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Alien: the 1978 Scripts

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Alien’s script, much like the creature itself, was an ever-evolving beast. That Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay was rewritten by Walter Hill and David Giler is pub trivia; but what shapes the script took between its first incarnation in 1976 and the final draft of the film issued December 1978 is something of a mystery. I have spent some time trying to find different variations of the script from throughout 1978, the year that Alien finally went into production and, it seems, underwent some of its more drastic changes from O’Bannon’s: Ripley being changed into a woman (occurring sometime in early ’78 when Ridley first came aboard), the near excision of the Space Jockey, and various permutations of the Nostromo crew’s fates. There was also a larger battle waging between O’Bannon, Ron Shusett, and the producers at this time concerning whether the film should feature alien civilisations and pyramids or a government conspiracy that depicted the Alien as a bioweapon encountered in an installation known only as the Cylinder.

The aforementioned concept appears in a script in my possession that is, unfortunately, undated, so I cannot tell if it is from 1977 or 1978 (I suspect early ’78) and I cannot compare its contents to other scripts from early 1978 because I’ve yet to peruse any scripts prior to June 1978.

So, I am putting forth all the different variations of the script that I know of from 1978. Perhaps someone who is luckily enough to possess one of these drafts will be able to let me know of any substantial or notable differences that occur within or between them.

The first script I can find for the year is dated February. This is the month where pre-production was really kicking into gear, with Ridley being hired, the cast and production crew being assembled, and the visual design of the film being ironed out. It’s possible this is the first draft to feature Ripley as a woman.

Alien February 1978

The next picture here is cut off, but the script date is intelligible as March:

Alien March 1978

Another Revised Draft appeared in May:

Alien May 1978

Next up is the Revised Final Draft, dated June. Apparently this is the last draft that Walter Hill and David Giler worked on together. “The last couple we did in New York in my room at the Navarro (now the Ritz Carlton) while I was prepping The Warriors,” said Hill, but his involvement with that film apparently caused consternation between him and the Alien production in England, who were attempting to reconcile disparate visions for the film. “And finally at the last minute,” said Dan, “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.’”

Alien June 1978

Rewrites carried out by O’Bannon (apparently aided by Shusett, Scott, and Gordon Carroll) were dizzying: Revisions came on July 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 17th, August 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 24th… essentially culminating in a new draft dated October. “It’s amazing,” said Cobb at the time. “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.”

Alien October 1978

A final draft was pieced together in December, some two months after principal photograph had concluded. The first inner page notes: “This script reflects dialogue changes added in post production for story clarification. Changes also reflected are: all computer readout information, miniature effects shots, scene composition and scene omissions, all as written and edited after completing principal photography on October 21st, 1978.”

Alien December 1978
If anyone has these scripts in their possession, most certainly the pre-June drafts, then please give me a shout, either in the comments or via e-mail. Much appreciated!

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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. Courtesy of Harry Harris.

“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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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.

defiled

‘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 wage 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,” he continues, “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.”

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“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.”

“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 and its Antecedents

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“Existing is plagiarism.”
~ E.M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered, 1983.

“When I saw Alien for the first time,” writer Mark Ellis told Starlog magazine in 1992, “about thirty minutes into it I turned to my soon-to-be wife Melissa and grumbled, ‘Aw, hell this is just an uncredited remake of It! [the Terror from Beyond Space.]’ I still look at Alien as just a remake, and I groaned at the end when they dispatched the monster. They couldn’t even think of a better way to get rid of this damn thing than to have to borrow from It! again. The picture just didn’t do much for me.”

Ellis is in rare company these days, but he was correct about one thing—Alien’s resemblance to It! was no accident. “If somebody is responsible for stealing the idea,” David Giler said to Cinefantastique magazine in 1979, “it’s [O’Bannon and Shusett]. They signed a paper saying it was an original idea. If it isn’t, they lied to us. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that O’Bannon stole the idea, I must tell you.”

If Giler was incensed and accusatory at the charge, Dan O’Bannon was positively jubilant and unashamed of his pulp roots. “I didn’t steal from anybody,” he explained, “I stole from everybody!” The works most commonly cited and acknowledged by O’Bannon as key influences on Alien include 1956’s Forbidden Planet and the aforementioned It! The Terror From Beyond Space, released in 1958. Literary influences include a wealth of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy comic strips as well as the collective works of HP Lovecraft. Other possible sources include Planet of the Vampires (Dan and Ridley claimed not to have seen it) and A.E. van Vogt’s novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (Dan never read it.)

O’Bannon’s space comedy Dark Star was the largest template for Alien, since disaffected crew-mates, a dingy ship with a used universe aesthetic, an alien intruder, an airduct stalking sequence and third act self-destruct devices all feature in his first cinematic effort. “Alien was very similar,” he said in 1979. “It was just, ‘Well, I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’” Of course, that doesn’t preclude the other films in this article from influencing Alien; they certainly did, but were expressed through Dark Star first.

First, a minor but related digression…

Originality is a modern concern. Literature and film, like man, is no island. They thrive by adaptation and appropriation. Appropriating other stories for frameworks, themes and motifs goes back to the dawn of storytelling: it is why we find an abundance of Flood myths in comparative mythologies; it’s how the Arthurian canon managed to evolve from British comitatus poesies into the French romances of Lancelot and Guinevere and the exploits of the Round Table; it’s why we find Tolkien’s Smaug first appearing in the climax of Beowulf; it is how Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues became the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story – in fact, the bulk of the Shakespearean canon are retellings of older works: Romeo & Juliet for one has a multitude of predecessors. What makes ‘new’ pieces of fiction relevant is the ability to recontextualise older works for newer generations, hopefully with the addition of new meanings, applications and resonances; they should master repetition without replication; its effect must be enrichment rather than robbery. It should encourage rivals, not rip-offs.

Thanks to the embarrassment of riches that Alien was blessed with –Ridley Scott’s directorial eye, the artistry of Ron Cobb, HR Giger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud and innumerable others– it succeeded in becoming more than its constituent parts, redefining well-worn tropes and becoming a milestone as a result. It is not a monster-on-a-ship movie (and what is that particular genre if not the Minotaur and the Maze?), it is the monster-on-a-ship movie. In film, this is not unique, Star Wars being the most famous example – a blend of Flash Gordon and Campbellian monomyth and Kurosawa; a fantasy interspersed with science fiction and the Western.

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It is worthwhile to analyse Alien’s ‘grandfathers’ to discern what they passed on. In director Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space a rescue crew is sent to Mars to investigate the fate of a previous expedition. They find one survivor, but suspect him of murdering his comrades. The survivor, Col. Carruthers, insists than an alien entity is responsible. The rescue crew take the Colonel and depart for Earth. Unfortunately, the alien has stowed aboard the ship and starts picking them off. With their weapons ineffective, the survivors retreat to the ship’s control room and, cornered, they don spacesuits and expose the creature to the vacuum of space, quickly suffocating it. The similarities to Alien should not need pointing out.

In 2012 Cinema Dope asked the writer of the It! screenplay, Jerome Bixby, to weigh in. “Frankly,” he answered, “I feel like the grandfather of Alien.”

“There’s a whole roster of similarities between what I wrote and [Alien],” he continued. “They’re both about a small group of people trapped aboard a spacecraft with an inimical creature out to get them and which, in fact, knocks them off one by one. No problem there; that’s a pretty general plot outline. In both stories the creatures use the ship’s air ducts. In both stories they are held off with gas and electricity. And at the end of both stories, they’re dispatched by suffocation, by evacuating the creatures from the ship and depriving them of air.”

Bixby, far from feeling outraged or shortchanged, was upright about the fact that It! was also the sum total of many other science-fiction films that had come before. “In all honesty, my story was also derivative,” he told Cinema Dope. “Essentially what I did was take Howard Hawks’ The Thing and play it aboard a spaceship. But I didn’t copy the storyline; I used the film ‒a masterpiece in the genre‒ as inspiration for my story. The Hawks film has long been a model for SF writers.”

In a more level-headed discussion with Cinefantastique magazine David Giler admitted these realities and was unfazed by the similarities between Alien and any of its predecessors. “We only began to hear about It! The Terror towards the end of production,” he said. “I haven’t seen it, but I know of it. We were convinced we were doing something new stylistically, even if the basic outlines were the same. I gather the Alien-hiding-on-a-space-ship idea is pretty much a classic premise with science fiction writers, like the gunfight in a western. So the similarities you refer to didn’t bother us.”

… I think that there were two versions of Alien completed, a scary one and a silly one. The day before the premiere, the theater managers watched them both and decided to show the silly one. It is actually an updated remake of the 1958 film, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, using a squid, a catfish with teeth and inflatable dolls of Heckle and Jeckle, the cartoon magpies. In the future Mr. O’Bannon should refrain from boasting until he sees what kind of film he actually made.
Thomas Brayman
Omaha, NE
~ Letters page, Starlog #26, January 1979.

