“[The Alien] is elegant, fast and terrible. It exists to destroy—and destroys to exist. Once seen it will never be forgotten. It will remain with people who have seen it, perhaps in their dreams or nightmares, for a long, long time. Perhaps for all time.”
~ HR Giger, Mediascene, 1979.
Disappointed by the performance of his debut feature film, 1974’s Dark Star, writer Dan O’Bannon decided to make another attempt at the stuck-in-space-story, but this time with a major difference. He would, essentially, make the “same movie”, replete with a used universe aesthetic and weary, bickering crewmembers, but he would present it “in a completely different light.” This new story, tentatively titled Star Beast before becoming known as Alien, would not be a comedy, but a horror, and the beach ball alien nuisance featured in Dark Star would be replaced by a biomechanoid terror created by Swiss artist HR Giger.
At first O’Bannon imagined that the film’s creature would be an unseen, malevolent psychic force, much like the antagonist of Forbidden Planet. “There was my itch to do an alien in a movie that looked real,” said O’Bannon. “I think I went through and exhausted every possible type of science-fiction threat there is. I considered them picking up an alien disease, I considered a non-physical, kind of spiritual alien that would possess people…”
Ultimately, the developing Alien project was resigned to the desk drawer. For now. In the meantime O’Bannon left the United States for Europe to join the pre-production team on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, a team which included English artist Chris Foss, French comic book maestro Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and burgeoning Swiss artist HR Giger.
“The whole thing really started in Salvadore Dali’s house,” Giger revealed to Starlog magazine in ’79. “I have a friend in Spain [American painter Bob Venosa, who lived in Cadaqués] who is often in Dali’s house, and he brought some of my work to him… Jodorowsky came to Spain to ask Dali to play the Emperor in his film of Dune. So Dali showed him my work and Jodorowsky was impressed enough and thought I could do something for his film.” Giger travelled to Dali’s to meet the director, but missed him. “[But] I was able to meet Salvadore Dali,” Giger said. “He was very nice.” Giger later caught up with Jodorowsky in Paris, where the artist was formally asked to join Dune’s concept team, and was tasked with creating the desolate world of Harkonnen.
Giger had turned his hand at film design before for Swiss Made 2069 (1968), by F.M. Murer, a film about an alien that comes to Earth and records its experiences. “The story,” Giger explained, “somewhat in the vein of Orwell’s 1984, is very complex. It is in fact the combination of seven different stories, none of which are told entirely!”
“Jodorowsky found these very good and fantastically original sci-fi artists to design all of the sets and costumes and spaceships and everything,” O’Bannon said of the Dune conceptual period. “It was an amazing achievement. It was like being in an art museum.” But it was Giger’s work that stunned O’Bannon the most. “His visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality,” he said. “They started an idea turning over in my head – this guy should design a monster movie. Nobody had ever seen anything like this on the screen.”
Why did Jodorowsky’s Dune fall apart? Jodorowsky himself blamed American companies: “[Dune] had to be an international release, nothing less than 2,000 theatres in the US. American managers refused because Hollywood did not want to see a French production on the same level as theirs.” Dune and Alien conceptual artist Chris Foss elaborated: “The company financing the Dune project was called Camera One. The producer and, I think, Jodorowsky went to Los Angeles shortly before Christmas of 1975 with the hope of getting American interest in the film and setting up a co-production deal. I believe there was a disagreement in Los Angeles about how the film should be made. Bearing in mind how large the budget had by then become, the French company was unable -or perhaps unwilling- to finance it totally on its own.” With the film adaptation of Dune scuppered (for now), O’Bannon, Foss, Moebius, and Giger went their separate ways (… for now.)
O’Bannon had stopped over in America when he heard that Dune fell apart back in Europe, and he ended up staying with friend and eventual Alien executive producer, Ron Shusett. “There I was on his sofa,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films, “and I didn’t have any prospects at all. It was a terrible situation. I couldn’t stay on his sofa indefinitely so I hauled myself up out of my black depression and was going to do something – I’m going to write a script.”
With Giger’s imagery fresh in his mind, O’Bannon “ended up writing a script about a Giger monster … when I got back to America I was still haunted by his work. It was on my mind and when we sat down to do Alien I ended up visualising the thing as I was writing it … I found myself visualizing it as a Giger painting.”
When it came to designing Alien, O’Bannon used Jodorowsky’s gathering-of-artists technique as a template: “[Fox] put me on a salary to go in and design the whole movie. So I hired Ron Cobb and I asked for Chris Foss who was in England and they actually hired him and flew him over.” Recruiting Giger was, initially, relatively simple. “In August of ’77, I got a call from O’Bannon,” Giger told Starlog. “He asked if I would like to do some work for a film called Alien. I said, ‘yes, why not.'”
