Tag Archives: David Giler

Casting Ripley

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Edited excerpt from Strange Shapes: The Making of Alien.

May 1978, and production, with all its attendant problems, was well underway at Shepperton Studios.

Though sets were being mapped out and constructed, some were being hotly debated; the Alien had been committed to canvas, if not rubber (Giger had not, for now, been tasked with the actual construction of his monster); the script was in a constant state of flux, and tensions between the producers and the film’s writers were beginning to break out with Ridley, trying to compromise between the O’Bannon script and the Giler/Hill rewrites, being stuck in the middle of a writers feud that had opened, and would probably close, the film’s inception and completion.

There was another, arguably more pertinent problem: in a month the cameras would finally roll, but the part of Ripley had yet to be cast. Auditions for the part had seemingly wrung Los Angeles and New York dry. British-American actress Veronica Cartwright had read for the role twice, and Ridley reckoned that he wanted her for the film, but her ability to convey catatonia and fear—a talent that Scott and casting director Mary Goldberg especially admired— wasn’t a fit for Ripley. “Laddie was going crazy,” Ridley remembered, “saying, ‘You’ve gotta make your mind up.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I can’t find it yet.’”[1]

Several other actresses had been prospected. Twentieth Century Fox had initially pushed for an established actress to give the film heft: Katherine Ross or Genevieve Bujold, but stars of that calibre were not keen to be involved with a grubby science fiction movie. The success of Star Wars however convinced Fox that unknown actors could carry a successful film if buttressed by an established face or two, as Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing had done for Lucas’ unfamiliar cast.

One better known star who read for Alien was English actress Helen Mirren, who admired the refreshing ambiguity of the characters’ sexes. “I read the original script for that,” she said, “and when you read it, you had no idea which character was male and which was female. They were just people engaging with each other in this situation. They all had these sort of asexual names, so when Ripley said or did things, you had no idea whether Ripley was a man or a woman. You could have interchanged all the characters —they could have been all male or all female— any one of them could have been anything.”[2]

“There was no, ‘a lean 32 year old woman who doesn’t realise how attractive she is’ – there was absolutely none of that!” Mirren continued. “You had no idea who was a man and who was a woman. That was the revelation.”[3]

It wasn’t until the USA casting department put forth two choices for the role that the production started encircling potential Ripleys. The first suggestion was Meryl Streep, an up-and-coming theatre actress who briefly appeared in Julia (1977) and had recently wrapped on Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) with her partner John Cazale. Unfortunately, Cazale, in the end stages of lung cancer throughout The Deer Hunter’s shoot, died March 12, 1978, and Gordon Carroll did not think it appropriate to ask Streep to consider the role.

“The other woman,” Carroll remembered, “was of course, Sigourney Weaver.”[4]

Susan ‘Sigourney’ Weaver was, of a sort, American aristocracy. Her grandfather Sylvester Laflin Weaver left St. Louis for Los Angeles in 1893 and placed an ad in the Times to find work, with salary “no object”. For years he eked his way as a janitor, book-keeper, shipping clerk and salesman. “I finally became sales manager,” he explained, “making stops at San Luis Obispo, El Paso and the City of Mexico, during which I accumulated a wife, four children and a fair modicum of this world’s goods.”[5] In 1905 he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, overseeing the development of Los Angeles Harbour, and in 1910 founded his own roofing company, Weaver Roofing; it was said that most, if not all, of L.A.’s emerging suburbs at the time had been roofed by Weaver.

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His ambitions did not end there: he was president of the Los Angeles Rotary Club and then, in 1917, was elected a director of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. In 1919, Weaver, now a beloved and influential figure, ran for Mayor. His candidacy was received with enthusiasm: he was the centrepiece of a parade that rolled down Broadway “while bands played, horns blared, guns popped, red-fire flared and flashlights streamed their beams.”[6] But his mayoral candidature was not to be; he came in third place.

Yet this disappointment, coupled with the 1921 destruction of his roofing plant by fire, dampened neither his fortunes nor popularity. The family’s frequent partying and holidaying was a regular subject of the local papers and gossip circles. His wife wrote operas, books and was a patroness for charitable events. His four children —two sons, two daughters— lived accordingly. “My father was one of the young men about town,” remembered Sigourney. “He used to go out with Loretta Young and her sisters, and he went to high school with Carole Lombard, whose name was Jane Peters then. He used to date all the stars.”[7]

Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver Jnr, like his father, was never still. Starting out as a writer for KHJ radio, he quickly became program manager, switched to managerial positions in advertising, served in WWII, and then joined NBC in ’49. By ’53, he had been vice president of television and radio, then vice chairman of the board, and finally president of NBC. In ’43 he married English actress Elizabeth Inglis, who had appeared in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and opposite Bette Davis in The Letter (1940), with their children Trajan and Susan Weaver coming along after the war.

By the time Susan Weaver was born in 1949, the Weaver family was still firmly on the ascendancy. Her uncle Winstead ‘Doodles’ Weaver was a celebrated television and film comedian, “Manhattan’s favourite clown”[8] according to the press; her aunt a noted New York Times fashion critic, and her father the president of NBC, where he heralded both Today and The Tonight Show. “I was brought up in a show business environment,” she said. “Actors and famous people were there when I was a kid. The unusual was usual for me.”[9] She remembered stars like Art Linkletter visiting her father at their home on Long Island, and being “miserable because I was quarantined with the chicken pox.”[10]

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Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver with his daughter Susan Weaver. June 1955.

It was at the Ethel Walker School for girls in Connecticut where Susan adopted the name ‘Sigourney’, lifting it from a one-off character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The name, she thought, would stop her classmates from calling her ‘Weaver’, and she was from a family of odd names anyway. Her father once suggested naming her Flavia —his interests, obviously, firmly Roman— but her mother relented, choosing instead to name their daughter after family friend Susan Pretzlik. “A very interesting woman,” said Sigourney. “She was quite an explorer. And if I had met Susan before I switched over to Sigourney when I was 13, I probably would have kept it.”[11] But, for the adolescent Weaver at the time, “To be named Susan in a family like that seemed inappropriate.”[12]

Her family took to Sigourney easily enough. “They called me ‘S’ for a while in case I changed it to something else. And then actually they wanted me to keep the Roman part of my name, which was Alexandra—Susan Alexandra Weaver—so my father and I tried to think of a way of calling me Alexandra.”[13]

But her father quickly abandoned this when his daughter’s headmistress pulled them up about the change in name. “Do you permit your daughter to use that ridiculous name?” Weaver remembered her headmistresses asking her parents.

“And my father said, ‘Are you talking about our daughter, Sigourney?’ I thought that was wonderful of him.”[14]

At school she played a greaser in an update of Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, and found she had a taste for performance. “I flipped my hair back and wore a big leather jacket and some girls chased me out. I guess I did a good job as an Elvis Presley type.”[15] Tall for her age, gangly and a little awkward, Sigourney discovered that acting could be liberating. “I figured it was like being an explorer. There were so many interesting things to be —a lawyer, a doctor, a biophysicist— and only one life. Acting was a way to get around it.”[16]

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Sigourney Weaver at 13.

