Stanley Kubrick, in his science-fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey, declined to show the extraterrestrial masters behind the Monolith on the advice of Carl Sagan, who advised that no film depiction of an alien could be convincing. In a 1968 interview with Playboy, the interviewer posed to Kubrick that extraterrestrials in fiction were typically portrayed as “bug-eyed monsters scuttling hungrily after curvaceous earth maidens.” Kubrick suggested that this trend “probably dates back to the pulp science-fiction of the Twenties and Thirties.” In short: depictions of alien monsters to date were the stuff of old comic books and were not taken seriously by cinema, which had yet to carve out its own unique and convincing renditions of alien life-forms. Whilst Kubrick’s film was bolstered by keeping his alien forces off-screen, it is interesting that both lusty bugs and the pulp depictions of aliens, anathema to serious-minded filmmakers in the 1960’s, would in fact serve as the roots from which the most terrifying and convincing alien monster would grow, a decade after Kubrick put his apparently definitive stamp on the genre, in 1979’s Alien.
When Dan O’Bannon started conceptualising his alien creature he turned to two key influences: the creatures depicted in the comic books he devoured as a child, and the insect world. “Works of fiction weren’t my only sources,” he explained in his essay Something Perfectly Disgusting. “I also patterned the Alien’s life cycle on real-life parasites … Parasitic wasps treat caterpillars in an altogether revolting manner, the study of which I commend to anyone who is tired of having good dreams.” O’Bannon quotes Carl Zimmer, the author of Parasite Rex (2001): “Psychiatrists actually recognise a condition they call delusional parasitosis – a terror of being attacked by parasites … it is not just a fear of being killed, it’s a fear of being controlled from within by something other than our own minds, being used for someone else’s ends. It’s a fear of becoming a flour beetle controlled by a tapeworm … When an alien bursts out of a movie actor’s chest, it bursts through our pretences to be more than brilliant creatures. It is nature itself that is bursting through, and it terrifies us.”
The insect world, O’Bannon knew, was one of sheer brutality, where even acts of copulation routinely result in murder. Indeed, certain parent insects quickly become fodder for their newly hatched spawn (an anecdote about a spider being eaten by its children is used to disturbing effect in Blade Runner.) Insects are also notoriously cruel to other species of insect – the relationship between flies and spiders is an obvious horror, but varieties of wasp also use the bodies of other insects as the host for their young. A genus of the Phoridae fly, the Pseudacteon, also known as the ant decapitating fly, is infamous for its violent use of ant bodies: eggs are laid in the ant’s thorax, and the larvae migrates to the brain, where it feeds on the hemolymph and muscle and nerve tissue. “After about two to four weeks, they cause the ant’s head to fall off by releasing an enzyme that dissolves the membrane attaching the ant’s head to its body. The fly pupates in the detached head capsule, requiring a further two weeks before emerging.”
“It was our idea,” explained Ron Shusett to Cinefantastique, “that it would be the life-cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider. Its eggs grow off the living spider, like a surrogate mother. That we did want it to be.”
Ridley Scott added: “There’s a fundamental connection in nature because we actually watched, in preparation for this [movie], Oxford Scientific, [which] had this interesting piece of footage where they’d watched a slice of bark, and there’s a grub underneath the bark … Across the top of the bark was this insect, which passes over the grub, stops, backs up, and ‘feels’ the grub is there, let’s say, the equivalent of 8 feet below you. It goes up on its hind legs, produces a needle from between its legs, and drills through the bark and bulls-eyes right into the grub and lays its seed, so that the grub becomes the host of the insect.”
At first, O’Bannon was stuck on the point of getting the Alien on board the spaceship. Having it simply sneak aboard seemed too banal. But if the creature could stow away within the body of a space-man… Dan, fascinated and repulsed by the horrific life cycle of parasitoid wasps, incorporated the concept into his alien monster. It would gestate inside a living host and explode from their body. The Alien could get on the ship, and excitingly, not without spilling blood.