Dan’s unique race: In the original screenplay the Alien is not an implied bioweapon but rather a member of a long extinct race who copulate within pyramid structures. Since the planetoid’s extinct alien inhabitants were capable of architecture and religion, the Alien, as initially conceived, was not to be an entirely hostile creature. As it ages, O’Bannon explained, the Alien “becomes more and more harmless. Finally, its blood-lust gone, the Alien becomes a mild, intelligent creature, capable of art and architecture, which lives a full, scholarly life of 200 years.” To add to the concept of the Alien becoming more intelligent and emotionally content as it matures, O’Bannon excused the Alien’s blood-thirst aboard the Nostromo as a sort of juvenile panic that, given the right environment, may have passed: “It’s never been subject to its own culture, it’s never been subject to anything except a few hours in the hold of the ship. Quite literally, it doesn’t have an education. The Alien is not only savage, it is also ignorant.”
The adult Alien was described to Giger, in a pre-production letter from O’Bannon, as being “very mobile, strong, and capable of tearing a man to pieces. It feeds on human flesh. This creature should be a profane abomination. Our producers have suggested that something resembling an over-sized, deformed baby might be sufficiently loathsome. In any event, we wish you to feel free to create your own design.” Giger began his first concepts for the creature in August/September, 1977, but he wasn’t the only artist to try his hand at designing the Alien. Ron Cobb, who had designed Dark Star‘s vessel and who had drawn the sketches provided in O’Bannon’s script (as well as some of Star Wars‘ Cantina aliens), also made a stab at the creature.
An Alien design by Ron Cobb
Though O’Bannon loved Cobb’s drawings, they were lacking what only Giger was able to provide: a tangible nightmarish quality. “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. The only problem was, he’s a rationalist. I noticed this when we first started designing the picture. All these different things 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. And when it came to the Alien, he had the same problem. 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.”
Cobb however, in addition to designing the Nostromo exterior and interior, did contribute to the Alien in one fundamental way. Stumped at why the crew of his ship couldn’t simply shoot the Alien to death, and considering the idea of a bulletproof creature to be “the biggest gest-groaner of all time,” O’Bannon was stuck until Cobb made a key suggestion: “Ron Cobb gave continual input to the film right from the very start,” said O’Bannon. “He gave us one of the major plot elements: the monster has an incredibly corrosive bloodstream; one of the reasons the monster can’t be cut up or fired at is because its blood would eat right through the ship. That was Ron’s idea and I want everyone to know it … I wanted the thing to be, in every respect, a natural animal, which means yes, if you shoot it, it’ll die.”
Dan O’Bannon on Ron Cobb’s essential input: “What really bothered me about the whole idea of this thing running around on the ship was, why they didn’t just kill it? Why didn’t they spear the goddamn thing, or shoot it with some kind of gun that wouldn’t go right through it and penetrate the hull? Or why couldn’t they get a bunch of long pointed shafts and drive it out the airlock? I mentioned that to Ron Cobb, and he said, ‘Why not give it extremely corrosive blood that would eat through the hull?’ And I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t make much sense; but it would certainly make it very, very difficult for them to deal with it on board the ship’ – so I put it in.”
The inclusion of acid blood that could destroy the ship’s hull would lend the creature a whole new lethal dimension. Not only could the crew not kill it, but they would have to avoid injuring it also, (in one unfilmed scene, the Alien loses an appendage in a closing airlock door, which compromises the hull. Decompression is averted, but still affects the crew, which is why Ripley suffers an apparently spontaneous nosebleed as she confronts Ash.)
Even Cobb wasn’t the only one to tackle the creature’s design. “The first [Alien] concept was done by Dan O’Bannon,” Giger revealed. However, O’Bannon’s drawings were not meant to be a legitimate attempt at nailing the look of the creature, but simply to provide Giger with some creative input. “[O’Bannon] made some sketches and he also sent me some sketches by Ron Cobb. At that moment Ridley wasn’t involved. Later on, when Ridley became the director, we worked very closely together.”
An Alien sketch by Dan O’Bannon
Giger’s sketches of the Alien shape.
Getting Giger to agree to design the Alien was simple enough, but getting the film’s producers and the production company to hire him was the hurdle. “The first guy I started pushing at them to do the monster was Giger,” said O’Bannon. “I had a heck of a time trying to get the producers to hire Giger. They really didn’t want to get involved because he’s not a movie professional, he was some ‘whing-ding’ in Zurich.”
