug.”

In August 1970 Dan met John Carpenter for dinner at the International House of Pancakes on Jefferson Boulevard, just across from USC’s cinema complex. “John told me that he wanted me to act in his graduate 580 project,” Dan explained. “It was to be a science fiction film called ‘The Electric Dutchman’, about four seedy astronauts in a small spaceship who are bombing a sun that is about to go supernova … It was to be twenty minutes long, in black-and-white.” Dan, whose interest in science-fiction had lapsed during his time at Washington University (“I let that kind of fall by the wayside. I was interested in experiencing a ‘real life’”) now jumped at the opportunity: “I said, not only did I want to act in it, I wanted to help him with a lot of other things, like the script and special effects. He accepted, and we embarked.” He now had a project, a collaborator, and a forte. After all, he knew the science-fiction genre “Like the back of my hand.”

In addition to finding a use for his repository of science-fiction know-how, Dan was also happy to get in front of the camera as a performer. “I’d always acted from childhood on,” he told Den of Geek in 2007, “and I was always in theatrical productions at school and then college. It was an obvious thing to do in Dark Star. Since we weren’t paying anybody, the other actors were unreliable in terms of showing up. And I was there and so I acted in the thing.” Dan had also performed in several student films, playing a proto-Michael Myers in Terence Winkless (who later penned The Howling) and Alec Lorimore’s 1971’s Judson’s Release (“A young man returns to a small town and begins to torment a girl who is babysitting a little boy”), a small feature that apparently presaged Halloween. Decades later Carpenter, when told that Dan had once joked about giving up writing to pursue the easier task of acting, replied with earnest that, “O’Bannon’s actually a very good actor. He should pursue it, he could be really good.”

Trouble arose when Dan’s parents decided to cut him off financially and told him to return to Missouri. To keep him in L.A. Carpenter invited the penniless Dan to move into his apartment, and it was there that they bashed ‘The Electric Dutchman’ into shape. Dan had a few ideas to contribute: a cryogenically frozen Captain was one, as was the star-struck Talby’s obsession with the mythical Phoenix Asteroids and the sentient and argumentative bomb from the film’s closing moments. “The way we wrote together was: We would go off separately and write the scenes we liked best, and then John would assemble all the material into its final form.” For his part, Carpenter found his new partner’s input indispensable. “Dan contributed mightily to the tone of the film; many of the funniest moments are his ideas.” They also settled on a new title for their movie: ‘Planetfall’.

The two began searching for a crew to help bring their film together. “I composed the score for my first film Dark Star because I was cheap and fast,” Carpenter told thequietus.com in 2012. “I talked to a couple of other composers but they all seemed weird. One guy had glitter all over him. Not that wearing glitter is a bad thing… it just didn’t inspire confidence.” Though O’Bannon was a confident DIY effects man, he sought greater artistic talents to design the spaceship needed for their movie. For this, he sought cartoonist Ron Cobb, whose bitingly satirical strips for the Los Angeles Free Press had found cult appeal, having been reproduced in counterculture magazines and papers like the Underground Press Syndicate, and who had recently turned to drawing up frightening lizardmen and two-headed golems for magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Casting the film with friends and building the sets themselves, Dark Star was completed as a short but expanded into a feature length film. “We were approached by a friend of ours named Jonathan Kaplan, who subsequently produced most of John Carpenter’s movies,” O’Bannon explained. “He was also in film school then and had a somewhat wealthy family, and he said that he would put in some additional money if we would expand it to feature length.” New scenes included some mania with an alien (in reality, a beachball) in addition to other ancillary material that padded out the length. Unfortunately, the extra expense and effort seemed for naught: when the film was released Carpenter and O’Bannon drove to a theatre and asked the manager if they could observe the audience. The manager replied: “What audience? There’s eight people in there.”

Of his Dark Star days, Carpenter told esquire.com in 2014 that “I was a punk. I didn’t know anything. I thought I did, but I didn’t. That was a baptism of fire, of sorts […] Back in those days I didn’t know anything. We thought we were hot shit, but we weren’t. We were sadly mistaken. I remember getting my first bad review on that film. I’ve had many since, but that was the first one. It was so shocking. That shows how naive I was then […] They said something like, ‘It betrays its dingy origin.’ I remember that line. I thought, Really? Jeez, man.

In 2014 Carpenter told Deadline.com that, “After my first film, Dark Star, I expected the movie industry as a whole to greet me as a savior, pick me up in a limo and take me to a soundstage and anoint me as a director. That didn’t happen. I got an agent out of the first screening of Dark Star, and he said to me, ‘What you need to do is write your way into this business.’ So I started churning out ideas and writing screenplays.” But amid the ego-busting was a silver lining: “Dan O’Bannon and I were almost blinded at the time,” Carpenter told rollingstone.de. “We thought everything was quite simple, and we made a great feature film. Thank God, because if we had not indulged in this illusion, then we would have also failed in the film business.”

That audiences -whenever they actually gathered- did not laugh at the film’s jokes perturbed O’Bannon, who, in his despondency and dissatisfaction with how Dark Star turned out, decided to take the same premise -a beleaguered and bickering space crew, the meniality of interstellar life, an alien intruder, etc- and infuse it with scares rather than laughs. He had already started preliminary note-taking for Alien in 1972, apparently anticipating at the time that Dark Star would not satisfy him. Other creators would look on Dark Star as a sort of unmined resource. Red Dwarf co-creator Doug Naylor commented that it was a viewing of O’Bannon’s film that spurred the idea of a dingy space comedy. “We’d seen Dark Star,” Naylor told  Starburst magazine, “I remember remarking to Rob [Grant, co-creator] at the time that I couldn’t believe no-one had done a sitcom like that because it seemed like such a good thing to do. So it was the old memory of Dark Star.”

While Dan was at least encouraged by Dark Star enough to revisit and remold it into Alien, Carpenter, for his part, was so disappointed that he abandoned its premise altogether. “I don’t think I ever want to get near that idea again” he told CraveOnline.co.uk in 2013. “Oh brother, once was enough.”

…and Dune

Dark Star’s greatest legacy wasn’t its lacklustre release and reception, or even its modern popularity (it remains firmly cult) but how it engendered Dan’s fruitful artistic collaborations with Ron Shusett, with whom he would write both Alien and Total Recall. Shusett told midniteticket.com that, “When I saw [Dark Star] I said, ‘Wow, I should be working with this guy’. I hadn’t made any movies and I had been struggling for four or five years at that point.” Shusett tracked O’Bannon down, finding him living in an attic at USC, and the two agreed to work, firstly on Dan’s own project, Star Beast, later titled Alien, before tackling Total Recall, which Shusett had optioned and brought to the table.

The process of scripting the film has been covered extensively in Writing Alien, but in brief before it was finished Dan was contacted by Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had seen Dark Star and, impressed by O’Bannon’s ability to multi-task and concoct low-fi visuals, decided to hire him to take charge of the special effects on his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s opus, Dune. O’Bannon accepted, and set off for Paris.

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O’Bannon’s time in Paris introduced him not only to Swiss artist HR Giger but also to English artist Chris Foss and French comic artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, all of whom would later work on Alien. In HR Giger Dan found an utterly unique artistic sensibility that, he reckoned, if brought to the cinema could be transformative. And in Moebius he found another collaborator with whom he would, with no inkling at the time, influence science-fiction for decades to come. “After a while [Moebius] got tired of me looking over his shoulder,” explained Dan, who had been impressed by the talents Jodorowsky had managed to summon for the film, “so he asked me to go and write him a comic-book story, a graphic story that he could publish in his magazine, Metal Hurlant.” The strip that he concocted he called The Long Tomorrow. “It was of course a film noir in the future. I didn’t think about it for many months until an American publisher decided to publish Metal Hurlant in an English-language edition, and call it Heavy Metal.”

“Dan came to Paris. Bearded, dressed in a wild style, the typical Californian post-hippie. His real work would begin at the time of shooting, on the models, on the hardware props. As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of The Long Tomorrow. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic.”
~ Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, The Long Tomorrow introduction.

Dan had originally drawn The Long Tomorrow himself, but Moebius, impressed, asked for free rein to redesign the strip. “I scrupulously followed Dan’s story,” said Moebius, though he admired Dan’s artwork enough that he claimed, “One day I wish we could publish our two versions side by side. As the strip has pleased everyone, I asked Dan about a sequel, but it did not get his attention, so was simply an adventure I never designed.” Their work, initiated as a distraction, would become the visual inspiration for later landmark science-fiction movies and comics, including Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and some have pointed to what looks like the imperial probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back tucked away within The Long Tomorrow as well. The most obvious and touted influence is 1982’s Blade Runner. Indeed, Ridley told Film Comment journalist Harlan Kennedy in 1982, “My concept of Blade Runner linked up to a comic strip I’d seen [Moebius] do a long time ago. It was called The Long Tomorrow, and I think Dan O’Bannon wrote it.” Ridley again mined The Long Tomorrow for imagery in 2012’s Prometheus and an alien from the comic known as an Arcturian may have informed a gag in Aliens.

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“It’s entirely fair to say,” stated Gibson, “and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel ‘looks’ was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk’.” Dan commented on The Long Tomorrow‘s influence in a 2007 documentary on Jean Giraud. “Ridley kind of did an unauthorised borrowing of that city for Blade Runner, and he’s right – it does make a good image!” Moebius himself was asked to contribute to the film, but couldn’t, stating that he is “very happy, touched even, that my collaboration with Dan became one of the visual references of the film.”

Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart before production could begin, with Jodorowsky blaming American theatre managers who balked at the thought of a European film sharing as many screens as an American one, and Chris Foss elaborating that the French production company pulled funding after it became apparent that American co-financers were not likely to be found after failed attempts by Jodorowsky to procure them. The budget was already extraordinary, the imaginations of the filmmakers seemed beyond reining in, and Camera One lost the nerve to bankroll the project. Dune would later find its way to the screens in 1984 under the auspices of David Lynch; though he succeeded in making the movie, Lynch would write it off as a failure, as did audiences and critics. But the Dune days, though they seemed like yet another stumbling block, would turn out, as Dark Star did, to be a stepping stone for greater opportunities. Upon returning to the United States O’Bannon found himself broke and living on Ron Shusett’s couch, but a phonecall from Gary Kurtz, who was producing Star Wars, gave him enough money to rent his own apartment. Kurtz had been impressed by O’Bannon’s whizz-kiddery on Dark Star (which included what is cited to be the first ‘hyperspace’ effect as the stars rush past a spaceship entering lightspeed) and had wanted him to come aboard Star Wars earlier, but Dan had already committed himself to Dune. “Kurtz called me again and said, ‘Well, Star Wars is just about finished, but we still need some people to do special effects work, to do clean-up. Are you interested?’ Since that time I was absolutely flat-broke, I was very interested. So I went to work on Star Wars for a few months doing computer graphics.”

Eventually, Dan and Shusett managed to finish the Alien screenplay and brought it to Roger Corman, who offered to finance the project. “Everybody would think a goddamn lizard coming out of somebody’s chest is nuts,” said Shusett. “Corman said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you $750,000 to do it right now.’ Right before we signed the contract we accidentally got the movie from Fox, which was the first studio we showed it to. Corman was fine, he said, ‘God bless you! If you can do it on a big budget. It will be someone else I’ve discovered. Dan and Ron. I don’t resent you.’ It did turn out to have a huge impact on cinema and we were ready to do it for $750,000.”

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Alien had been brought to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox by Brandywine producers Walter Hill and David Giler. The duo rewrote the original script, changing the names and removing the alien elements, all in an effort to craft a visceral, stripped down space thriller. The pyramids, alien hieroglyphs and civilisations were, Hill thought, too hokey, too von Däniken. They excised these elements and their redraft saw Fox greenlight the film. O’Bannon was hired as a ‘visual design consultant’ for the film, a position that Giler mocked but which paid dividends for the production: O’Bannon was able to insist that Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and HR Giger be hired to design the film’s environments, characters and creatures. Moebius would later briefly join at director Ridley Scott’s behest. The studio happily accepted Cobb and Foss, but balked at Giger’s artwork. O’Bannon had already taken the initiative to pay Giger for some conceptual designs, but the Swiss artist would not be formally hired -or it seems, accepted- by the studio until Ridley Scott came aboard and Dan rushed to show him Giger’s work. “He’s great,” Scott said of O’Bannon in Fantastic Films. “A really sweet guy. And, I was soon to realise, a real science-fiction freak … He brought in a book by the Swiss artist HR Giger. It’s called Necronomicon … I thought, ‘If we can build that, that’s it.’ I was stunned, really. I flipped. Literally flipped. And O’Bannon lit up like a lightbulb, shining like a quartz iodine. I realised I was dealing with a real SF freak, which I’d never come across before. I thought, ‘My god, I have an egg-head here for this field.’”

Not only did O’Bannon introduce Ridley to the artwork of HR Giger, but he also, according to Cobb, rewrote much of the script on the set. The initial pre-production rewrites by Walter Hill and David Giler removed many of the elements from Dan’s script that wound up in the film, such as the Space Jockey (a human pilot in their version), the alien pyramid and egg silo (government installations in their version; combined wth the derelict craft in the film) and the Alien was retooled as an experimental biological weapon. Other purported rewrites were bizarre, pitting the Alien against a variety of historical figures. “I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere,” said Cobb, “because of what [Giler and Hill] did with the rewriting. It’s terrible, sloppy revisions, some of them pointless. It was very difficult for Dan to tighten the thing back up to keep it consistent and have it make sense.” Both Shusett and O’Bannon were alarmed at the content of the rewrites, but had little to no say on such issues, so, they took the original draft to Ridley himself. Of that attempt, Shusett said, “Ridley read [the original script] and went, ‘Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.’”

Once the film was in production at Pinewood Studios O’Bannon revealed that David Giler “left for mysterious reasons”, apparently having left script rewrites unfinished and, since Walter Hill had stayed in the States, left the film with no on-set writer to untangle any problems with the script, which was in a state of fluctuation due to time and budget concerns. “And finally at the last minute,” said O’Bannon, “I saw that everyone, including Ridley, was so fed up with Giler and Hill’s failure to make any of the promised revisions that they said they were gonna make, that a little sliver of opportunity was created. I was standing there, I said, ‘You know, I’ll fix it if you’ll let me.’ [So] there were two weeks of frantic mutual work between all of us, trying to put the script into a shape that they liked. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80% of the what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.” Cobb told Starburst magazine at the time that, “The whole film is in a constant state of flux. Script revisions are going on every day. Things that haven’t been shot are still being rewritten and that’s why Dan is feeling better, because he and Ron Shusett are having substantial input into these last minute script changes. They’re fixing it quite well, strengthening it considerably.”

Years later Cobb would add that, “The final film is not the film that Dan and I would have made, or Dan, Giger, and I or Ron Shusett. It’s not exactly that film, but it is close enough to Dan and Ron’s. They stayed there and fought for it inch by inch, day by day to keep it from going too far from the original concept.”

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A 1979 Washington Post interview found O’Bannon pained but gleeful that Alien had shocked audiences so thoroughly — “O’Bannon meant the movie as an ‘attack’ on the audience,” it read. “He wanted to ‘get even,’ he says, for the way they scorned him for his first movie, Dark Star. He wanted to ‘beat the stuffing’ out of us, he says. He means it.”

The aftermath of Alien’s release saw Dan cut a solitary, frustrated figure in the media. His propensity to say what he thought, belligerently if need be, alienated him from many in Hollywood. “I’m used to being alone now,” he told The Washington Post. He also added that despite managing to turn one failure around into a bona fide success by coming at it from a different angle, Dark Star was still “a trauma from which I have yet to recover.”

More concerning was his health: journalists and filmmaking friends occasionally detailed Dan’s struggle with what was eventually revealed to be Crohn’s Disease, for which he underwent extensive surgeries and periods of convalescence. For many years he suffered with no diagnosis or alleviating treatment. “O’Bannon explained that he suffered from a rare disease that produces severe abdominal inflammation and accompanying pain,” noted his former tutor, William Froug. “Doctors had told him it was inflammatory bowel syndrome, and it was genetic … For O’Bannon, poverty and pain were nuisances he would endure as the price of success. ‘Every dime I can scrape together goes to pay doctors,’ he told me with some bitterness.”Jason Zinoman writes in Shock Value that Dan’s doctors convinced him his bouts of agony were due to appendicitis, but a subsequent surgery didn’t stop the pain. “It wasn’t diagnosed correctly until 1980,” Zinoman writes, “but for years the incurable condition disrupted the normal process of digestion, inflaming his bowels, shortening his gut, cutting off the transit of food through his belly.”

Chris Foss likewise related to Den of Geek that Dan had suffered a particularly agonising incident after eating junk food, but he also added that O’Bannon , as he had with his everyday frustrations, managed to derive some creative output from his painful experiences. “Long before he came to Paris,” Foss said, “he ate some fast food and woke up in the night in incredible pain and actually had to be taken to hospital; and he imagined that there was a ‘beast’ inside him. And that was exactly where [the chestburster] came from.” HR Giger corroborated this in an 1999 interview, saying, “Dan O’Bannon, when he was writing the script, had a stomach pain and he wanted the pain to go away and came up with the idea of the pain leaving through the stomach, so he invented that.” According to The New York Times, O’Bannon also told them: “The idea for the monster in Alien originally came from a stomach-ache I had.” Much of his initial wages from Twentieth Century Fox was used up paying off his medical expenses. “I’d been under much stress and other problems plus not taking care of myself,” he said, “that I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year, I was in and out of the hospital.”

Alien’s production had provided a brief respite; O’Bannon suffered little ill-health during his time in England, having been invigorated by the process of making a film that he himself had imagined. “I was stricken with a debilitating stomach disease still undiagnosed and spent most of ’77 in hospital making decisions by phone,” he told Media Scene in ’79. “So I was feeling really miserable and in intense pain when Gordon Carroll called up and says, ‘We’re all going to London to make Alien. Let’s go!’ I groaned and bitched, but everybody persuaded me I’d better do it. I’d already spent thousands of dollars from my Alien option and preliminary money on medical bills, and it looked like I’d need more, so I went to England. Lo and behold, in the process of working, I made what appears to be a complete recovery. It was the first time I’d felt normal in better than a year.” In the time between the film’s completion and release O’Bannon revealed that loneliness, dissatisfaction, and possibly the pain of his stomach ailment sent him somewhat off the track. “Sometimes, I like to get totally stoned out of my mind,” he said. “Liquor, marijuana, everything. Just get completely stoned, and go to some sleazy strip joint and spend all night watching the girls dance.”

“So he’s rich. Famous. Vindicated. If it weren’t for his stomach attacks, he might get his first shot at happiness; but they started coming on during the last year of work in the movie, incredible gut pain and nausea that the doctors, after endless scans and probes, found no cause for, whatsoever. The only cure is to shoot him full of Demerol and feed him intravenously. He just got out of the hospital a few weeks ago after one bout, but his worst attack came during the sneak-previews – one of the preview cities being his hometown of St. Louis, ironically enough.”
~ Henry Allen, The Washington Post, July 29th 1979.

During his interview journalist Henry Allen noticed that O’Bannon sat with his trousers unzipped; this was to ease the pain he felt from doubling over or sitting in a prone position. When Froug interviewed Dan for his 1991 book The New Screenwriter Looks at The New Screenwriter, he noted that he was “hooked up to a morphine drip while agitatedly pacing his UCLA hospital room.” But despite the agony, O’Bannon kept busy, all the whole plotting his next script. “O’Bannon continued to write,” said Froug. “Writers write because they can’t not write, they don’t waste time thinking about what sold or what didn’t. Regardless of the outcome, they put the seat of their pants back down on the seat of the chair and keep writing.”