In Forbidden Planet a spaceship is sent to a distant world to investigate the fate of a previous expedition. Near the planet’s orbit they receive a signal warning them to stay away, which they ignore. When they arrive they find that only two people (Dr. Morbius and his daughter) have survived the assault of a mysterious alien being. It is revealed that eons ago a technological civilization was mysteriously wiped out. A remnant device called the Great Machine has the power to manifest thoughts into reality – and it is revealed that the mysterious psychic force running amok is a manifestation of Dr. Morbius’ Id. In the end, Dr. Morbius and his psychic offspring are annihilated when Morbius sets the planet to explode, and the investigatory crew escape with his daughter.

The influence on Alien may not be entirely clear here, but we should look to Dan’s original screenplay. There, he wrote of a spaceship crew who decide to investigate an apparent SOS (later revealed to be a warning) on a mysterious planet. In the screenplay, the planet contained the ruins of a long destructed alien (or Alien) race. The crew find evidence of another alien species (later nicknamed the Space Jockey in future drafts) on the planet: they were prior explorers who had been decimated by an unknown force, which later turns out to be the long dormant spore of the indigenous Alien. This set-up was entirely excised from the film, but the influence of Forbidden Planet should be clearer. O’Bannon, when first writing the screenplay in 1972, even considered depicting his Alien as “a non-physical, kind of spiritual alien that would possess people,” not too unlike Dr. Morbius’ murderous projection. There is also another similarity in that both Dr. Morbius and Ash share an immeasurable thirst for knowledge that is ultimately destructive. Ash’s obsession with the Alien, clearly, goes beyond protocol and detached fascination.

“I always felt that the author of the Alien script had probably seen my film and gotten some inspiration from it. Ridley’s film is like a greatly enhanced, expensive and elaborated version of Queen of Blood.”
~ Curtis Harrington, terrortrap.com, 2005.

There is also Mario Bava’s 1965 movie Planet of the Vampires. In Bava’s film a spaceship picks up a mysterious beacon emanating from an unexplored planet. Whilst exploring the hellish landscape they find a derelict spacecraft containing the long dead corpses of another exploratory alien race, who have been killed by some malignant force on the planet. This force possesses the human crewmen, incites them to murder, and reanimates their corpses. “I was aware of Planet of the Vampires,” said O’Bannon, “[But] I don’t think I had seen it all the way through. I had seen clips from it and it struck me as evocative. It had the curious mixture that you get in these Italian films of spectacularly good production design with an aggressively low budget mentality.”

A.E. van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle has also been touted as an influence, but this has been categorically denied by O’Bannon. Still, van Vogt litigated Twentieth Century Fox over the similarities, and Fox settled out of court. Given Dan’s willingness to attribute ideas to their original sources (he has likewise singled out the individual contributions of Shusett, Cobb, and Ridley on many occasions) it seems odd that he would celebrate every other influence, but then not give van Vogt due credit.

“There were comic books [that inspired Alien] too: EC’s Weird Science and its companion publication, Weird Fantasy. I recall one fondly, about seeds from outer space which fell onto the deck of a Navy destroyer, and an incautious sailor ate one. A horrible, tentacled monster hatched out of him.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Something Perfectly Disgusting.

Another comic tale featuring a creature erupting from a man’s body was Weird Science’s ‘Seeds of Jupiter’, featured in the July/August edition in 1951.

wierdscience4

Alien is not only a successful amalgam of various science fiction influences but also contains obvious consonances with the horror genre. The story of the Nostromo could easily be that of the Demeter, the ship that Dracula stowed upon on his way to London. And if its behaviour or function was similar to monsters in many other films, the Alien itself was not — a triumph of design and presentation, it put a cap on the age of amorphous blobs and pod people and inflated reptilemen and any other rubber exaggeration. Such creatures would continue to appear in B-movie schlock (as would a number of biomechanic imitations), but they could never aspire to be anything more than knock-offs or throwbacks. Despite the simple and familiar trappings (monster seeks and spills blood) Giger’s creature would be the measuring stick by which all future alien monsters would be judged.

What else gave the film an edge over its forebearers and competitors? Interestingly, the characters are not the ideologically aligned adventurers and scientists of prior genre movies. They resemble far more closely the disaffected and ennui-ridden cast of O’Bannon’s own Dark Star, but with a corporate twist supplied by David Giler and Walter Hill. There are three distinct tiers in the hierarchy aboard the Nostromo: on the bottom rung are the engineers, Parker and Brett, who are physically separated from the rest of the crew by being consigned below deck. They are also, to their chagrin, paid less than the other crewmembers. Then there is the officer class, consisting of Ripley, Kane and Dallas. Above them is the unseen Company, whose protocol not only allows for divisions between its crew but also allow the conditions on which a hostile organism like the Alien can be allowed on board. Ash exists as an outlier, an anomaly — he represents the Company and is either distrusted or wearily tolerated by both officer and engineer alike.

Ash himself was nothing new, his closest analogues being the mad scientist trope and also what Dan O’Bannon would term ‘the Russian Spy.’ “It annoyed me when they did it,” he said of Ash’s inclusion, “It was a tendency in certain types of thrillers, when people are on an interesting mission, to stick in a Russian spy. One of them is a spy and they don’t know which one, he’s trying to screw up the mission. Fantastic Voyage had that. When I saw Fantastic Voyage, I thought it annoying … instead of it adding any genuine suspense all it did was annoy me … It’s a tension device which is commonly resorted to and doesn’t work because it doesn’t provide any real suspense.”

Most if not all of the film’s fans will agree that Ash was another element, tried and almost tired, that was pulled off with the same finesse as the Alien itself. Ridley himself disagreed with Dan, saying years later: “This is a great turnabout in the story because just when you think your main and only aggressor is this thing loose on the ship, you’ve now got a much bigger problem – you’ve got two aggressors, which raises the paranoia and that of the audience twofold.” Critical and fan reception would prove that Ash’s inclusion was ultimately beneficial to the film – not an original one per se, but employed in an innovative and shocking manner.

“As soon as anybody finds a single source that they recognize, they immediately assume that the picture is a variant of that source,” O’Bannon stated. “I thought about Forbidden Planet a lot more than I thought about It! The Terror From Beyond Space. My mind was a big basket full of every science fiction story and movie that had been written in the last forty years, so the imagery was simply there for selecting, I didn’t have to limit myself to plagiarizing a single source.”

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Vintage Interview with Ron Cobb

cobbpic117

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.

Cobb and Giger in 1978, likely lunching at, where Giger was staying during the production.

Cobb and Giger lunching in 1978.

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.

Ron's cat box.

Ron’s cat box.

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.

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Interview with Dan O’Bannon

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 Dark Star come to be?

As a University of Southern California film project in 1970. John Carpenter and I were at that time both in the film school there at SC. He approached me because he said he was going to do a science fiction film as a student project, and he asked me if I’d like to be involved in it, and I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ And I got very heavily involved in it, so much so that it kind of got out of hand, really. What he originally envisioned as a 20-minute black-and-white film ended up as a 50-minute colour film, and it took just about two years to shoot it and get it done at USC. Just about the time we were finishing up editing on it, with what had been a very long and exciting and difficult road -just when we thought we were finished- we were approached by a friend of ours named Jonathan Kaplan, who subsequently produced most of John Carpenter’s movies. 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.

So then we all had to butt our heads together, and decided it meant we had to pad it. We feared we had a great student film we might end up making into a mediocre feature film by padding it and putting it onto the marketplace against professional products. But the decision finally came down to a choice between a great student film which would impress all the film schools, or a somewhat mediocre film that would be in theaters. So we opted for the feature.

I think it was the right decision because it did do more for us than it could have as a short. At that pint we launched into what amounted to another year-and-a-half of very hard work, expanding it to feature length. At the end of that time we discovered to our great disappointment that it was not as easy as we expected to sell a film in Hollywood, so we went though another fitful period of trying to find distribution. By the time the feature finally hit the theaters, four-and-a-half years had passed since the film was conceived, and that was in the spring of 1975 when Bryanston Pictures released it.

O'Bannon as his character Pinback on the set of Dark Star.

O’Bannon as his character Pinback on the set of Dark Star.

Was Star Wars the next film you worked on?

The first thing I did was turn down Dykstra’s job. That was back in ’75 when Gary Kurtz called me on the telephone and asked if I wanted to work on special effects. I had never met Kurtz. I didn’t know him or anything about him, but I certainly would have taken the job except he told me one week after I had been offered the opportunity to direct all of the special effects on Dune. I told him about that commitment, I told him about the salary and everything else, and I asked him, ‘Can you meet or better that?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t.’ So I did Dune and worked on it for six months, then it collapsed.

Then a year after the first phone call, 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.

Just about anywhere in the film where they cut to a screen and there’s some activity on it, some animation on it which looks computer generated, it was probably done by John Wash and Jay Teitzell under my supervision. Most of it was not done by real computers, it was simulated.

I got to work with a real computer and that was a lot of fun. Now isn’t it funny how fate works? I could have been involved to a very great extent on Star Wars except that I turned it down for another project that never went through. I did a lot of work for Star Wars; I worked pretty hard for several months. We spent a lot of money on computer graphics, and boy, when I saw the finished film, I had to admit that you could cut out everything I did out of that film and it would have still been the same film. It was so full of beautiful things that the computer graphics that we did were just .001 percent.