The key to officially hiring Giger was director Ridley Scott. “Ridley saw Giger’s stuff and he was snowed,” explained O’Bannon. Scott threatened to walk from the project if Giger wasn’t brought on, and the producers acquiesced, though it would be a decision that they later praised, with David Giler telling Cinefantastique, “it’s a richly textured film, thanks to HR Giger’s work.”
“My first movie is pretty good actually, called The Duellists. And that was criticized for being too beautiful, and you know, I took that to heart. So the next one was Alien, and that was less beautiful but more impressive and more grungy. I was criticized for a lack of character development. I said, ‘What fucking character development do you need when you’ve got that son of a bitch on board?'”
~ Ridley Scott, Wired interview, 2007.
“I was first introduced to HR Giger’s artwork while in the very early stages of pre-production for Alien,” explained Ridley. “Dan O’Bannon showed me a copy of Giger’s Necronomicon book, and I immediately saw the potential his work had to offer the project. The producers were a bit hesitant in initially committing to his art until they had a director locked up. In this case that wound up being me. My enthusiasm with regard to the film increased significantly as I realized we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past. Initially, Giger wanted to design the creature from scratch. However, I was so impressed with his Necronom IV and V paintings from the Necronomicon book that I insisted he follow their form. I had never been so sure of anything in my life. They were quite specific to what I envisioned for the film, particularly in the unique manner in which they conveyed both horror and beauty.”
“I’d seen drawings that other people had tried [of the Alien],” Scott said to Fantastic Films magazine in 1979. “They always seemed to be of scaly bodies with claws or huge blobs that would move across the floor. There was no elegance to them, no lethalness. What emerged was a HR Giger-designed humanoid with distinctively biomechanoid tendencies … I mean, really, how many creatures in horror films have actually worked for you? People only accept them because that’s what they’re seeing … When we finally had something acceptable we stood back and looked at him. For better or worse, we were committed to that thing as the beast. He was great on paper, and when Giger put the model together, he looked terrific.”
“When we started,” Giger explained to FamousMonsters magazine, “Ridley said, ‘I haven’t seen any good monsters lately in films.’ I mean, to do a horror or monster movie nowadays we didn’t have many good examples … we decided to choose something from my Necronomicon book.”
Mia Bonzanigo, described as Giger’s “secretary-girlfriend-muse-model” by Cinefantastique, described Giger’s state of mind during production: “He used to have nightmares and would even talk in his sleep because of the terrible pressure imposed on him by the production,” (Giger and Mia, who can be seen in some of Alien‘s behind the scenes footage, would marry after the film’s production. They later separated.)
“Sometimes,” Giger said to FamousMonsters, “I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid I wouldn’t be ready with the design by the deadline. I mean, the Alien had to be the star of the film, and if the star is no good the film is lost.” Giger told Cinephage in 1992: “I still see the H stage, the studios at Shepperton, filled with smoke and oil burning. Outside, the sun was shining and we entered the studio and were suddenly in the mist. It was crazy! I had to be there every day. It was completely stressful … I wanted things to be done well.”
“In the first design for the Alien, he had big black eyes,” Giger told Starlog. “But somebody said he looked too much like a … what do you call it? A Hell’s Angel; all in black with the black goggles…”
“… And then I thought it would be even more frightening if there are no eyes! … Then when the camera comes close, you can only see the holes of the skull. Now that’s really frightening. Because, you see, even without eyes he always knows exactly where his victims are, and he attacks directly, suddenly, unerringly. Like a striking snake.”
Image copyright HR Giger.
At first, Giger was hired only to design the creature, but not to build it. That responsibility would be Roger Dicken’s, who was also to build the facehugger and chestburster. Before the Alien could be built however, they needed to cast somebody in the role of the creature so that the suit could be built to their specifications. At first Ridley considered that the Alien was a female creature, as he “wanted to not only have a strong heroine, but I also wanted to make the creature female as well: two women battling one another would have had a great sexual connotation.”
Ivor Powell explained how the (apparently embarrassing) search for a woman performer was thrust on to him: “The person that put the suit on had to be impossibly tall. We wanted them to be incredibly long-limbed, especially from the waist to the knee, so we started looking at women, and it fell to my job to try and bring in women. I remember one of the tallest models, and quite a well known model of the time, was this woman called Verushka, and she came in, and well literally there she was in a little pair of knickers and we asked her to crouch down -Ridley had this idea that it would be like a sort of praying mantis, and the way when you crouch down, the knees are impossibly high like a grasshopper- and so we went through all these pre-ambulations of trying to cast women [and] I had to photograph and take Polaroids of all these women in various states of undress, you know, for the Alien.”