His struggles with Crohn’s made travel difficult; stress only exacerbated his condition, and assuming the mantle of director in such straits would have been to invite tremendous physical agony and humiliation. In the 1980’s British journalist Neil Norman interviewed him and related that “Dan O”Bannon is a sick man. Shortly after my visit he had a date with a surgeon who was going to remove a large section of his bowels. Drawn and grey with pain, he was describing in minute detail the plot of his next film to someone on the other end of his radio telephone.” But the 1980’s also saw Dan find equilibrium in his personal life, marrying his wife Diane in 1986 after first meeting at USC back in 1971. “Dan was too wild for me in the early days,” Diane said of their early years, “and he was completely focused on his career. By the time he had directed Return of the Living Dead he’d calmed down a bit so when he asked me to marry him I said yes.” His resolve to work, to exert and express himself creatively, never waned. “I’m not tough,” he told The Face in 1986. “God did not mean for me to be a physical man of iron. He meant for me to be a mind. Anything I do in life is a compromise because whatever I do that I like, there will be something about me that makes it difficult. My health problems do not affect my ability to work. No matter how much pain I’m in it never stops me writing and it never affects the quality of my work. Part of this is because writing is a narcotic. When I don’t feel well, it is a way to escape from the pain.”

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Starlog magazine, 1983.

“I may write another script, to direct myself,” he had told Fantastic Films in ’79, “but I’m never going to get into hassle I got into Alien.” Despite this disavowal, and despite his misgivings about sequels, O’Bannon would further cement his cult success when he directed 1985’s ‘off-shoot sequel’ The Return of the Living Dead; the producers, for legal reasons, encouraged him to make it as different from George Romero’s original Dead films as he could. O’Bannon gave the film a comedic tone that distanced it from the doomy atmosphere of the original Dead films and introduced zombies that hungered for brains and ran after their victims instead of shambling, decades before Danny Boyle and Zack Snyder featured similarly athletic zombies in 28 Days Later (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) respectively. “I was watching TV and there’s some young director who has done a zombie movie very recently,” Dan told Den of Geek in 2007, “he was congratulating himself on inventing the idea of swiftly-moving zombies. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, I guess he’s never seen Return Of The Living Dead.’ Apparently we both invented it.”

The long-gestating Total Recall, released in 1990, some fourteen years after its writers first met (Ron Cobb was also involved) would not be the last film that Dan contributed to, but it certainly topped off his achievements with aplomb; the film was critically and commercially successful, is considered one of Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarznegger’s best films, and is, perhaps appropriately, thought of as one of the last of its kind –a science-fiction action spectacle with brain, brawn, and the last to use many ‘extinct’ practical effects and one of the first to utilise many digital effects that are common today.

Dan O’Bannon’s fascination with the macabre may be said to have originated in his discovery of Lovecraft -his sense of wonder and love of science fiction seem to have already been there, instilled in him by his father- and the story which ignited his fascination, The Colour Out of Space, certainly stuck with him. HR Giger told Cinefantastique in 1988 that Dan kept “telling me he would like to do Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space with me as soon as he’s able to raise the necessary funds. That could be interesting because he’s definitely one of the greatest Lovecraft experts around.” Unfortunately, the passion project never materialised. John Carpenter likewise had trouble selling the idea. “I tried to pitch an NBC mini-series, The Colour Out of Space, and they didn’t really care,” he told denofgeek.com in 2008. “They’d read it and say, ‘What is this shit?’ They don’t get it. They don’t dig it.” Despite Lovecraft’s immense influence on filmmakers, Carpenter opined to CraveOnline.co.uk in 2013 that “There really hasn’t been a good Lovecraft movie. Well, mine [Mouth of Madness], but that wasn’t really picked up.” In summer 2009 Dan recieved the Howie Award, presented “for his lifelong promotion of the work and themes of writer HP Lovecraft.”

Dan O’Bannon passed away December 17th, 2009, after a prolonged struggle with Crohn’s Disease. For much of his life his forthrightness and unapologetic honesty rubbed many the wrong way and reduced many bridges to smoke and rubble, and though he was not a familiar name like Spielberg or Lucas, his death prompted odes from science-fiction and horror fans and outlets who testified to his work and efforts on Dark Star, the aborted Dune, Star Wars, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall. “Jason Zinoman,” says Diane O’Bannon, “who interviewed Dan for Jason’s upcoming book ‘The Monster Problem,’ told me after he died that Dan had said to him ‘my wife understands me.’ I think that is the greatest compliment a wife can hear.”

“I would say Dan O’Bannon is probably one of the most important and most overlooked individuals, especially in horror, but in movies in general,” says Dino Everett, the archivist at USC who uncovered many of O’Bannon’s student films. “From the research I did compiling this project I soon learned that O’Bannon was this unsung hero, not only of modern horror, but also for his time here at USC. His work here in the 1960’s was really quite advanced and ahead of its time compared to many of his classmates, and he seemed to not only be a jack of all trades, such as writer, director, actor, makeup and effects, but also seemed to be a one man creativity catalyst contributing often to his fellow classmates’ projects.

The other thing I learned through all of this was that he was a fiercely loyal individual and showed a caring side that many might not suspect. In the 1990’s an old classmate of Carpenter and O’Bannon’s named Charles Adair (who made the zombie film The Demon, included in this project) was in failing health and in need of funds for his medical bills. O’Bannon co-wrote a script with Adair for a horror project called Bleeders (1997) and gave Adair all of the profits made from the writing job to help with the bills.”

Matt Lohr, who helped shepherd Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure to print in 2012, said of his mentor, “I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning Avatar came out. Several months later, Avatar went on to become a Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards. If there was no Dan O’Bannon, or people like Dan, then Avatar wouldn’t get nominated at the Academy Awards. Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it. He elevated it in the eyes of others so they could say, ‘Yes, this movie has spaceships, monsters, and aliens, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year.’ And Dan’s one of the reasons we have that.”

See also: Interview with Dan O’Bannon

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Alien Seed: Event Horizon

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“I’ve been waiting to do a movie with Aliens in it since I was at school, since the first Alien movie came out, since I fell in love with Sigourney Weaver and since the Alien scared the hell out of me. I’ve been obsessed with Aliens for a while.”
Paul Anderson, Joblo, 2002.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) has attained a sort of cult appeal since its release; not the laudatory reappraisial that gradually saw films like 2001 and Blade Runner overcome their initial middling reviews and become certified classics, nor the kind that catapulted The Rocky Horror Picture Show into the midnight movie pantheon, nor even the slow rehabilitation that Alien 3 seems to be undergoing, yet it’s critical consensus among horror and sci-fi fans has become somewhat respectable.

Much of Event Horizon’s appeal, even its most ardent fans will admit, lies in what it liberally borrows from other movies — the story cribs from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and its imagery and even some dialogue derive from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). There are entire shots lifted directly from Alien, The Shining, and Stargate. The film’s flashlights emulate the look of the Alien derelict’s laser ‘net’; the Gravity Drive even feels, not to its detriment, like Event Horizon’s very own Space Jockey chamber set-piece. Not to mention a variety of production similarities: the film’s cinematographer, Adrian Biddle, started out as a focus puller for Alien before serving as Aliens’ cinematographer after a recommendation from Ridley Scott, leading to his turn on Anderson’s film. Like Alien and Outland before it, there was also gender-swapping between a male to a female character: “I’ve always tried to put strong women in my movies,” Anderson told Collider in 2008. “Actually, in Event Horizon, Jolie Richardson’s character, I think, was originally written as a man and then we retooled that character so she could play it.” Alien and Alien 3 editor Terry Rawlings even contributed, providing the cut between Sam Neill’s character shaving and the window blinds snapping open at the beginning of the movie. Production designer Joseph Bennet referred to the film as “an Alien film without the Alien.”

When designing the Event Horizon ship itself, models designer David Sharpe explained that “What we did was to scan elements of Notre Dame Cathedral into the computer, so the thruster pods at the side were actually towers from Notre Dame … when you pull back, you see the crucifix hanging above Neptune.” Likewise, Alien conceptual artist Ron Cobb explained that “Ridley saw the [Nostromo] very much as a metaphor for a Gothic castle, or a WWII submarine.” Ridley himself commented that he had drawn the Nostromo’s rig with “the vague idea that it would resemble a floating inverted cathedral.” Event Horizon‘s filmmakers were not shy about the aesthetic similarities between their film and Scott’s: the DVD commentary features producer Jeremy Bolt observing his film’s ship and commenting, “It’s not completely pristine, it’s kinda like the ship in Alien,” with Anderson also admitting that “Yeah, we were obviously very influenced by the look of the Nostromo when it came to designing this, you know, like that grubby realistic view of the future.”

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“If you’re going into outer space you’ve got to have a very specific, exciting design concept. You can’t be sub-standard Alien or sub-standard Blade Runner.”
~ Paul W.S. Anderson.

However, there was an effort on the part of the filmmakers to acknowledge Alien’s influence on their film but also to delineate the differences between them. Anderson instead stressed its relation to Tarkovsy’s Solaris. “I love movies like Solaris, the original Solaris,” he told Grantland in 2014, “the script clearly draws from [it]. Those kind of meditative European films that are unsettling, but don’t really play to a modern audience. By adding that kind of visceral thrill, that’s making it my own.” Anderson also spoke about Tarkovsky’s film with Starlog back in 1997, saying, “If you took Solaris and turned it into an American action movie, you may end up with Event Horizon. There are many similarities between these two films, but we’re not three and a half hours long and we have much better FX.” He was also eager to promote the film as an ode to Kubrick’s The Shining. “It’s like The Shining in space,” he is quoted in ‘The Complete Kubrick’. “But instead of the Overlook Hotel, we have the Event Horizon.”

