This interview, conducted by Dennis Fischer, is reproduced here as printed in Monsterland Magazine’s The Aliens Story (1988) by James Van Hise.
How did you become involved with Alien?
That was a long process. I’m bad at dates and time durations. Sometime after the first attempt to film Dune collapsed in Paris, about 1977 and Dan [O’Bannon] came back, downhearted and starving for a while, he eventually put together a screenplay with Ron Shusett of Alien, and they were making the rounds with it. While they were finishing up, they came to me and asked me to do a series of paintings to help sell it, so I knocked off a bunch of rather small paintings. Dan found some money somewhere and paid for my time and such, and again I was rather grateful to help Dan out because he had always been involved with some projects I could get excited about. So it was mainly the fact that I liked Dan and I liked Ron and I liked the project.
I did this series of paintings based strictly on Dan’s first script, and they went though a variety of adventures, and ended up selling it to Brandywine and Gordon Carroll and eventually 20th Century Fox. When Brandywine decided to go on a search for a director, and eventually set their sights on a production day, Dan convinced them they should use me to do preliminary design along with Chris Foss from England and hopefully a few other people.
Initially Chris Foss and I worked here at Fox for about seven months in a little office they found for us. We were just cranking out nondescript designs -interiors, exteriors, spaceships, et cetera- carrying some of my early painting ideas into more elaborate versions with input from trial directors along the way, such as Walter Hill. They were elaborate, but they weren’t too practical. It was fine being paid just to sit there and design and design. Finally they settled on Ridley Scott and things began to get underway.
They realised that, yes, indeed, they were going to London. There was talk about it, but we were never sure. Ridley decided he liked the preliminary stuff I’d done. Chris Foss had to go back to London before us, but he was eventually taken on the film again for a while. Ridley Scott liked my work and wanted me to come to London because there was a chance I was going to be kicked off at that point. The producer, who was really calling the shots, wasn’t really sure about my work. He couldn’t always relate to it. He wasn’t sure I had the right approach. I never got the impression they were impressed. Dan always liked what I was doing and he was always puzzled about the producer’s reactions.
It was Ridley Scott who saved the day and got me to London. Naturally they had to stat all over again, design the film over again, only this time with an English production designer and a couple of art directors and a lot f other people. So I was on the periphery again, kind of having to prove myself.
As the additional six months passed in London, they gave me more and more to design. I ended up making more and more of a contribution to the film. So I was really quite satisfied that I had had an opportunity to do a lot of very, very basic designing on the film. I was looking for experience. It was a good team, and the other designer that Dan wanted to get on the film was H.R. Giger from Switzerland who [Dan] tried to get brought out here. But he wasn’t able to. Of course, in London they got him.
Giger ended up being very intellectual in designing the alien culture, the monster itself, and things. Eventually he built the monster. He asked that they build it as he designed it, so he insisted on doing ti himself. It is rather spectacular.
I, along with the production designer, the art director and assorted draftsmen, did the Earth technology. I designed quite a bit of it myself, including almost total design on a number of major sets. It was a great experience. And when all the designing was done, at the time the basic designing of the sets was completed, they were well into about a third of the shooting. I saw about a third of the shooting, then I took off for a little vacation around France, around Europe.
Dan’s original idea was that I would design all of the Earth technology, Chris Foss would design all of the alien technology, and Giger would design the monster, That’s what he wanted. As it turned out, I had a lot of influence in the design of the Earth technology, but I wasn’t the sole designer. There were a lot of people working on it. So it is a patchwork of many, many contributions, and they don’t always fit.
Ridley Scott had very, very strong ideas about all of it, which was sometimes good and sometimes confusing. Not everything fit together as well as it could if it had been designed by one person.
As it turned out, Giger designed, as well as the monster, most of the alien technology, so it all kind of fits together. If there’s one design concept which will dominate the film, it will be Giger’s. He was responsible almost solely for the look of most of the alien technology, the creature and everything.
Could you relate any of these problems in filming Alien?