“I wanted a very feminine creature,” Scott elaborated further. “The idea of associating danger and sexual desire, to have a creature that was at once desirable and lethal, and that was exciting. It was the eroticism in Giger’s work that had struck me immediately.”
Casting a woman however proved to be painstakingly difficult. “We couldn’t find a female tall enough,” said Scott. They turned to other, more eclectic measures. “I had a guy come into my office who ran around on his hands with his head tucked in and his feet stuck out,” Scott told Cinefex. “He looked like some strange sort of crab. He ran all over the top of my desk, and then hopped off on his hands and scuttled across the floor. It was amazing, but he was limited in what he could do. I even brought in a whole family of contortionists with the idea of taking an adult contortionist and then somehow strapping two very small children, who were also contortionists, on to him in various ways. You can imagine if you did that, and then covered them all with some sort of suit, you’d get a very strange-looking object. It could really scare the shit out of you coming down a corridor.”
While Ridley was trying to find his Alien performer, Roger Dicken was skeptical that one could be found, telling Cinefex, “I went to about three meetings in London and watched these characters rolling around on the floor and quite frankly, I thought it was a bit Mickey Mouse. I mean, it was obvious to me that none of this was going to work, but I had to just sit around wasting time while everybody else figured it out. I sat through a few more meetings while they ran through football players and wrestlers and tall men. Then, for a while, they thought they’d use an ordinary-sized guy so there wouldn’t be any problems with stunts and all. At that point, I even offered to be the monster myself. I figured if I was going to make the suit, I might as well be in it.”
The saving grace was a trip to the pub. “We started with a stunt man who was quite thin,” said Scott, “but in the rubber suit he looked like the Michelin Man. So my casting director [Peter Archer] said, ‘I’ve seen a guy in a pub in Soho who is about seven feet tall, has a tiny head and a tiny skinny body.’ So he brought Bolaji Badejo to the office … I said, ‘Do you want to be in movies?’ and he said, ‘Sure’. And he became the Alien.”
Bolaji Badejo, photographed by Eve Arnold.
“As soon as I walked in,” Bolaji told Cinefantastique, “Ridley Scott knew he’d found the right person.” Prior to filming, Badejo was placed on the Nostromo set with a mock-up Alien head and roamed the corridors on film, slithering, pausing, turning, kneeling, and prowling through the corridors to nail an appropriate system of movement for the beast.
“It’s very difficult for an actor to relate to what is, essentially, a beast. They know what it is, and they know there’s a man inside the suit, and they know the odds are they’ll never have to experience anything like it in their real lives … I think you’d probably die before the thing touched you anyway. I mean, you’d have a heart attack, right? You’d turn and see it and last about four seconds before you had a coronary, okay? So with Brett’s death, and subsequent run-ins with the Alien, it was always done with the ultimate feeling of a heart attack. The rush of a heart attack, even if the thing didn’t ever touch them.”
~ Ridley Scott, Fantastic Films, 1979.
“The idea,” says Bolaji, “was that the creature was supposed to be graceful as well as vicious, requiring slow, deliberate movements. But there was some action I had to do pretty quick. I remember having to kick Yaphet Kotto, throw him against the wall, and rush up to him. Veronica Cartwright was really terrified. After I fling Yaphet Kotto back with my tail, I turn to go after her, there’s blood in my mouth, and she was incredible. It wasn’t acting. She was scared.”
Casting a man in the role of the Alien “transformed” the creature, according to Scott, “into a man with a feminine shape – a hermaphrodite,” which suited him fine, since Scott was extrapolating from the natural world and, in the natural world, “there are insects like that.”
Giger told Cinefantastique that the Alien was, to him, “a hybrid [of male and female.]” Giger adds: “But Timothy Leary, in the preface he has written for Giger’s Alien, assumes that the creature is a woman.” The imagery of a female battling a female would later be explored by James Cameron in Aliens.
“In those days, it boiled down to a guy in a rubber suit. The thing that I had always worried about was that the monster wouldn’t be good, because they rarely are. Probably the last great monster was the little girl in the bed in The Exorcist. But all you had to put on her was the voice of Mercedes McCambridge – that one trick was chilling.”
~ Ridley Scott, Cinefantastique, 2008.
Given Giger’s artwork and with Badejo cast, Dicken and Ridley holed up in a flat near the studios and pieced together the Alien from the drawings and designs provided.
The production took a cast of Alien actor Bolaji Badejo and crafted the design around this model. Images courtesy of mauvais-genres.com.
At first they modelled it on Giger’s Necronom IV image, replete with eyes …
… and an elongated, penile head. This slavish obedience to the artwork caused logistical problems. Dicken told Cinefex: “In order to maintain the scale from Giger’s painting, the head had to be almost six feet long. It was just much, much too big to mount on a human form.”