How did you become involved with 20th Century Fox’s Alien?

When Dune fell through, I ended up back in L.A. flat broke, without an apartment, without a car, with all my belongings in storage. I didn’t know what to do. I moved in on a friend’s sofa. His name is Ronny Shusett, and he had also had a string of very bad breaks. We decided to do something together.

I was more desperate than he was because I had to get off of his sofa, so we wrote a script called Alien. That script, from the moment I typed ‘The End’ proceeded to take on a life of its own. Everybody in town wanted it, We just couldn’t believe it. Everything had fallen through for us. Nothing had ever worked. It had always gone so badly we said, ‘Well, yeah, they’re all yelling about it, and they all want it, but it ain’t gonna work ’cause it never does. It’s just a lot of baloney.’

It just kept going and going and we made a deal with Brandywine Productions, and made a deal with 20th Century Fox, and they started pouring money into it, hiring people, and we kept saying, ‘Nah, it ain’t gonna happen.’ Then we got cheques -they paid us cheques- and we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s happening.’ Step by step we kept saying, ‘Nah, it will fall through by the next step, they always do,’ but it never did. It just kept expanding and expanding and growing.

We sat down on a few occasions, Ronny and I, and we said, ‘Let’s see why this went so well and everything else went so badly when this isn’t even our favourite script.’ We said, ‘Well, we caught this science fiction boom just right… our script was on the market just a month after Star Wars was released,’ and we looked at other reasons like that. But when it came right down to it, we could never explain why that script went out so far so fast by comparison with so many other things we have done. It’s a mystery – one of this things that happen in life.

By accident, by itself, by mysterious forces of God, it happened.

Dan O'Bannon with Ron Shusett.

Dan with Ron Shusett.

Because Alien is a Gothic, which the film industry understands?

You have to understand that after Dark Star, when that film was completed, when I saw the film up there on the screen as compared to what I had intended to make. Then I saw the reactions of the industry and the public to that film. It burned certain lessons into my head like a branding iron. Just right into my brain.

One lesson was not to make an episodic film; have a tight plot. Another lesson was do not make a comedy because nobody laughed. When I sat down to write Alien, Alien was very similar to Dark Star in many ways. It was just, ‘Well, I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.’ Obviously, it worked. Applying those lessons did produce something that appealed more directly to people. I mean, there are reasons, right? There are all kinds of individual little reasons. Yeah, it’s a fine script, that’s another reason, right? But then the world is an injustice and we’ve written fine scripts that were better and more commercial and just didn’t go anywhere.

This was a good script. It caught the science fiction market, and it was a combination of science fiction and horror, and nobody else had it out at that time. We figured those were the reasons. But then in that case, why didn’t script X, Y and Z do just as well? It just happened. It was luck.

You also acquired a fine group of actors including Tom Skerritt.

It was fun talking with those guys because the thing I’ve been working towards all these years is being a director. I’ve had practice at all of the things a director does except working with actors. I’ve done all the special effects. I’ve rolled the film through the camera. I’ve edited. I’ve lit sets. You know, everything. You might say my muscle is well-exercised in all aspects of the film except that of directing actors because I haven’t been allowed to get near them for years. There was always someone else directing. To counteract that, I’ve tried to spend all my time talking to actors and watching the directing working with them.

This was a wonderful opportunity to have Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt -a lot of excellent people- in there.I hung around as much as possible and talked as much as I could get away with, and watched them being directed.

I’ll never forget one incident. One thing I’ve always been concerned about is the general belief in town -I think that Hitchcock stated it- that actors are idiots. They are impossible to work with. Generally they are the one thing that everyone wishes they could do without on a movie. I remember I was called in just before they were getting ready to shoot because the actors were busy reading through a scene. They called me in because they had objections about the dialogue. I went in, and they said, ‘Aw, I can’t say this line,’ or ‘I can’t say that line.’ I sat down with them with a script and all the different actors pointed out all the different lines they had trouble with and what they thought should be done about it. And I agreed with every last thing they said. I thought these people are not fools, they are right. It was a very good experience to be able to see those guys work.

Did they film your original script without too many changes?

Well, David Giler, who is one of the producers, sat down and just kept rewriting it all. Just kept rewriting and rewriting it, and rewriting it, until there was very little resemblance to the original screenplay. I wasn’t allowed to participate in that because he didn’t want me to. He was producer.

Then two weeks before we started shooting, he left for mysterious reasons. He left the production. The main producer, Gordon Carroll, and the director called me in and there were two week of frantic mutual work between all of us trying to put the script into shape. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80 percent of what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.

What connection did you have with the design of the film?

Originally, I sat down before they had a director, and they said, ‘Design the film.’ So I hired Ron Cobb immediately and I asked him to bring Chris Foss from London. To my surprise, they did. They brought him over here. And I asked him to get H.R. Giger from Switzerland, and so they had Cobb and Foss over here and they designed a tremendous amount of the picture. Fox didn’t want to hire Giger, which was the hardest fight.

Originally, there were three cultures -the Earth culture and two alien cultures- and along the way one of the two alien cultures had been completely eliminated from the script. It was too much of a committee movie. Everybody was involved in the making of this. Evry last executive in Fox; every last person had two cents in. So we have these two cultures now, just two.

[Ron Cobb] did a lot. He designed practically all of the hardware. They used him the way you would use a dirty old wrench. Whenever they couldn’t figure out how to design something, they said, ‘Here Cobb, you design it.’ Since they could not figure out how to design most of the things in the movie, he ended up designing most of the things. Yet he was never regarded as being in charge of that.

alien_dan_obannon2

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Sandals in Space

A Viking funeral...

A Viking funeral…

Any filmmaker will tell you that making a movie is creatively and emotionally exhausting. Frustration is a recurring feeling. Trains and unfinished tracks are normally invoked as metaphor. These feelings ripple through every strata of the production -from the model shop to the cutting room- because there are so many departments to juggle and satisfy and each has a creative instinct of its own. But but no one seems to cut a lonelier picture than the beleaguered screenwriter.

Dan O’Bannon’s struggle with writing, selling, and preserving his screenplay have already been documented here at Strange Shapes, in Writing Alien. After snapping up his screenplay, Brandywine producers Walter Hill and David Giler rewrote it several times, altering the story significantly. For example, there were no actual alien elements in their preferred version of the story. The Space Jockey was a human space-pilot, and the egg silo was a government installation. Eventually, Ridley Scott put his foot down and resolved to film somewhere between O’Bannon’s original story and Giler and Hill’s rewrite.

However, according to wmmvrrvrrmm’s research at Alien Explorations, some unseen versions of the script were far, far wackier than anything heard of so far. “Regarding Giler and Hill, they did eight various drafts,” explained Ron Shusett, “And they went off in many different directions … They were trying, roping, you always have to see how far you can push the envelope. It got ridiculous when you got Genghis Khan to fight the Alien … Their idea was somehow every past villain in history they would have to fight, somehow, Attila the Hun, ah, you know … famous historical villains … Hitler-type people, people that were mass murderers, or in some cases maybe a creature … Jack the Ripper, well that was one of them.”

Read his post to learn more: The Realism of Giler and Hill’s earlier drafts.

If historical figures aboard spaceships sounds too outlandish for the pair, consider this story from James Cameron: in 1983 the budding writer/director had a meeting with Brandywine, who were impressed by The Terminator script. The trio talked possible projects, and Giler suggested a Spartacus remake – set in space. “It quickly became clear that David Giler wanted a swords and sandals type film set in outer space,” Cameron said, “with literal swords and sandals.” He was straightforward with his opinion on the idea: “That was a concept that I found pretty idiotic.”

The meeting started to flounder, and on his way out the door the producers raised the possibility of an Alien II. Cameron added guns and boots to this new film, and swords, sandals, and historical heroes and maniacs were not mentioned around him or any other Alien director again.

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Writing Alien

The Alien script was born in fits and starts, and was finished after a series of brainstorming and late-night writing.

Dan O’Bannon loved science-fiction, and he loved sci-fi comic books and novels. He also loved movies, especially Kubrick, Welles, and Hitchcock. More importantly, he loved cosmic horror writer HP Lovecraft. Introduced to Lovecraft at the age of 12, the story which first caught his eye was entitled The Colour Out of Space, which told of an unformed alien evil that emerges from a meteorite to suck the life from the surrounding land. Discovering an old copy of the story, O’Bannon stayed up all night reading it.  Lovecraft’s concept of a wondrous but uncaring universe, and of mankind stumbling unwittingly into a horror beyond all reasoning, influenced O’Bannon’s enough that it informs and pervades his greatest and most famous work: Alien.

“I wrote the first half of Alien in 1972,” Dan told Fantastic Films magazine in 1979. The film began life as a series of notes and ideas kept in the writer’s personal notebook. “I’ve kept a running journal for about the last ten years,” he revealed. The seed which would later become Alien was first planted in O’Bannon during his experiences making his sci-fi comedy Dark Star. “It was like, while we were in the midst of doing Dark Star I had a secondary thought on it – same movie, but in a completely different light.” The aforementioned film was born from his tenure at the USC Department of Cinema, where he studied film with future horror maestro John Carpenter, who also directed the movie.

