Tag Archives: HR Giger

David Cronenberg and David Lynch on Alien

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In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) a deranged scientist creates a parasite that enters the bodies of his apartment block neighbours thanks to the promiscuity of his young mistress. Spread by sex, the parasites begin to infect the entire building, causing their hosts to react violently against the remaining human occupants until, at the film’s closing, the city of nearby Montreal is at risk of infection and so too, presumably, is the world.

The film contains many Cronenbergian hallmarks: the ugly amalgamations and distortions of flesh, infection via sexual contact, and the uneasiness of eroticism, but it’s also familiar as another riff on invasionary paranoia à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or a precursor of sorts to the paranoia and rending of flesh seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing remake (1982), or even as an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (also 1975). But Cronenberg himself was less interested in where his film’s influences came from or what they paralleled and was more concerned with where they were going — and they went, in his estimation, directly into 1979’s Alien.

“I have to say that some of my images like this [parasite] ended up in things like Alien, which was more popular than any of the films I’ve ever made. But the writer of Alien has definitely seen these movies, Dan O’Bannon. The idea of parasites that burst out of your body and uses a fluid and leaps on your face, that’s all in Shivers.”
~ David Cronenberg, David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg, 2006.

From the get-go Cronenberg expressed frustration with Alien. “It has no metaphysics, no philosophy,” he told Fangoria in 1979. “The creature winds up as a man in a crocodile suit who chases a bunch of people around a room. I think that my own films do a lot more in touching a deep seated nerve, more than the simple reaction that you don’t want a crocodile to eat you. Alien was just a $300,000 B-movie with a $10 million budget.” The pivotal chestburster moment also came under fire: “The parasite device isn’t used in a metaphorical way, it wasn’t used to evoke anything,”Cronenberg said. “In Alien, John Hurt has the parasite in him, he goes about his business as usual. In Shivers, the parasite stays inside the people and changes their behaviour and their motives. It’s used for something more than simple shock value.”

But Alien’s lack of philosophy bothered him less than the alleged plagariasm of its writer. “Dan O’Bannon knew my movie,” Cronenberg insisted in an interview with thefilmexperience.net. “In a case like that you wouldn’t mind a little credit for it. But beyond that, if you are influential –and I’ve had many young filmmakers say that I was a big influence and sometimes their movies do remind me of my old movies– you take it as a compliment. You obviously touched a nerve. It’s nice to have people be aware of that. But beyond that it’s inevitable; things become communal understandings, let’s say. The whole parasite thing. I mean there are movies called Parasite. But I did it first but, you know, whatever.”

Cronenberg often reiterated that he did not know and had never even met Dan O’Bannon, yet he was resolute that Dan had seen his films and deliberately plagiarised from them. His source, he revealed, was An American Werewolf in London director John Landis. “John Landis told me that [Dan] knew very well what he called ‘the Canadian films’, by which he meant Shivers and Rabid, when he wrote Alien. And so I know he stole all the parasite stuff from Shivers. And Ron Shusett said, ‘He never saw those movies and knows nothing about it’ … Dan O’Bannon later denied that he had ever seen those movies, but John Landis swears that he talked about them all the time and knew them very well.” Cronenberg has told this story several times, always referring to the oblique ‘Canadian films’ which he took to specify his own films. “I mean, everybody steals from everybody else,” says Cronenberg, “but he was apparently a very aggressive sort of hostile character. I don’t know, I’ve never met him.”

But Alien, though it certainly employed body horror (“a human subject dismantled and demolished,” Kelly Hurley defines it, “a human body whose integrity is violated, a human identity whose boundaries are breached from all sides”) merely uses it as a launching pad for its plot rather than as a fulcrum. The creatures in Alien and Shivers (home-grown experiments in the latter, of unknown alien origins in the former) are also quite distinct from one another. The facehugger in Alien is but one transitional stage of the Alien’s lifecycle; the parasites in Cronenberg’s film do not undergo metamorphosis: they slither from body to body in order to spread and survive, whereas the Alien can be more accurately described as a parasitoid or protolean being, defined by Wikipedia as creatures “that begin the growing phase of their lives as parasites, and in particular, typically as internal parasites. As a rule they end that phase of their lives parasitoidally by killing or consuming the host, and then they emerge as free-living adults.”

“As far back as Alien, for example, which totally ripped off things from my movie Shivers – Shivers featured a parasite that lives in your body, bursts out of your chests, jumps onto your face, and jumps down your mouth, and suddenly you see this in a studio film, which was hugely successful, Alien. The writer of the script, Dan O’Bannon, had seen Shivers, we know that he had seen my movie and, shall we say, appropriated it. So this is not new stuff for me.”
~ David Cronenberg, Collider, 2015.

The creation of the facehugger and chestburster has been covered extensively on Strange Shapes, along with the insect influence on the creature’s life-cycle. Dan’s Crohn’s Disease, undiagnosed but certainly afflicting him at the time, also influenced the Alien’s agonising birth process, as did the various comic strips that he had read in his youth, many of which featured alien spores erupting from human bodies to run amok.

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‘Defiled’, Death Rattle Vol I, 1972

Despite his distate for Alien, Cronenberg was approached by Fox to direct Alien Resurrection, an offer he found temporarily appealing. “It’s tempting for a minute because they’re begging me to do it,” he told combustiblecelluloid.com. “And it’s Fox, and I’d love to work with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. It’d be great fun. [But] the problem with doing a schlocky big-budget horror film or studio film is that it wouldn’t actually be fun for me. I’m innately honest, I think. If I’m gonna do Aliens 4, then I’m gonna deliver Aliens 4. I’m going to try and make it the best version of Aliens 4 I can. So I’m not going to try and subvert it and make it something else, because why spend $80 or $100 million of the studio’s money, and just be deceitful and be fighting them all the time, and have them combat at you, and then end up with something that isn’t really good either way … I actually said to them, ‘You know, I don’t even do sequels to my own movies; why would I do sequels to somebody else’s movies?’ I didn’t do The Fly II. Why would I do Aliens 4?”

There was another famed director by the given name of David who also, apparently, found O’Bannon’s film to be uncomfortably appropriative. David Lynch has never, to my knowledge, publicly spoken about Alien, but HR Giger, eager to work on Lynch’s adaptation of Dune after two failed attempts under Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, tried to reach out to Lynch in the early 80’s.

“Through friends I asked Lynch if he was interested in my co-operation,” Giger told Cinefantastique magazine. “I never heard from him. Later I came to know that he was upset because he thought we copied the chestburster in Alien from his monster baby in Eraserhead, which was not so. Ridley Scott and I hadn’t even seen that film at the time. If one film influenced Alien it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I would have loved to collaborate with Lynch on Dune but apparently he wanted to do all the designs by himself.”

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The Eraserhead (1977) baby, a sickly, mewling creature, is similar to the chestburster in that they are embryonic, apparently serpentine, monsters, but Lynch’s baby frightens because of the juxtaposition between its humanity and inhumanity: it is frighteningly monstrous and yet helpless. The relationship between the viewer and the baby is one of unease, disgust, and pity. No such relationship exists between the creatures of Alien and the film’s viewers: the Alien is an interloper that uses human bodies both brutally and impersonally.