Another inspiration behind the incubating monster, according to artist Chris Foss, was an episode of food poisoning that saw O’Bannon taken to hospital: “Long before he came to Paris [for Jodorowsky’s Dune], [O’Bannon] ate some fast food and woke up in the night in incredible pain and actually had to be taken to hospital, and imagined that there was a ‘beast’ inside him. And that was exactly where that thing [the chestburster] came from.” HR Giger corroborated this in an 1999 interview, saying, “Dan O’Bannon, when he was writing the script, had a stomach pain and he wanted the pain to go away and came up with the idea of the pain leaving through the stomach, so he invented that.” According to The New York Times, O’Bannon also told them: “The idea for the monster in Alien originally came from a stomach-ache I had.” Stomach trouble was a decades-long ailment for O’Bannon, who was diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s, sometime in the 1970’s. In fact, his first wage from Twentieth Century Fox allowed him to pay off his accrued stomach-related medical expenses at that point: “I’d been under much stress and other problems plus not taking care of myself, that I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year, I was in and out of the hospital.”
The trauma of feeling poisoned apparently stayed in O’Bannon’s mind when writing Alien. His health troubles, coupled with the horrors of the insect world, all seemed too deliciously distressing to pass up. He knew what to inflict on the crewmen of his embryonic Alien story: impregnation by way of rape and poisoning, all imbued with the fear of parasitoid insects.
Now all he needed was a monster designer.
From the beginning, Dan O’Bannon had envisioned a Giger-monster stalking his ship and slaughtering his crewmen. He had been introduced to the artist’s unique biomechanical style and nightmarish imagery whilst living in Europe, working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ultimately aborted Dune. Jodorowsky had gathered a cabal of striking artists, illustrators, and visionaries to bring Frank Herbert’s sci-fi opus to life. O’Bannon: “Jodorowsky found these very good and fantastically original sci-fi artists to design all of the sets and costumes and spaceships and everything. It was an amazing achievement. It was like being in an art museum, that room where they were hanging it, designing it all and putting it on the wall.”
Giger’s work, however, grabbed O’Bannon most of all: “His visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality. 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 … And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”
After his return to America, and with the Alien script written, purchased, and in the pre-production phase, O’Bannon was able to elicit HR Giger’s help in designing the alien beast. Ron Shusett: “We signed the deal and tried to get them to hire Hans Giger, who Dan had met on Dune. He’d never designed a movie, but there was some brilliant design work for Dune. Dan said, ‘This is our guy.’ So we rustled up some money and paid him to do about seven drawings, specifically the alien creature and the [derelict] spaceship.”
Giger’s signature mesh of bone and machines, interlaced with decay and sexuality, would give Alien the unique ingredient it needed to distance itself from other standard sci-fi fare. “When I was about 5 years old my father got a human skull,” explained Giger. “That was something special. I was very young, and it was a little frightening. But I was proud to have a skull. My interest in skulls and bones came very early.” Of his art and interests, Giger explained: “An old friend of mine, Sergius Golowin, a specialist in myths and fables and magic, gave me a book by Lovecraft in the late 60’s and introduced me to Necronomicon: The Book of the Dead. He said the entire corpus of my work could easily be pages out of the Necronomicon. I very much admire Lovecraft … When The Necronomicon was printed, I had hand-bound copies in French, and I sent the first one to Dan O’Bannon.” Additionally, Giger name-checked the “Ancient Egyptians” as being among his influences, telling Tatuaz magazine in 2008: “When I was about 6 years old, every Sunday I went to the museum in Chur, where in the basement they kept a beautiful mummy. She had an old odour, and it fascinated me. Later, when I started to draw and use an airbrush, that for me was a memory of great inspiration … The Egyptian art is a lot of death.”
“In August of ’77,” explained Giger in 1979, “I got a call from O’Bannon. He asked if I would like to do some work for a film called Alien. I said, ‘yes, why not’ … I made the first designs for Alien even before Ridley Scott was the director.”
The only problem with Giger was the reluctance of Twentieth Century Fox and the film’s producers to hire him. Giger had initially worked on a commission from O’Bannon and Shusett, and though he had begun preliminary design work, he had yet to be brought onto the film in an official capacity. “This man is sick,” producer Gordon Carroll is quoted as saying, having seen Giger’s designs. “I fought a year with Fox to hire Giger,” O’Bannon told Science Fiction Film Making magazine in the 1980’s. “I wrote the script so Giger could design those things, and then they picked up the script and said, ‘Naw, we don’t want this guy. When has he ever designed a movie?’”