Dark Star later opened up several avenues for the budding writer/director: firstly, it introduced him to artist Ron Cobb, and then led to contact with theatre-producer-turned-wannabe-film-producer Ron Shusett, who tracked Dan down with a wish to collaborate on scripts. Dark Star’s DIY special effects also impressed George Lucas enough to get him a job creating computer screens on Star Wars; and finally, it impressed Alejandro Jodorowsky enough to have him hire O’Bannon to head up effects duties on his Dune movie adaption.

O'Bannon, Carpenter, and company on the set of Dark Star.

O’Bannon, Carpenter, and company on the set of Dark Star.

Dark Star had a bleak space setting, a rundown spaceship, a beleaguered crew, and a mischievous alien running around the ship’s halls, but it was a comedy piece without any scares – and to O’Bannon’s dismay, without too many laughs, either. Dan figured that comedy was wildly subjective; everything laughed at different things, but, he reckoned, they were all afraid of the same thing. With this notion in mind, he took his notes and began work on his horror movie. However, he hit a dead end after putting together one half of a script. Frustrated, O’Bannon relegated it to his desk drawer. The ultimate space horror film was going nowhere.

What dragged Alien back from the backburner was a meeting with future collaborator, Ron Shusett. “I went down to meet him [O’Bannon] on the USC campus, where he was living in a garret and starving, like me,” said Shusett.

He continues: “I had acquired the rights to a Philip K. Dick story, that later became Total Recall [and] Dan said, ‘Put aside your story. I want you to read something I’ve got. I’ve been working on it a year and a half. I’ve got one act. So you need a second and third act; I need a second and third act. I don’t know you so I’m not going to let you leave her with it; I’m just going to give you these 38 pages to read. I’m totally stuck, and I get nothing but shit from all anybody at film school that I’ve tried to help me lick this. If you can help me with the second and third act, I’ll help you with the Philip K. Dick story, because that’s gonna cost more. With Alien I could probably get somebody like [Roger] Corman [to finance it], because it could be done on the cheap.'”

Shusett reflected that this initial meeting with Dan would prove to be creatively and financially successful for both: “Out of that meeting – here’s two bums with no agent, no credibility, and out of that meeting came Alien and Total Recall.”

“It was only about 20 pages long, and pretty sketchy; but I remember thinking it was one of the best beginnings I’d ever had – I just didn’t know where the hell to go with it. At that time, it started with the alien transmission and the awakening from hypersleep, and went up through the discovery of the dead space captain inside the derelict. Beyond that, my ideas were kind of nebulous. I figured the crew wouldn’t get off the planetoid until the end and that the creature itself would be some sort of psychic force; but I was having trouble working it out. It was Ron [Shusett] who finally broke the ice. He brought up an old idea I’d had about gremlins harassing a B-17 bomber crew on a night mission over Tokyo and suggested I make the alien creature physical and have it stalking the crewmen on their own ship.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Cinefex, 1979.

O’Bannon’s story had several analogues in previous sci-fi movies. Planet of the Vampires, IT! The Terror From Beyond Space, and Forbidden Planet are the most commonly cited and acknowledged influences. O’Bannon’s story also shared the spirit of Lovecraft tales such as The Nameless City, about a traveller who seeks out an ancient city that predates mankind, which ends in his demise (several Lovecraft stories follow an unwitting protagonist who falls into the clutches of a long forgotten race), and also The Statement of Randolph Carter, which details the story of two men, a professor and his aide, who investigate a subterranean lair beneath a swampland cemetery. Staying on the surface, the aide can only listen to the exclamations and terrors of the other man, who has descended below. “Alien went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin,” Dan remarked in his essay, ‘Something Perfectly Disgusting’. “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.”

A.E. van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle has also been touted as an influence (van Vogt even litigated Twentieth Century Fox over the similarities, with Fox settling out of court) but this has been categorically denied by O’Bannon.

Initial names for the movie included There’s Someting On Our Spaceship and Star Beast, before O’Bannon settled on Alien. The title was both apt and devastatingly simple. Then, midway through Alien, O’Bannon was contacted by Alejandro Jorodowsky and hired to work on Dune. Putting Alien aside, O’Bannon left for Europe.

Though Dune would never be made under Jodorowsky, it prove to be the most critical preliminary stage of Alien’s development. During this period O’Bannon was introduced to artists Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger. Giger and O’Bannon, two Lovecraft fans, became friends throughout the project, and at one point later in their careers, O’Bannon and Giger were even considering an adaption of Lovecraft’s work“Dan O’Bannon, with whom I’m still regularly in touch,” Giger told Cinefantastique in 1988, “keeps 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.”

Dan and Giger at work on Alien.

Dan and Giger at work on Alien. The artist’s visceral imagery was one major factor in compelling O’Bannon to finish the script for his movie.

O’Bannon was astounded by the sheer originality, beauty, and grotesqueness of Giger’s art. With the artist’s biomechanical phantasms running through his mind, O’Bannon knew what he needed to make his once-aborted horror film unique: a Giger monster.

“I love geniuses  and have been privileged to work with several. One was HR Giger; I met him in Paris and he gave me a book of his artwork. I pored over it through one long night in my room on the Left Bank. His visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality, and aroused in me deep, disturbing thoughts, deep feelings of terror. 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.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Something Perfectly Disgusting.

There were other considerations that helped Dan dust off Alien. Financially destitute after the collapse of Dune and living on Shusett’s couch, O’Bannon felt spurred to get to work on a screenplay and get himself off the sofa, and so he set to work on finishing his horror script. There were more stumbles along the way: how to get the creature off the alien world and onto the spaceship – impregnate a crewmember with an alien spore. Secondly, how to avoid the crew simply shooting the alien to death – give it acid for blood. Eventually, with the script completed, O’Bannon and Shusett began shopping their script in a bid to sell it.

“We’d finished the script,” explained Shusett, “and Dan said, ‘Let’s go to Roger Corman.’ We made an appointment; he was out of town. We saw his top guy, who said, ‘I love it! How much do you need?’ We said $750,000. We never doubted that it could become a classic. We were thrilled he was going to give us the money.”

Alien came perilously close to becoming a full-fledged B-movie with a shoestring-budget and B-grade actors and effects. More likely than not, this version of the film would have been forgotten shortly after release. Though O’Bannon and Shusett were happy to have their script handled this way, they were soon to come across even greater luck.

“Before we could sign the contract with Roger Corman,” explained Shusett, “Dan and I were walking down the street, and he saw a guy from film school named Mark Haggard. Dan said, ‘I want to ditch this guy. He’s always telling me he can make money to make movies, but he never has yet.’ We ran across the alley, but he called, ‘Dan, Dan! I hear you got this great script! Can I read it?’ We said, ‘Sure, everybody else is reading it.’ We were too stupid to think anyone would rip it off because we didn’t think it was good enough. He called the next day: ‘I got the money to make it.’ We said we had the money to make it with Roger Corman. He said, ‘I can get it made at a studio.’ We said, ‘We can’t sit around tying this up, waiting on the studios.’ He said, ‘No, twenty-four hours – that’s all I need. I’ll only go to one place. Let’s draw up a piece of paper and figure out what I get if I get you the money – my position and what my fee is.’ We said okay.”

Haggard’s connections in the movie industry included Walter Hill and David Giler, of Brandywine Productions. Haggard told O’Bannon and Shusett that he knew of  “two hot writers,” but the catch was that “they can’t write science-fiction.” He continued telling the two that “They’ve got the confidence of [Fox executive] Alan Ladd, Jr. They’re partnered with a producer who’s won an Oscar, Gordon Carroll, who produced Cool Hand Luke. They want to do the dark side of Star Wars. They’ve read fifty scripts, and they can’t write one themselves because they don’t know how to do science-fiction, although they’re both successful writers.”

Shusett and O’Bannon weighed up their options. “[Walter Hill] wrote The Getaway, the Sam Peckinpah version,” said Shusett, “and he was becoming a hot director; he had done Hard Times with James Coburn; [David] Giler wrote the original Fun With Dick and Jane. So it was a natural marriage. They had the clout, and they loved the script.”

“They read it,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films, “they called us in and Gordon [Carroll] said to us, ‘We’ve read 300 scripts and this is the first one we’ve all agreed on.’ Okay, great compliment. And they proceeded to make a deal with us. And we got into a lot of haggling, there was at least a month of negotiating. Finally we made a deal, an option deal, and they took it to Fox with whom they’d just made some kind of production arrangement for their company. And Fox immediately expressed interest and Brandywine exercised the option, which was a real surprise ’cause it was the first time in my life I’d ever had an option exercised.”

Walter Hill told Film International in 2004 how he came across Alien‘s script. “David [Giler] and I had formed a production company with Gordon Carroll – this was about 1975. About six months after we started, I was given a script called Alien by a fellow I knew, Mark Haggard, who was fronting the script for the two writers. I read it, didn’t think much of it, but it did have this one sensational scene – which later we always called the ‘chestburster’.”