Anderson also explained that his film’s threat was, unlike Alien’s, supernatural as well as psychological – the evil didn’t exist as a concrete physical entity, but rather emanated from the Gravity Drive to possess the ship. According to the director, Event Horizon’s shell was admittedly very Alien, but the engine was more akin to classic haunting movies. “For me, what makes the movie really original is that you’re expecting another monster movie,” Anderson told Starlog in 1997, “another variation of Alien, and that’s not what you get at all. Instead, you get a very scary psychological horror movie.”

The film’s original screenwriter, Philip Eisner, also intended for the film to be a homage to older haunted house films, rather than a direct derivation of Alien. “When I came up with the idea for Event Horizon, I was inspired by The Haunting, The Shining, and The Abyss,” Eisner is quoted in ‘Cool Million: How to Become a Million-Dollar Screenwriter’. Inspired by Michael Biehn’s turn as Lt. Coffey in Cameron’s claustrophobc underwater thriller, Eisner decided to transpose the action into the orbit of Neptune. Biehn’s character also informed Dr. Weir’s steady corruption. “I was fascinated by a character who was going insane in a hostile environment. And he wasn’t evil, he was a good guy.”

Event Horizon is a film that frightened me when I first saw it in the late nineties but whose effect has diminished with every rewatch – what is most frustrating about it is a frustration that I share with Anderson himself – they both have potential that is quickly squandered: Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) is still a great piece of work: not that the videogame called for an adaptation that was anything greater than Bloodsport (1988) or the like, but he managed to nail the Kung Fu cheese of the source material without almost capsizing the whole project as he would with the many Resident Evil films. There isn’t much else in Anderson’s body of work to cherish, but despite my antipathy for, say, Alien vs. Predator, that film still manages to showcase Anderson’s knack for a great shot — the opening moments, featuring a satellite that could be mistaken for the silhoutte of an Alien Queen, impresses me every time I see it.

Likewise, Event Horizon has great leads, great production design, a surprising fidelity to model work despite some shoddy (by today’s standards) CG, but an at-times utterly mismatched score or tone, telegraphed jump scares and an inability to transform its influences into something greater (for example, Alien itself borrowed much of its plot and set-pieces from older B-movies, as did genre classics like Star Wars.) While the supporting cast is good, Richard T. Jones’ character merely exists to yelp comically and he Wayanses his performance during the tenser moments of the film, punctuating the third act’s doomy atmosphere with his propelling through space and yelling, “I’m coming back, motherfuckas!” (should an audience really be compelled to laugh during a horror flick’s third act?) His reappearance at the Event Horizon and interruption of Dr Weir seems spliced in from a spoof and the tonal mismatch almost tanks the scene.

The film was heavily cut by the studio prior to its release and some suggest that restoring deleted footage of gory scenes would make for a better film, but while I’m as interested in seeing that as I am in Hellraiser II‘s once-lost surgery scenes (read: very), I doubt there was much depth lopped off. Still, the movie remains a point of interest and entertainment for many sci-fi and horror fans who acknowledge its shortcomings but appreciate Anderson’s ability to wring out a good image and the first act’s atmosphere, as well as the strong leads in Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (both are, frankly, great, as well as great fun.) avpalienandersonsitdown

After Event Horizon’s cult success and Anderson’s reputation with genre work was cemented, he was given what one interviewer called “the poisoned chalice” that was 2003’s Alien vs Predator. Anderson approached the project with much enthusiasm and a bag of ideas, pitching the plot to Fox executives and securing wrting and directing duties. “It’s the coolest cinema franchise out there,” Anderson told Joblo.com in 2002, “and Predator is the baddest hunter in the universe. So the idea of combining the two of them is just phenomenal! It will be a stand-alone franchise. It will not be a continuation of the Alien franchise.”

Anderson’s AVP was followed in 2007 by Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, directed by the Brothers Strause. “That movie showed what a good job we’d done with the first movie,” Anderson told Grantland in 2014. “It’s like, OK, you can pick apart my AVP, but take a look at that one and then maybe watch my movie again and you’ll have a new appreciation for it.”

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Alien Seed: Outland

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Any biography of Alien that fails to mention its antecedents It! The Terror Beyond Space and Forbidden Planet would fail as a genealogy. Likewise, Alien has its place in film’s tree of life, having spawned many imitations itself, with eminent titles like Contamination (1980), Inseminoid (1981), The Beast Within (1982), Forbidden World (1982), Creature (1985) and a completely unrelated Alien 2 (1980) among them.

These movies tended to feature biomechanical knock-offs stalking young women through darkened corridors and were, naturally, far more exploitive than the art-house predilections of Alien. While the latter subversively had a man become the focus of an extraterrestrial rape and birth, titles like Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981) opted to show Taaffe O’Connell nude, lubed, and assaulted by a gigantic insect on camera. Corman’s film is interesting not because it is exemplary but because it helped James Cameron break into movie making (Robert Englund, Sid Haig and Grace Zabriskie notably starred.) The film was touted by the studio as “a spellbinding tale in the Alien tradition”, but was described perhaps more modestly by Cameron himself as “Roger’s paean, to be charitable, to Alien.” Though Galaxy of Terror is often discussed at length regarding Alien, another film that is arguably even more interesting is Peter Hyam’s Outland (also 1981), specifically because, firstly, it is not low-fi schlock like much of Alien’s ‘progeny’, and also because its foundations lie not in the sci-fi/horror genre but in the Western, most especially Frank Zinneman’s classic, High Noon (1952). It swaps the sand and wood of High Noon however for a very Alien-esque mining facility on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Sean Connery plays the station’s sheriff, Marshal William O’Niel, who discovers a plot concerning drug running and bouts of psychosis amongst the facility’s workers. Investigating, he is drawn into a battle against the facility’s management company, Conglomerates Amalgamated. As O’Niel closes in on the conspiracy he finds himself abandoned by the station’s inhabitants and left to the mercy of incoming Company hitmen. There is not, unlike the endless concatenation of Alien knockoffs, a monster.

The High Noon influence is quite obvious from any cursory plot synopsis, but the film’s similarity to Alien strikes as soon as we’re granted a look at the film’s environments. Actress Frances Sternhagen, who played O’Niel’s only ally, Dr. Lazarus, recalled that the sets were dank and dingy, with Hyams’ explanation being that the mining facility needed to look lived in, an aesthetic that George Lucas had referred to as the ‘used universe’. It can be seen in the grubby interiors of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars before it was rendered again in Ron Cobb’s designs for the Nostromo a few short years later, but this look  not did originate with either of those films, instead being preceded by Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, where it was intended to be a jokey counterpoint to Kubrick’s glossy 2001: A Space Odyssey. “[The future is] not lucite domes where people glide back and forth wearing jump suits, and everybody is perma-pressed,” Hymans explained. “The only consideration was the performing of a task, and that’s true of all the designs for Outland. Function is the only criterion.” Compare these comments with Ron Cobb’s design philosophy: “My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer. I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I’m to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.”

However, though it’s easy to get the impression that Hyams saw Alien and deliberately replicated it, Hyams himself denied that he was influenced by Ridley Scott’s film. “No,” he told Starlog magazine in 1981, “I was not influenced by Alien at all. This is a very dissimilar movie. Alien did not really focus on the characters. This movie is about a bunch of people that I think you get to see sides of that you don’t ordinarily get to see in films.” His statement seems undercut by various factors: for one, there was considerable talent shared between both films: Martin Bower, Nick Allder, Bill Pearson, John Mollo, and Jerry Goldsmith all helped manufacture the look and sound of both, though Goldsmith was hired primarily because he had worked with Hyams previously on Capricorn One. Most telling is the allegation that Outland’s design office was adorned with a notice that read, ‘Make this film look like Alien.’

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There are other, perhaps serendipitous similarities between them: Outland’s Dr. Lazarus was originally written as a man, just as Ripley was. “I decided it was absurd for a picture set in the future to be unpopulated by women,” commented Hyams. Frances Sternhagen addressed her character’s likeness to Ripley in an issue of Starlog, saying, “There is some similarity between the two roles. Both characters were independent thinkers doing a job, and both were more concerned with doing the job than anything else. There is also the fact that both at one point had to decide to do something we hadn’t planned on doing that is very dangerous. I think those are the main things. Characterwise, we are different.”

There are perhaps many other similarities between the two films. Some, like the malignant Company, the grubby interiors, and the blue-collar, oily-fingered workers with their propensity for casually-worn flight suits and corporate emblems, are egregious. It’s worth watching simply to recognise pieces of the Nostromo being replicated sometimes wholesale throughout the colony, though it is different enough to be more interesting than a mere Nostromo clone; instead it feels like the craftsmen behind Alien applying that film’s aesthetic to a wider universe. Outland can easily be watched as a spin-off, a short story within the Alien universe about more smoky conference rooms and weary, exasperated spacefarers being beset by corporate malfeasance.

Curiously enough, Outland seems to have rubbed off, perhaps serendipitously, perhaps simply due to archetypical similarities, on the Alien sequel. “A mining operation like Con-Am #27 represents a frontier,” Hyams said, “and frontiers strike me as sinister, dangerous places of enormous hardship.” These comments concerning the mining facility and its occupants mirrors Aliens’ storm-harried colonists, who are described in James Cameron’s script as being “pioneers in a very unforgiving climate” who must “work very hard to get a toehold” but are fortunately imbued with “a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history.” Hyams also describes the motivation of his miners as being “willing to put up with Hell for the chance to make some big quick money,” just as we hear Newt’s father, a prospector, proclaim in Cameron’s movie upon discovering the derelict: “Folks, we have scored big this time!”