“I had a heck of a time trying to get the producers to hire Giger,” said O’Bannon elsewhere. “They really didn’t want to get him involved because he’s not a movie professional; he was some ‘whing-ding’ in Zurich. They wanted to find somebody who had done this before, that they could count on.” Ron Shusett chips in: “The studio let us hire Cobb, because he was more normal. Giger, they were terrified of. They said, ‘these drawings are repulsive – people will stay away in droves.’ For eight months they refused to hire him.”
The key to hiring Giger was Ridley Scott, as O’Bannon explains: “When Ridley came to the project, Ronnie was rushing up with the original draft of the script [and] I was rushing up with copies of Giger’s work. Ridley saw Giger’s stuff he was snowed. He said, ‘This is it!’” Scott called up Fox and explained that he would not do the film if Giger was not hired as the creature designer. His threat worked, and Giger was hired. Later, producer David Giler would tell Cinefantastique, “[Alien’s] a richly textured film, thanks to HR Giger’s work.” Dan O’Bannon agreed: “Only because Ridley was hired on was Giger hired. He took a liking to Giger’s work. Without Giger, I don’t think we would have had much of a movie.”
In the original screenplay the Alien eggs are not found within the Space Jockey craft as they are in the final film, but within a pyramid structure belonging to a long extinct alien race, quite distinct from the Jockey, who, like the humans of the story, simply stumbled upon the alien spore whilst exploring the barren planetoid. O’Bannon described the spore, in a letter to Giger, as being “leathery, egg-shaped objects about one meter tall, which contain the larva of the Alien.” The spore-carrying creature itself, the facehugger, is not described, beyond being a small parasite. It fell to Giger to design the eggs as mandated by O’Bannon, and to refine the creature within.
“I saw the inhabitants of this planetoid as tough and primitive, and with an extremely complicated sexual cycle. See, these alien beings had two sexes of their own, but they needed a third host animal to reproduce. So they’d bring in an animal, put it up on the plinth with a spore and wham! Then they’d lead the inseminated animal off to an enclosure somewhere to await the birth. But the planetoid was now dead and this civilisation had been gone for a million years. All that remained of it was this pyramid and the spores – which can survive dormant for incredible lengths of time under even the most adverse conditions.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Something Perfectly Disgusting.
Initially thought of by O’Bannon as a sort of squid-like creature, the facehugger was conceptualised by Giger as a large parasite that could envelope an entire head. “[The facehugger was] kind of like a crab sitting in the egg,” Giger explained. “Dan O’Bannon had an insect-like design for that at first. But I always look for a function. These creatures should be able to jump out. I used the tail as a spring, a spring would be good. And I liked the crab fingers very much. Kind of a spider with a tail.”
“At school I worked as an industrial designer so everything must have a function,” explained Giger. “The facehugger was determined through its function. You have to show that. I was thinking that something that jumps out and then holds on to someone’s face needs fingers or hands. Normally if someone is sitting on your face you can’t breathe through your nose, so you automatically open your mouth. Then the monster goes down. So it looked a little bit like a crab or a spider. I like long fingers, so it had these long fingers, then two hands and a spiral tail. The ‘hands’ hold on to Kane’s face and the tail wraps around his neck.”
The job of designing the various elements of the film, from the Alien lifecycle and derelict craft, left Giger overloaded with work. “It wasn’t physically possible for Giger to do all the stages of the Alien,” Ridley told Starlog in 1979. “There just wasn’t time. But he had done some specific drawings of the four stages. He worked backwards: he designed the big chap first, then asked himself what a baby version of it would look like. Giger did the big chap and the egg, not the thing that comes out of it, just the egg. We finally chose a guy named Roger Dicken, an English special-effects man, specifically a model builder, to work on two of the Alien elements, the facehugger and the chestburster.”
“There was a big meeting,” O’Bannon told Cinefex in 1979, “and everybody was talking at the same time and trying to tell Dicken what the hell it should look like. Finally, Ridley pulled out Giger’s book and said: ‘Look, I want these fingers here on this page and I want that over there for the back, and then I want the tail from this other page.’ And Dicken was just confused. So I asked Ridley if I could take a try at it, and he said, ‘Go ahead.’ So I went over to the art department with Dicken and we took a drafting table and a huge piece of paper and some pencils. I drew two heads on the paper, and then I opened up Giger’s book and put it down in front of us. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Ridley said he wanted part of this body, right?’ And I sketched it out. ‘And he liked these fingers.’ So I added the fingers. ‘And he wanted this tail.’ Well, while we were doing this, Giger came in –his plane had arrived from Switzerland- and he had some new designs for the facehugger. And they were very similar to what we were putting together on the drawing board – not identical, but similar. His had an eye on the back, and the shape of it was much more like the palm of a hand. I looked at them and I said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ Then Giger looked at the thing I was sketching with Dicken, and he said, ‘No, that’s better, that’s much better.’ I was really flattered. So I said, ‘Then I should continue with it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes.’ So we went on.”