“People have asked [Lynch] about me,” said Giger, “but he isn’t really enthusiastic about my work. I’ve been told that he thinks we stole his Eraserhead baby for the Alien chestburster, but that’s not true. I told Ridley Scott that he should see the film, though he never did. David Lynch said that it was filmed exactly as his was, but it couldn’t have been because Ridley hadn’t seen it! Lynch talked like it was some sort of homage to his work … He doesn’t seem to want to be friendly to me, and I don’t know why.”

Ever gracious, Giger, who took every given opportunity to exalt Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, finished by saying: “I think he did a great job [with Dune]. I admire Lynch tremendously. I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers and I would very much like to work for him some time.”

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Crew Logs: Dan O’Bannon

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Tracing Alien to its origin leads us to many disparate and far-flung places: one is 1940’s Chur, where Hans Ruedi Giger is stumbling upon the museum mummies and dreaming the claustrophobic nightmares that would inspire his art. Another is Teesside, an English chemical and steel hub where the industrial landscape was being soaked up and stored in the imagination of a young boy called Ridley Scott. And another leads to the Ozarks of Southern Missouri, where Dan O’Bannon relegates himself to the back of a school bus with the tomes of HP Lovecraft on his knee and stacks of Weird Fantasy by his side. There are many people whose contribution to Alien is indispensable, but for now these three are the most central, recognisable and pertinent.

As for Alien’s beginnings, they lie rooted, undoubtedly, in Dan O’Bannon — removing the film’s director or conceptual artists would have made for a very different movie, but without O’Bannon’s involvement there would have been no grand collaborative effort between this trio, no mind for the Alien to germinate and spring from, and no film at all.

Dan…

Daniel Thomas O’Bannon was born September 30th, 1946, in Shannon County, Missouri, to parents Thomas Sidney O’Bannon and Bertha Lowenthal O’Bannon. “I grew up in a small town in Missouri named Winona,” Dan told The Washington Post in 1979. “A dreadful place. We moved to St. Louis during my adolescence. That was even worse. If I had my finger on the button, the first place I’d blow up would be St. Louis. The whole medium of social interaction in St. Louis is games of humiliation. The ambience is depression, despair. For me the world is shaped like a funnel and St. Louis is at the bottom. It’s a fight to keep out of it.”

“My father was a carpenter with an IQ in the genius range,” he continued. “He was multi-talented in the arts, but he’d grown up too poor to be able to express himself. He always put people ahead of principles, but my mother was the reverse. She was physically violent. She’d throw me to the wolves for a principle.” Thomas O’Bannon kept a running journal (a habit that Dan would also pick up) that documented the formative years of his son’s life. Within its pages he recounts his son’s birth (Thomas checked his wife into hospital and passed the time seeing a Marx Bros. movie) as well as his flowering imagination:

“This morning we were discussing the green cheese and the man in the moon and kindred subjects. During the discussion the boy came up with the startling information that the man in the moon so loves green cheese (of which the moon is composed) that he eats up the whole moon every twenty-eight days or so and has to order a new one. So far as I know this little notion is original with him. He says he never heard it anywhere. Not bad, huh?”
~ Thomas O’Bannon, ‘The Book of Daniel’, excerpt from Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value.

Danny, as he was known at school, grew up without a television and with Hollywood itself seemingly “as remote as the moon”; the O’Bannons therefore entertained themselves by visiting the local cinema several times a week. “There was one theatre, and a drive-in outside of town,” Dan explained. “Movies were probably the single most important influence of my childhood; I loved them and wanted to make them, but I had no idea how one would go about getting to be a filmmaker.”

Meanwhile, he busied his childhood with filmmaking games (his friends serving as stuntmen and actors) and scanning the night skies for UFOs. His father encouraged his wonder for the inexplicable, running a tourist trap outside Winona known locally as Odd Acres that sold magic tricks and promised alien sightings and other celestial phenomena. Dan’s widow Diane O’Bannon told bloodsprayer.com that, “Odd Acres also included things like a stream of water that flowed uphill and an off-kilter room where you could have a picture of yourself taken standing at a gravity-defying angle.” One sign on the Odd Acres property read: ‘Impossible Hill! That strange place! You are tall. You are short. You can’t trust your eyes. And gravity goes crazy!’

In addition to running shop, Dan’s father also encouraged extracurricular mischievousness. “He also helped his father fake UFO landing sites on their acreage and watched as his father took UFO believers and the press around and told them about the landing he had witnessed!” (apparently, a Tom O’Bannon is listed as the witness of a 1957 UFO sighting in Winona, MO — the UFO was revealed to be a chicken brooder. The photograph can be seen in the publication Man-made UFOs 1944-1994.) In other photographs displayed at the Shannon County genealogical website a young Dan can be seen grinning as he seemingly suspends from a ‘gravity-defying angle’ and Bertha O’Bannon’s legs magically depart her torso.

The O'Bannon's at Odd Acres.

The O’Bannon’s at Odd Acres.

Even from a young age Dan was discerning what did and didn’t work for him concerning the horror and sci-fi films that revolved through the local drive-in and theatre. One thing that turned him off was incessant gore and scenes of pointless torture. “There was a lousy, crummy little film called Horrors Of The Black Museum,” he said in 2007, “whose high point was a pair of binoculars that shoved needles into someone’s eyes. I saw that as a kid and I just found it sort of disturbing in the wrong way, just disgusting and unpleasant. You can divide horror movies into two general categories: sadistic or masochistic. In the sadistic films they invite you to enjoy the mutilation and to empathise with the monster. In the masochistic film you are invited to empathise with the victim, and to not like mutilation. Well, I make masochistic horror films.”

In addition to critique, he was soaking up whatever he could from the great filmmakers of the 40’s and 50’s. “[Filmmakers] these days [have] the monster doing terrifying things, but there ends up being too much of it,” he explained. “The terror still comes from the ‘in between.’ [Howard] Hawks obviously understood the whole idea of the ‘Terror in Between’, because the creepiest moments of [The Thing From Another World] arose from the interaction of characters between appearances of the monster. You weren’t sure of what the people trapped in that camp would do to each other when faced by the threat from outside.”

Other influences were literary. Specifically, pulp literature and comics. At twelve, Dan came across an anthology of horror tales (“Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Groff Conklin,” he recalled) that included HP Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, and a lifelong obsession with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic horror took root. “I stayed up all night reading the thing, and it just knocked my socks off,” he later enthused. “One of the elements in the story is of course, vegetation growing out of season, and when I read it , it was mid-winter and we were living down in the Ozarks. Next day when I got out, the whole ground was covered in snow, and when I went out to look around, I found a single rose growing up through the snow, and it really spooked me, ‘Oh my god.'”

His adoration for Lovecraft would find its ultimate expression in Alien which, as he expressed in his essay ‘Something Perfectly Disgusting’, “Went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones’ home world, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth”; but, for now, he contented to dream about being a filmmaker, an actor, or an artist. He would later comment that exerting his creative energies by writing helped him process feelings of anger about his surroundings: his mother was allegedly harsh, and school became unbearable when the affable, playful Dan felt the spotlight suddenly turn against him in a dreadful epiphanic moment.

“I could always make people laugh, in high school,” he told The Washington Post. “Then I began to discover that people were laughing at me rather than with me. I got angry. That anger has accelerated. I used to make a lot of jokes, I could stand up on a stage and make people laugh. But I mistook the laughing for people liking me, and I began to get angry … All through my childhood and my teens I was constantly picked on, attacked, assaulted.”