Hill mulled over the script, and approached Giler with an idea: take O’Bannon’s script, and rewrite it to suit an A-level feature film. “I gave it to David with one of those, ‘I may be crazy, but a good version of this might work’ speeches. The next night, I remember I was watching Jimmy Carter give his acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention [July, 1976] and was quite happy to answer the phone when it rang. It was David – he told me I was crazy, but he had just got as far as this scene [the chestburster] and it was really something.” Though Giler has been adamantly dismissive of Dan O’Bannon’s script over the years, Hill always acknowledged the script’s strengths: “There was no question in my mind that they wanted to do a science-fiction version of Jaws,” he said. “It was put together with a lot of cunning. To my mind, they had worked out a very interesting problem. How do you destroy a creature you can’t kill without destroying your own life-support system?” Hill also compared O’Bannon’s story to another classic: “I should probably also say that The Thing (1951) was one of my favourite films from when I was a kid, and this script reminded me of it, but in an extremely crude form.”

On the other hand, Giler trashed both the script and O’Bannon, telling Cinefantastique in 1979 that, “[the script] was a bone skeleton of a story then. Really terrible. Just awful. You couldn’t give it away. It was amateurishly written, although the central idea was sound. Basically, it was a pastiche of fifties movies. We -Walter Hill and I- took it and rewrote it completely, added the Ash and the robot subplot. We added the cat Jones. We fleshed it out, basically. If we had shot the original O’Bannon script, we would have a remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space … It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that O’Bannon stole the idea [for the film], I must tell you,” (contrary to Giler’s claim, the ship’s cat was present in O’Bannon’s script.)

Hill was unfazed by Giler’s low opinion of the material, and opted to rewrite the script. “I said I’d give the fucker a run-through. David was going off to Hong Kong with his girlfriend, but before he left we thrashed it out pretty good.”

The ‘revised final’ script was actually put together after filming had ceased, and incorporated the ad-libs and changes wrought on the film by budget and practical logistics.

There were several things that Giler and Hill immediately wanted to change. First, they disliked the names O’Bannon had bestowed on his characters. Names like ‘Melkonis’ and ‘Faust’ were a little too strange, they decided, and so they picked out new monikers with a more Earthly bent. “Some of the characters are named after athletes,” revealed Hill. “Brett was for George Brett, Parker was Dave Parker of The Pirates, and Lambert was Jack Lambert of The Steelers.” As for the ultimate survivor, Roby, “I named her Ripley, after Believe it or Not. Later, when she had to have a first name for I.D. cards, I added Ellen (my mother’s maiden name).”

Secondly, they wanted to remove all of the extraterrestrial elements from the screenplay. Giler explained that, “We believed that if you got rid of a lot of the junk -they had pyramids and hieroglyphics on the planetoid, a lot of von Daniken crap, and a lot of bad dialogue- that what you would have left would be a very good, very primal space story.”

Other Ideas: “Regarding Giler and Hill, they did eight various drafts,” explained Ron Shusett, “And they went off in many different directions … They were trying, roping, you always have to see how far you can push the envelope. It got ridiculous when you got Genghis Khan to fight the Alien … Their idea was somehow every past villain in history they would have to fight, somehow, Attila the Hun, ah, you know … famous historical villains … Hitler-type people, people that were mass murderers, or in some cases maybe a creature … Jack the Ripper, well that was one of them.”

The pyramids and hieroglyphics they replaced with government installations and weapon testing grounds. These elements themselves would later be vetoed by Ridley Scott at the behest of O’Bannon and Shusett. “They wanted that to be an army bunker for some reason,” said Shusett. “I guess they just went, ‘Okay this will give it realism,’ and that’s boring. You can’t, you know, once you’re committed to [Giger], you can’t go back to a steel twentieth century army bunker. That goes backwards in imagination, whereas that Giger design which he hand painted, airbrushed that whole wall himself personally, like he did his artwork, and that’s why it looks so eerie.”

Dan was likewise abhorred by the direction the producers were taking the film, and approached Ridley about the alterations. “I went in,” said O’Bannon, “and there [Ridley] was. Ronnie Shusett had feverishly rushed up to him and shoved a copy of the original draft of the script into his hands because Hill and Giler had begun to rewrite it. We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite. Ridley read it and went, ‘Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.’ So it was Giler and Hill’s turn to be disturbed. As a result, the entire remainder of the production became a battle between camps. One camp wanting one version of the film and another camp wanting the other version.” Scott settled on the pyramid and alien angle, but ultimately these were either scrapped or merged due to time or budget limitations.

Thirdly, shortly after Scott’s recruitment, Alan Ladd Jnr suggested that they have a woman on board the Nostromo. Ladd asked O’Bannon and Shusett for their opinion: both agreed it was a good idea, after all, their script carried a unisex tag for their cast.“Having pretty women as the main characters was a real cliché of horror movies,” O’Bannon told Cult People, “and I wanted to stay away from that. So I made up the character of Ripley, whom I didn’t know was going to be a woman at the time … I sent the people of the studios some notations and what I thought should happen and when we were about to make the movie the producer [Walter Hill] of the film jumped on it. He just liked the idea and told me we should make that Ripley character a woman. I thought that the captain would have been an old woman and the Ripley character a young man, that would have been interesting. But he said, ‘No, let’s make the hero a woman.’” Giler and Hill then rewrote their already-rewritten screenplay to accommodate this idea. “David had suggested making the captain a woman,” said Hill. “I tried that, but I thought the money was on making the ultimate survivor a woman.”

Fourth, feeling that the ship computer’s role would be perceived as being too akin to that of HAL9000 in Kubrick’s 2001, Giler and Hill, who had toyed with fusing the computer with Company-driven malevolence, transposed this idea to a new member of the crew – Science Officer, Ash. In addition to making him duplicitous, the two also decided to make him inhuman; an idea that Hill attributes to Giler. “He’s got a marvellous capacity for coming up with the unexpected – a u-turn that’s novel but at the same time underlines what you’re trying to do. A lot of the time he’ll present it as a joke, , and it’ll turn out to be a great idea. Like in Alien, when the Ian Holm character was revealed to be a droid – that was David.”

On the other hand, Giler attributed the genesis of the idea to Hill: “Walter Hill and I were writing the script,” he told Fantastic Film, “and we had invented the subplot of this dodging character. And Hill said, ‘I have what I think is a dreadful idea or a really good one. What do you think of this? Suppose , in this part, whack!, his head comes off and he’s a robot?’ ‘Well terrific,’ I say, ‘let’s do that. And we’ll put it on a table and then we’ll have the head talk.’ So we went back and made the subplot work for that. Actually at one time I wanted the first words from the robot on the table to be the Kipling poem, ‘If you could keep your head all about you…'”

The android Ash sneaks up on Ripley within Mu-th-r's control room.

The android Ash sneaks up on Ripley within Mu-th-r’s control room. The malignant android and Company were inventions of Giler and Hill.

The android twist was apparently met with skepticism by O’Bannon and Fox, but Ron Shusett stuck up for the idea. “While we were at [20th Century Fox], Giler and Hill, who were my co-producers, came up with this idea and wrote it into the script,” explained Shusett. “Everybody hated it but me. The studio was afraid of it. Dan said, ‘I don’t like it.’ Their own partner said, ‘It’ll be a mish-mosh.’ I said, ‘Let’s film it and preview it.’ I thought it was a brilliant concept and it gave a resonance to everything that came before, because you think back to when Ash opened the door and let the creature on board, you realize he wasn’t human, so of course he could have the lacking of humanity to sacrifice all the humans as long as he saved the Alien. That gave it an underbelly that helped it last through the years. When we filmed it, we weren’t sure it would work. We tried it on an audience, an invited audience. That was the only way that everybody said, ‘Oh, you need that.’ …  I saw it at a preview in Dallas: when that robot’s head came off, an usher actually fainted!”

O’Bannon on the other hand remained indignant that Ash added nothing to the film’s plot. Riled by Giler and Hill’s changes to his script, he stuck his neck out and remained antagonistic towards the pair. Whilst this worked to return the alien elements that Giler and Hill had initially exercised, and whilst it also allowed for Giger to be brought onto the film (to the initial chagrin of the producers), O’Bannon’s forcefulness resulted in him being removed from the shoot.

“And boy, believe me, I was inextricably involved [with Alien], because if there was any way they could of gotten me out of their hair they would have, ’cause I was such a thorn in their side. I remember being faced with what I call a moral decision. My agent, my manager, and everybody else was starting to go over to England to start working on the film proper, and they said, ‘Be sure not to antagonize anybody, ’cause they’re so important, it’s your first project and it’s a major studio, every body’s liable on you to be friends.’

I got over there and I found that the confusion was so great  and the babble of voices was so loud that I couldn’t make myself heard without being obnoxious. I couldn’t make an impact and there were things I felt so strongly about that i wanted to have heard. I wanted to win points, certain points I felt very strongly about. So I finally decided, ‘All right, I’m going to go against the good advice for my career; I’m going to fight.’ And my reasoning was, in 40 years I’d still be able to sleep with myself. That I wouldn’t look back and say, ‘You know, there’s Alien and it stinks and if I had fought, maybe it wouldn’t.’ And I looked forward to that in my own frame of mind. And I decided, ‘All right, I’ll fight,’ even though that it’s tactically the wrong thing to do.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Fantastic Films, 1979.