O’Bannon continues: “When it came to trying to figure out what kind of a skeletal understructure the thing would need so the fingers could hook up, I got Ron Cobb over and he scrawled out his ideas – which, as usual, were excellent. Then I cleaned the whole thing up a little and did it in ink –exact size- and that’s what we went with.”
The facehugger, like the film at large, was the rare successful product of a melting pot approach to design. “I was really pleased,” said O’Bannon, “because I had kind of eclectically constructed the facehugger out of the things that Ridley wanted and the things that Giger wanted, and some good ideas from Cobb and from Dicken. Then we put the thing through a blueprint machine, got Ridley to okay it, and Roger went off and built it.”
“We were having troubles,” Giger told Starlog in 1979, “so I spent most of the time working on the egg and the big Alien. We got Roger Dicken to build the facehugger and chestburster – and he did them very well. They are taken from my paintings.”
Giger then revealed: “But I also made a facehugger. It had a skeleton inside that you could see through a translucent skin. But there was no time for me to finish it…” He elaborated to Cinefex that same year: “It was going to be very smooth and slimy, with eight long, fine, but very strong fingers. The main difference was that mine was going to be translucent. I wanted the inside to be visible because it had a sort of skeleton under the skin.”
Unfortunately for Giger’s facehugger, “the producers stopped me because they were worried that I wouldn’t get the big [Alien] finished in time.”
Though the resulting facehugger resulted from a collaborative effort between the director, writer, concept artist, and even a few others, Roger Dicken expressed some dissatisfaction, and had a different idea of how the creature should have looked, saying to Starburst magazine: “I would have liked it to have been a little more scaly and I would have liked to have little barbs like rose thorns on the legs and down the tail. As the Alien was so self-preserving, you shouldn’t be able to get a hold of the thing. I felt that in the film this wasn’t well brought over.”
Intended to be Alien’s big shocker moment, the chestburster was perhaps, next to the physical form of the fully grown Alien, the most important design to be made. If the chestbursting lacked punch, then the audience may not take further events and dangers seriously. For its design, Giger was pointed towards the art of Francis Bacon by Scott. Bacon, already a favourite artist of Giger’s, served as the inspiration for the first incarnation of the chestburster. “I think when you want to be really scared,” Ridley Scott said to Cinefantastique, “you’ve got to think about what it is that makes you very physically uneasy, that upsets you in a primal way. And I’m not easily upset, but we looked at various painters’ works, and the one that caught us was by Francis Bacon, the three flesh necks with the jaws on the end. The primality, if there is such a word, was what interested me.”
“Ridley Scott asked me to do something based on a crucifixion painting by Francis Bacon,” said Giger, “in which the only thing of the figure you see is a mouth and some flesh behind. He wanted something like that which could go into the stomach or come out of it. First it was designed as a little dinosaur and I didn’t like it at all, but finally we gave him a worm-like shape with no legs … I believe the strongest, scariest feeling is to see an alien-worm inside a person’s body moving under his skin.”
Giger’s first chestburster design was received with reservation and ridicule. “To me, it looked like a plucked turkey” said Roger Dicken, “a veined, repulsive-looking thing with fangs … Obviously, you couldn’t get something the size of a large turkey out of a human chest, but they were going to cheat it somehow.”
Despite his incredulity at the design, Dicken crafted a workable prop from the design. “Dicken reproduced it very faithfully,” Ridley told Cinefex. “The problem was that what looked great on paper didn’t in actuality.” Dicken had brought the prop to the studio and operated it like a hand puppet. The effect looked “entirely comical – it looked like some kind of plucked, demented turkey.”
Frightened of the chestburster eliciting laughs rather than screams, Ridley went back to the drawing board. “We went back and re-examined various illustrations and ideas, and tried to come up with something we thought would be the most frightening,” he told Cinefantastique. “I wanted more of a biological link between the baby, which is what we were really designing, and what the final creature would look like. And I wanted it to be a very smooth object. The other was all wrinkled and ancient-looking, like some malevolent muppet. And when it came out, I wanted it to look very rude – and totally carnivorous. So to be honest, that beast was very much the product of several people – Giger and Dicken and me, and even a bit of Gordon Carroll.”