Despite these struggles, O’Bannon was averse to retorting with violence: when a classmate smeared shaving foam in his eyes he gave chase, held him against a locker, but was unable to bring himself to physically strike the bully; years later, an angry girlfriend would point a gun at him (“a .22 Colt varmint pistol”) but all he could do was disarm her and then beat himself with his fists. “I abhor violence,” he explained in ’79. “I don’t think I could portray it if I didn’t abhor it so much.”

The great turning point was 10th grade, I’ll never forget it. I was sitting at a play rehearsal, and I asked an upperclassman why I didn’t have more friends. He said, “If people don’t like me, fuck ’em.” That’s when it began. I went home to think about that. Fuck ’em.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, The Washington Post, 1979.

As a young man Dan enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, the school of fine arts, where he studied with the intention “to be the next Norman Rockwell”, an artist famed for his depictions of American domestic scenes: cozy grandmothers, slumbering mutts, apple-cheeked Boy Scouts and the like. “I soon learned that the world only needed one Norman Rockwell,” he realised, “so I decided to try for the movies.” He enrolled at the University of South California film department, typically acronymised as USC, in 1968.

… Dark Star…

USC at the time was a hotbed of ambitious young would-be filmmakers including, among others, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and George Lucas, “who was a year ahead of me and therefore not of my tribe.” Francis Ford Coppola had graduated before O’Bannon’s enrolment, and Steven Spielberg had been rejected admission for poor grades, but graduates tended to hang around after completing their studies (usually to capitalise on the filming equipment and eager volunteers) and they brought similarly talented friends into USC’s orbit, which all coalesced to create an energetic environment that was spilling out as one contributory arm of what would be called ‘New Hollywood’ — it was a revolutionary movement in American cinema, and O’Bannon was in the thick of it.

“[W]hen I was studying there the auteur theory was the big thing – the director has to do it all. And I believed them, and in fact I taught myself how to do every job on a movie.” His first student films included 1968’s ‘Good Morning Dan’ (“Set in the then distant future of 2006, an old man reminisces on his days at USC”) and 1969’s ‘Bloodbath’ (“A slovenly young man commits suicide out of curiosity and boredom”); the latter film was shown in a class that included student John Carpenter, who decided to seek out and befriend O’Bannon — the two had already worked together on ‘Good Morning Dan’, on which Carpenter operated the camera, but it was O’Bannon’s later project that compelled Carpenter to strike up a creative relationship.

Carpenter, like Dan, had been exposed to science fiction and horror films as a kid, visiting the cinema to check out the latest in the big wave of monster movies that were besieging the screens throughout the 1950’s. Later, his enrolment at USC would further expand his interest and awe. “We had directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford come down and lecture us,” Carpenter told Deadline in 2014. “It was unbelievable! Roman Polanski was there with his bride, Sharon Tate, in 1968, with Fearless Vampire Killers. To sit and listen to Orson Welles … man, oh, man.”

Dan also found the frequent celebrity drop-ins to USC useful, passing his first script, a Western titled ‘The Devil in Mexico’ (which centred around “the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce into Mexico during the Revolution of 1917”) into Welles’ possession. “I had in mind it would be directed by David Lean,” Dan reminisced. “Orson Welles did see it, liked it, and passed it around, but nothing came of it.”

William Froug, a TV writer and producer whose credits included The Twilight Zone and Gilligan’s Island, also met O’Bannon on campus when the young student was passing out copies of his script. “One morning after my USC class was over, one of my students approached me,” he wrote. “Thin, emaciated, skin too pale, he looked like death lurking. He said his name was Dan O’Bannon. His cheeks were sunken, color pallid, his eyes dull. He handed me a screenplay and asked if I would read it.”

The screenplay was, again, ‘The Devil in Mexico’. Froug suggested changes and O’Bannon agreed. Froug spent some time reworking and trying to sell the script, but, according to his autobiography, it was quickly picked up by Peter Ustinov, who claimed it as his own, and the film was never made. Still, O’Bannon remained friendly with his former tutor and managed to pay direct homage to him in Dark Star, when his character Sgt. Pinback draws up to the camera and says, “I should tell you my name is not really Sgt. Pinback, my name is Bill Froug.”

In August 1970 Dan met John Carpenter for dinner at the International House of Pancakes on Jefferson Boulevard, just across from USC’s cinema complex. “John told me that he wanted me to act in his graduate 580 project,” Dan explained. “It was to be a science fiction film called ‘The Electric Dutchman’, about four seedy astronauts in a small spaceship who are bombing a sun that is about to go supernova … It was to be twenty minutes long, in black-and-white.” Dan, whose interest in science-fiction had lapsed during his time at Washington University (“I let that kind of fall by the wayside. I was interested in experiencing a ‘real life’”) now jumped at the opportunity: “I said, not only did I want to act in it, I wanted to help him with a lot of other things, like the script and special effects. He accepted, and we embarked.” He now had a project, a collaborator, and a forte. After all, he knew the science-fiction genre “Like the back of my hand.”

In addition to finding a use for his repository of science-fiction know-how, Dan was also happy to get in front of the camera as a performer. “I’d always acted from childhood on,” he told Den of Geek in 2007, “and I was always in theatrical productions at school and then college. It was an obvious thing to do in Dark Star. Since we weren’t paying anybody, the other actors were unreliable in terms of showing up. And I was there and so I acted in the thing.” Dan had also performed in several student films, playing a proto-Michael Myers in Terence Winkless (who later penned The Howling) and Alec Lorimore’s 1971’s Judson’s Release (“A young man returns to a small town and begins to torment a girl who is babysitting a little boy”), a small feature that apparently presaged Halloween. Decades later Carpenter, when told that Dan had once joked about giving up writing to pursue the easier task of acting, replied with earnest that, “O’Bannon’s actually a very good actor. He should pursue it, he could be really good.”

Trouble arose when Dan’s parents decided to cut him off financially and told him to return to Missouri. To keep him in L.A. Carpenter invited the penniless Dan to move into his apartment, and it was there that they bashed ‘The Electric Dutchman’ into shape. Dan had a few ideas to contribute: a cryogenically frozen Captain was one, as was the star-struck Talby’s obsession with the mythical Phoenix Asteroids and the sentient and argumentative bomb from the film’s closing moments. “The way we wrote together was: We would go off separately and write the scenes we liked best, and then John would assemble all the material into its final form.” For his part, Carpenter found his new partner’s input indispensable. “Dan contributed mightily to the tone of the film; many of the funniest moments are his ideas.” They also settled on a new title for their movie: ‘Planetfall’.

The two began searching for a crew to help bring their film together. “I composed the score for my first film Dark Star because I was cheap and fast,” Carpenter told thequietus.com in 2012. “I talked to a couple of other composers but they all seemed weird. One guy had glitter all over him. Not that wearing glitter is a bad thing… it just didn’t inspire confidence.”

Though O’Bannon was a confident DIY effects man, he sought greater artistic talents to design the spaceship needed for their movie. For this, he sought cartoonist Ron Cobb, whose bitingly satirical strips for the Los Angeles Free Press had found cult appeal, having been reproduced in counterculture magazines and papers like the Underground Press Syndicate, and who had recently turned to drawing up frightening lizardmen and two-headed golems for magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Dan and Ron on pre-production for Alien.