O’Bannon revealed that before the film went into production David Giler “left for mysterious reasons” and apparently having left script rewrites unfinished. “And finally at the last minute, 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.'”

“When they bought the script and took it away from me to make it themselves, they tried to inflate it beyond what it was,” O’Bannon told Starlog in 1983. “Hill and Giler did nine rewrites, each progressively worse. They said, ‘You have a spaceship, it’s gonna be the biggest spaceship in the universe’. And then they changed that, and wanted a fleet of spaceships. I said, ‘Just one monster?’ They said, ‘Not a monster, we’ll have fifty monsters!’ It finally reached a point that Alien was in such bad shape that it couldn’t be filmed.”

“There were two weeks of frantic mutual work between all of us,” O’Bannon continued, “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.”

Ron Cobb stold Starburst magazine 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.”

Here is a breakdown of the two plots. Giler and Hill’s version is a summary of their script before O’Bannon and Shusett urged Ridley Scott to have the script revised.

Dan O’Bannon’s Alien, a synopsis: the crew of the commercial vehicle ‘Snark’ awaken from cryosleep on a return voyage to Earth. Their ship’s computer has detected an SOS beacon of unknown origin emanating from a nearby planetoid. The crew land, and find a derelict spacecraft containing the corpse of a dead alien pilot. Nearby they find another structure; an ancient pyramid, containing mysterious spore. One of them is attacked and impregnated; the creature erupts during a meal after the ship has continued its journey to Irth. The crew are picked off one by one until only Roby survives, along with the ship’s cat. The Alien is ejected from the emergency shuttle and vapourised. The Snark itself is destroyed. Roby enters cryosleep for the journey home.

Walter Hill & David Giler’s Alien, a synopsis: the crew of the commercial vehicle ‘Nostromo’ awaken from cryosleep on a return voyage to Earth. Their ship’s computer has detected an SOS beacon of unknown origin emanating from a nearby planetoid. The crew land, and find a derelict spacecraft containing the corpse of a dead human pilot. Nearby they find another structure; a concrete Cylinder, containing mysterious spore. One of them is attacked and impregnated; the creature erupts during a meal after the ship has continued its journey to Earth. The crew are picked off one by one, and the Science Officer Ash is revealed to be a Company robot. Ash reveals that the crew were led to the Cylinder deliberately, to serve as test subjects for the weapons division – the Alien is one of the Company’s bioweapons. In the end, only Ripley survives, along with the ship’s cat. The Alien is ejected from the emergency shuttle and vapourised. The Nostromo itself is destroyed. Ripley enters cryosleep for the journey home.

As already pointed out, O’Bannon and Shusett intervened to have Hill and Giler’s draft rewritten to incorporate the alien elements that they had excised. “Ridley read [the original script] and went, ‘Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.'” Though Giler and Hill acquiesced to Scott’s demand, they still managed to infuse the script with the paranoia of a Big Brother corporate entity whose sheer size and oversight leads to the deaths of its employees in some dark corner of space.

At a first look, the most noticeable change between the two scripts is not so much the content, but the stylistic differences between O’Bannon and Walter Hill, whose sparse prose style is indelibly stamped on Alien‘s shooting script. The two writing styles are completely dissimilar. O’Bannon writes in a pulp fashion that reflects his comic book roots. Walter Hill however writes in a restrained and low-key tone. “I tried to write in an extremely spare, almost haiku style,” Hill said of his method in 2004. “Both stage directions and dialogue. Some of it was quite pretentious – but at other times I thought it worked very well.”

Style aside, the actual overall content of the rewrite remains almost unchanged, even in the final draft. Many character beats remain, but are transposed to different characters. Many devices and set-pieces remain. Dialogue is clipped in the revisions, but retains much of its content (though it’s much sharper in the revisions). Dialogue often finds itself hopping from mouth to mouth throughout the various revisions; speech that belongs to Melkonis/Lambert in the O’Bannon draft is transposed to Dallas in the Giler/Hill draft – and then shifted to another character in the final film. For example:

MELKONIS: I never saw anything like that in my life … except maybe molecular acid.

HUNTER: But this thing uses it for blood.

MELKONIS: Hell of a defense mechanism. You don’t dare kill it.

ASH: I’ve never seen anything like that, except molecular acid.

BRETT: This thing uses it for blood.

ASH: It’s the asbestos that stopped it, otherwise it eould have gone straight through.

DALLAS: Wonderful defense mechanism. You don’t dare kill it.

The dialogue above remains pretty much the same in the film, but the speech is attributed to a different character, (the asbestos line is removed completely ) Though Giler and Hill changed much, a lot of the text actually remains virtually unchanged from the original. Here is a scene from the Giler and Hill rewrites, followed by the same scene from O’Bannon’s script:

Carefully, Lambert advances down the passageway.
Then the Alien steps out from behind Parker. Picks him up.
Parker screams.
Lambert whirls around. Sees the thing dangling Parker.
PARKER: Use it. Use it. God, use it.
LAMBERT: I can’t!
The Alien takes a bite out of Parker. He screams, writhes.
Lambert can stand it no longer. She raises the flamethrower and fires.
The creature swings Parker around as a shield. He catches the full blast.
Lambert instantly releases the trigger mechanism. But Parker is now a kicking ball of flame. Still held at arms length by the Alien.

Carefully, Standard advances down the corridor.
Then THE CREATURE POPS OUT OF HIDING BEHIND HUNTER, AND PICKS HIM UP.
Hunter screams.
Standard whirls around, sees the thing clutching Hunter.
HUNTER: The flamethrower!
STANDARD: I can’t, the acid will pour out!
At that moment the Creature TAKES A BITE OUT OF HUNTER, WHO SCREAMS IN MORTAL AGONY.
Standard can take it no longer, he raises the flamethrower and fires.
BUT THE CREATURE SWINGS HUNTER AROUND AS A SHIELD AND HUNTER CATCHES THE FULL BLAST OF THE FLAME.
Standard instantly stops firing, but now Hunter is a kicking ball of flame, held out at arms length by the monster.

The above example describes a scene that is drastically different from the events that unfold in the film. Here is an example featuring a conversation between Dallas, Ash, and Kane that is present in both scripts and the film. Again, Giler and Hill’s version is up first, followed by O’Bannon’s dialogue:

ASH: Mother says the sun’s coming up in about twenty minutes.
DALLAS: How far from the source of the transmission?
ASH: Northeast … about 3000 meters.
KANE: Close enough for a walk.
DALLAS: Let’s run an atmospheric.
ASH: 10% argon, 85% nitrogen, 5% neon … I’m working on the trace elements.
DALLAS: Pressure?
ASH: Ten to the fourth dynes per square centimeter.
KANE: I volunteer for the first group going out.

MELKONIS: Well … (consults instruments) … this boulder rotates every two and a quarter hours. Sun should be coming up in about 20 minutes. Transmitter … is to the northeast … about 300 meters.
BROUSSARD: Not bad for a walk.
STANDARD: Roby, will you run me an atmospheric please?
ROBY: 10% argon, 85% nitrogen, 5% neon … some trace elements … looks alright. Safe enough. No moisture.
STANDARD: Temperature?
ROBY: Is bracing hundred and twenty degrees cooler outside. Ten to the fourth dynes per square centimeter.
BROUSSARD: I volunteer. For the expedition.

Such observations make us question David Giler’s claim to Cinefantastique that “We changed all the dialogue. Every word of it. Nothing is left of O’ Bannon’s draft. Not a word of his dialogue is left in the film.” Not just the dialogue, but the descriptive action in the Giler and Hill script bares much in relation to O’Bannon’s:

Dallas, Kane and Lambert enter the lock. All wear gloves, boots, jackets. Carry laser pistols. Kane touches a button. Servo whine. Then the inner door slides quietly shut. The trio pull on their helmets.

Standard, Melkonis, and Broussard enter the lock. They all wear surface suits with gloves,  boots, jackets, and pistols. Broussard touches a button and the inner door slides shut, sealing them into the lock. They pull on rubbery full-head oxygen masks.

Of Giler and Hill’s dialogue polish, O’Bannon remarked, “I think they made some of the characters cuter than they were.  Some of the dialogue is definitely snappier than it was in the original draft.”

Trouble arose when it came to screenplay credits. According to O’Bannon on the Alien Anthology, the film’s credit originally went solely to Walter Hill and David Giler. When O’Bannon called Hill to discuss the credit and suggested it include all of their names, with O’Bannon’s name being prominent (considering he was the original writer) Hill rebuked the offer and decided to stick with the WGA’s initial Giler/Hill decison, with O’Bannon entirely uncredited. O’Bannon detailed the fight to reinstate his name in the credits:

“Back in September or so last year I started negotiating and hassling for my screen credit. Giler and Hill wanted credits to read; Screenplay by Walter Hill and David Giler based on a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Shusett. They didn’t shoot the Giler and Hill rewrite, Ridley shot my script. So I took it to the writer Guild for arbitration. On a Friday I get this call from the WGA telling me that they’ve decided in my favour. Then in the next breath they tell me Hill had immediately submitted an appeal of that decision. Finally after months and months of hassle the WGA has decided and the writing credit will read: A screenplay by Dan O’Bannon from a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett. I’ve been vindicated. I still don’t know about my design credit but we’ll see. The problem with the money-men is that a lot of them don’t care about making good films, and don’t understand movies, yet they insist that you do it their way.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Fantastic Films, 1979.

