Thinking she is safe after the destruction of the Nostromo, and presumably the Alien, Ripley undresses and prepares to enter hypersleep. As Twentieth Century Fox would have it, they preferred the movie end there – everything bar the shuttle had been shot, and the budget was tight. Ridley was six weeks behind schedule, and Ridley himself claimed on the Blade Runner commentary that he would finally go $500,00 over-budget. “The film was meant to be over,” says Scott on the 2003 commentary, “but clearly, you cannot end the film here.”
“I felt that the film could not end here [with the Nostromo explosion.] There was a big battle, ‘That’s it, the film’s over!’ I felt … you can’t end the film here. It’s not that simple, because for her to sit in the seat, [and] take off, it just didn’t make sense … I knew what to do, and said, ‘The Alien has to be in this craft, so it’s like the fourth act.’ They [the producers] felt it was overkill, and I said, ‘Really, you need overkill.’”
~ Ridley Scott, Alien commentary, 1999.
Alien‘s climatic ‘fourth act’ was always scripted. In Dan O’Bannon’s script, the Alien ambushes Roby/Ripley just as the shuttle launches, but there was no lull in the action in the written versions that would constitute breaking from a third to a ‘fourth act’. Fighting against the producers and Twentieth Century Fox, Ridley got his fourth act – the Narcissus scenes were the last to be filmed, and were shot on a refitted Nostromo bridge set rather than a newly built one.
“With Alien, we had big arguments over the last three reels of the film. Some people felt they were just too much. I know it’s never too much, not when you get a proper balance. You’ve got to keep topping yourself. So if you start at a level that’s already pretty heated, you’ve got to keep going and going. That is the nature of this film. I was always slightly concerned about overkill. But I desperately wanted this outrageous ending, you know. Not a ludicrous ending but an outrageous ending. And I knew that it was very important to hold that in after everything else had happened. In a way it’s a bit like a release as well. Shooting him [the Alien] in the chest and letting him fly away is not enough. But this is one of the big lessons I’ve learned: you must stick to your own mental ground. If you’re sure about something, you’ve got to stick with it. It’s very easy to get talked out of things.”
~ Ridley Scott.
Wanting to trick the audience into a false sense of security, the production scrapped the idea of the creature immediately leaping for Ripley and brainstormed on where to hide the beast.
“Originally, we thought the Alien would be hiding in the closet in the lifeboat [for the surprise ending]. But then Ridley said, ‘Can’t we beat that? Can’t it be somewhere she and the audience can’t see it, and it just emerges?’ So at the end of shooting every day, we changed the set around the monster. He’d lay in there and we’d rebuild the set over and over. Every time, it looked like Mad magazine – you could see [the Alien] was two feet away from her! The guy who played the monster would lay there for hours and hours and we’d shoot it and look at it the next day and say, ‘This is stupid; we’ll never disguise it.’ The trick that really made it work was the head. Finally, somebody got the idea, ‘We’ll put an air vent that looks like its head above and below it, so when the hand comes out, it’s not coming from behind anywhere – he’s in the wall.’ We had just built that. We didn’t know if it worked. So Ridley said, ‘Let’s get the guy back in here.’ We yelled for him – and he was in the wall! We were shot with our own arrow – we jumped a mile! So we filmed it, and it worked perfectly.”
~ Ron Shusett.
The crew were given a few days to film the sequences aboard the Narcissus. “There were constant arguments,” said Ridley. “‘You don’t need this – You don’t need this ending – You don’t need this cat here.’ All that sort of thing. Always quite a lot of conflict about whether one is finished with those particular scenes or not, but I usually managed to somehow get it.”
The major difficulty with the Narcissus scenes was having the Alien slip out of the walls and land on the floor with the suit remaining intact. “Bursting out of that compartment wasn’t easy,” claimed Alien actor, Bolaji Badejo. “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off! But it wasn’t much of a problem for them, because they had more suits. I remember I had to repeat that action for about fifteen takes. Finally, I said, ‘No more!’ There was a lot of smoke, it was hard to breathe, and it was terribly hot.”
“Shooting this [the Alien in the wall sequence] with the strobes going, you’re getting a stroboscopic effect on the Alien, so he’s kind of jumping because I think in the strobe you’re losing some frames, it’s an illusion but I think it helped. I love that as you see him slither out from the wall, whilst it’s humanoid, it’s spooky. They say you don’t see enough of the Alien – I think you see plenty of the Alien, and besides he is humanoid, because if the Alien had originally jumped on the cat, then the Alien would have been a version of the cat, and so on.”
~ Ridley Scott, Alien commentary, 1999.
More extreme stunts that had been scripted and story-boarded were eventually nixed due to the extreme lack of time and budget. The film’s finale would have seen the harpooned Alien battle Ripley outside the Narcissus, before the Alien is finally immolated in the ship’s engines.
“The Alien was going to be blown out of the door of the Narcissus,” explained Ridley, “with Ripley trailing after it. It was an outrageous ending, but I thought it was wonderful. I thought it had to happen, but only if it could be so believably done that it would be real. It had to become so outrageous that it would want to make you cheer or clap.
While Bolaji Badejo played the Alien as it slumbered inside the shuttle walls, the ejected Alien was played by stuntman Roy Scammell.
Though detailed in the script and storyboarded by Ridley, the disintegration of the Alien is not seen onscreen, very likely due to, again, time and budget.
In a cheeky move, Ridley sketched a possible sequel hint, showing another Alien life-form attached to the Narcissus as the shuttle leaves the other destroyed creature behind (such an ending is present in O’Bannon’s draft). Needless to say, this wasn’t filmed either, though Giger, in an interview with Famous Monsters magazine, once suggested otherwise: “Oh, yes. There was an egg on board [the Narcissus]. Once we showed a preview audience a final scene where there was a cocoon in a corner of the shuttle. That was very nice but now it is no more. There were a lot of different ideas in the original version that they thought it was best to take out. I don’t know whether it was a good idea to take it all out. I just saw some rushes and they looked good. But if Ridley decided to take it out, then it should have been taken out, because I think he is a genius.”
Aside from Giger’s quote on this, the anecdote hasn’t been corroborated anywhere else. Given the extreme nature of that day and a half’s shooting, this can likely be chalked up to something misremembered. Either way, here’s the storyboard for the shot:
“We were pretty well on budget with Alien,” Scott said in an interview with Paul M. Sammon in 1996, “but the film was budgeted at $8.9 million and we went to $9.2 or $9.4. So I went about $500,000 over budget … mostly because of one scene. Because certain people didn’t want to do the end capsule, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scene of Alien. I said, ‘Are you kidding? We must shoot this! That is the real last act!’ … So I walked into Blade Runner from Alien, believe it or not, with a tiny reputation for being excessive. And I thought, ‘Well jeez, if that’s all it takes to get his reputation, guys, I’ll be excessive.'”