“I was originally engaged to make a big creature,” said Dicken, “but I soon found that Alien was a ‘boardroom’ picture. One man wants a foot that way, another man wants a legs this way or a tail that way, and I can’t work like that.” When Giger saw Dicken’s rendition of his creature, he was aghast: “When I got to England I saw the large version of my large Alien and it looked terrible, like a dinosaur from Disneyland.”
“Dicken didn’t see himself as a slave to Giger’s design,” O’Bannon told Cinefex, “so he made a very free interpretation of it. He had no intention of literally changing this flat piece of artwork into a three-dimensional thing. It was just a design, and he was going to incorporate his own creative input and own unique texture. However, when Giger came over and looked at the way Dicken had sculpted his stuff, he said, ‘No, he doesn’t understand. It’s supposed to be exactly like I painted – this is different.'”
Dicken, exasperated by his lack of creative freedom, sent a letter to the production office, telling them that he couldn’t build the Alien. Giger’s diary revealed his thoughts at the time: “I sit in the garden at the King’s Head with Mia, thinking over what I said when I went to see Dicken. After the disappointing results we got from Dicken, and from a videotape we’ve received from America (where they made an Alien that looked much more like a dinosaur than my sketches) I was sure that it would not be possible to leave the Alien as I saw it to anyone else.”
“Giger fixes himself up to look like Dracula: he wears black leather, he has black hair, black eyes, and pale complexion, he never takes off his coat, his black leather jacket, and he had them set him up, built him a little sculpting studio in the corner of one of the sound stages with a padlock on it where he could work.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Fantastic Films, 1979.
Giger had already found Dickens attitude to be troubling. During their first meeting, “[Dicken] confesses to me that he finds my creatures repulsive abortions and would much rather make something beautiful.” With this in mind, Giger then took it upon himself to make a sculpt of the Alien. Gordon Carroll expressed surprise: did the artist have the technical skills? “I gulp, and repeat for the umpteenth time that I studied industrial design at the Zurich Art School for four years, and that I’m in no way ashamed to get my hands dirty at work.”
“Sculpting something is much more difficult than painting,” he told Cinefex, “because it has to look good from every angle. It’s even more difficult if the object has to move. My style of painting is a combination of art and technical stuff. I call it biomechanics -kind of a surrealist mixture of biology and technology and I wanted the Alien to have those same qualities. So I started with a kind of statue of Bolaji, and directly over that I modelled the shape of the Alien in plasticene, with bones and tubes and lots of mechanical things. The head I built up from a real human skull using plasticine and flexible piping … Then I started thinking. That long skull ought to have a function. I thought: I can make a long tongue come out. The end of the tongue even looks like the head of the chestburster. See the muscles and tendons of the jaw? We made them out of stretched and shredded latex contraceptives.”
“Giger then came in,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films, “and Giger has a feel for grace … So Giger started building up around this graceful figure, his pipes and tubes and running rotting sores and joints and pustules and strange shapes and building it up, and came up with something most bizarre. The plaster shop took a full cast of the actor, full body cast and mounted it standing up on its toes on a wooden base and Giger put it into his studio and he began to build up on it with clay and bones, an air conditioning duct, screws, and human skulls – the face of the thing is a real human skull. He took the skull and jammed it right on the front, riveted it in place, and then started modifying it …”
Despite the Alien taking definite shape, Dicken was still skeptical of the results, saying after the film was released: “Personally I think what they got in the end was disappointing. I think they blew it. I feel that if they left me to it they would have got what they wanted.”
One of the most interesting experiments was the attempt to make the Alien suit translucent. “Ridley also wanted the Alien’s body to be translucent,” Giger told TotalMovie magazine in 2001, “so you could see the black actor, Bolaji Badejo, moving like a spider-thing inside of this half transparent suit.” In his diary, Giger noted that: “One should be able to see the skeleton, the blood circulatory system, the organs etc.”
“[Ridley] said it might be good to use their physical look covered with sort of ‘transparent clothes’ so you could see the skin. But then we had trouble with transferring that concept into reality. It turned out to be a … how you say … a night dream … uh, a nightmare.”
HR Giger, FamousMonsters interview.
A prototype suit was made, but the material was not durable and would tear more easily than the rubber they eventually wound up using.
“They built special ovens for this plastic material,” said Giger, “like hot-melt vinyl, but it was not transparent enough to see through to the person behind it and it didn’t work.” Notably, the creatures in Prometheus are described as having translucent skin, so Giger and Scott’s wishes were fulfilled eventually. Click here for a separate article on the translucent suit.
