Filming the Fourth Act

“The Creature stands.
Comes for her.”
~ Alien shooting script.

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.”

“Everything was done in a rush at that stage. When the Alien is shot out the back door, we were allotted a day and a half’s shooting. What’s seen on screen is the test. That is madness. I’d take four days to do the same thing properly in a television commercial! Madness! If I’d gotten it totally wrong we’d have re-done it, but they said it was good enough. That was heard a lot on this film. ‘Don’t go any further, that’s good enough. Nobody’s going to notice it.’ Well, I notice it.”
~ Ridley Scott.

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.

Ridley directing the crew prior to filming the finale. “Roy Scammell is the stuntman who fell on elastic and then got pulled back up,” Ridley explained on the 1999 DVD commentary. Scammell was dropped from the upside-down Narcissus set and then hauled up again to simulate the Alien drawing itself along the harpoon wire, pulling itself back towards the ship. In return, Ripley blasts the Alien with the shuttle’s engines. “There’s the water effect of the engines going on which I thought was particularly successful … it’s a plasma engine of course.” For the effect of the Alien being expelled by the blast, the crew “cut him loose and then [let him] drop, [and] he just clipped me, nearly knocked me out when they dropped him.”

The ejected Alien. According to Giger, the producers insisted on a full-body shot of the creature for the finale. However brief, the shot perhaps shows too much of the stiff rubber suit. “What I didn’t like much was the end of the film when you can see that the Alien is just a man in a rubber suit,” said Giger. “But the people at Twentieth Century Fox thought that a full figure shot was needed.”

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.

Ripley and the Alien tussle outside the Narcissus …

She takes aim with a pistol …

… injures the Alien …

… allowing her the opportunity to get back inside the Narcissus and lock the Alien out …

… she turns on the thrusters, which catch the Alien in their path …

… and the Alien is utterly disintegrated.

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:

Stowaway.

“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.'”

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7 Comments

Filed under Alien

7 responses to “Filming the Fourth Act

  1. S@ti

    Having an egg on board of the Narcissus would totally destroy the Ripley character as we know her (even from the first movie alone). There is no way she would not do a thorough sweep of the lifeboat. There is no way she would miss an egg or a cocoon or anything else alien.

    Same reason I dislike Alien 3, since Ripley has just witnessed an alien queen stowing away on a dropship, so there is plenty of reason for her to do a sweep of the Sulaco (even if it’s only with the aid of an on-board detector/surveillance system). Having an egg in the beginning of A3 not only hurts because it’s illogical, but it attempts to destroy Ripley as a character. For this reason, I think it’s a really poor decision to continue the story.

    Also, the ending where there is an alien stowaway on the Narcissus, would have been a cliché, which is fortunate that it did not make it into the final cut of this brilliant and revolutionary sci-fi horror.

    • Bishop placed the eggs there. Weyland Yutani basically coded a childish humanity in him which was just enough to relax Ripley. And besides, after the end credits of Aliens, you can hear the the footsteps of a pitter patter facehugger. I remember being disappointed by these facts as well, but one cannot fight the company. Crew is always expendable. ^

      • S@ti

        Facehugger pitter-patter at the end of Aliens in 1986? Nonsense. You are referring to the sound of an egg opening during the end credits – but that was not added, until the Special Edition in 1992, and Cameron admittedly only did that, because “it sounded cool”, but that doesn’t mean that it has any plot relevance – especially in light of the fact that it was not there originally.

        “Bishop placed the eggs there. Weyland Yutani basically coded a childish humanity in him which was just enough to relax Ripley.”

        This could be an interesting scheme cooked up by WY, and at first sight it makes diabolical sense. But I have problems with this scenario. Did Bishop had the time to do it? Eggs are not activated by movement in their proximity? Not even when they are grabbed and taken away? When did Bishop have time to place the egg into… the ceiling of a random corridor on the Sulaco, no less? He was very swiftly ripped apart by the Queen, so I think he did not have time and legs to do that…

        So Bishop’s alleged treachery is very interesting, but it isn’t backed up by a lot (or dare I say: any) evidence in Aliens.

  2. Christopher Davis

    Ridley Scott reportedly said that originally he wanted a much darker ending. He planned on having the alien bite off Ripley’s head in the escape shuttle, sit in her chair, and then start speaking with her voice in a message to Earth. Apparently, 20th Century Fox wasn’t too pleased with such a dark ending.
    IMDB (trivia)

    • Pablo

      I wouldn’t have been pleased with such an ending either. The ending is perfect including Hansen’s music.

      Wow Ridley must have been in a nasty little mood when he thought up that dark ending.

    • That would be cool if the alien did talk. That juxtaposition would be mind blowing or maybe the opposite…stupid. Hard to say what it would turn out like. Ridley Scott did say that the alien was resting in the shuttle because it was dying and had completed its cycle. That is ridiculous for the “perfect organism” to have such a short lifespan. RIdley’s mind must have been fried at that point of the production to say that.

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