Despite Dan’s protestations, the Alien we know is almost certainly a compromise between the differing visions that O’Bannon and the producers had. Rather than resulting in a chaotic narrative mess, the film-makers managed to tease out a taut, lean, consistent horror movie that is infused with both Lovecraftian undertones and an unintrusive corporate conspiracy plot.

Despite this success, feelings between the two producers and O’Bannon remained mutually strained following the debacle of writing and crediting the film. “Walter Hill and David Giler, who have been attached to the project from the beginning, they hate my guts,” O’Bannon told Den of Geek in 2007. “Because they’re scoundrels. They thought that by pulling a couple of fast ones that they could steal my screenplay credit from the original Alien. They should have had enough experience themselves to know that that wouldn’t work, because they both had a couple of studio pictures already in their background, and they were both Writer’s Guild members, and they had been through arbitrations.”

“The arbitrations standards are pretty clear, and they should have realised that no minor changes were gonna get them – certainly not the sole screenplay credit, which they expected, and in fact they ended up getting no screenplay credit. I don’t know – villains think as villains think; y’know – they’re stupid. When they failed to get that credit they both just flipped their lids. They’d already targeted me as a victim, meaning that I was ‘not a friend’. And then when the victim ended up not being victimised, they were just furious, just beside themselves. Walter Hill spent several years telling everybody who would listen, any journalist that he’d really written Alien and I stole his credit, until I finally got fed up and had my lawyer shut him up for good.”

“Well, David Giler, who is one of the producers, sat down and just kept rewriting it all. Just kept rewriting and rewriting it, and rewriting it, until there was very little resemblance to the original screenplay. I wasn’t allowed to participate in that because he didn’t want me to. He was producer.

Then two weeks before we started shooting, he left for mysterious reasons. He left the production. The main producer, Gordon Carroll, and the director called me in and there were two week of frantic mutual work between all of us trying to put the script into shape. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80 percent of what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.”
~ Dan O’Bannon.

Ron Cobb also spoke of Dan’s last-minute difficulties with turning Giler and Hill’s constant revisions into a tighter and more tonally consistent film. “I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere,” he said in 1979, “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.”

“In the end,” summed up Giler, “the plot in O’Bannon’s Alien and the one in ours are the same. Basically the same. And yet, they are as different as night and day. It’s something subtler than the Writer’s Guild is equipped to handle. Though the storylines are basically the same, what happens to the characters has been changed drastically. That is what has been altered.”

Ridley Scott's personal copy of the script. Despite the mutual animosity between the writers, both camps needed the other to make Alien a tangible and horrifying  reality.

Ridley Scott’s personal copy of the script. Despite the mutual animosity between the writers, both camps needed the other to make Alien a tangible and horrifying reality.

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The Insect Influence

“What makes things baffling is their degree of complexity, not their sheer size; a star is simpler than an insect.”
~ Martin Rees, Scientific American, 1999.

“The Alien franchise bases its Xenomorph life cycle on parasitic wasps on Earth,” Terry Johnson, a bio-engineering researcher at the University of California, told Popular Mechanics. “It’s a pleasure to see a film that acknowledges just how weird life can be.” But despite the blatant insectile nature of the Alien (specifically its four-staged life cycle and cocooning) and despite O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, Ron Shusett, HR Giger, and Ridley Scott being clear on the issue, fans have been reluctant to admit the insect influence on the original creature, instead brushing it off as an addition made by James Cameron in the 1986 sequel. However, in light of the evidence pointing to the original Alien makers being heavily and happily influenced by insects, attributing this to Cameron is akin to blaming wet streets for rain.

“Works of fiction weren’t my only sources,” explained Alien writer Dan O’Bannon in his reflective essay, Something Perfectly Disgusting. “I also patterned the Alien’s life cycle on real-life parasites … parasitic wasps treat caterpillars in an altogether revolting manner, the study of which I recommend to anyone tired of having good dreams…” The connection between the Alien and insect reproductive cycles was so crucial that O’Bannon identified it as of “core psychological significance” before quoting biology and science journalist Carl Zimmer: “when an alien bursts out of a movie actor’s chest … it is nature itself that is bursting through, and it terrifies us.”

“I modelled [the Alien] after microscopic parasites that moved from one animal to the next and have complex life-cycles,” Dan explained. “I just enlarged the parasite. I was interested in the biology of aliens, so I wasn’t interested in streamlining the thing below interest level just for the sake of economy.” Ron Shusett, Alien‘s executive producer and friend to O’Bannon, told Cinefantastique: “It was our idea that it would be the life cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyse it, and lay its eggs in the spider … that we did want it to be …. We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘yeah, an alien life cycle can be an insect life cycle.'”

Alien and Aliens conceptual artist Ron Cobb further explained the origins of the chestburster scene: “He got that from the paralysing wasp … it paralyses the spider and lays its eggs on the spider, then buries it in the ground so that the living spider serves as food for the wasp larva and you know, he always was so horrified at that idea.” Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon reiterated this with scpr.com in 2014: “It’s the chest-burster scene — that’s what we call it. That was his concept. Basically from an insect that he read about that laid its eggs in other creatures and burst out, so that’s where the inspiration came for that one, and it sure was horrifying.”

In the 1999 DVD commentary, Ridley Scott explains: “The whole notion of this [creature] was taken off a certain kind of insect that will find a host, lay its eggs, and then in that host it will bury its eggs, and then of course the eggs will grow and consume the host. So that’s the logic of it all. Probably what makes a lot of nature go around.”

“I wanted him [the Alien] to be insect-like. Like an ant. Because if you examine an ant under a microscope they’re kind of elegant, and I wanted him to be very elegant and dangerous.”
Ridley Scott, The Alien Saga, 2002 (archival interview from 1991)

“We decided to make a very elegant creature: quick, and like an insect.”
HR Giger, Cinefex, 1979.

Many fans find the comparison to insects to be demeaning, probably because the words “bug” and “insect” are often used as pejorative terms (interestingly, nineteenth century writer Lafcadio Hearn documented that in China and Japan ants were considered to be Man’s superior in terms of social structure, longevity, ethics, etc.) But the insect world is one of complete brutality and wondrous, if not terrible, feats of strength and will and ingenuity. Murder, theft, displacement, and slavery is routine. Regicide is often simply a matter of succession. Like Mankind, ants are known to mobilise armies in order to annihilate rivals, a behaviour not even in the realm of our ape cousins, who in comparison engage in turf war rather than full-scale organised and destructive aggression.

It’s not that the insect world is a disordered one -creatures such as ants live in incredibly complex social systems- but that it is an amoral one, where even acts of reproduction require the painful death of a mate or parent insect. Praying Mantis’ devour their mates from the head down mid-coitus; pseudacteon flies lay larva which feed on a host’s brain before they decapitate and erupt from their heads; and botflies turn living bodies (animal and human) into colonies of larvae.

“A rather beautiful, humanoid, biomechanoid insect,” said Ridley Scott of Giger’s Alien designs. The artist’s Necronom images featured an Alien with bug-like eyes, as did his initial design for the movie, seen above. These were removed when Giger was told that they were reminiscent of a Hell’s Angel. Removing the eyes and attaining the eyeless dome did not stop insect comparisons, with Scott commenting: “whether [the Alien] could see, or simply sense like an insect, I didn’t need ever have to answer that question.”

Sex and insects weren’t new to fiction when represented in Alien, with the topic matter going as far back as the English metaphysical poet John Donne’s The Flea, published in 1633. Donne’s poem is narrated by a young man who watches as a fly suckles at his flesh, then moves to feed on a woman he desires. The poet’s language is very sexual throughout, and he notes: “Me it suck’d first, and now sucks thee, and in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” The insect has brought the two together, and the two are now also part of the insect, the creature’s innards now their “marriage bed … cloysterd in these living walls of jet.”

Where Donne’s poem was somewhat comical as well as sexual, O’Bannon’s Alien would focus not on sexual love, but rape, and not on bonding via the transmission of fluids, but on parasitism, all derived from the horrors of the insect world.

“[The Alien’s acid blood] reminded [Dan] of these ants that spray jets of acid to combat enemy ants … At the time of Alien, he had to consult books, watch documentaries, and it took time, but today you just have to explore the web for videos or amazing photographs that make you exclaim, ‘but who designed this?’ before you remember that it is the work of Nature.”
~ Ridley Scott, L’Ecran Fantastique, 2012.

And, as O’Bannon attests, horror abounds in insect circles. At roughly 1700x bigger, it’s easy for a human being to miss the potency and lethality of an ant. Relative to their size, ant muscles are bigger than those of humans, which enables the creatures to lift objects up to fifty times their own weight.