Her budding acting career was off to a bad start when, while rehearsing for a play at the Red Barn Playhouse, she was quickly replaced when the producer realised her romantic interest was only half her height. She had been a lanky 5’10 at 13, and even now many of her peers had yet to catch up. She stuck out. She looked odd. “I called my parents and described this situation to my mother and she said, ‘Well, welcome to the business.’ She said, ‘Your heart will be broken a hundred times.’”[17]

She found some acting work in weekend productions and summer stock, and even toured San Francisco with a comedy troupe, but these, she felt, were relegations: she wanted to do more, could do more, but no one else was willing to look beyond her height. “I was very much a loner,” she said, “and a self-conscious loner at that.”[18]

It was after gaining her English degree and while preparing for a PhD at Stanford that she decided to tackle acting head on, despite any misgivings about her physicality. Academia, she decided, wasn’t for her. “The course started getting really boring. Finally, I went to my adviser and said, ‘This is a desert, this part of it, right here in the middle. I hope it’s not going to be like this for three years.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be quite like this.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can stand it.’ I was studying criticism of criticism. It was all this twice-removed stuff—deadly dry. So I just applied to Yale Drama School and got in.”[19]

Her family, who had so often occupied show business echelons, always warned her that the business was unfair, rarely a meritocracy, and even cruel—but she did not expect the disillusion to set in before she had even graduated from drama school. “My acceptance to Yale was addressed to Mr. Sigourney Weaver, so I really wasn’t sure when I got there what they thought they’d taken. My second day there I got violently ill from food poisoning and had to go to the hospital. I’d eaten liver at the Elm City Diner—I was trying to be healthy by eating liver. I remember sitting next to this window on Chapel Street that had a big bullet hole in it. I should have known then….”[20]

At Yale she was rarely cast. Her tutors asserted that she had no future as an actress. The best roles, she remembered, went to classmate Meryl Streep. “I still think they probably had this Platonic ideal of a leading lady that I have never been able to live up to,” Sigourney reflected. “And would never want to.”[21]

If she reckoned that, after graduation, her father’s show business contacts would give her a lift she was to find that she had to rely solely on herself. “When I got out of Yale Drama School I called up a friend of my father to see if he could find me some stage work. He said: ‘Look kid, why don’t you get a job at Bloomingdales?’ Ever since then I’ve been on my own.”[22]

She teamed up with Yale friend Chris Durang, a budding playwright who had been one of the few at Yale to cast her in his productions. “I sensed that the audience had a special rapport with Sigourney,” Durang recalled. “Actors need skill and intelligence—which Sigourney has in abundance—but stars need charisma, which hard work can’t give you.”[23] Sigourney, he knew, had charisma in spades; she just needed exposure. He remembered how, after graduating, casting agents tended to complain about her height and “kept trying to type her as a patrician girlfriend who poured cocktails and nodded politely while the leading man talked.”[24] Stepping in, Durang teamed up with Weaver, casting her in his off-Broadway plays ‘Titanic’, ‘Beyond Therapy’, and ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’.

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Weaver and Durang on a poster for Das Lusitania Songspiel’s 1980 revival.

For Weaver, her adventures off-Broadway with Durang were more than affirming favours from a good friend: they were a life line. “After I left Yale,” said Sigourney, “we were all doing these mad plays off-off Broadway. And I got back to that feeling I had from college, of everyone making up in front of one cracked mirror, which is what I loved—the scrappy theatre idea. I think off-off Broadway healed me, made me an actor again, and I was in so many different crazy shows. I played a woman who kept a hedgehog in her vagina in one play; I was schizophrenic in another. It was just so much fun.”[25]

It was at this time that her name had started to circle around, and she came to the attention of the desperate Alien production. “She came recommended the long way around,” said Ridley, “where somebody had said to somebody, ‘There’s this girl who’s doing theatre on Broadway who’s very interesting, is a giant, I think she’s 6’1 in her stockinged feet. She’s very interesting. Smart performer, very physical.”[26]

To get an idea of how she came across on film, Walter Hill screened Madman (1978), an independent Israeli film that featured Weaver opposite Michael Beck. Liking both actors, he tapped Weaver for Alien, and Beck for his forthcoming film The Warriors (1979). Sigourney was sent the Alien script and invited to audition in New York before Ridley Scott, David Giler and Gordon Carroll.

She did not, at the time, prioritise film roles, having turned down the part of Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) when her commitments to Chris Durang’s ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’ clashed with the filming schedule – Christine Jones took the Dorrie role, though Weaver was afforded a non-speaking cameo in the closing moments of the film as Allen’s date as recompense. It had been the theatre that reinvigorated her, and that was where her loyalties lay; there, she had rediscovered a joy in performing that she thought had been irreparably lost at acting school. When the Alien script came through she was busying herself with the play The Conquering Event as well as various acting and charitable seminars, and didn’t see herself as a science-fiction actor, let alone lead.

“I was doing a seminar called the Hunger Project,” she said, “which was simply about making a difference in the world. Within the context of that seminar a movie part was so unimportant. I went up for Alien and didn’t want to be bothered, because I thought I had not suffered through the Yale School of Drama to do a science-fiction movie. I read the script and didn’t really care that much for it.”[27]

Though she was averse to science-fiction and couldn’t imagine the Alien looking anything other than silly, she still admired how “They had broken the rule and written two of the parts, originally designed for men, for women to play.”[28] One of those parts intrigued her in particular. “Actually, the part I wanted was Lambert. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act. If the elevator gets stuck that’s what I do.”[29]

The audition, held at the Loews Regency hotel on Park Avenue, was almost botched from the start, with Weaver turning up to the wrong hotel. She called her agent and suggested blowing it off, but he recommended that she go ahead anyway. Without much else to do, she rushed for the Regency. Ridley, Giler, Carroll and casting director Mary Goldberg waited, and waited, until finally, thirty moments after she had been due, Weaver turned up. “And then we hear,” said Carroll, “l can’t say running feet in the corridor, but we hear fast-paced feet coming toward the door, and then slowing down, composing itself… The bell rings, Mary opens the door, and Ripley was standing there.”

Weaver was quite the sight – standing over six feet tall in long boots, the panel found themselves looking up at what Carroll called “This extraordinary-looking woman; tall, commanding presence.”[30]

They talked about the script, beginning by asking Weaver what she thought of it.

“It’s a very bleak picture where people don’t relate to each other at all,”[31] she answered.

Mary Goldberg signalled that Weaver was sabotaging her own audition, but Weaver was undeterred from speaking her mind. “I happen to have worked on many new plays with new playwrights,” she said, “so I have been encouraged to speak up — I didn’t know if people in movies were used to that.”[32]

To her surprise (and relief), her interviewers acknowledged the shallowness of the characters, explaining that they were relying on interesting actors to bring them to life. “I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table,” said Sigourney, “because if they really wanted a ‘Charlie’s Angel’ I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together.”[33]

Then Ridley, remembering how effective Giger’s Necronomicon had been on himself, propped up a display of images by Giger and Rambaldi. Weaver was suddenly piqued. This would be the monster. She had never seen anything like it. They broke for lunch, with Scott and the producers taking Weaver for Japanese food on Fifty Fifth Street, where they met Walter Hill, before returning to the Regency to read through the script.