But if Outland had any definitively tangible bearing on Aliens, it was the repurposing of the Con-Am spacesuits for the salvage team who find Ripley:

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There was also, finally, a Heavy Metal adaptation:

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Outland, though competently made and certainly entertaining, is not a seminal film and is usually remembered for its likeness to Alien and High Noon rather than its own merits; it is still fondly recommended and watched by those who appreciate the look of the movie, which did better to emulate Alien than the multitude of imitators that followed throughout the 1980’s.

The film barely recouped its costs at the box office and critical response was lukewarm. Harlan Ellison for his part called it “a bastardisation of someone else’s original idea” and explained that it was the “nasty reality” of allowing “dabblers, fools, and perverters” to have charge of a film that dared to mime greats like High Noon and Alien, the latter of which he called a “classic of terror” – Ellison was also unimpressed with John Carpenter’s The Thing for much the same reasons. Ellison, who at the time of the film’s release also rebuked Sean Connery in the pages of Starlog for his recent harrying of a journalist, recalled a conversation with Ridley Scott where Scott mentioned the time was ripe for a ‘John Ford of science fiction’ to emerge onto the film scene. Hyams, invariably, was not it.

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Alien Isolation: Interview with Dion Lay and Will Porter

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Warning: contains spoilers for the single player game.

Six months after its release it can be unreservedly said that Alien: Isolation has definitely left a very positive mark on the series at large: not only was it very well received by the gaming press and various award ceremonies, but more importantly it was lauded by a fanbase that has become increasingly jaded and skeptical following years (some would say decades) of disappointment. Thankfully, Alien: Isolation is, as we pointed out in our Thoughts on Alien: Isolation article, an invigorating and encouraging experience that recaptures the claustrophobia and fear of the original film and renews faith (or at least, my faith) in the franchise’s longterm prospects.

Luckily, developers The Creative Assembly were kind enough to put Strange Shapes into contact with Isolation writers Dion Lay and Will Porter, who were likewise very generous in giving me their time during a very busy period for the team.

Strange Shapes: Alien is often considered a simple monster-on-a-ship story but there are deeper themes and subtleties going on that other film, comic and game writers have struggled with. Was there a learning curve when writing for a property like this as opposed to other projects that you have worked on, or any trepidation that you might make the same mistakes?

Dion Lay: Fortunately for us, when we started writing the game we already had a very strong vision and identity to adhere to. The foundation was the first Alien film and so that was always used as the acid test – would this character/plot point feel at odds with the film?

Working with an established license does introduce some restrictions, but at the same time it also means you start off with a lot of well-loved material to mine from and build upon. I think there’s always a struggle to come up with something new while not stepping too far outside the source material and the trick is deciding where you want the final product to sit along that line and then aiming for it.

Will Porter: In terms of backstory and world-building the original Alien never plays its entire hand, whereas modern movies generally feel compelled to spell out absolutely everything (often poorly) to cater for some unknowable lowest common denominator punter who’s somehow found their way to the multiplex. Games can be like that too, and I think that – as in Alien – with world-building in Alien: Isolation we left a lot of details about Sevastopol, Seegson and Weyland-Yutani hanging for much of the game. The intrigue comes when the player is encouraged to imagine what life used to be like on Sevastopol, and what happened to it.

It’s been many years since I was first introduced to the Alien universe, and I still find myself wondering about the Nostromo crew’s previous missions, their former Science Officer, Ash’s past experiences and the origins of Special Order 937. As such I think the learning curve, albeit one we adapted too quite quickly as it was so fun to do, was to give the player just enough information about Sevastopol to get their mind whirring and then to fill in the blanks themselves.

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SS: Amanda Ripley is familiar to fans, as an entity if not a character. Were there any concerns that foreknowledge of her ultimate (and relatively cosy) fate would hamper the outcome of your story in any way?

DL: I think we made a good case that the only information the audience knew about Amanda Ripley prior to this was from Burke, who was proven to be a manipulative and very shady character within a very shady company, so any information he gave could easily be false or manufactured for his own ends. Whenever we mentioned this the response seemed to be positive so we weren’t particularly worried about it.

The other thing it brings to mind is that there are a lot of stories where the audience knows the main character won’t really die but it doesn’t affect the tension of the stories at all. For example, we all know that Batman won’t die (okay, I know there have been exceptions as I’m a big comic geek) during his adventures but it’s still an exciting ride because his death means the player fails and that’s where the tension comes from.

WP: I think knowing Amanda’s fate, or at least what Burke informs is her fate, is actually a huge bonus. Speaking as a fan, you suddenly start to ask questions – and, as shows like Lost will testify to, having questions is so much more fun than knowing answers. What happened to her? Why the silence? Who is the McClaren when it comes to the name she dies with: Amanda Ripley-McClaren? If fore-knowledge of a character’s death were to hamper story-telling, then history books would be pretty dull! It’s the connective tissue between events that provides the interesting stuff.

SS: There are a lot of nice little touches in the game: snatches of Blade Runner-esque dialogue, origami unicorns, Kafka recitals, and even a purported visual reference to James Cameron – were things like these scripted and was there any sort of ode you would have liked to include that didn’t make the cut for any reason?

DL: There’s actually not much that was cut because we were very wary of putting in references and Easter eggs in case they detracted from the world or broke the immersion. You need to take a step back and make sure what you’re putting isn’t just because you want your favorite thing in the game! When we did put references in we still wanted them to be relevant in some way, for example the Kafka book went in because it was metamorphosis and the game is full of transformations – from the Alien life cycle to the population changing from civilians to survivors who would take extreme actions they never considered just to stay alive.

The only couple of things I can think of that were cut were from me, which was a bookshop called ‘Time Enough At Last’ which referenced the famous Twilight Zone episode and have the ‘Neversleep’ sleeping pills colored with red and green stripes in a reference to Freddy’s iconic jumper in Nightmare on Elm Street. In the end they didn’t really fit because I realized they were really just me trying to get some of my favorite horror stuff in!

WP: Something of mine I loved, that was recorded and in the game, but was ultimately cut was the androids quoting snippets of Shakespeare as vocal exercises. We had all these amazing Shakespearean actors so I followed through with that and snuck various ominous and death-heavy lines into the recording sessions. Androids would say something along the lines of ‘Initiating Vocal Routines’ and then deliver a malevolently neutral couplet or two.

Ultimately it was cut, I think because it didn’t fit the game world – which is probably fair enough, it certainly could feel like it was slightly out of nowhere. Then again I am still totally in love with the concept: of a man-made creation plunging into a gas giant on the edge of space still parroting lines written 650 years ago that it could never appreciate or understand. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The only remnant is the way that some androids will garble the line “to sleep perchance to dream’ when Amanda is smacking them round the head with the maintenance jack. All a bit wanky I know, but I guess I felt all those Conrad references needed some company :P

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SS: Refreshingly, no human in the game is straightforwardly malevolent. Everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do. How important was it for you to dispense with the black and white morality (specifically, the Company = evil) that is so prevalent in the other games and comics?

DL: This was really important to us and was something we discussed very early in development. One reason was that we felt having human antagonists would reduce the Alien to a supporting player in its own game, whereas it was key that it needed to be the ultimate threat (on a side note, another thing we were careful to do was to never call it a ‘Xenomorph’ or ‘bug’ as naming it made it slightly more knowable and less terrifying). Instead, the humans were simply trying to survive and that actually gave us a lot of interesting things to play with. Some of them may have been more aggressive than others, some would simply follow someone else and make them make the hard decisions and others would retreat and hide. Waits was willing to sacrifice Amanda for the good of Sevastopol, whereas Ricardo helped her escape even though it meant the Alien got free again, but both of them were just doing what they thought was right even though they had very different consequences.

WP: Yet another of the towering achievements of Alien was the way that the Company was so unknowable in their actions – not quite evil, just very distant and entirely dispassionate. They’re so big, one assumes, that morality has been lost in the post. I think fictional corporations that act like real corporations, losing humanity and the power of the individuals within through their size and internal wranglings, are far more interesting than straightforward ‘evil companies’ that you can never quite believe in. That’s why I’m so proud of Seegson and their history: there’s no maniacal laughing, just an also-ran company that no-one cares about slowly circling the drain. Likewise with WY, while we do pull a similar trick to that found in the original movie – there are good people who work for them, and there are good androids too.

SS: The game plays a neat trick, in that you think there is one Alien at large when in fact there is an entire hive at play. This led to some turmoil at Creative Assembly on whether or not to include the Alien Queen. Were there other challenges in writing the script to fit the constraints of being an Alien game as opposed to an Aliens game (for example, multiple enemies working co-operatively to assault the player)?

DL: In lieu of having multiple Aliens to escalate early on, we used the human encounters, Working Joes and the station itself to provide challenges as the player progressed, so I don’t think that specifically created many challenges for the writing team. I think the hardest part was trying to balance story dialogue with the fact that Amanda was on her own most of the time and really wanted to be silent because the Alien was hunting her. We had to pick our moments carefully with the level designers and make room for those parts where we needed some story information!

WP: I guess the only real challenge was deciding which audio diary characters knew there were multiple aliens, and which thought there was only one. By the end it’s clear that the Sinclair and Winter’s characters, for example, know that there’s more than one threat up in the vents. One of the key things about Sevastopol is that what people know is patchy and haphazard, so I think it actually helps the overall feeling of the game that no-one quite knows what’s going on – or indeed where the creature(s) has come from.

SS: Let’s speak hypothetically – if you were to work on a sequel, even in your head, what lessons from the first game did you learn that would inform how you proceeded with the second? Would you escalate things, or would you diverge from what you’ve already established, or simply refine it?

DL: Sorry, we can’t comment on any of that!

WP: What he said!

I would like to thank Dion and Will for giving time to answering my longwinded questions! And of course, I’d like to thank the kind folks at The Creative Assembly – I’m certainly looking forward to more incursions into the Alien: Isolation game world.