Casting the film with friends and building the sets themselves, Dark Star was completed as a short but expanded into a feature length film. “We were approached by a friend of ours named Jonathan Kaplan, who subsequently produced most of John Carpenter’s movies,” O’Bannon explained. “He was also in film school then and had a somewhat wealthy family, and he said that he would put in some additional money if we would expand it to feature length.” New scenes included some mania with an alien (in reality, a beachball) in addition to other ancillary material that padded out the length. Unfortunately, the extra expense and effort seemed for naught: when the film was released Carpenter and O’Bannon drove to a theatre and asked the manager if they could observe the audience. The manager replied: “What audience? There’s eight people in there.”

Of his Dark Star days, Carpenter told esquire.com in 2014 that “I was a punk. I didn’t know anything. I thought I did, but I didn’t. That was a baptism of fire, of sorts […] Back in those days I didn’t know anything. We thought we were hot shit, but we weren’t. We were sadly mistaken. I remember getting my first bad review on that film. I’ve had many since, but that was the first one. It was so shocking. That shows how naive I was then […] They said something like, ‘It betrays its dingy origin.’ I remember that line. I thought, Really? Jeez, man.

In 2014 Carpenter told Deadline.com that, “After my first film, Dark Star, I expected the movie industry as a whole to greet me as a savior, pick me up in a limo and take me to a soundstage and anoint me as a director. That didn’t happen. I got an agent out of the first screening of Dark Star, and he said to me, ‘What you need to do is write your way into this business.’ So I started churning out ideas and writing screenplays.” But amid the ego-busting was a silver lining: “Dan O’Bannon and I were almost blinded at the time,” Carpenter told rollingstone.de. “We thought everything was quite simple, and we made a great feature film. Thank God, because if we had not indulged in this illusion, then we would have also failed in the film business.”

That audiences -whenever they actually gathered- did not laugh at the film’s jokes perturbed O’Bannon, who, in his despondency and dissatisfaction with how Dark Star turned out, decided to take the same premise -a beleaguered and bickering space crew, the meniality of interstellar life, an alien intruder, etc- and infuse it with scares rather than laughs. He had already started preliminary note-taking for Alien in 1972, apparently anticipating at the time that Dark Star would not satisfy him. Other creators would look on Dark Star as a sort of unmined resource. Red Dwarf co-creator Doug Naylor commented that it was a viewing of O’Bannon’s film that spurred the idea of a dingy space comedy. “We’d seen Dark Star,” Naylor told  Starburst magazine, “I remember remarking to Rob [Grant, co-creator] at the time that I couldn’t believe no-one had done a sitcom like that because it seemed like such a good thing to do. So it was the old memory of Dark Star.”

While Dan was at least encouraged by Dark Star enough to revisit and remold it into Alien, Carpenter, for his part, was so disappointed that he abandoned its premise altogether. “I don’t think I ever want to get near that idea again” he told CraveOnline.co.uk in 2013. “Oh brother, once was enough.”

…and Dune

Dark Star’s greatest legacy wasn’t its lacklustre release and reception, or even its modern popularity (it remains firmly cult) but how it engendered Dan’s fruitful artistic collaborations with Ron Shusett, with whom he would write both Alien and Total Recall. Shusett told midniteticket.com that, “When I saw [Dark Star] I said, ‘Wow, I should be working with this guy’. I hadn’t made any movies and I had been struggling for four or five years at that point.” Shusett tracked O’Bannon down, finding him living in an attic at USC, and the two agreed to work, firstly on Dan’s own project, Star Beast, later titled Alien, before tackling Total Recall, which Shusett had optioned and brought to the table.

The process of scripting the film has been covered extensively in Writing Alien, but in brief before it was finished Dan was contacted by Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had seen Dark Star and, impressed by O’Bannon’s ability to multi-task and concoct low-fi visuals, decided to hire him to take charge of the special effects on his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s opus, Dune. O’Bannon accepted, and set off for Paris.

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O’Bannon’s time in Paris introduced him not only to Swiss artist HR Giger but also to English artist Chris Foss and French comic artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, all of whom would later work on Alien. In HR Giger Dan found an utterly unique artistic sensibility that, he reckoned, if brought to the cinema could be transformative. And in Moebius he found another collaborator with whom he would, with no inkling at the time, influence science-fiction for decades to come.

“After a while [Moebius] got tired of me looking over his shoulder,” explained Dan, who had been impressed by the talents Jodorowsky had managed to summon for the film, “so he asked me to go and write him a comic-book story, a graphic story that he could publish in his magazine, Metal Hurlant.” The strip that he concocted he called The Long Tomorrow. “It was of course a film noir in the future. I didn’t think about it for many months until an American publisher decided to publish Metal Hurlant in an English-language edition, and call it Heavy Metal.”

“Dan came to Paris. Bearded, dressed in a wild style, the typical Californian post-hippie. His real work would begin at the time of shooting, on the models, on the hardware props. As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of The Long Tomorrow. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic.”
~ Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, The Long Tomorrow introduction.

Dan had originally drawn The Long Tomorrow himself, but Moebius, impressed, asked for free rein to redesign the strip. “I scrupulously followed Dan’s story,” said Moebius, though he admired Dan’s artwork enough that he claimed, “One day I wish we could publish our two versions side by side. As the strip has pleased everyone, I asked Dan about a sequel, but it did not get his attention, so was simply an adventure I never designed.”

Their work, initiated as a distraction, would become the visual inspiration for later landmark science-fiction movies and comics, including Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and some have pointed to what looks like the imperial probe droid from The Empire Strikes Back tucked away within The Long Tomorrow as well. The most obvious and touted influence is 1982’s Blade Runner. Indeed, Ridley told Film Comment journalist Harlan Kennedy in 1982, “My concept of Blade Runner linked up to a comic strip I’d seen [Moebius] do a long time ago. It was called The Long Tomorrow, and I think Dan O’Bannon wrote it.” Ridley again mined The Long Tomorrow for imagery in 2012’s Prometheus and an alien from the comic known as an Arcturian may have informed a gag in Aliens.

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“It’s entirely fair to say,” stated Gibson, “and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel ‘looks’ was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in Heavy Metal. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk’.” Dan commented on The Long Tomorrow‘s influence in a 2007 documentary on Jean Giraud. “Ridley kind of did an unauthorised borrowing of that city for Blade Runner, and he’s right – it does make a good image!” Moebius himself was asked to contribute to the film, but couldn’t, stating that he is “very happy, touched even, that my collaboration with Dan became one of the visual references of the film.”

Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart before production could begin, with Jodorowsky blaming American theatre managers who balked at the thought of a European film sharing as many screens as an American one, and Chris Foss elaborating that the French production company pulled funding after it became apparent that American co-financers were not likely to be found after failed attempts by Jodorowsky to procure them. The budget was already extraordinary, the imaginations of the filmmakers seemed beyond reining in, and Camera One lost the nerve to bankroll the project. Dune would later find its way to the screens in 1984 under the auspices of David Lynch; though he succeeded in making the movie, Lynch would write it off as a failure, as did audiences and critics. But the Dune days, though they seemed like yet another stumbling block, would turn out, as Dark Star did, to be a stepping stone for greater opportunities.