She did not know it yet, but Carroll, Scott and Giler all felt that she was perfect for Ripley the moment they laid eyes on her. “Somehow,” said Ridley, “I knew this was her.”[34] Hill was similarly enthused, but Weaver herself did not feel like a shoo-in. In fact, she was somewhat mystified by the attention. “I didn’t really know what was expected of me as I’d only made one film,” she said, “and an eight-part television series about aristocratic women called The Best of Families.”[35]

But it was her naivety and inexperience that the producers and Ridley knew would be perfect for Ripley. The character was thinly-sketched in the script, the only real characterful moments being her adamancy that quarantine rules be stringently obeyed, and her swift assumption of command after the death of Dallas. Looking at Weaver— her intelligence, twinkling humour and soft-spoken assertiveness as obvious as her strong jaw, high cheekbones and broad shoulders— they could see the blanks being filled already.

Scott had been enamoured the moment she stepped through the door, and continued to marvel at her throughout the day. “Jesus Christ, I was always looking up at her!” he remembered. “I walked into a restaurant with her and she held my hand. I felt like, ‘Mummy, Daddy!’”[36]

“She clearly has the authority that she needs to have,” he continued, “and can give any guy as good as he can give back.” Gordon saw how Weaver could project composure, and yet, “You knew that just an eighth of an inch behind that composure was a very nervous actress, a very tense actress, and that was exactly right.”[37] Giler noted her “American aristocratic” bearing, how she embodied perfectly the officer class.

With the producers and director keen, Weaver was flown out to Hollywood to meet Alan Ladd Jr., and Gareth Wiggin. “I lost my bags on the plane and went in my rotten clothes,” Sigourney recalled. “We had a typical chatty Hollywood meeting where you’re all supposed to pretend you’re there for social reasons and no one mentions the film.”[38]

Ladd, ever cautious, agreed to hire Weaver provided that she complete a screen test first. Scott protested that he was mere weeks from filming, but acquiesced: Fox placed a lot of trust in him due to his self-made success with RSA, but there were still plenty of executives, like Peter Beale, who still viewed him as untested. It irritated Scott, who had left a promising career at the BBC in favour of his independence, to suddenly have his creative decisions become the purview of a committee… but he trusted and respected Ladd, who had allowed head scratchers like Star Wars and Alien to be made at all.

“So,” said Sigourney, “the next week I flew to London. I hadn’t yet been hired but I was the only actress they were screentesting. They hoped I would do well. And we did a run-through of the entire script.”[39]

Weaver filmed her screentest on May 12th. She was apprehensive, imagining that she would have to duck and weave in an empty space or react to a potted plant, but when she arrived she found that Ridley had constructed a piece of set especially for her test. “This test corridor we built was the first look at the interior of the corridors of the Nostromo,” revealed art director Roger Christian. “It established the look of Alien for the very first time.”[40] In effect, not only was Sigourney being tested, but Ridley’s vision for the film was about to be captured—and scrutinised—for the first time.

Ladd watched the test in silence and, once done, picked up a nearby phone. He asked that some of the women upstairs come down to view the rushes with him. “So we ran the test again,” said Ridley, “and Laddy simply then said, ‘What did you think?’ and there were, I don’t know, maybe eight, twelve women who immediately jumped in. One said, ‘I think she’s like Jane Fonda.’”[41]

“Alan Ladd watched the screen test,” explained David Giler, “and had all the secretaries in the building come down and watch it. And they got into a big argument that she looked more like Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway, and he just said, ‘You can have her. She’s in.’”[42]

Weaver, already on her way home to New York, was not entirely confident. She reckoned she had played her scenes wrong, that she had been too stereotypically tough. “If I hadn’t been in an unambitious place philosophically, I think I would have tried harder,” she said. “In fact, it wasn’t until the day before the screen test that I sat down and thought, well, Sigourney, you’d really better make up your mind if you want to do this or not. They’ve already flown you out here. If you don’t, you’d better think about ending it. I finally decided I really liked the character of Ripley as well as the designs and Ridley Scott. Besides, I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”[43]

Luckily, she was to find that, barely home after her long plane flight, that she had gotten the part. “I had sort of written it off every step of the way.”[44]

But there was a snag when the actors convened for wardrobe fitting. Veronica Cartwright, who was eventually cast in the film after auditioning for Ripley three times, had assumed, naturally, that that was the role she was to play in the film. “I get a call,” she remembered, “and they said, ‘Okay, you need to come in for your wardrobe for Lambert’. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not playing Lambert, I’m playing Ripley.’ ‘No no… you’re Lambert.’”[45]

“I called my agent back in LA and said, ‘Aren’t I doing Ripley?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ I mean, that’s what he thought too. I even auditioned again when I was in England, and the part that I read for was Ripley. They didn’t bother to tell me. And I’d never even looked at the script from the point of view of Lambert. So I had to re-read the script.”

“I heard [about] that,” remarked David Giler. “Ridley had met Veronica on his own somehow and he really wanted her and we said fine, you know. Very good actress. So she was certainly fine with us.”

For her part, Cartwright suspected that internal politics played a part in the confusion. “There was a lot of politics going on during the making of that movie,” she remembered. “It was Sigourney’s first job. But her dad was a bigwig. There were a lot of favours going on. It just got a bit bigger than anybody had planned. And studio pressure and egos and everything got involved.”[46]

There might be some basis for Cartwright’s suggestion, with Alien 3 actor Ralph Brown detailing a 1991 meeting between himself and Walter Hill to discuss rewrites concerning Brown’s character Aaron ‘85’: “I am now paranoid about being cut from the film” he said, “like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter gently reminded me earlier – ‘I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you. Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright.’”[47]

However, it’s also likely Hill may be referring to the abundance of deleted scenes, many of which, Cartwright had complained after the film’s release, overwhelmingly featured her character Lambert.

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Sigourney on the Nostromo bridge with her father Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver and mother Elizabeth Weaver.

Sigourney understood that her background would prejudice some against her, especially in an industry that was rife with competitive and suspicious attitudes. “When you are the lead in a film that costs a few million dollars,” she said, “you do get the best hair and make-up people, and you don’t have to worry about things in rehearsal you might not get if you were making an independent film or if you had a supporting role.”

“On Alien,” she continues, “there was some resentment towards me because I came from New York and got such a good part, the one character alive at the end. That was very difficult for me to deal with.”[48]


[1] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[2] Helen Mirren, ‘Helen Mirren on The Tempest and Stealing All Her Best Roles From Men’ by Kyle Buchanan, vulture.com (13th December 2010).

[3] Helen Mirren, Empire (April 2016).

[4] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[5] Sylvester L. Weaver, ‘Sketches of Big Men in Industrial Life: Sylvester L. Weaver Devotes Energies to Civic Upbuilding’, The Los Angeles Sunday Times (Sunday 2nd December, 1923).

[6] ‘Weaver is Parade Center’, The Los Angeles Times (May 4th 1919) p. 6.

[7] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[8] ‘Doodles Weaver, Manhattan’s Favourite Clown, Is a University Graduate Who Earns a Living Imitating Lions, Worms,  and Baby Kangaroos’ by Virginia Irwin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (24th March 1941).