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The Prodigal Son: David 8

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“If I have a space ship worth god knows how much money and I’ve got to have a Company man onboard and that Company man is going to be a goddamn secret […] He is going to be a perfect looking robot. So that was the Ash thing […] I just wanted to have the same idea that the corporation would have a robot onboard every ship, so that when you are asleep in hyper-sleep for three or four years going at 250,000 knots an hour, you will have a guy wandering around like a housekeeper. He’s a housekeeper and he’s got full access to everything. He can look at all of the films. He can go into the library… he can do whatever he wants, and that’s David.”
~ Ridley Scott, collider, 2012.

Fondly remembered as one of Prometheus’ better parts, if not the best part, the android David inhabits a middle-ground between Ash and Bishop – he is malfeasant, but is not an antagonist; he valets the Prometheus crew, but is ultimately not beholden to them.

In Jon Spaihts’ Alien: Engineers David is first introduced aboard Weyland’s Wheel, where he acts as a concierge. “He’s cunningly built,” it reads, “but no one would mistake him for a real human being.” When Weyland is introduced, he elaborates a little more on his creation. “He’s a prototype,” he tells Watts. “Our 80 series. One of a kind for now, but if he performs, he will be legion.” This is obviously different in the film, where David appears very much human and, in the promotional materials at least, is said to be mass-produced already. Another divergence in the story is that Weyland does not board the Prometheus ship in secret, but instead sends David along as his “eyes and ears”.

There is also a very interesting exchange where David speaks with Watts and Holloway about his design specifications and capabilities:

David: My design’s not intended to convince. Simulating humanity is a complex task that diverts resources. My designers dispensed with that burden to optimize for intelligence.
Watts: Why look like a man at all? Why not be a box on wheels?
David: Being shaped like you, I can use spaces and equipment designed for you. But I’m not so limited. I hear frequencies you can’t hear. I see wavelengths of light invisible to you. I move faster. Exert greater force.

The scientists look at David in wonder.

Watts: You see yourself as a superman.
David: No.

He turns his unearthly eyes on them.

David (cont’d):
 Not a man at all.

David, overall, is very much an antagonist in Spaihts’ script. At first, he still serves the same function he does in the film: he decodes the alien hieroglyphs and quickly grasps the Engineer technology, and he still rescues Shaw after she is swept away in the storm, but by the midpoint he starts to display contempt for the human crew and, in one scene with Watts, he reveals a hidden agenda:

David: I was given two operating protocols for this mission. I was to render you every assistance – until you discovered what Vickers would call a “game-changing technology.” I was given a specific list. Then I was to go to protocol two […] Under protocol two I was to make sure that you and Holloway never spoke to anyone about this place. Various acceptable ways of making sure of that.

When he finally assaults Watts he does so with palpable malice, and when he gives chase he “runs like a demon, his legs steel pistons.” When he captures her it is in a grip akin to “iron manacles”. He then impregnates her with Alien spore. Interestingly, when the facehugger emerges, David strokes it gently – the facehugger ignores his touch and reaches for Watts.

“Subsequently, David, fascinated by these [Engineers], begins delaying the mission and going off the reservation on his own, essentially because he thinks he really belongs with the Engineers. They’re smart enough and sophisticated enough, great enough, to be his peers. He’s harboring a deep-seated contempt for his human makers.”
~ Jon Spaihts, Empire, 2012.

Watts expels the embryo in the Med-Pod, and she, Vickers and the rest of the crew attempt to stop David from re-activing the Juggernaut. He has gone rogue and has prohibited the Magellan ship from leaving the planet. The Juggernaut ship, David hopes, will resume its mission and annihilate mankind. It is revealed that he is fitted with behavioural inhibitors that will bend him to Vickers’ command, should she be able to reach him in time, but unfortunately, David harnesses the Engineer technology to override these countermeasures. “To interface with the Engineers’ computers,” he explains, “I had to learn to think in trinary code. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. And most unexpectedly…it delivered me from slavery. My behavioral limits were circumvented. I’m free.”

He awakens the last surviving Engineer and the encounter goes essentially the same way it does in Prometheus:

The Sleeper turns in astonishment. He looks down at David and answers in the same tongue. He is angry, accusing. He points at David, at the humans. Tones of accusation.

David cajoles, soothes, pleads. The Sleeper descends toward David. David spreads his arms in welcome – undeniable emotion on his face. Joy. The Sleeper lays his hands on David’s head as if blessing him. David is rapturous. The Sleeper speaks a single phrase

– – and tears David’s head off.

In the end, David’s decapitated head solicits Watts for rescue, claiming that he will need her. The script never tells us if she does set off with him, ending on a note similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing. “It was plain that David and Shaw were going to have to work together and deal with one another if they were to survive,” Spaihts told Empire. “That one shot of the ship taking off in the finished film really focuses you on a particular outcome, whereas my ending was much more open as to what was going to happen next. But it was very much about this shattered android and this scarred woman being left with no-one but each other to carry on with.”

Of course, the script underwent some drastic overhauls when Damon Lindelof was given rewriting duties on the project. In addition to removing the Aliens, eggs and facehuggers, he also remolded the role of Spaihts’ android. “I also became obsessed with David as the central character of the piece,” Lindelof told mtv.com in 2012, “and did everything I could to think of the movie through the robot’s point of view. Mostly because robots are awesome, but also because robots are awesome.”

He told The Hollywood Reporter that “I was really interested in and catalyzed by the robot, David — I felt like he was going to become the central figure of the movie. Because in the genealogical chain of things, there are these beings that may or may mot have created us, then there’s us, and then there’s the being that we created in our own image. So we’re on a mission to ask our creators why they made us, and he’s there amongst his creators, and he’s not impressed. Oddly enough, the one nonhuman human on this ship — that’s sort of a prison — exists to question why it is we’re doing this in the first place.”

“The idea that by creating a being in their image, humans can become gods. In the film, it is clearly stated that David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, ‘has no soul.’ I was interested in showing that as the film [progressed] the character is showing more and more feelings. Especially when one of the characters points out that he is not a ‘real boy’. David is upset, even angry, but he keeps his cool. In this, he is more human than the humans…”
~ Ridley Scott, leFigaro, 2012.

David’s role in Prometheus should be familiar to readers, but there is some interesting, if not contentious, background information to be gleaned from the promotional materials for the film regarding David and his android ilk. The Weyland Industries timeline, which again arguably has a tenuous connection to the actual series canon, details the creation and development of various David models beginning 2025 A.D.

The first David is ‘born’ on 7th January of that year (according to the Nostromo Crew Profiles, he shares a birthday with Ripley) and the timeline provides an interesting detail: “He is affectionately called David, a name Sir Peter Weyland had initially reserved for his own human son.” The next year Weyland patents “a chemical composition of classified properties able to almost perfectly replicate the biological features and textures of human skin.” From thereon, the development of David-type androids rolls on: David 2 is ushered into the world in 2028, and David 3 in 2035. The timeline notes: “After android regulations are lifted, the third generation David is deployed internally to test human acceptance of cybernetic individuals. Results are encouraging.” Further models appear in 2042, 2052, 2062, 2068, and model no. 8 follows sometime between 2073 and the opening of the movie.

Also for the promotion of the film, mock commercials were made to advertise the new David 8 line of android:

The Weyland Industries website offered all sorts of specifications and blurbs for the David 8 line. “David 8 is guaranteed to surprise you,” it promises. The model is “fluent in all known languages through a dialectic implant and can infer the linguistic components of entirely new languages if encountered. Communication between humans and David 8 should feel entirely fluid and natural.”

The site also proclaims that “His cadmium endoskeleton is guaranteed for the life of the product”, that he can blend “seamlessly into human environments” and instills a “strong sense of trust in 96% of users.”

Additional feature specs:

  • Multi-degree range of motion greater than human capacity
  • Micro-distributed accelerometers
  • 30x visual magnification with increased depth of field
  • Low-light auto-adapting feature (with assisted low-light focusing)
  • Non-reactive Polyurethane coating
  • 700-lb lifting capacity
  • Polymer-encased brain stem component

Then of course there is his maker’s signature, so prospective customers know he is the genuine, Weyland-approved product:

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In terms of his physical appearance, Fassbender told Time that “the inspiration we used was David Bowie and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and for films there were the replicants in Blade Runner. Greg Louganis, in terms of physicality. Lawrence of Arabia of course, and Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, and Dirk Bogarde. They were the ingredients.”

“I watched Blade Runner and I looked at the replicants. Well, I looked at Sean Young. There was something in her character, a quality there that I kind of liked for David, this longing for something or some sort of a soul at play there, a sort of vacancy also, a sort vacant element. I don’t know exactly what, I just knew there was a quality there that I liked.”
~ Michael Fassbender, collider, 2012.

When it came to dressing David they decked him in a grey Zhongshan suit, also worn by Vickers, and inspired by the spartan Communist uniform popularised by Sun Yat-sen and famously worn by Mao Zedong and also by pop culture dandies like Andy Warhol and David Bowie. David’s green fatigues also square him up with Bowie’s appearance in 1983’s internment camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

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David also exhibits peculiarities (for a supposed machine who only simulates human behaviours for their comfort) like vanity and obsession. One thing close to his heart, so to speak, is David Lean’s opus Lawrence of Arabia. “Ridley and I are both Lean fanatics,” said Lindelof. “and it seemed appropriate thematically.”

“David seems to have some fascination with that film and the character Lawrence,” Fassbender adds, “and I always attributed it to the fact that Lawrence has got a very clear vision and he’s very pure in his pursuit of it. There’s not much questioning. He’s a very decisive character, and I think David sees elements of that in Shaw as well. That’s why he finds her so fascinating. He’s also an outsider like David; he’s an Englishman, but he’s not accepted really by the English or the Arab nations, so he’s kind of somewhere in the middle.”