Upon returning to the United States O’Bannon found himself broke and living on Ron Shusett’s couch, but a phonecall from Gary Kurtz, who was producing Star Wars, gave him enough money to rent his own apartment. Kurtz had been impressed by O’Bannon’s whizz-kiddery on Dark Star (which included what is cited to be the first ‘hyperspace’ effect as the stars rush past a spaceship entering lightspeed) and had wanted him to come aboard Star Wars earlier, but Dan had already committed himself to Dune. “Kurtz called me again and said, ‘Well, Star Wars is just about finished, but we still need some people to do special effects work, to do clean-up. Are you interested?’ Since that time I was absolutely flat-broke, I was very interested. So I went to work on Star Wars for a few months doing computer graphics.”

Eventually, Dan and Shusett managed to finish the Alien screenplay and brought it to Roger Corman, who offered to finance the project. “Everybody would think a goddamn lizard coming out of somebody’s chest is nuts,” said Shusett. “Corman said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you $750,000 to do it right now.’ Right before we signed the contract we accidentally got the movie from Fox, which was the first studio we showed it to. Corman was fine, he said, ‘God bless you! If you can do it on a big budget. It will be someone else I’ve discovered. Dan and Ron. I don’t resent you.’ It did turn out to have a huge impact on cinema and we were ready to do it for $750,000.”

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Alien had been brought to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox by Brandywine producers Walter Hill and David Giler. The duo rewrote the original script, changing the names and removing the alien elements, all in an effort to craft a visceral, stripped down space thriller. The pyramids, alien hieroglyphs and civilisations were, Hill thought, too hokey, too von Däniken. They excised these elements and their redraft saw Fox greenlight the film. O’Bannon was hired as a ‘visual design consultant’ for the film, a position that Giler mocked but which paid dividends for the production: O’Bannon was able to insist that Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and HR Giger be hired to design the film’s environments, characters and creatures. Moebius would later briefly join at director Ridley Scott’s behest.

The studio happily accepted Cobb and Foss, but balked at Giger’s artwork. O’Bannon had already taken the initiative to pay Giger for some conceptual designs, but the Swiss artist would not be formally hired -or it seems, accepted- by the studio until Ridley Scott came aboard and Dan rushed to show him Giger’s work.

“He’s great,” Scott said of O’Bannon in Fantastic Films. “A really sweet guy. And, I was soon to realise, a real science-fiction freak … He brought in a book by the Swiss artist HR Giger. It’s called Necronomicon … I thought, ‘If we can build that, that’s it.’ I was stunned, really. I flipped. Literally flipped. And O’Bannon lit up like a lightbulb, shining like a quartz iodine. I realised I was dealing with a real SF freak, which I’d never come across before. I thought, ‘My god, I have an egg-head here for this field.’”

Not only did O’Bannon introduce Ridley to the artwork of HR Giger, but he also, according to Cobb, rewrote much of the script on the set. The initial pre-production rewrites by Walter Hill and David Giler removed many of the elements from Dan’s script that wound up in the film, such as the Space Jockey (a human pilot in their version), the alien pyramid and egg silo (government installations in their version; combined wth the derelict craft in the film) and the Alien was retooled as an experimental biological weapon. Other purported rewrites were bizarre, pitting the Alien against a variety of historical figures.

“I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere,” said Cobb, “because of what [Giler and Hill] did with the rewriting. It’s terrible, sloppy revisions, some of them pointless. It was very difficult for Dan to tighten the thing back up to keep it consistent and have it make sense.” Both Shusett and O’Bannon were alarmed at the content of the rewrites, but had little to no say on such issues, so, they took the original draft to Ridley himself. Of that attempt, Shusett said, “Ridley read [the original script] and went, ‘Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way. Definitely.’”

Once the film was in production at Pinewood Studios O’Bannon revealed that David Giler “left for mysterious reasons”, apparently having left script rewrites unfinished and, since Walter Hill had stayed in the States, left the film with no on-set writer to untangle any problems with the script, which was in a state of fluctuation due to time and budget concerns. “And finally at the last minute,” said O’Bannon, “I saw that everyone, including Ridley, was so fed up with Giler and Hill’s failure to make any of the promised revisions that they said they were gonna make, that a little sliver of opportunity was created. I was standing there, I said, ‘You know, I’ll fix it if you’ll let me.’ [So] there were two weeks of frantic mutual work between all of us, trying to put the script into a shape that they liked. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80% of the what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.”

Cobb told Starburst magazine at the time that, “The whole film is in a constant state of flux. Script revisions are going on every day. Things that haven’t been shot are still being rewritten and that’s why Dan is feeling better, because he and Ron Shusett are having substantial input into these last minute script changes. They’re fixing it quite well, strengthening it considerably.”

Years later Cobb would add that, “The final film is not the film that Dan and I would have made, or Dan, Giger, and I or Ron Shusett. It’s not exactly that film, but it is close enough to Dan and Ron’s. They stayed there and fought for it inch by inch, day by day to keep it from going too far from the original concept.”

DanOBannon

A 1979 Washington Post interview found O’Bannon pained but gleeful that Alien had shocked audiences so thoroughly — “O’Bannon meant the movie as an ‘attack’ on the audience,” it read. “He wanted to ‘get even,’ he says, for the way they scorned him for his first movie, Dark Star. He wanted to ‘beat the stuffing’ out of us, he says. He means it.”

The aftermath of Alien’s release saw Dan cut a solitary, frustrated figure in the media. His propensity to say what he thought, belligerently if need be, alienated him from many in Hollywood. “I’m used to being alone now,” he told The Washington Post. He also added that despite managing to turn one failure around into a bona fide success by coming at it from a different angle, Dark Star was still “a trauma from which I have yet to recover.”

More concerning was his health: journalists and filmmaking friends occasionally detailed Dan’s struggle with what was eventually revealed to be Crohn’s Disease, for which he underwent extensive surgeries and periods of convalescence. For many years he suffered with no diagnosis or alleviating treatment. “O’Bannon explained that he suffered from a rare disease that produces severe abdominal inflammation and accompanying pain,” noted his former tutor, William Froug. “Doctors had told him it was inflammatory bowel syndrome, and it was genetic … For O’Bannon, poverty and pain were nuisances he would endure as the price of success. ‘Every dime I can scrape together goes to pay doctors,’ he told me with some bitterness.”Jason Zinoman writes in Shock Value that Dan’s doctors convinced him his bouts of agony were due to appendicitis, but a subsequent surgery didn’t stop the pain. “It wasn’t diagnosed correctly until 1980,” Zinoman writes, “but for years the incurable condition disrupted the normal process of digestion, inflaming his bowels, shortening his gut, cutting off the transit of food through his belly.”

Chris Foss likewise related to Den of Geek that Dan had suffered a particularly agonising incident after eating junk food, but he also added that O’Bannon , as he had with his everyday frustrations, managed to derive some creative output from his painful experiences. “Long before he came to Paris,” Foss said, “he ate some fast food and woke up in the night in incredible pain and actually had to be taken to hospital; and he imagined that there was a ‘beast’ inside him. And that was exactly where [the chestburster] came from.” HR Giger corroborated this in an 1999 interview, saying, “Dan O’Bannon, when he was writing the script, had a stomach pain and he wanted the pain to go away and came up with the idea of the pain leaving through the stomach, so he invented that.” According to The New York Times, O’Bannon also told them: “The idea for the monster in Alien originally came from a stomach-ache I had.” Much of his initial wage from Twentieth Century Fox was used up paying off his medical expenses. “I’d been under much stress and other problems plus not taking care of myself,” he said, “that I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year, I was in and out of the hospital.”