[9] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver: Alien Creature’ by Joe Baltake, Philadelphia Daily News (Friday June 8th, 1979) p. 37.

[10] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[11] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[12] Sigourney Weaver, interview with Bobbie Wygant (1979).

[13] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[14] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver rolls with punches’ by Dick Kleiner, The Index-Journal (9th July 1979) p. 5.

[15] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[16] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[17] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[18] Sigourney Weaver, ‘An Eyewitness Report on Actress Sigourney Weaver’ by Patricia Bosworth, The Santa Fe New Mexican/Family Weekly (August 9th 1981) p. 22.

[19] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver Tough Cookie in Alien’ by Richard Freedman, The Indianapolis Star (Sunday June 10th 1979).

[23] Chris Durang, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver’ by Jamie Lee Curtis, interviewmagazine.com (23rd February 2015).

[26] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[27] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[28] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[29] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[30] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[31] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 158.

[32] Ibid, p. 158 – 159.

[33] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Alien Interviews: Sigourney Weaver’ by Jim Sulski, Fantastic Films vo. 2 no. 6 (1979).p. 33.

[34] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[35] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[36] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[37] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[38] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Roger Christian, ‘Exclusive Preview: Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist’ by Roger Christian, shadowlocked.com (27th October 2010).

[41] Ridley Scott, The Alien Legacy (1999)

[42] David Giler, The Alien Saga (2002).

[43] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[44] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[45] Veronica Cartwright, Texas Frightmare Weekend Q&A (2013).

[46] Veronica Cartwright, ‘Veronica Cartwright Interview’ by David Hughes, Cinefantastique vol. 31 no. 8 (October 1999) p. 36.

[47] Ralph Brown, ‘Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood’ by Ralph Brown, https://magicmenagerie.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/my-pop-life-171-praying-for-time-george-michael/ (12th October 2016).

[48] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 160.

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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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Writing Aliens

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In 1983 Dan O’Bannon sat with Starlog magazine to talk about his career, including a customary overview of the Alien production and a poke at the possibilities of a sequel. “Also extraordinary,” the article read, “in this age of sequelmania, is the impossibility of Alien 2Return of AlienRevenge of the Alien, or anything else smacking of a second curtain call for the grisly astronaut-eater.” The problem, O’Bannon revealed, was that “The rights were altogether too divided among a number of us who can’t get along.” As far as he knew, he added, “There has never been any intention of doing a sequel.”

Contrary to his claims, producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll had mused on the prospects of a second film during the promotional run for the original film. “We’re involved in preliminary discussion right now,” Giler told Cinefantastique in 1979. “It’s still too early to say how it will unfold. Hill and I are working on it. I know a lot of people who think we intended the close-ups of the cat in the shuttle as a hook for the sequel. Not so. It probably won’t have anything to do with the cat.” When Fantastic Films magazine pressed them on plans for any further sci-fi movies, Giler mentioned a sequel, on which Carroll elaborated, “We don’t have any one idea we like better than the rest. But I think it’s a very realistic idea.”

Fantastic Films: Will it feature the same Alien?
Giler: Probably not.
Fantastic Films: The company the crew works for seems to be very sinister. Will they be elaborated on more?
Carroll: That’s a possibility. I would think that’s one of the things we might do. We also have, for example, the planet and all that. I think that the sequel would have more. I’m not saying necessary of that planet, but of the fantasy of science fiction in terms of design.

The producers weren’t the only ones musing on Alien II, with director Ridley Scott admitting to Fantastic Films magazine that, concerning the first film, “What I missed most of all was the absence of a prognosis scene. There were no speculative scenes or discussions about what the Alien was and all that sort of thing either. I believe that audiences love those, especially if they’re well done. They give the threat much more weight. If they make Alien II, and if I have anything to do with it, the film will certainly have those elements in it. From a certain point of view, Alien II could be more interesting than Alien I.” Ridley further mused with Cinefantastique that “In many respects it’ll be more interesting [than the first movie], from a pure science-fiction stand point. We’d get into speculative areas, deal with two civilisations.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984 that “It certainly should explain what the Alien is and where it comes from. That will be tough because it will require dealing with other planets, worlds, civilisations. Because obviously the Alien did come from some sort of civilisation. The Alien was presented, really, as one of the last survivors of Mars – a planet named after the god of war. The Alien may be one of the last descendants of some long-lost self-destructed group of beings.”

Then, not long after Alien’s theatrical run, rumours of a TV sequel, made in the vein of ‘Salem’s Lot, hit the trades:

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Not long afterwards, details for a movie sequel emerged in the press:

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  • The Alien, merely stunned by its close encounter with the shuttle engines, manages to survive outside the craft and reaches civilisation along with Ripley.
  • A second expedition to the planetoid is stranded there and, weathering a storm within the derelict and their own ship, its members deal with a group of Aliens, climaxed by the appearance to whose race the Space Jockey belongs.
  • A prequel, rather than a sequel, telling the tale of the Space Jockey and ending where Alien begins, with the arrival of the Nostromo crew.
  • The planetoid of the Alien explodes, sending Alien eggs to Earth where -shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers– a whole flock of the monsters run rampant.

But despite all of Ridley’s theorising and the commercial and cultural success of the original, the sequel did not appear. The reason for this is perplexing but simple: Twentieth Century Fox did not want it. Alan Ladd Jnr., the head of Fox who had heralded both Star Wars and Alien (and affectionately called ‘Laddy’ by Ridley Scott and co.) left the company in 1979 to found his own production firm, The Ladd Company, whom most will recognise as the producers of another science-fiction classic, Blade Runner. Ladd’s replacement was Norman Levy, who, according to Giler, opposed the very notion of an Alien II. “Norman Levy wouldn’t even hear about it,” Giler told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “He thought it would be a disaster … I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, ‘When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?’ He said, ‘Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.'”

In an interview with Blade Runner fansite BladeZone, journalist Paul M. Sammon, responsible for the excellent Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, said of the sci-fi/horror genre at the time: ”You have to keep in mind that even though Alien was a smash, it was still a science-fiction/horror film. And back in the late Seventies/early Eighties, those two genres, at least in the opinion of many Hollywood executives, were barely a step above pornography, even if horror and science fiction films were suddenly becoming these huge cash cows.”

When Levy left his post in 1984, Giler and Hill finally managed to make some headway. Giler attributes the revival of the project to a Fox executive who stopped him in the car park. “I told him the story that was a cross between Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven,” said Giler. “He said, ‘Great! That sounds fine.’ And we all had a meeting and we were on.” The producers then proceeded to band ideas about. “David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be,” Walter Hill told Film International in 2004. “We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller -the military takes over- a patrol movie.” But though ideas had begun to materialise, Giler and Hill, who both confessed to sci-fi not being their area of expertise, made no headway on a screenplay for the film.

The breakthrough came when Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler’s production company), came across a script called The Terminator. “It was electrifying,” he recalled. “I put the script on David’s (Giler) desk and said, ‘This is the guy.’” Giler and Hill, after perusing the script, had to agree that Cameron had talents worth investigating, and they arranged a meeting with the budding filmmaker to discuss ideas for a film, though not specifically an Alien sequel.