“He’s got a life history of his own,” Fassbender told Time in 2012. “It’s just probably not relationship-affected. A lot of the time doing the biography is interesting because you can think about what was the character’s relationship with other kids in school, with parents, all that sort of stuff, but David was a programmed entity obviously. So it’s more about how his programming has stayed intact. Are his objectives truly programmed objectives, or has he started to develop his own motivations?”

“While the rest of the crew is in suspended animation, David is enjoying himself, tinkering with the ship’s many technical wonders,” Fassbender explained in 2012. “And like a child, David enjoys watching the same movie over and over again. Additionally, David’s views on the human crew are somewhat child-like. He is jealous and arrogant because he realizes that his knowledge is all-encompassing and therefore he is superior to the humans. David wants to be acknowledged and praised for his brilliance, yet nobody gives him the time of day.”

Most of the crew do seem disinterested in David. Vickers seems to begrudgingly tolerate his presence. Despite claiming David as a son, Weyland dismisses him as nothing more than a conglomeration of inorganic pieces and personal ingenuity (Fassbender commented that “It’s all about Weyland. He is the creator, you know? So when he goes ‘The son that I never had,’ it’s not because he has affection for David, it’s that he has such affection for himself and self-affirmation that he created this.”) Similarly, the supercilious Holloway treats him as nothing more than a dandiprat or an object of amusement. “I think synthetic life is inevitable,” Marshall Logan-Green told i09 in 2012, “and along that line bigotry and racism (if you will) will be inevitable as well. Although I can’t approach a role thinking of [my character] as a racist or a bigot. Certainly now I can look back and explain his disdain for Michael in that way.”

There are interesting parallels here between David and Aliens’ Bishop. Aside from the similarity between David’s wandering the Prometheus ship and Bishop’s scripted introduction (where he roams the Sulaco as the Marines lie in hypersleep) Lance Henriksen also frequently referred to Bishop as being “child-like” and how he was often hurt by how others receive him (one version of the script details that Bishop looks “wounded” when Ripley rebuffs his kindness.) “When I did Bishop,” Henriksen explained, “I was using the fact that I was 12-years-old. I was using my 12-year-old emotional life and thought of myself as a black kid in South Africa. That if I made a mistake anything could happen. So, that’s what I was using through that whole role. There was a certain innocence about Bishop that I created that way. And of course when you’re 12 you forgive adults because you know you’re going to outlive them.”

On David’s poisoning of Holloway, Lindelof explained, “That’s his programming. In the scene preceding him doing that, he is talking to Weyland (although we don’t know it at the time) and he’s telling Weyland that this is a bust. That they haven’t found anything on this mission other than the stuff in the vials. And Weyland presumably says to him, ‘Well, what’s in the vials?’ And David would say, ‘I’m not entirely sure, we’ll have to run some experiments.’ And Weyland would say, ‘What would happen if you put it in inside a person?’ And David would say, ‘I don’t know, I’ll go find out.’ He doesn’t know that he’s poisoning Holloway, he asks Holloway, ‘What would you be willing to do to get the answers to your questions?’ Holloway says, ‘Anything and everything.’ And that basically overrides whatever ethical programming David is mandated by, [allowing him] to spike his drink.”

Logan-Green chipped in that, “My definition of a robot, or at least a self-sustained robot, is to put together information. As much information as possible and data. To build on data. The only way they’re going to grow is to build on data. You meet David collecting data instantly. I think he probably hit a wall (so to speak) with this mission. They all hit a wall, at first, with this mission. And going back to his father, Weyland, and he’s told to ‘try harder.’ I think he understands that he will have to sacrifice a human life in order to achieve that collection of data.”

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Prior to the release of the film Ridley teased that it may feature two androids. Speculating fans immediately zeroed in on Vickers, whose costuming and seemingly robotic poise singled her out from the rest of the cast. “Yes, she does look like David,” Lindelof told mtv. “Yes, this was intentional. What better way to piss off your daughter than to build the male equivalent of her?” Vickers’ scorn for David is evident throughout the movie: first, in a brief cut when Weyland describes David as being like the son he never had, and later, and far more obviously, when she slams him against the wall in frustration as David and Weyland plot without her. The Weyland-Vickers-David triangle was an interesting dynamic that is alloted so little time that it appears more as an afterthought than anything even remotely subtextual. It feels incidental rather than integral; but of course others are free to come to their own conclusions.

As for David’s future, Lindlof told Time that by Prometheus’ end he has aligned himself with Shaw. “I think they’re going where she wants to go. His fundamental programming has been scrapped. Weyland [the man who built and programmed him] is dead and so now his programming is coming from God knows where. Is he being programmed by Elizabeth, or is it his own internal curiosity now that Weyland isn’t telling him what to do any more? He’s always been interested in Elizabeth, remember that: He’s watching her dreams when she’s sleeping in much the same way that he watches Lawrence of Arabia. He’s a strange robot that has a curious crush on a human being, and when Weyland is eliminated, I think he is genuinely interested in what she’s interested in. He reaches out partly for survival, but partly out of curiosity, and I think he’s sincere that he’ll take her wherever she wants to go.”

As for Ridley’s thoughts on the sequel, “You’ll probably have to go with Shaw and David – without his head,” he told Yahoo in 2014. “Find out how he gets his head back on!”

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Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s Alien 5

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“Ridley Scott and I have talked about doing one more where we go back to the original planet and see what these creatures came out of…”
~ Sigourney Weaver, IGN, 2005.

Alien Resurrection had barely started screening when talk of a fifth movie began circulating. “We firmly expect to do another one,” Tom Rothman, Fox’s president of production at the time, told Entertainment Weekly. “Joss Whedon will write it, and we expect to have Sigourney and Winona if they’re up for it.”

“There’s a big story to tell in another sequel,” Whedon said. “The fourth film is really a prologue to a movie set on Earth. Imagine all the things that can happen.” That same year he set out his manifesto for the fifth film: “If I write this movie, and it has my writing credits on it, then it’s going to be on Earth … And it’s going to be very different from the last one.”

“The studio talked about Alien Resurrection as a kind of placeholder,” he continued. “They said, ‘We want to do Earth or the big Alien planet, but we’re not convinced yet that this franchise has legs. So we want to do a smaller story.’ I don’t think you can do that with Alien 5. I think the time of people running around in a tin can has passed. You have to work on a broader canvas otherwise it becomes an episode and not a new movie. The way Cameron exploded from the first to the second, you have to do that again, and that means going somewhere new … With Alien Resurrection, I used the first two movies as models, but with this one I can promise you something new, something completely different from what’s been seen before.”

However, a frustrated Whedon lost interest in doing any work for another sequel after Resurrection’s release, and the fifth movie, which was rumoured to be titled ‘Alien Revelation’, ended up on Fox’s backburner. “I’ll tell you there was a time when I would have been interested in that,” explained Whedon, “but I am not interested in making somebody else’s franchise anymore. Any movie I make will be created by me.”

Still, rumours abounded throughout the late nineties and early noughties  about a fifth entry. Cinescape magazine for one reported that Alien 5 was to feature Ripley 8 travelling to the Alien homeworld to settle scores. There were intermittent rumours of the film being greenlit and release dates and inflated salaries for Weaver were reported and denied on an almost yearly basis. In 1999 Sigourney spoke to Sci-Fi Wire magazine about another film and her participation in it. “I don’t know if there are any plans to do another one,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if some time in the next twenty years or so, you see a white-haired Ripley hobbling around out there. But I haven’t heard of anything.”

Eventually, in 2002, there seemed to be some mobilisation for Alien 5, as Ridley Scott was asked about his potential involvement and responded positively, saying, “You know I thought it’d be nice. I’d do it. It really is entirely dependent on the take on the material. It’s all about material. I’ve been asked about Alien 5, and I said of course. We’ve started a script meeting. I mean, I’ve started it off so I may as well close the door – if in fact this is meant to be the last one.”

“I will decide in the next 5 weeks. I’m looking at Alien 5 [for] sure. Why not? Maybe.”
~ Ridley Scott, The Latino Review, 2002.

In 2003 Ian Nathan interviewed Scott for The Times to celebrate the release of the Alien Quardilogy, and Nathan noted that he didn’t “even seem to want to recognise that two more films were made” after the second movie, which may have been a cause of consternation for Scott and Fox. This is conjecture, of course, but Scott’s unwillingness to heed the latter films (“One was set on a prison, wasn’t it?” he asked Empire in 2012) may have been a stumbling block for cracking the fifth film’s story. Ridley always spoke about exploring the Space Jockey and the concept of biological warfare, and he may not have been ready to weld it to Ripley’s clone and a film that he never held in much regard.

But Nathan dropped a more enticing tidbit: that there “has been talk of a heavenly partnership with Cameron to work out an idea” for a fifth Alien movie. Back in 1995 Starbust magazine had claimed that “James Cameron [was] behind the camera” for Alien Resurrection. This may have been wishful thinking, since he has never commented on being asked to direct the fourth movie (though he did say if Fox had gotten Ridley to direct one half of the proposed two-part third movie, he may have directed the second half.) Now, Cameron was mostly definitely back in the fold. “What came up was the idea of doing Alien 5,” he said, “and at one point I pitched that I would write it and produce it, and Ridley would direct it, and we had lunch talking about this.”

In 2003 Zap2it.com claimed that the plots to Alien 5 and 6 had surfaced. “Number five is set on Earth,” they claimed, “with the planet under attack from alien warrior drop ships, which made their debut in the original Alien movie. In the process they make Earth look like an incubator while attacking, leaving Alien eggs around the humans. When Ripley realizes her dreams have played a role in what’s happening she evacuates and confines herself to a cell, but inevitably she will meet her nemesis face to face again.”

The summary of the sixth movie was brief. “Number six takes place on the home turf of the navigator of the ship. Aliens are taking over other planets and Ripley finds herself forced to turn to the dark side in order to save civilization.”