Alien’s production had provided a brief respite; O’Bannon suffered little ill-health during his time in England, having been invigorated by the process of making a film that he himself had imagined. “I was stricken with a debilitating stomach disease still undiagnosed and spent most of ’77 in hospital making decisions by phone,” he told Media Scene in ’79. “So I was feeling really miserable and in intense pain when Gordon Carroll called up and says, ‘We’re all going to London to make Alien. Let’s go!’ I groaned and bitched, but everybody persuaded me I’d better do it. I’d already spent thousands of dollars from my Alien option and preliminary money on medical bills, and it looked like I’d need more, so I went to England.”

“Lo and behold,” he continues, “in the process of working, I made what appears to be a complete recovery. It was the first time I’d felt normal in better than a year.” In the time between the film’s completion and release O’Bannon revealed that loneliness, dissatisfaction, and possibly the pain of his stomach ailment sent him somewhat off the track. “Sometimes, I like to get totally stoned out of my mind,” he said. “Liquor, marijuana, everything. Just get completely stoned, and go to some sleazy strip joint and spend all night watching the girls dance.”

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“So he’s rich. Famous. Vindicated. If it weren’t for his stomach attacks, he might get his first shot at happiness; but they started coming on during the last year of work in the movie, incredible gut pain and nausea that the doctors, after endless scans and probes, found no cause for, whatsoever. The only cure is to shoot him full of Demerol and feed him intravenously. He just got out of the hospital a few weeks ago after one bout, but his worst attack came during the sneak-previews – one of the preview cities being his hometown of St. Louis, ironically enough.”
~ Henry Allen, The Washington Post, July 29th 1979.

During his interview journalist Henry Allen noticed that O’Bannon sat with his trousers unzipped; this was to ease the pain he felt from doubling over or sitting in a prone position. When Froug interviewed Dan for his 1991 book The New Screenwriter Looks at The New Screenwriter, he noted that he was “hooked up to a morphine drip while agitatedly pacing his UCLA hospital room.” But despite the agony, O’Bannon kept busy, all the whole plotting his next script. “O’Bannon continued to write,” said Froug. “Writers write because they can’t not write, they don’t waste time thinking about what sold or what didn’t. Regardless of the outcome, they put the seat of their pants back down on the seat of the chair and keep writing.”

His struggles with Crohn’s made travel difficult; stress only exacerbated his condition, and assuming the mantle of director in such straits would have been to invite tremendous physical agony and humiliation. In the 1980’s British journalist Neil Norman interviewed him and related that “Dan O”Bannon is a sick man. Shortly after my visit he had a date with a surgeon who was going to remove a large section of his bowels. Drawn and grey with pain, he was describing in minute detail the plot of his next film to someone on the other end of his radio telephone.”

But the 1980’s also saw Dan find equilibrium in his personal life, marrying his wife Diane in 1986 after first meeting at USC back in 1971. “Dan was too wild for me in the early days,” Diane said of their early years, “and he was completely focused on his career. By the time he had directed Return of the Living Dead he’d calmed down a bit so when he asked me to marry him I said yes.” His resolve to work, to exert and express himself creatively, never waned. “I’m not tough,” he told The Face in 1986. “God did not mean for me to be a physical man of iron. He meant for me to be a mind. Anything I do in life is a compromise because whatever I do that I like, there will be something about me that makes it difficult. My health problems do not affect my ability to work. No matter how much pain I’m in it never stops me writing and it never affects the quality of my work. Part of this is because writing is a narcotic. When I don’t feel well, it is a way to escape from the pain.”

“I may write another script, to direct myself,” he had told Fantastic Films in ’79, “but I’m never going to get into hassle I got into Alien.” Despite this disavowal, and despite his misgivings about sequels, O’Bannon would further cement his cult success when he directed 1985’s ‘off-shoot sequel’ The Return of the Living Dead; the producers, for legal reasons, encouraged him to make it as different from George Romero’s original Dead films as he could. O’Bannon gave the film a comedic tone that distanced it from the doomy atmosphere of the original Dead films and introduced zombies that hungered for brains and ran after their victims instead of shambling, decades before Danny Boyle and Zack Snyder featured similarly athletic zombies in 28 Days Later (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) respectively. “I was watching TV and there’s some young director who has done a zombie movie very recently,” Dan told Den of Geek in 2007, “he was congratulating himself on inventing the idea of swiftly-moving zombies. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, I guess he’s never seen Return Of The Living Dead.’ Apparently we both invented it.”

The long-gestating Total Recall, released in 1990, some fourteen years after its writers first met (Ron Cobb was also involved) would not be the last film that Dan contributed to, but it certainly topped off his achievements with aplomb; the film was critically and commercially successful, is considered one of Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarznegger’s best films, and is, perhaps appropriately, thought of as one of the last of its kind –a science-fiction action spectacle with brain, brawn, and the last to use many ‘extinct’ practical effects and one of the first to utilise many digital effects that are common today.

Dan O’Bannon’s fascination with the macabre may be said to have originated in his discovery of Lovecraft -his sense of wonder and love of science fiction seem to have already been there, instilled in him by his father- and the story which ignited his fascination, The Colour Out of Space, certainly stuck with him. HR Giger told Cinefantastique in 1988 that Dan kept “telling me he would like to do Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space with me as soon as he’s able to raise the necessary funds. That could be interesting because he’s definitely one of the greatest Lovecraft experts around.”

Unfortunately, the passion project never materialised. John Carpenter likewise had trouble selling the idea. “I tried to pitch an NBC mini-series, The Colour Out of Space, and they didn’t really care,” he told denofgeek.com in 2008. “They’d read it and say, ‘What is this shit?’ They don’t get it. They don’t dig it.” Despite Lovecraft’s immense influence on filmmakers, Carpenter opined to CraveOnline.co.uk in 2013 that “There really hasn’t been a good Lovecraft movie. Well, mine [Mouth of Madness], but that wasn’t really picked up.” In summer 2009 Dan recieved the Howie Award, presented “for his lifelong promotion of the work and themes of writer HP Lovecraft.”

Dan O’Bannon passed away December 17th, 2009, after a prolonged struggle with Crohn’s Disease. For much of his life his forthrightness and unapologetic honesty rubbed many the wrong way and reduced many bridges to smoke and rubble, and though he was not a familiar name like Spielberg or Lucas, his death prompted odes from science-fiction and horror fans and outlets who testified to his work and efforts on Dark Star, the aborted Dune, Star Wars, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and Total Recall. “Jason Zinoman,” says Diane O’Bannon, “who interviewed Dan for Jason’s upcoming book ‘The Monster Problem,’ told me after he died that Dan had said to him ‘my wife understands me.’ I think that is the greatest compliment a wife can hear.”

“I would say Dan O’Bannon is probably one of the most important and most overlooked individuals, especially in horror, but in movies in general,” says Dino Everett, the archivist at USC who uncovered many of O’Bannon’s student films. “From the research I did compiling this project I soon learned that O’Bannon was this unsung hero, not only of modern horror, but also for his time here at USC. His work here in the 1960’s was really quite advanced and ahead of its time compared to many of his classmates, and he seemed to not only be a jack of all trades, such as writer, director, actor, makeup and effects, but also seemed to be a one man creativity catalyst contributing often to his fellow classmates’ projects.