The production had also planned to line the inside of the clear carapace with maggots, so that when the Alien leered at the camera the inside of its skull could be seen to crawl with life. Unfortunately, this experiment also failed when the maggots fell asleep under the hot studio lights and became inert.
The translucent suit today.
“At one stage,” Ridley told Cinefex, “I wanted to have a kind of subtle movement in the creature’s brain, so I thought maybe we could fill a pocket in the cranium with white maggots and let them crawl around in there. Even Giger went ‘Eeyuk!’ at that one. But I decided to try it, so I had these huge tins of maggots brought in. We couldn’t make it work, though, because the heat from the lights would put the bloody things to sleep and they’d just lie there like spaghetti. We tried using Spanish fish, which look kind of like wireworms, but they went to sleep too. So finally I had to give up.”
Later, Scott had another thought: “Afterwards, I thought we should have tried sprinkling LSD on sugar, because maggots love sugar. Then maybe we’d have gotten some reaction out of them.”
Building the Alien’s mechanical head was a job given to Italian special-effects guru Carlo Rambaldi. “After Star Wars,” Giger explained to Cinefantastique, “everybody was busy and working on different films, and they just could not find a monster-maker for Alien. Finally, producer Gordon Carroll came up with Carlo Rambaldi, who worked on King Kong, and who brilliantly devised the mechanical apparatus to animate the mouth I had designed for this monster.”
“He did most of his work from Los Angeles,” continues Giger, “but flew over to Shepperton for a week, during which time we worked together in close collaboration. We devised the muscles for the mouth of the monster … Carlo DeMarchis was one of Carlo Rambaldi’s assistants. When I modelled the Alien’s head, he made about six copies in polyester, which he sent to Rambaldi in Los Angeles, so that he could work out the inside mechanism. And when Rambaldi came over to Shepperton for a week, DeMarchis helped him put the parts of the mechanism together.”
Giger also decided, whilst crafting the head, to give the Alien metallic teeth. “I imagined them that way because for me the monster is both human and mechanical – more human than mechanical, though. So giving him steel teeth was a way to convey this two-fold nature.”
Another mechanical head was built by David Watling, who also built the Alien’s tail, but was never used in the film despite being ready to use before Rambaldi’s. According to Ivor Powell, this was because most shots of the Alien were filmed in close-up, and Rambaldi’s cable-operated Alien was far more practical to use than Watling’s radio-controlled head. “If we’d wanted a lot of long-shots,” Powell said, “with freedom from the cables, the Watling head would have been very useful.”
The completed Alien suit was ultimately very restrictive when it came to movement, and several planned scenes showcasing the Alien’s agility were scrapped. For example, Dallas’ death scene was slightly more elaborate, with the Alien vaulting down the ventilation shafts and bouncing off the walls as it lunged to snatch the Nostromo captain. Because the suit was so restrictive, this was cancelled in favour of the more claustrophobic shock of the Alien suddenly appearing before Dallas’ flashlight.
Ridley told Cinefex: “What I wanted was to have really huge air ducts – taller, in fact, than the corridors in the ship, so that when Dallas first sees it there, it’s standing on the roof of this giant wind tunnel, suspended upside down. Then I was going to have it roar down the tunnel toward him, running and jumping full-circle around the walls.”
“That thing [the Alien] was very supple looking,” O’Bannon said to Fantastic Films. “Unfortunately, the real grace was lost because the suit proved to be very awkward to move in. The actor wasn’t able to make many moves in a graceful manner. Ridley was forced to stage around the physical awkwardness of it. But the visual appearance of power and grace was retained, quite striking.”
Brian Johnson concurred: “The first costume was so cumbersome that the actor couldn’t do a great deal of movement in it … [Ridley] did want it to be fairly flexible. He wanted the creature to be able to roll up in a ball and that sort of thing. Well, they couldn’t do any of that in the beginning – the costume was just too rigid.”
Michael Seymour told Cinefex: “We had to be very careful about how we shot it. And we had countless discussions about that, because in the end if you held on it for more than a few seconds it became just another man in a rubber monster suit – and of course, that was unacceptable.”
Nick Allder also agreed, telling Cinefex: “We were really quite limited with what we could do with the Alien. At one point, the script called for it to run up and down the corridors like a human being; but when we finally got the finished costume, we stayed late one night -at the end of a day’s shooting- just to see what it looked like in the sets and to shoot a few tests. And of course, we found it would look ridiculous to see this thing running around – it would give the whole thing away immediately.”
“For both of them [Bolaji Badejo & stuntman Eddie Powell] getting dressed was a terrible ordeal. It took them at least an hour to get ready. The stuntman, especially, didn’t have a good time in the scene where he is hanging from the ceiling. He couldn’t see a thing, and he had to move by following instructions shouted up to him! These sufferings the stuntman and an actor standing in for Harry Dean Stanton had to endure for the two weeks it took to film the scene.”