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Cameron cut his teeth on films like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) before branching out to write and direct his own features.

 “When I went over to visit the Corman facility, where the special effects were done, he was the genius, the resonant genius – everyone was talking about how great he was. I remember meeting him on the set [of Escape From New York], actually it was over in the San Fernando Valley, he was doing a glass painting for us. He was sitting on a hillside with some glass setup painting a New York skyline to be able to shoot the next shot. It was just beautiful – he was really technically great.”
~ John Carpenter, Sci-fi-online, 2008.

At this point in time Cameron was in a rut – his first directorial project The Terminator had been picked up by Hemdale and Orion Pictures, but shooting was put on an 8 month long hiatus due to Dino De Laurentiis pulling Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the movie to fulfill contractual obligations with a Conan sequel. Suddenly, despite having the entirety of The Terminator scripted, designed, cast, and ready to film, Cameron found himself with a lot of spare time to whittle away. So, not the type to sit on his hands, he sought new writing projects, taking on the sequel to First Blood as well as attending the meeting with Giler and Hill to discuss further projects. At first, the two offered him a take on Spartacus set in space which Cameron listened to with some bemusement. “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.”

After some to’ing and fro’ing, the meeting stalled.“And I was sort of getting up and sort of making my way towards the door,” Cameron continued, “and David Giler said, ‘Well, we do have this other thing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘Alien II.’ And all the kind of pinball machines lights and bells went off inside my head.” The original movie had left an indelible impression on Cameron. “I saw Alien on its opening night in 1979 and it had a great effect on me …  It created such a benchmark for visual design in science-fiction, as well as photography, acting, sound, and editing – all things that one did not necessarily associate with science-fiction.”

To aid him with the story, Giler and Hill pointed Cameron in the direction they thought it should take. “All they said was, ‘Ripley and soldiers,’” Cameron explained. “They didn’t give me anything specific, just this idea of her getting together with some military types and having them all go back to the planet.” The producers also imparted Cameron with their notes and story ideas. “I’ll never forget this,” commented Cameron, “The outline concluded with this sentence: ‘and then some other bullshit happens.’ Which I thought trivialised the entire process of figuring out what the story should be.”

Cameron, a science-fiction fan since his childhood, had already made attempts at sci-fi scripts in the vein of Alien and Star Wars before, none of which he had developed, but could now mine for his Alien sequel just as Dan O’Bannon had amalgamated his own Dark Star with a myriad of other ideas and influences. One of Cameron’s unproduced screenplays, titled ‘Mother’, was extensively reworked and would come to form the many throughlines of Alien II. “In 1980 or 1981,” he explained, “I wrote notes and an initial treatment for a science fiction story that I initially called E.T., meaning extraterrestrial, a commonly used term in science fiction literature. As I was writing it, I found out that Steven Spielberg was making a film called E.T. The Extraterrestrial, so I promptly changed the title of my story. I used Protein as an interim working title, but then switched the title to Mother, because the story concerned a female genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young.”

“It featured a character very much like Ripley,” he continued, “had its own type of Alien Queen, and ended with a final battle between the protagonist and Mother while the main character was encased in what I’d later call a ‘power-loader’.” The ‘Mother’ screenplay also originated many other Aliens tropes, including a company (Triworld Development Corporation, generally referred to as ‘the Company’) that funds inhabitation and resource-mining of other worlds, the term ‘xenomorph’, as well as a strong maternal theme. “I’d felt that that fit like a glove in the development of [Ripley]. I just grabbed all the stuff that I’d already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very mercenary, at the time.”

Cameron stayed up for three nights drinking coffee and working on First Blood II and the Alien II treatment, deconstructing his ‘Mother’ script for the latter and injecting it with Giler and Hill’s mandate that the military be involved. Luckily, his research for First Blood II offered an insight into the Vietnam War that he figured would meld very well with the story of an elite fighting force confronting “a less technologically advanced but more determined enemy” which, in his case, would happen to be not Viet Cong guerillas but a horde of murderous biomechanoids. “I was kind of fascinated by Vietnam at that point and what a weird and surreal kind of war that was. So my approach to [First Blood II] was a lot heavier, a lot more character.” Frustratingly for Cameron, Sylvester Stallone’s rewrites obliterated much of the depth that he had tried to instil in the film. “They kept a lot of the action,” he said of the film. “They just kind of made it a Mission Impossible thing – for me it took on kind of a superhero-type quality. I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character.” Not wanting to let a good theme go to waste, Cameron realised that Ripley’s encounter with the Alien would undoubtedly have traumatised her in a way that would be powerful and lingering. “One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam,” he told Time magazine in ’86, “who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised […] I used a bit of it in Aliens, having them come back from something they were traumatized by. There was a bit of that delayed stress syndrome stuff in Aliens they didn’t use in Rambo II.”

Another theme of Alien II would be one that James Cameron was fascinated with for some time: “Would you be willing to go into hell for someone, and if so, who would it be, and what would your relationship to them be?” Though the original Alien ended with what David Giler termed a “Sleeping Beauty … lyrical ending,” Cameron geared the sequel to encompass more than lyricism, but a sense of healing and catharsis for both Ripley and the audience. “The first thing I did was give Ripley a past,” explained Cameron, “a life back on Earth – it’s just barely sketched, but there are resonances throughout the story: she was married, she got divorced because her career took her into space, and she had a daughter who, in the time that Ripley was on the Nostromo, grew up and died of old age. So there’s a sense that Ripley survived what happened, but there is still tremendous loss – all this was taken from her.” Cameron’s hopes for the cathartic experience were best put by Stanley Kubrick, who said, though he was talking in regards to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent – but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

But a snag came when Cameron, finally entering production of The Terminator in late ’83 and early ’84, had yet to finish the full Alien II screenplay. “Giler lost it,” Cameron recalled. “He actually said something I never thought I’d hear anyone say in Hollywood – ‘You’ll never work in this town again!’” Luckily, Walter Hill was of a cooler disposition and advised Cameron to send in whatever he’d written, and the resulting 60 page treatment, submitted on September 21st, 1983, pleased Brandywine enough to keep him on the project. In fact, Giler & Hill liked Cameron’s treatment so much, they added their name to it, placing Cameron third in the credits and earning themselves a pay cheque from Fox. ”Walter and David got a cheque for my treatment, and I got nothing,” he said. “I was pretty pissed off about that one.”

Alien II

Twentieth Century Fox, however, were not so impressed. “An executive told me he didn’t like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development,” Cameron told the LA Times. As The Terminator went into production in March 1984, Fox made an attempt to sell the rights to the Alien franchise to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja, but the deal ultimately fell through. When producer Larry Gordon replaced Fox studio production head Joe Wizan in the summer of ’84 he came across the Alien II treatment. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been done,” Gordon said. “In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer.” Gordon, who had worked with Hill on the 1982 hit 48 HRS, kept the Alien II project alive and rolling. Though Cameron was busy directing his first feature, Gordon allowed him to continue to refine and complete the first Alien II screenplay draft throughout The Terminator’s production, even throughout the editing phase. There was even another promise: that if The Terminator was successful, then Cameron could also direct the Alien sequel. “I agreed to write Alien II on the basis– and on the sole basis –that I direct it,” Cameron said. “I created the characters, I created the scenario, and I got emotionally involved. I had a large creative investment in what I’d done up to that point.”