The other thing I learned through all of this was that he was a fiercely loyal individual and showed a caring side that many might not suspect. In the 1990’s an old classmate of Carpenter and O’Bannon’s named Charles Adair (who made the zombie film The Demon, included in this project) was in failing health and in need of funds for his medical bills. O’Bannon co-wrote a script with Adair for a horror project called Bleeders (1997) and gave Adair all of the profits made from the writing job to help with the bills.”

Matt Lohr, who helped shepherd Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure to print in 2012, said of his mentor, “I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning Avatar came out. Several months later, Avatar went on to become a Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards. If there was no Dan O’Bannon, or people like Dan, then Avatar wouldn’t get nominated at the Academy Awards. Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it. He elevated it in the eyes of others so they could say, ‘Yes, this movie has spaceships, monsters, and aliens, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year.’ And Dan’s one of the reasons we have that.”

See also: Interview with Dan O’Bannon

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The Life of Bolaji Badejo

Bolaji

Bolaji Badejo was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on August 23rd, 1953, the second child to parents Victor and Elizabeth Badejo (née Bamidale). The family included, in order of birth: Akin, Bolaji, a sister Debo, Posi, Boyega, and Deji. Their mother, according to Boyega, was a “welfare administrator, one-time business owner, housewife and a hostess.”

Their father, born Erasmus Victor Badejo on 21st May 1921, was the son of farmer Gabriel Akingbade Badejo and Phebe Aderibigbe Badejo, a housewife. Victor was educated at the boys-only Government College in Ibadan, which had been founded by British expatriates and modeled in the vein of British boarding schools with the purpose of grooming Nigeria’s future leaders and trailblazers. For a time Colonial Nigeria had been ruled by the British as a series of adjuncts governed by telephone with local leaders serving as proxies (a system of governance called indirect rule) but later administrators argued that it was their imperial duty to introduce as quickly as possible the benefits of Western experience to the local population. Hence, schools like the Government College were founded.

Victor graduated from the University College, lbadan, in 1952, and thereafter joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service as a Senior Broadcasting Officer. Radio broadcasting had been brought to Nigeria in 1933 by the British colonial administration, and at first was used primarily to blast BBC broadcasts through loudspeakers placed in designated public areas. When the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation was formed in April 1957 it was with a Briton as its head, but Nigerians quickly began to assume managerial positions and in October 1963, three years after his country’s independence from Britain, Victor Badejo became the first indigenous Director-General of the station.

As a consequence of his position the Badejo family lived comfortably, even affluently, in Africa. One guest at a party thrown for the benefit of the new Director-General was the Oba (“King”) of Lagos, Adeniji Adele. Other frequent visitors and drop-ins included several Britons of esteem. “Sir Hugh Greene, the Director General of the BBC, younger brother to the famous writer Graham Greene, visited Nigeria in the late sixties and actually stayed with us in the guest chalet,” explains Boyega. “My parents lived a much more glamorous life in Nigeria, so we were privileged as a family, and known as well.”

Victor’s eldest sons, Bolaji and older brother Akin, lived the untroubled lives typical of the children of a well known and prosperous father. “Bolaji had a hippy lifestyle,” says Boyega. “Carefree, cruising around in Dad’s sports car from the age of sixteen. Very hip.” But Victor gave his children more than material gifts, and entrenched in them deep wells of confidence. “My father was always charming and influential,” says Boyega. “We grew up like that. We all felt secure at any point in time to be individuals and believe in ourselves.”

Boyega and BolajI as children.

Boyega and Bolaji as children.

In 1967 Nigeria was plunged into a bloody three-year civil war, during which time the political apparatus lunged from coup to counter-coup and alternated between various democratically-elected governments and military dictatorships. Meanwhile, the breadth of the country continuously lapsed into large-scale riots and massacres with Eastern Nigerians being targeted in particular. “I was a boy then,” explained Boyega, “but I remember my father was attending civil defence classes, so when we heard sirens we all gathered together in the storage room, and at another occasion because of the sensitive position of our dad as the head [of the NBC], we heard rumours that the federal soldiers were coming to occupy our compound, and we were evacuated to our relatives the whole day until very late that night.”

In 2008 Chinua Achebe, author of the classic Things Fall Apart, revealed that during the turmoil Victor Badejo had given him some life-saving advice when Achebe (whose cousin had been an Eastern Nigerian army officer killed in the chaos) became a target of the warring military factions. “I was then director of broadcasting,” Achebe told observer.gm, revealing that his staff “Called me and they said, ‘Soldiers are looking for you. They said they want to see which is stronger, your pen or their gun.’ So I picked up the phone and dialled Victor Badejo, who was the Director-General. I said, ‘Victor, what is this story?’ He said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m at home.’ He said, ‘Take Christie and your children and leave.'”

“I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Nigeria was disintegrating, that I had to leave my house, leave Lagos, leave my job. So I decided to sneak back into our Turnbull residence and return to work … Victor Badejo, the director general of Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, saw me on the premises, stopped me, and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And then he said, ‘Life has no duplicate’ and provided further clarification of the situation …At this point the killings had reached the peak figure of hundreds a week.”
~ Chinua Achebe, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra,  2012.

Achebe noted that Badejo’s advice saved his life and that of his family. “He was quite anxious on my behalf and advised me to leave my Turnbull Road residence immediately,” he wrote. Indeed, Nigerian poet and scholar Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s biography of Achebe understatingly notes that “that advice from Victor Badejo, whose high rank placed him in a position where he could receive authentic information, made it clear to Achebe that the armed soldiers looking for him were not interested in inviting him to a picnic.”

In 1972, after working at the NBC for twenty years, Victor Badejo resigned from his position, packed up his family, and relocated to Ethiopia. His tenure as the first indigenous Director-General of Radio Nigeria left an indelible impression on his fellow West Africans. Diamonds are Forever: Ten Years of DAME (Diamond Awards for Media Excellence) asks us to recall “the very few multi-talented Nigerians who have made outstanding contributions to broadcasting, but who did not have to depend on broadcasting for a living as evident from their equally outstanding career outside of broadcasting.” The site then adds that, “Such achievers include: Archdeacon Victor Badejo”, a position he had received before his passing.

Bolaji, nineteen years old, spent his time in Ethiopia studying fine arts. “We are artists by nature from my mother’s side,” Boyega revealed, “my uncle was the Picasso of Nigeria, Omotayo Aiyegbusi … He attended St Martin’s school of art in the 50’s, and did some very crucial assignments for the BBC.” And then, after three years, Victor took the family on the move again, this time to England, “and there he was in charge of a church as the vicar for the next eight years.” Boyega further explains that “As a man that was mentored by the British, I think he wanted that experience of living with his family in Britain as a priest.” For the Badejo children uprooting and travelling was not particularly disruptive and instead left them “excited”, according to Boyega. “We were like an adventurous migrating family, very un-African.”

Bolaji in London, sometime in the early 1970's.

Bolaji in London, mid-1970’s.

In England the young Bolaji decided to further pursue an education in graphic design, and it was whilst living around London that he met Yinka, who became his girlfriend and the mother to his two children, Bibi and Yinka. “They had mutual friends and were in a similar social class, middle upper elites,” explains Boyega. As Yinka herself explains, “I was introduced to Bolaji by a mutual friend in the summer of 1976 in London.” The budding artist made an immediate impression: “My first impression of Bolaji,” she says, “was of a very tall, dark, striking and handsome man, who had a captivating voice.” With Yinka by his side, Bolaji immersed himself in his studies and his new life in England. “He embraced and thoroughly enjoyed living in London.”