I saw that there were a lot of disappointments, a lot of misunderstandings. There was a lack of direction in the design of the film. I expected a lot of this to happen. it was a big production. There was a lot of money involved. There were a lot of people involved, so I knew that it wouldn’t be a hard, tight concept. I knew that they would stray away from Dan’s script, so I wasn’t as disappointed about it as Dan was.
It’s a shame. I think they should have stuck closer to the original concept. They should have given some of the designers a little more freedom. And so there are a lot of things that were very annoying. But it was the first time a lot of these people had made a film of this type. They weren’t aware of the sensitivities that certain people like Dan and I might have about certain inconsistencies. All in all it proceeded well enough in my point of view.
There is no point in getting into specific personalities. There were just misunderstandings and a lack of clarity.
I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere, because of what they 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. I was more concerned with certain inconsistent looks and elements of believability being retained. Sometimes I couldn’t make my point and other times I couldn’t because they wouldn’t understand them. I just couldn’t communicate certain ideas. I didn’t have enough power. Dan had more power than I did, so it was frustrating.
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.
There is a good look to it and a number of spectacular ideas that survive. A few were innovated by the staff that were really quite good. Perhaps we didn’t recognise how good they were at the time, but there were some good new ideas.
Do you recall any humorous incidents during the filming?
One of the things Dan insisted on was that there be a cat on board. So there’s a mascot. A kitty roams around the ship. Of course, working with animals on a spaceship set creates ridiculous problems.
I had to design a cat box, a pressurised cat box, which eventually they decided was too elaborate. There were elements to get this cat through all the scenes. They had a scene where we wanted to shoot the last surviving crew member desperately looking for the cat to rescue. To take it off the ship because she has to leave because they are going to blow the whole ship up. She’s looking for the cat. So they had to have a scene where the cat was sleeping in a control seat, and she comes in crawling and finally sees it and startles the cat by touching a button. The seat jumps a little and the cat runs off. She has to grab it, put it into this little box, and run out.
The whole thing, of course, was to get this cat to sleep in this little chair. I went out there one day ad saw this ludicrous situation. Here is the entire crew of this huge spaceship set, the control room, the lights, the camera, the dolly, the director, the assistant director, an the make-up people and all the actors, and the assorted little cat cages that they had full of cats for different takes. Once the cat got startled, they had to use a different cat, so they all looked alike. We’re all sitting around very tense, waiting. Everybody is being very quiet while someone is trying to get this cat to go to sleep on this control seat. Finally the assistant director, with this very loud megaphone -the public address system was shot- says, ‘Stand by! The cat’s lying down, the cat’s lying down. Stand by!’
Everybody’s getting ready, and finally he says, ‘What? It’s asleep! It’s asleep!’ and everybody says, ‘Go!’ and everyone comes out and does the scene. They shoot, ‘Here kitty, kitty. Here kitty kitty,’ going along until they startle the cat. Then they have to do it all over again.
They have to get this other cat, and they have to be calm, and wait for this cat to go to sleep. It was amazing, just amazing, because the whole deck of the spaceship was filled.
The control rooms and aid stations and landing gear were 30 feet high – the immense landing legs on the surface of the planet. They used children in spacesuits, much like they did in Destination Moon, to make the ship look even larger. Those poor little kids were fainting in those spacesuits because it was so hot. They filled this whole stage full of fog, which is just kind of an oil solution on an element and is just ghastly, horribly hot. The kids were walking around in heavy suits, little red faces dying inside. By and large it was kind of desperate and grim.
I’ve always had a very realistic idea of what was involved in making a film, so it didn’t bother me a great deal. It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointments, But it was very exciting to see something you drew the plans for being built – these immense sets and huge set pieces. To be able to stand and walk through them is always something I’ve wanted to do. I must say, I do enjoy learning. I do enjoy making a mistake and realising how to do it right the next time. There was a lot of that.
It was a tremendous accumulation of knowledge. This and that. Now I see how to do it! How to use materials and how to fit lights in.
I actually designed a number of the sets in a very, very complete way. I supervised the dressings of them and everything. I hope that in the future I will have more power and certainly more confidence and ability. There were a lot of things I hadn’t known. It was a great experience for me.
It was not enjoyable for Dan, but I hope to do it again. I hope to work with Dan again, of course, in some future project.