The first public announcement that Cameron had written the sequel came in December 1984, when he told Starlog magazine: “I have written the screenplay for Alien II. It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can’t really say anything more about Alien II than that it exists.” While drafting the screenplay Cameron, who had never intended for his sequel to imitate the original film, concocted a title that shed the roman numerals and allowed it to immediately air its own identity. “I don’t know Dan O’Bannon,” he explained, “but I read an interview with him that said he was typing away one night at four o’clock in the morning, and he was writing , ‘the Alien did this, the Alien did that,’ and he realised that the word ‘alien’ stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was ‘Aliens this and Aliens that’ and it was just right. It was succinct. It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel, without having to say Alien II.” The first draft was handed into Fox in early 1984, and was received with enthusiasm by the studio. There was some sweat shed over the cost: Cameron’s partner and producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted the film could be made for around $15.5 million; Fox estimated it would total an unacceptable $35 million.

A bigger snag came when Cameron insisted that only Sigourney Weaver could play the lead. Fox protested that taking such a stance would allow Weaver a great deal of leverage over her pay, and that they would make Aliens without her if possible. In return, Cameron and Hurd left the project and, recently married, honeymooned to Hawaii.  “We assumed it was a dead issue,” said Hurd, “and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.” But when they returned they found that the movie was still on, and that Weaver had been approached to resume her role of Ripley. Weaver, having found the script suddenly dropped in her lap, was impressed enough with Ripley’s characterisation to sign on. “The emotional content is much greater in Aliens,” she said. “I tried to imagine and comprehend something like that […] Coming back to a whole different world and haunted by the other one. Ripley’s personal situation is so bleak. I know I’m playing the same character, but I feel she has changed so utterly by what happens to her early in the film. I don’t think she’s the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time.”

To begin with, Alien happened in space,” Cameron told Prevue magazine in ’86. “The characters literally existed in a vacuum – they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare – and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.” Weaver affirmed Cameron’s concern that a Ripley without catharsis would ultimately end up as a self-destructive person: “I play a character who, probably, if she stayed at home and the nightmares continued, she might end up with a loaded gun next to her bed.”

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 “Ripley is very different [in Aliens]. The horrific experience she endured on the Nostromo changed her irrevocably from the eager young ensign to a really haunted person. And we must remember that she drifted in space for fifty-seven years … I firmly believe that Ripley’s mind never stopped working while she slept … she’s probably been over that experience in various nightmare forms through the years. Ripley has to start life over again and finds it very difficult to do so. There are so many ghosts in her life. And yet she agrees to face the horror once again … She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts and sadness of the past or there will be no future for her. But once on the planet and faced with the nightmarish situation, she finds a purpose … she finds she can identify with the little girl, Newt, who is the only other person to experience what Ripley experienced, and survive … She is a fellow creature who shares the same nightmare. When Ripley finds her, her life means something again.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Starbust, 1987.

Ripley’s actions on LV-426 were intended to serve as atonement for her (self-perceived) failure to protect her Nostromo crewmates. “Ripley still feels responsible for what happened on the Nostromo,” explained Weaver. “She has a feeling that she could have done more to help the crew to survive. It’s nonsense of course; but she can’t help thinking that she could have done a better job […] To me, it is the story of a woman who loses her whole life, and has to start over again,” she surmised. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again. I mean, she’ll never be that eager young ensign, but who’d want to be anyway? You’ve got to move on […] It’s been very satisfying to see how Ripley coped with what turned out to be a real tragedy in her life.”

Though the writing process was generally smooth, Cameron noted that “[Sigourney] tried to have an influence on Aliens, but it didn’t work! She said, ‘I don’t want to shoot a gun,’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot a gun.’ ‘Oh, well, can I get killed?’ ‘No.’ When I saw the third film I cracked up, because it was all the things she’d asked for on the second film.” This isn’t to suggest that Cameron wasn’t accommodating to Weaver’s suggestions, as the latter praised his ability to interpret the character of Ripley correctly: “Jim is incredibly open to things. I always felt that he trusted my instincts and that he had his own very clear idea of Ripley. Whatever decisions I made about her mental and emotional attitude, he has tried to incorporate into scene changes, how we play them, and things like that. For the most part it has gone very well.”

Aliens finally went into production in September 1985, and would wrap in April 1986 on a budget of $18 million – half of what Fox had frightfully predicted. “If Jim Cameron hadn’t fallen in love with something about Alien,” stated Sigourney, “then a sequel wouldn’t have been made. No one really wanted to touch it … Luckily, Jim wanted to make his own movie.”

 

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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.

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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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Interview with Walter Hill, 2004

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From Film International #12

Film International: Can you clarify your contribution to the Alien series?
Walter Hill:
I generally duck answering questions on Alien in interviews – so much of it ended up acrimoniously, and when you give your side it usually sounds self-serving.

FI: Alien was the first time you functioned as a producer.
WH:
Yes. This is complicated – mainly I’ll try not to talk as a producer, but as a writer – however in this case it’s difficult to separate…

David 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 know (Mark Haggard, interesting guy, real John Ford expert) who was fronting the script for the two writers (Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett). I read it, didn’t think much of it, but it did have this one sensational scene, which later we all called “the chestburster.” I should also probably say The Thing (1951) was a favourite from when I was a kid; and this script reminded me of it, but in an extremely crude form.

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 15th 1976], and was quite happy to answer when the phone rang. It was David – he told me I was crazy, but he had just got as far as the big scene (the chest burster) and it was really something. So basically off the strength of that, we acquired the rights and kicked it around for a few weeks, trying to figure out what to do with it. Remember, neither of us was a real sci-fi writer or a horror writer, but we were arrogant enough to think we understood how the genres worked.

First, we gave the original screenplay to the studio (Fox); they read it and passed (actually it had been previously submitted to them, so technically they passed twice), but we just didn’t want to let it go. We believed 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 might be a very good, very primal space story.

Finally I said I’d give the fucker a run-through (it was now around Christmas holidays). David was going off to Hong Kong with his girlfriend, but before he left we thrashed it out pretty good.

FI: How did the rewrite differ from the original script?
WH: For starters, in the original material, it was an all-man crew, and the creature was some kind of space octopus – the main idea David and I had was to do a slicked up, high class ‘B’ movie that as best we could avoided the usual cheesball characters and dialogue. This doesn’t seem like much now, but the notion that you’d write a ‘B’ movie idea -make it to be played with the same intentions and style as high drama- that was out of the box, then. And, pretty obviously we were thinking like producers before we began to deal with it as screen writers.

One other thing – I resist science fiction that suggests the universe is something other than dark, cold, harsh, dangerous. I said before how much I like Hawks’ The Thing, and one of the ideas in the finished script I liked best was the way it dramatised and valourised instinctive wariness and practicality when dealing with the unknown, over the needs of science. And I think that quality is what made that movie so American, even though it was shot in England, had an English director, English technicians, and several English cast members.