“We worked for weeks on the baby [chestburster],” said Scott. “I knew I didn’t want something with bumps and warts and claws. You know, I find that most horror films have never really frightened me; and I tend not to be convinced by a lot of science-fiction films specifically because of the effects. So I knew it had to be good, this baby. We decided that the big chap, in embryo form, would have a head either tilted down or tilted back. We tilted it back because it seemed more obscene that way, more reptilian, more phallic.”
Roger Dicken: “The overall look of the chestburster was this long banana-shaped thing with a head on it from the Giger drawing. I made various models of it. One afternoon, Ridley Scott came over here and over cups of tea we literally constructed the thing by trying on different tails and so on, and it was finally agreed that that was what it would finally look like.”
For the Alien’s birth, the production crew “had gone to a butcher’s shop and got animal innards,” according to Ron Shusett. “Livers, hearts, things like that.”
Scott kept the design of the chestburster hidden from the majority of the cast, bar John Hurt, from whom’s chest the ‘burster would sprout. Producer and co-writer David Giler told Cinefantastique that “the ‘Chest Birth’ was simulated for the actors by surprising them with a shower of animal entrails. That’s why their looks of disgust and horror are so real . They had no idea what we were going to shoot that day.”
“I was there,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films, “and they had three cameras set up ’cause they wanted to catch it from all angles and all the cameras were covered in clear plastic tarps. The lenses were covered with flat optical class like underwater cameras and Ridley and the D.P. and all of the technicians were all wearing overalls up to their necks. It took them three to four hours to get the actor doing to do the stunt rigged because there was mechanical stuff involved. Meanwhile the other actors didn’t come on set, I don’t know where they were, they had a room where the actors could hang out and talk to each other. Then they brought them in when they were ready for it, they hadn’t seen all the preparation. All they did was they walked on, they saw all these tarps, and they saw huge hydraulic machines with hoses leading to this rigged man, and they saw everybody wearing coveralls. I looked at Sigourney Weaver, who’s the lead. I saw her face as she looked at the tarp, coveralls and camera, and she seemed to go a little shaky. The actors looked real uneasy when they saw the set-up because it looked like they were trying to prepare for Vesuvius.”
“I knew that the special effects men were trying to rig the blood so that it would hit me,”said Sigourney after the film’s release. “I was absolutely green. There had been a huge vat of kidneys and livers and intestines floating around on the set for two days and the stench was awful.”
“I noticed Sigourney really looking scared,” said Shusett. “I said, ‘You’re really getting into character.’ She said, ‘No, I have a feeling I really feel I’m going to be pretty repulsed right now.’ A couple years later, I read an interview where she said, ‘The reason I knew it was I saw Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett over in the corner, and they were putting on rubber raincoats and laughing like little kids on Christmas morning. So I knew it was going to be a blood-bath!’ It worked so great. Veronica Cartwright – when the blood hit her in the fact, she totally passed out. I heard from Yaphet Kotto’s wife that after that scene he would go to his room every night and not talk to anybody.”
“The amount of blood was just unparalleled,” continued O’Bannon. “I saw Veronica Cartwright get drenched from head to toe in blood and scream her fool head off and fall backwards over a table and brain herself … Then afterwards these two people pick Veronica Cartwright up and she was weak-kneed and they had to help her off the set. She was drenched, all her clothes sticking to her, and her hair sticking to her with this red dye and she was near hysterics. And twenty minutes later they come back and they had showered her and fixed her up and put a duplicate costume on her and she looked the same, but a little spooked, and I went up to her and I said, ‘That was really terrific. Was that all acting?’ And she looked at and said in a kind of spooked voice, ‘Well, I was a little freaked-out.'”
“John Hurt had been lying there for about four hours while they fixed him up,” Cartwright told Fantastic Films in ’79. “By the time I got there I was thinking, ‘uh oh’. They had three cameras so they could get all our first reactions – our gut reactions. That’s what you see in the film. Those reactions are totally raw. Nobody quite anticipate what was going to happen. I was told I’d get some blood on me. I had no idea the hose was pointed at my face. I felt very queasy afterwards.”