~ HR Giger, Cinefantastique, 1979.
To help his performance, as well as his comfort within the restricting rubber suit, Bolaji undertook mime classes to perfect his alien gait. The Alien, apparently blind, was intended to be graceful and precise in its movement. At times it would strike “like a snake”, and at other times it would almost float towards its victims. A “beautiful, biomechanoid insect,” according to Scott, the Alien could be both a warrior and a dancer.
Bolaji as the Alien.
Ridley found his way around the cumbersome logistics of the suit in the editing room, where hours of footage of the Alien was cut away, until in the final movie the creature, even at the finale -and save for one infamous shot- is hardly revealed, only seen through stroboscopic lights. Since Ridley had also planned to keep the Alien hidden and mysterious for the majority of its screen time, sacrificing its mobility and stunts were not as crippling as he might have feared.
Thank **** for the Brits: Alien crew member Dennis Lowe shared this production story at Alien Experience: “Although designed by HR Giger, the Alien costume [or rather, the mechanical head ~ Val] was constructed by Carlo Rambaldi and, because Ridley wanted the jaws to drip with saliva, Rambaldi had plumbed a tube into the outfit for this purpose through which liquid could be pumped. When all was ready Ridley came over to Shepperton one evening to test this creation and immediately spotted a problem since the tube trailed behind the actor like a second tail.
‘Why the blazes is that pipe coming out of his backside?’ said Ridley in words a little less polite, ‘I can’t shoot it like that,’ whereupon Nick Allder stepped in to promise, ‘We’ll fix that tomorrow. Leave it to us.’ Roger went home, dived into the shed and plundered some stuff from his aero modelling days. The next day he fitted a battery pack and radio controlled receiver, wired them to an RC switch and attached a windscreen wiper pump. This was hooked up to a fuel tank, liberated from a model airplane, which has the advantage of continuous flow whatever the angle of operation. The whole contraption was installed inside the horns on the back of the Alien costume and the tank filled with a mixture of glycerin and water.
That evening when Ridley came to review the situation the stuntman, Eddie Powell, was in the costume and suspended on wires from the undercarriage leg of the spaceship. He was lowered, the jaws opened and, with just the right amount of sinister viscosity, the radio controlled alien drool oozed forth exactly on cue. A delighted Ridley was heard to mutter, ‘Thank **** for the Brits.'”
Bolaji wasn’t the only performer portraying the Alien. English animal impersonator, Percy Edwards, provided the Alien’s cries. For the scenes where the Alien descends on Brett and attacks Dallas in the ducts, it was played by veteran stuntman, Eddie Powell, since Badejo was too large to fit inside the ducts set and fell ill when strung up in the harnesses required for the leg room scene. Finally, stuntman Roy Scammell played the creature as it was ejected from the Narcissus.
“One of the most enthralling interviews was with the stunt man Eddie Powell. Name a SF film, indeed any film, made in England between 1946 and 1985 and it is almost certain that Eddie was involved in the stunt work. In fact Eddie was the original Alien in Alien, and not as cited in the credits: that stuntman apparently found the Alien costume too constraining and left the set. Eddie was called to take his place but even Eddie asked for modifications to be made to Giger’s original design so as to ensure better stability and mobility.”
~ Locus Magazine, Autumn 1999.
Powell would return to play an Alien in James Cameron’s first sequel, alongside a troupe of dancers, gymnasts and movie stuntmen.
There was some contention concerning the credit for the Alien’s portrayal, however. Powell, in 1995’s Dalekmania, is quoted as saying: “The other sci-fi film I’m known for is a film that Ridley Scott did – Alien, and I was brought in to play the Alien. The original person pulled out right at the very beginning -didn’t want to know about it- so I took over. I said to the producer three-quarters of the way through the film, ‘I hope I’m going to get the main credit for this.’ I just got it for the action for the Alien, which really upset me.”
An interview with Powell (conducted by Paul Parla) appeared in Movie Collector’s Magazine, issue 508, in 1996. The interview blurb reads: “Finally, Eddie Powell receives his due credit for having played the title role monster in the first Alien film which he, for years, felt cheated out of.” Powell died in August 2000.
“Never before was there a monster with such a long head, no?” said Giger. “I always liked that the Alien was not just a horrible, ugly monstrosity. I liked that it has an elegant, nice, beautiful head. For me, it’s not ugly.”