David had suggested making the captain a woman. I tried that, but I thought the money was on making the ultimate survivor a woman – I named her Ripley (after Believe It or Not); later, when she had to have a first name for ID cards, I added Ellen (my mother’s middle name). I called the ship Nostromo (from Conrad, no particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good.) Some of the characters are named after athletes. Brett was for George Brett, Parker was Dave Parker of The Pirates, and Lambert was Jack Lambert of The Steelers.

[David has] 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 when the Ian Holm character was revealed to be a droid – that was David.

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In a sense, what was different from the O’Bannon/Shusett script is difficult to answer. There were certainly a lot of finite things: the protagonist as a woman, mixed gender crew, the Weyland-Yutani company, the conspiracy theory undertones to the Weyland-Yutani conspiracy, the possibility of using the Alien as a biological weapon, Ash as a droid, the idea of class lines based on job descriptions – what we called ‘truckers in space’ (this became an instant cliche; you couldn’t make a sci-fi movie after this without baseball hats); but the significant difference in the two scripts was setting the mood, the environment, and what became the stance of the film.

That said, we added a rough contemporary quality to the characters that broke it out of the genre mold – the ‘kiss my rosy red ass’ and ‘kill the motherfucker’ kind of dialogue that you historically didn’t find in science fiction movies. Remember, we were at the same studio that had made Star Wars. The on-lot joke at the time was that we were doing The Rolling Stones to their Beatles.

FI: The film is often criticised for having weakly defined characters.
WH: That’s bullshit. You clearly know who each of them are, and what their attitudes are – they have immediacy. And of course, our best character was the Alien.

FI: Can you elaborate?
WH: For example, David and I joked about calling him/her Nietzsche, you know, Beyond Good and Evil. Seriously, that was one of the things in making the thing fly – we articulated that notion in a way that got to the audience.

FI: I love the Ash death speech, ‘A perfect organism. Its structual perfection matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. An organism unclouded by remorse, conscience, or delusions of morality…’
WH: Ian Holm. Wonderful actor. I remember I met Tommy Lee Jones in New York; we were interested in him playing Dallas – he told me he had read the script twice, and the only character that really grabbed him was the monster, and he’d sign up tomorrow if he could play it.

FI: It sounds like you and David Giler had a good time writing the script.
WH: Too much probably. And to tell the truth, we were kind of lefthanding the whole thing. I don’t mean we thought we were above the material; that’s the worst sin, and sends you straight to the inner circle of hell. But, we were busy on a lot of other projects and, again, neither of us felt sci-fi was our natural métier. Although I had been a big sci-fi reader when I was a kid, David not at all. Oddly enough, in the long run, I think that distance helped the script – the feeling we had standing somewhere outside the genre helped get it off center and made it different in tone. And it gave us the courage to be irreverent. I mean, when it’s 2 A.M. and you’re writing about a monster with acid for blood, some irreverence is called for; we were always taking an impossible situation and trying to make it sound real, and most of the time we pulled it off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we may have lefthanded the script, but we did work very hard: the Ash death speech we probably wrote about twenty times before we got it right. Anyway, David went off to Hong Kong, and I sat down and did a spec rewrite of the O’Bannon/Shusett script. It took maybe a week. After the holidays, David got back, and then he and I rewrote it several times. We gave it to the studio, and they got on board. Gareth Wigan was the executive on the piece; he’s one of the very few executives I’ve ever worked with who’s actually very good with script.

David and I then did what seemed like an endless series of polishes. The last couple we did in New York in my room at the Navarro (now the Ritz Carlton) while I was prepping The Warriors.

FI: But in the end, you two weren’t credited.
WH: Correct. The [Writers] Guild decided we didn’t deserve any writing credit for our efforts.

FI: It sounds like you’re still unhappy about this.
WH: It’s a long time ago, and there are a lot more important things in the world; however, I certainly believe it was an injustice in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the truth. Partially as a result of all that, after the first Alien, I have to admit I never felt as involvedor committed to those that followed, though obviously I was quite happy at their success.

FI: Is it true you sued Fox over the profits?
WH: Yes. Twice. Both times settled in our favour.

FI: Any backlash to this?
WH: I am told that David and I are currently blackballed at Fox. So be it.

FI: Why was Alien so successful?
WH: First, but not necessarily foremost, it was a good script – suggestive of deeper issues, deeper terrors, nightmares. It’s not quite a sci-fi movie, not quite an action movie, not quite a horror movie, but some odd kind of synthesis that came together via agood, old fashioned story move. The objective problem in the first half becomes subjective in the second half by getting into Ripley’s head and experiencing the terror through her. The final draft was very tight, only about eighty pages, lean and mean.

But whatever the quality of the script, films have to be realised. And in this case, it just all worked. Ridley Scott did a wonderful job, the best film he’s done, I think. Sigourney Weaver was iconographically perfect, and had the chops to pull it off. She was a very young womanthen: inexperienced, but it made the movie so much better that she wasn’t a known actress. Needless to say, that was a tough one for the studio to swallow. I mean, we were insisting on a female lead in a sci-fi action film, and then on top of that, an unknown female lead. With a director whose previous film had a worldwide gross of, I think, less than half a million dollars. That’s why maybe the ultimate good guy was Laddie – and he said yes.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that warm films are commerical, and cold ones are not. As usual, the conventional wisdom isn’t true, and it isn’t true by the bagsful with Alien. It’s a very cold film. Hospital cold. I’m-here-to-die-ion-this-sterile-room-and-nobody-gives-a-shit-cold. But at the same time, that’s only a half-truth; it’s also fun – a good example of the old show biz rouser.

FI: What about Aliens?
WH: This was a few years later. David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be. We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller -the military takes over- a patrol movie. David wrote it down on a couple of pages. Jim Cameron wrote a treatment. David and I rewrote it a bit (this must be about fall of ’83); we gave it to the studio and they said ‘Go to script.’ Jim went off and directed The Terminator then came back and wrote the first draft. It never changed much.

FI: Did you like the film?
WH: Obviously, Jim has a big talent for connecting with big audiences. I thought he shot the shit out of it. Tremendous physicality. I wasn’t too crazy about the stuff with the kid.

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FI: What about Alien 3?
WH: Another complete fucking mess. The studio wanted to crank out another one. There were a number of false starts. David and I were a bit sick of it, and wanted to end the whole thing. But we wanted to do it with some class and thematic cohesion. We thought that killing Ripley -or to be precise, having her sacrifice herself while ridding the universe of the Alien- would be a bold move and round out the trilogy. That was our only stipulation: beyond that we tried to stay out of it as writers. As usual, David and I were busy on other films.

There were a number of writers and directors, then David Fincher was hired. There was a start date, the script was announced to be a mess (it was) – it had been run through about five writers up to then; sets were being built, actors being hired – the usual circus of expensive incompetence. The studio and Sigourney asked us to put on our firemen suits, so David and I went to London and started writing. Fifteen years later, and we’re still in hotel rooms rewriting Alien.