Meanwhile, Cameron was stressing the need to be uncompromising when dabbling in this universe. “The original Alien holds a special classic niche as one of the great terrifying experiences,” he told The Edmonton Sun. “And the trick is you don’t go crazy and make a $150-million movie because you don’t want to have to compromise, you don’t want to try to do a PG-13 Alien that is all things to everyone. It’s got to still maintain its roots in this kind of cinematic Id. Ridley did it really beautifully. He just kind of put you into this Freudian nightmare space.”

“We’re looking at doing another one. Something similar to what we did with Aliens. A bunch of great characters, and of course Sigourney. I’ve even discussed the possibility of putting [Arnold Schwarzenegger] into the Alien movie.”
~ James Cameron, BBC One interview, 2003.

However, Ridley announced his departure from any Alien project in an issue of Total Film, explaining that it was now in Cameron’s court. “We were in violent agreement,” Cameron said of his meetings with Ridley, “then nothing happened.” It seems that Cameron continued working on the film in some capacity, but Fox intervened. “I started working on a story,” Cameron said, “I was working with another writer and Fox came back to me and said, ‘We’ve got this really good script for Alien vs Predator.’ So I stopped working.”

In 2004, Ridley spoke with Japanese publication Famitsu Wave about Alien 5. and indicated that it was still in everyone’s minds, but would not be greenlit until Fox saw how succesful the spin-off movie would be. He spoke cryptically about the plot and whether or not he would direct it.

Famitsu Wave: And what of the rumor of another Alien movie?
Ridley Scott: We have been talking about doing another one for years. It’s been a complex situation. At the end of the day, a studio has to be pleased, a core audience has to be pleased, and a director has to agree to all that. I am glad to say things are progressing…
FW: With you as director?
RS: I don’t think I’ll be directing, but I will have some involvement. It’ll probably be based on an idea I have, so I hope I’m asked to be involved.
FW: Can you talk about the idea?
RS: In broad terms, it’s something for those folks that want to see Ripley’s journey come full circle.
FW: Does that take her to the home planet of the Aliens?
RS: She won’t necessarily see the home planet, but you might…

Scott also told them that, regarding his work with Nicolas Cage on Matchstick Men and other projects, “If there’s room for him in the new Alien movie, we’d love to get him.”

After the release of AvP director Paul W. Anderson was briefly rumoured to be helming the fifth Alien installment: hearsay that he quickly shot down. “That’s not a reality,” he said. “I’ve heard that. I’ve been doing press lately for AvP and a lot of people said that. I don’t know where that came from. It’s not something I’ve been approached about.” His choice for Alien 5‘s director? Ironically, James Cameron.

AvP may have caused him to lose interest in making a new movie in the series, but Cameron still got around to seeing it.”I think of the five Alien films, I’d rate it third,” he diplomatically said of Anderson’s film, which is no real feat considering his opinion of the third and fourth movie. Ridley however couldn’t bring himself to see it or its 2007 sequel.

Empire: I’ve always wondered, did you see the Alien vs. Predator movies?
Ridley Scott: No.
Empire: (laughs) They don’t exist.
Ridley: I couldn’t do that (laughs) I couldn’t quite take that step.
~ Empire Online, Prometheus: The Interviews, 2012.

Of Ridley’s eventually return to the series, Prometheus, Cameron said in 2014: “I thought it was an interesting film. I thought it was thought-provoking and beautifully, visually mounted, but at the end of the day it didn’t add up logically. But I enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was made. I liked it better than the previous two Alien sequels.”

As for any involvement in the new strand of Alien stories that the prequel has opened up, Cameron was straightforward. “I don’t think I have anything to offer on the Prometheus sequels, that’s Ridley’s.”

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Alien Funnies

A regular feature of magazines like Starlog were the one-shot ‘funnies’ that adorned the letters pages. Some were a little clever and delightful, others were typically nothing more than zingers. Both served a similar sort of purpose: to relieve any tensions in irate fan mail and, really, to have fun with some iconic creatures and characters, from Star Wars to a lot of Star Trek (perhaps understandably – Starlog, as its name attests, was originally intended to be a Trek-centric magazine.)

December 1986’s issue 113 featured an Aliens cartoon in its Fan Network section, a page dedicated to reader contributions like photos, cartoons, and convention reports and fan club activities. This one had Ripley entering the Alien hive and encountering something unexpected:

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There was also a blurb in this issue quoting Sigourney Weaver: “I won’t do any more Ripley-type roles,” she said. Of course.

January 1987’s issue 114 had a gloomier sort of letters page, with readers expressing opinions on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or popularly known as, really, ‘Star Wars’) and also the realities of nuclear war with the Soviets. “It has been suggested,” reads one letter, “that orbiting lasers and/or laser reflecting mirrors could be used to start massive fires in fixed targets like cities – a holocaust without the aid of atomic bombs.” A lot of tension indeed.

The comic for this issue was drawn by veteran illustrator Mike Fisher. It pitted Rocky Balboa against the Alien, which wasn’t really inspired by anything in the letters pages but played around with an old joke that said Stallone would have to start fighting aliens since his Rocky character had already defeated every challenger on Earth.

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Gags like these actually contributed to that year’s Predator – writers Jim and John Thomas both heard the joke sometime in 1985 and wrote the ‘The Hunter’, a proto-Predator that was “Rocky meets Alien, I guess,” according to its writers.

Issue 116 saw readers writing in to express awe and delight at Aliens and also had them throwing around theories about the Alien homeworld and the origin of the Aliens themselves. Others wrote in to question what they saw as incongruities in the story – questions which would be addressed by James Cameron in a following issue (see James Cameron Responds to Aliens Critics.)

The gag for this issue depicts Carter Burke stowing the Alien Queen aboard the ride home. It’s zinger-ladden and quite fun:

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Issue 121, released in August 1987, included another Alien gag in the Fan Network section:

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There was a dearth of Aliens articles and interviews at the time, including talks with Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. I cannot pinpoint the exact issue that this following panel appeared (bad record keeping) but it’s a nice little ode to Believe It or Not, after which Ellen Ripley was named.

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September 1987’s issue was a little prophetic with its cartoon:

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The same issue had a special feature with James Cameron addressing the queries and criticisms of fans. His responses came with a couple of illustrations by Phil Foglio, the best being a good natured little gag at the critics’ expense:

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December 1988’s issue 137 had the Alien infiltrate the Enterprise crew:

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February 1989’s Starlog 139 played around with earlier concerns about SDI and replaced it with a deadlier payload:

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Another Alien panel with a couple of happy-go-lucky creatures appeared in issue 148 from November 1989:

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July 1992’s issue 180 had readers writing in to debate Star Trek and Space 1999, and also to express views on the expiring Cold War. George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin had declared that the decades long standoff was over on February 1st of that year, but, obviously, a lot of gloomy feeling persisted. One reader wrote that: “Schwarzenegger’s endorsement of George Bush … makes one seriously doubt that T2‘s ultimate point is in favour of global disarmament” and “our very freedom has been guaranteed by these weapons for 50 years”, along with terms like “Soviet Empire” and “Communist soil” sprinkled throughout.

Veering away from such loaded topics, illustrator Mike Fisher again put the Alien up against one of geekdom’s champions. This time, the ever resourceful MacGyver.

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James Kester also had Weaver’s idea of copulating with the Alien come true. The romance quickly petered out:

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Issue 182 featured another Alien gag as part of its Cosmic Improbabilities line.

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The Fan Network page also toyed around with the upcoming Alien 3 and The Three Stooges:

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This issue also featured the first of many letters criticising Alien 3, most especially the killing of Newt, Hicks and Bishop during the opening credits.

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Issue 183, released in October 1992, saw the fan pages flooded with complaints about the third film. The grievances in question are nothing new by this point: the contrivances of Newt and Hicks’ deaths, the sad denouement of Bishop and Ripley’s sacrifice didn’t sit well with fans. “I could not believe my eyes!” opened one letter. “After watching the first two minutes, I was so mad I almost stood up and left the theater.” Other gripes included Newt’s autopsy, inconsistencies with the Alien’s gestation time, the likeness of Ripley’s descent into the flames to the end of Terminator 2, the over the top gore, and the behaviour of the Alien itself. Even fans who wrote in to express love for the film were confused by plot points (such as the infamous ‘magic egg’.)

There were predictions (“There will be no Alien 4”) and plaudits and condemnations alike for director David Fincher. Still, the magazine kept a sense of humour, pitting the Alien against Spielberg’s E.T., having it admire Ripley’s dome and joining the Enterprise crew once again.

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There was also a joke at the expense of the Alien’s ability to take the shape of its host:

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There was no Alien art in issue 184, but fans were still writing in to express disappointment and disgust at the third film. “Alien 3 is one of the worst pieces of trash I have ever seen,” read one. “The screenplay is a garbled mess,” and “the movie’s plot is simply a weak repeat of the first movie” were following complaints. More ire was directed at how the film was marketed (“The previews made it look a lot like Aliens. They even used the music from Aliens in the trailer”) and, again, the gore, the Alien creature’s propensity to slaughter everyone and also discrepancies in the design of the Sulaco and its cryotubes between the second and third films (“Fincher must think we’re idiots.”)

The nineties were the primetime of Alien merchandise, specifcially comics, games and toys. Issue 229, released in August 1996, poked fun at this by throwing the Alien into a Toy Story scenario.

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It’s a nice little toon, especially when you consider that Toy Story had Joss Whedon as one of its writers, and Joss had written Alien Resurrection, which was less than a year from release at the time.

The following cartoons were graciously given to me by artist Mike Fisher, and they appeared in various Starlog issues during 2004-08.

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eileenvp2Starlog itself sadly petered out. It celebrated its 30th birthday in 2006, but was bankrupted and eventually sold in 2008. The year before a warehouse containing back issues of both Starlog and Fangoria magazine burned to the ground. The magazine still persists online, and can be visited at Starlog.com.

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