O’Bannon: “[Giger] wanted clay and basic sculpting materials and he also wanted bones; as many bones as they could lay their hands on. They ended up buying all this stuff, veterinary supplies, medical supplies, and the little sculpting studio turned into a bone yard. He had snake skeletons in perfect preservation, they looked like lace. And junk too, just old smelly bones out of a slaughterhouse and he just started sculpting.”
Giger: “We built up details with plasticene and even some real bones—for the rib cage. And we used tubes and piping and other technical stuff. This is my way, you see: he is half organic and half technical. The Alien’s biomechanical.”
Metallic pipes,grilles and cords make up the Alien’s torso, thighs, legs, arms, etc. Ridley suggested that they add a tail to give some movement to the creature; this added appendage was built by David Watling, with mechanical vertebrae to mimic a real creature’s tail. “The tail of the monster never worked,” Giger later said. “Ridley wanted it to beat the air.” Dan O’Bannon suggested that the Alien have an extra thumb. The creature also sports a suggestive, hermaphroditic vulva-like opening on its groin that reappeared in Aliens but was lost in subsequent sequels.
From Dark Star‘s beach ball to Alien‘s star beast, O’Bannon’s vision of a cinematic Giger monster was finally realised. The creature’s nightmarish quality was so pervasive that it even gave star Sigourney Weaver nightmares. “I dreamt I was visiting some people up in Vermont in a farm house and all of a sudden the Alien came out of the chimney.” Even Aliens star Lance Henriksen was afflicted: “The only [creature] that’s appeared in my dreams is the one from Alien,” he said in 2011. “It’s very, very much attacking our core, a reptilian core. That creature is something like a baby and a tic combined, it’s very frightening. And so, it scares the unconscious core. And that [nightmare] I had scared the hell out of me. I mean it really did.”
“It’s easy to feel that [the Alien is evil] because [it] kills almost the entire crew … I love my creatures. Maybe they do terribly evil things, but they are still nice to look at. They are elegant, sleek—nice in a strange way, I suppose.”
~ HR Giger, Questar Magazine.
For Giger, the film’s success was double-edged. It brought him great acclaim, but, to his dismay, he found his artistic reputation being held in scrutiny. “You know what I’m afraid of?” he asked FamousMonsters. “As an artist, if you do too much work for film they say, ‘Aw, he’s a film architect,’ or something like that. Suddenly they don’t take you seriously. If you work for the opera, that’s something else. But film, that’s always, ‘eh,’ you know? So I have to be careful, otherwise … Maybe it’s a good thing to work in films, but it can turn against you.”
He opined to Total Film magazine in 2003: “The first time I saw the film, I was depressed. I wasn’t happy with the things I created. All I could see were the imperfections. The first time you see the Space Jockey, for instance, he’s not painted. It wasn’t finished. And I wasn’t happy with the Alien. It helped that the creature was so bad because Ridley could only show it in glimpses. However, you are always the winner if you have created something that is enjoyed and, although my reputation as an artist has suffered, that’s how I feel about Alien.”
Dan O’Bannon on the other hand was relentlessly ecstatic about Giger’s creation: “I truly believe that that monster in Alien is absolutely unique looking,” he said to Fantastic Films. “I think that it is two strides beyond any monster costume in any movie ever before. And some of them are goodies, like the creature from The Black Lagoon, or This Island Earth, the bug with the exposed brain, some of those were terrific. I really think this is a step beyond. I don’t think that anybody’s seen anything like this.”
“Alien is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn’t had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn’t have been as good, I don’t think.”
~ Ridley Scott, Wired, 2007
Alien also became a thorn of sorts for Giger when the abandoned Dune project came back around. Ridley Scott was initially hired to helm the film, and he brought Giger into the fray to resume his work, previously abandoned in the Jodorowsky days. Unfortunately, the death of Scott’s brother, Frank, saw Ridley withdraw from the project, and Dune stalled yet again. When David Lynch took up directorial duties, Giger, a Lynch fan, sought involvement, but was rebuffed by the new director. “Through friends I asked Lynch if he was interested in my cooperation,” said Giger. “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.”
Ever gracious, Giger finished by saying: “I think he did a great job. 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.”
“I have worked on enough films now to realize that nothing may quite satisfy me the way the original Alien film collaboration did. There, I was given the freedom to do everything myself, from the design to the actual physical sculpting. I made myself a prisoner on that film and, in fact, that is what is necessary to allow for the fulfillment of the successful evolutionary process known as creature development and design. I must have my hand on the creature from the beginning to the end or have a top sculptor or fabricator to work with me in the atelier in Zurich. Although film-making is, ultimately, a compromise between many creative sensibilities, it is advisable to start with a strong hand. It is the nature of dreams that they are never to be fully realised.”
~ HR Giger.