We felt we were working in handcuffs – writing to sets that were already built, plot moves that had been committed to that we didn’t agree with. Then there were differences of opinion with Fincher, Sigourney, and the studio. We did our best and went home.

FI: On this one, you and David got the credit.
WH: Or the blame. I think a lot of the ideas in the third one are actually the most interesting in the series, but the whole thing didn’t quite come off. And certainly some of that is our fault. Speaking for myself, I don’t think our script was nearly as good as the one we did for the first Alien.

FI: What about the fourth, Alien Resurrection?
WH: We had nothing to do with that one -didn’t even think it was a good idea for starters- we thought we had ended the series. And our relationship with the studio had deteriorated even more, probably due to the lawsuits. Our only real function was telling them that the script they developed without our input wasn’t any good and wouldn’t work. We then suffered the traditional fate of the messenger – personally, I think it’s a lousy movie. And they just wasted Winona Ryder. That’s inexcusable.

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The Meat Locker

The Alien’s habit of cocooning its victims serves different purposes across the various films. Alien tried to establish that the cocooned victims ‘morph’ into eggs, thereby continuing the Alien threat. Aliens took advantage of the cocoon scene’s removal from the theatrical cut of the first film and showed that the eggs were instead the result of an Alien Queen. The cocooned colonists of Hadley’s Hope are transfixed rather than transformed; all collected and impregnated together in vast nurseries within the hive.

Alien cocoons also featured in many Alien 3 scripts. In Eric Red’s story they are routinely spun by Aliens who embed their victims into the latticework to await impregnation, much as they do in Aliens, but Red also writes that the cocoons induce metamorphosis as indicated in Alien’s famous deleted scene.

“A horrible halfway transformed Colonel Sinclair is all sewn up in cocoon substance, his arms and legs molted mostly away. He realizes he is turning into one of those things. His face is torn as much with terror as hideous agony.”
~ Alien III by Eric Red, 1989.

In Vincent Ward’s script a host of cocooned monks form part of a “grim tableau”, with Ripley and Brother John finding them “impaled on their own pikes. Tangled together in their own pungy stakes. Alien cocoon material cobwebbed over their bodies.”

The cocoons made it to further Alien 3 scripts penned by a long concatenation of writers including producers Walter Hill and David Giler and pens for hire like Rex Pickett.

In one draft by Giler and Hill, dated 10th October 1990, the cocoons appear on page 91, near the end of the movie. The Glassworks from Vincent Ward’s script has yet to be superseded by the furnace from later scripts (in fact, this version retains many beats and milieus from Ward’s story, refitted to suit the prison environment), and it is here that the Alien has made its nest.

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There is a low moaning emanating from somewhere within the nest. Ripley and Aaron advance forward and find “Dozens of semi-tramsparent pods — inside each, a prisoner’s body.”

Aaron gets closer, close enough to “almost make out the faces of the men inside the cocoons,” and realises that the prisoners are still, though barely, alive.

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They find Superintendent Andrews cocooned and protected by a ‘Membrane’, a “cross section of laser light” that acts as an alarm. If the membrame is breached, then the Alien is somehow alerted to either escapees, interlopers, or perhaps a birth.

The Membrane is, obviously, an elaboration of the blue laser seen in the derelict’s hold in Alien. Ridley Scott had mused that this sheet of light acted as a trigger or alarm for the eggs, perhaps to alert the Space Jockey of any contamination. Alien 3′s proposed Membrane instead seems to be a function of the Alien itself.

Superintendent Andrews begs to be put out of his misery, so Ripley, in true Alien tradition, immolates him. The cocoon chamber is quickly in flames and the Alien turns up in a fury. Ripley sets the Alien aflame by launching her torch and it flees. The scene concludes with Aaron and Ripley chasing after it.

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The cocoon appears in the next iteration of the script, dated 18th December, 1990. The nest has been transplanted from the Glassworks/Furnace to the Assembly Hall (that is, the steel panopticon where we first meet Dillon, Andrews, Aaron, and the other prisoners at the beginning of the movie.)

This time it is Dillon and Morse, not Ripley and Aaron, who stumble into the nest.

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They find Superintendent Andrews, again cocooned and protected by a Membrane, and, again, they put the hive to the torch and are promptly attacked by the Alien. Dillon attacks the beast with his torch and it flees, disappearing behind a nearby cement abutment. Meanwhile, the hive burns around them.

Morse: Come on! Let’s get out of here!
Dillon: You go!
Morse: Both of us!

But the inferno grows, and Dillon forces Morse through a nearby door and locks him on the other side. Then: “Turning back to the ghostly, flickering incadescence, Dillon begins to pray softly.” The scene ends with:

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As 1990 began to segue into the new year independent filmmaker Rex Pickett was hired to write a draft based on Giler and Hill’s December 1990 script.

Pickett excises the hive sequence entirely in his version, but there is one notable character who finds himself cocooned by the creature:

Moving deeper into the abattoir, Dillon finds:

GOLIC cocooned, ensconced in fluid, and still alive! He appears to be trying to say something. Morse leans forward and listens. Then he turns to Dillon:

Morse: He’s saying, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’

Dillon just looks at Golic, shaking his head. The others all stand behind him, looking. Eric continues babbling inanely in the background.
~ Alien 3 by Rex Pickett, first draft (revised) January 5th, 1991.

Pickett was let go after a month of work and Giler and Hill revised the script again. This time, they got rid of the cocoons altogether.

But since the script was being written throughout the film’s shooting many props were designed and crafted but were ultimately either cut from the film or never used at all. These include the super-facehugger, an ox host, and of course the cocoons and their hosts.

“We were going to end up making twenty of these cocoons,” Tom Woodruff Jr told Cinfex magazine. “We started on two, and then the plug was pulled because Fincher’s idea was that the creature simply kills to eat. Actually, we did finish one off for Fincher because he liked it so much. He had it on set with him and would occasionally climb into it for inspiration. He called it his ‘thinking shell’.”

A cocoon-in-progress, from ADI's video.

A cocoon-in-progress, from ADI’s behind the scenes video.

So what do the cocoons add to our understanding of the film and its story? It seems that the Alien acts as a custodian for the embyronic Queen, clearing the area of potential hostilities and setting the foundations of a hive.

But there is a contradiction in the Alien’s actions. If it has built the hive to properly secure hosts or a food store, and needs Ripley to carry the Queen to term, then why doesn’t it abduct her and seal her within its nest? After all, what’s to stop the prisoners from hacking Ripley and the embryo to pieces with their axes or simply bludgeoning her?

And if the Alien is building a food store, as Ripley says in the 10/10/90 script, then why are many of its victims blindly eviscerated and their corpses abandoned? And why does the Alien’s nutritional needs appear so late in the game? If the Aliens and the Queen need to eat, then why do they leave the bodies of the colonists to rot in Aliens?

But it’s safe to say that if Alien 3 had preserved its cocoon scene then it would have been only a minor logical headache compared to some other elements in the story, and might have become, like the rest of the film, very well appreciated for its visuals and imagery alone. Though Aliens is the only film within the first three to actually depict its cocoon scenes in its theatrical cut, the pods have become as vital to the idea of the Alien as its biomechanic textures and retractable jaws.

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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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