Driver ants, also known as army ants, live on the move, only stopping to establish temporary colonies formed entirely out of their own bodies, much like the nest structures seen in Aliens as well as in Alien’s deleted material. The ants link together using their mandibles, as well as spines and hooks attached to their limbs. These living nests are called bivouacs, can shelter a queen, and come complete with walls and tunnels. When it’s time to move on, the nomadic army ants dissemble and become marching columns that swallow anything in their path, often killing literally thousands of other creatures in a single day, from other insects and spiders, to birds and other large mammals. The ants’ mandibles are solely for killing, crushing, cutting, maiming, and dismembering, as the creatures are only capable of swallowing liquids.

“Gordon Carrol and I talked about this many times,” Ridley Scott explained, “You know, should we indicate the Alien has intelligence? Or great intelligence? Or is it just a time bomb, is it just a war machine? Are those eggs simply war machines? … Ants have, I think, no sense of beginning or end. They just are born, run around doing this thing like everybody else in the community, and die. And I think that may have been the Alien. So, maybe the Alien had no intelligence except pure intuition about survival. Right?”

Egg silo by HR Giger, embedded into the underbelly of the derelict spacecraft like, in Giger’s words, a termite nest. Originally, the eggs were to be housed inside a pyramid structure, but budget and time forced the filmmakers to economise. “[W]e had to combine the derelict ship and the hatchery silo,” said Giger. “I thought we could place the egg silo under the ship, a bit like termites do.” He concluded, “we decided it would be a good idea to have these eggs inside the derelict like termites inside the walls of a house.” Image copyright HR Giger.

To sum up the insectile traits of the Alien:

  • The parasitic life cycle: The Alien is a parasitoid, needing a host in order to reproduce, like parasitic wasps. Ron Cobb identified the paralysing wasp as influencing O’Bannon. These wasps paralyse potential hosts and implant their seed along with a virus that suppresses the immune system which allows the larvae to grow undetected by the host. The large, formidable looking ovipositor of the Ichneumon wasp is not used to sting and wound, but to sting and impregnate.
    The Alien can be more accurately described as a 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.”
  • Larval, pupal, and adult life-stages: From the egg comes the facehugger, the first stage of the Alien life-cycle. The facehugger’s function is to locate, subdue, and impregnate a host via its proboscis. The impregnated host is the pupae stage. Once the Alien violently emerges from the host it must shed its skin and grow in order to become an adult. Butterflies go through a growing process known as Complete Metamorphosis – meaning its adult stage is completely different to its larval stage, as is the adult Alien from its infanthood as a chestburster. Once the chestburster has shed its skin (as most insects do, usually shedding exoskeletons numerously into adulthood) it leaves behind the instar stage of its life and becomes an adult.
  • Cocooning: The Cicada Killer Wasp cocoons its prey near the eggs of its young so that the newly hatched wasps have a food source. In Alien, the Alien cocoons Dallas and Brett not to feed on them, but for reproduction (though in early scripts, the Alien did eat parts of its cocooned hosts – it even ate Lambert whole in one version.) In Aliens, the colonists are abducted, subdued, and embedded into the walls of the hive to await death. In scripted, but unfilmed, portions of Alien 3, the prisoners were to come across the Alien’s nest, where they discover a cocooned Superintendent Andrews along with other half-eaten bodies. The characters identify the nest as a “meat locker”, presumably where the Alien stores hosts and food for its inbound Queen.

All of these elements bar the cocooning were present in the theatrical release of Alien. We see the Alien progress through the various stages of its life, getting a glimpse of some shedded skin along the way and even hints of the creature’s limited lifespan – “I wanted a sense of a timeless, slightly decaying creature that, maybe, only has a limited life cycle of, maybe, four days like an insect,” said Ridley Scott, adding: “the Alien lifeform lived to reproduce … [Ripley] killed it, but it would have died soon anyway. It’s like a butterfly.”

The Alien’s apparently impending demise was telegraphed through its lethargy aboard the Narcissus shuttle, in addition to a (hardly apparent) disintegrating paint job on the creature suit. In Aliens, the creatures at Hadley’s Hope are weeks old, scuppering the idea of a severely limited lifespan – with this in mind, we can easily chalk up the original Alien’s lethargy to it entering hibernation, much like the Aliens within the Atmosphere Processor before they are disturbed by the Colonial Marines.

The Alien and bacteria: Ash describes the facehugger as having “an outer layer of protein polysaccharides.” The polysaccharide comment may be a nod to bacteria, which are known to secrete protective slime layers usually composed of polysaccharides and protein, which helps the bacteria protect itself from antibiotics and even chemical sterilisation. Such layers also aid in attaching bacteria to other cells, and also as food, or rather, energy stores. The facehugger’s protective coating not only serves to protect the organism, but also helps any regenerative healing properties and keeps the creature energised (they do face a potentially long hibernation)… Either that, or the scriptwriters thought it merely sounded like an intelligent thing for Ash to say.

Insectile additions to the Alien life-cycle in the sequel:

  • The hive: like ants and most wasps (not all are eusocial), the Aliens adopt a functionalist, hierarchical social system. Contrary to popular belief, this does not consist of drones and warriors. Cameron scripted Alien drones in his 1983 treatment but cut them in the next draft. When JamesCameronOnline asked John Rosengrant if the drones even reached any preliminary design stages, he answered: “Not really, as far as I remember.” Cameron himself explained that the term ‘Alien Warrior’ was not to denote two different kinds of Alien (as is often mistaken) but was merely “my term for the single adult seen in Alien.” The expanded universe and fanon generated the idea that domed and ribbed head Aliens represent two different castes, but this has no basis in the release version of Aliens and perhaps belongs and owes its popularisation more to the comic books and games.
  • The Alien Queen: The Alien society within the hive consists of adult Aliens and their mother, the Queen. Unlike ants or termites, the Alien Queen does not have a need for a male counterpart (ants employ drones, and termites have kings to impregnate the queen). Like the creature in Alien, the Queen is ambi-sextrous, a hermaphrodite, capable of reproducing without the seed of a male. “There are insects like that [androgynous, asexual]” Ridley Scott said of his Alien, “so we based that on a little bit of good old Mother Nature.” The original creature was at first envisioned as a female, before becoming thought of as a  hermaphrodite by Scott once Bolaji Badejo was cast (initial efforts to cast a tall, thin woman failed). The Queen likely carries a feminine title (just as the first Alien was dubbed “Kane’s Son”) for clarity and because we tend to struggle without gender-specific labels (though it should be noted that Cameron referred to the Aliens in a male/female capacity – though he also noted that they can change gender if a Queen is present or absent).

It’s usually thought that the insect elements began and ended with Cameron, but in fact not only did they begin with Dan O’Bannon, but they were continued and pursued even by David Fincher for Alien 3. The parasitism and Queen (or an embryo, at least) returned from previous installments, but the third film’s Alien seemed to have picked up new abilities – firstly, we see it spit a wad of acid into a prisoner’s face, very much like some warrior ants who can even ‘self-destruct’ upon injury, drenching their enemies in toxins in the process. Furthermore, climbing, crawling Aliens in Aliens tended to need support, especially when crawling upside down, as the invading Aliens do during the Operations attack in Aliens. Fincher’s Alien, however, didn’t need any support at all:

Aliens hold on to piping for support…

…but not the “Runner”, who sticks to the ceilings like-

-an insect. Director David Fincher told Cinefex, “We wanted the creature to walk on the ceilings and really sell the idea that this thing is a bug from outer space.”

Alien 3 also carries the dubious honour of being the first film in the series where a character outright calls the creature a bug, seen when Morse mocks the lead-drenched Alien, calling out, “I hate bugs!”

Ridley returned to bugs to help with Prometheus’ creature concepts. Writer Jon Spaihts told Empire magazine: “Ridley is a great and ghoulish collector of horrible natural oddities, real parasites and predators from the natural world. He had a tremendous file of photography of real, ghastly creatures from around the world – they’re chilling, some of them! He would tell these tales with relish, of wasps that would drill into the backs of beetles and plant larvae, or become mind-control creatures. Terrible things happen, especially the smaller you get. As you get into the insect world or the microbial world, savage atrocities are perpetrated by one creature on another. And Ridley was thrilled with all of them. They inspired a lot of the designs and a lot of the ideas we tried.”

From the fears and morbid interests of Dan O’Bannon, through Ridley Scott’s research into insects, and Ron Shusset’s declaration that an insect life-cycle was the intention, it cannot be denied that the Alien is an amalgamation of horrific insectoid sexual aesthetics and traits, which contributed not only to the nightmare inducing nature of the creature, be its abilities, its visage, its growth cycle, but to its integrity as a space dwelling avatar of death as well. Strip the monster of all insectile traits and nothing reminiscent of the series’ Alien is left. Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3 managed to equilibrate the sexual and insectile overtones to create a startling, original beast, an equilibrium upset in the expanded universe and spin-offs, which saw a dilution of the creature’s sexual elements and subsequent diminishing returns.

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