In early 1978 Bolaji was approached in a bar by casting director Peter Archer, who was scouting for someone suitably tall and thin to play the titular creature in a space-bound horror movie directed by Ridley Scott – Alien. The film’s associate producer Ivor Powell explained that “The person that put the suit on had to be impossibly tall. We wanted them to be incredibly long-limbed, especially from the waist to the knee.”

But the production had reached an impasse casting their Alien. They tried various female models, a family of contortionists and even Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew. Powell, in Dennis Lowe’s Alien Makers II documentary, recalls Archer (referred to as a “choreographer friend of mine”) telling him that “I was at a bar the other night, and it was a sort of students bar, lots of students there and I saw this guy and I don’t know what he was, whether he was Somalian… he was some African and he was impossibly tall and skinny, you want to see him?” Ivor agreed to see the tall student, “And so he sent him in and this quite timid kind of guy, never been in front of a camera before, he ended up being our Alien.”

“We started with a stunt man who was quite thin, but in the rubber suit he looked like the Michelin Man. So my casting director [Peter Archer] said, ‘I’ve seen a guy in a pub in Soho who is about seven feet tall, has a tiny head and a tiny skinny body.’ So he brought Bolaji Badejo to the office.”
~ Ridley Scott, Cinefantastique Online, 2008.

Bolaji, at 6’10 and rod-thin, must have seemed like a godsend to the production. He had always been “a thin long boy,” according to Boyega, and eventually “grew taller than his peers and was still growing until the age of twenty three.” Bolaji himself told Cinefantastique magazine in 1979 that “As soon as I walked in, Ridley Scott knew he’d found the right person.” Sure enough Scott, who later commented that Bolaji “had a figure like a Giacometti sculpture,” offered him the part there and then. “I said, ‘Do you want to be in movies?’” Ridley reminisced with Cinefantastique, “and he said, ‘Sure’. And he became the Alien.” For Bolaji the entire process might have seemed not only completely random but, in the end, perplexingly straightforward. “It is not every day that one gets approached in a West End bar to become part of a cast of the film,” says Yinka. “He was surprised, but pleased.”

Boyega remembers that he and his family were informed of his brother’s film work only “when he decided to tell us,” but, Boyega also noted, this was not unexpected behaviour: “Nothing was a big issue for us,” he explained, “as you might imagine – father meeting the Pope, Queen, Sir Hugh Greene, Haile Sallasse.” Bolaji, it seemed, didn’t think of his movie work as something exemplary and special. “He was quiet like my dad,” said Boyega, (Alien VFX crewmember Jon Sorensen also warmly referred to Bolaji as “the quiet man.”)

Once he was hired a body cast of Bolaji was created, although the mould was manufactured rather inexpertly. HR Giger, who had yet to personally meet Bolaji, inspected the cast and noted in his diary that “Unfortunately, the man has knock knees and an impossible build profile.” Giger, unimpressed, started thinking of alternatives. “I suggested asking Veruschka, who is just as tall, whether she would play the Alien. They liked the idea.”

Giger was interrupted several days later whilst painting some plaster models of the Alien landscape. “At 2pm,” he noted, “I was called to R. Scott’s office to inspect the man, black, approx. 2.10 meters, who is supposed to play [the] Alien.” Bolaji made a very different impression on Giger in person. “His stature did not conform to the impression I had gotten from the bad plaster cast [which] seemed too fat and built somewhat strangely around the hips. This impression arose because it took so long to make the mould and he has to stand the whole time.” After seeing him in person, Giger decided that Bolaji was perfect for his creature. “I will have a new cast made from the chest down.” he wrote. “I think he’s our man.”

To prepare for the film Bolaji took tai chi classes, spoke with Scott regarding his performance, and vigorously rehearsed the Alien’s gliding movement and mantis-like posture on the Nostromo set. “Bolaji worked hard and immersed himself into the choreography lessons and performing in the film,” says Yinka. “Even though some days were long and gruelling and he had to make an early morning start, Bolaji never complained.” Despite rehearsing and filming for long days over the summer and autumn months, he did not allow himself to lapse in his studies. “Bolaji coped well with filming and studying,” says Yinka. “He was a hard working and dedicated student, who excelled in all he did.”

BB

Behind the scenes with Giger.

“The idea,” Bolaji told Cinefantastique magazine, “was that the creature was supposed to be graceful as well as vicious, requiring slow, deliberate movements. But there was some action I had to do pretty quick. I remember having to kick Yaphet Kotto, throw him against the wall, and rush up to him. Veronica Cartwright was really terrified. After I fling Yaphet Kotto back with my tail, I turn to go after her, there’s blood in my mouth, and she was incredible. It wasn’t acting. She was scared.”

“Believe me,” Cartwright said in 2013, “when he comes after me in that scene I didn’t have to do anything. I just looked at him and, the thing was, once he uncoiled he just stood there. And I just had to look at him, and you go, ‘oh shit’. And instinctively what he did was just amazing. He had this incredible presence. And you know people say, ‘how did you make yourself scared?’ I didn’t do anything; I just had to look at him.”

“He was amazing,” she continued. “He was Masai. His limbs, his arms, his hands, went below his kneecaps. I mean he was this long, gorgeous person. He had huge feet which they always stuffed white sneakers on him. But Tom [Skerritt] is the one who said, ‘This poor man cannot sit down, because of this tail,’ and they built a sort of swing for him, so he could sit down on his swing. But if Tom hadn’t spoke up the poor guy would’ve been wandering around, god only knows.”

Skerritt also spoke of Bolaji at the same convention, telling the crowd that: “Just to thrown in a little bit about the Alien, with whom I spent a lot of time. Great instinct, very bright guy… In any case, I came in after they broke for lunch one afternoon and these huge stage doors would open, and [Bolaji] came out with everything on except for the head. He’s seven feet, and he was talking to a five-foot wardrobe mistress, and they were really having a conversation. Obviously, they were talking about something very profound. He’s got this outfit on and talking to her as they’re moving along, and he’s wearing very bright blue Adidas tennis shoes. And his tail’s being carried by a very flamboyant wardrobe assistant who had a white scarf on. And the wind was blowing so -I wish I had a photo of this- this scarf is flying out behind this guy who’s holding the tail… It was… if I had that photograph you’d all be paying a lot of money for that.”

“He did put his foot down though when they wanted to put the maggots in the top of the head,” Cartwright chipped in. “You know there’s that shot… it looks like his brain is moving, they were maggots. They were red and yellow and blue maggots, and he said, ‘Nuh uh, I’m not doing that!’”

Ridley Scott also recalled on the 1999 DVD commentary that Yaphet Kotto’s energy and riotous demeanour often led to some braggadocious and surreal scenes on the set, one in particular concerning Bolaji. “Yaphet was always great as the troublemaker on board the ship,” Ridley said, “and the day that Yaphet had to die, he said, ‘I’m not going to die.’ He said, ‘This thing can’t kill me!’ So I had to have this long discussion, persuading him to die that day.” Jon Sorensen remembers that when “the day came for Parker to fight the Alien and Yaphet comes out with it: ‘No f****** Alien is going to beat me. No f****** Alien is going to hold me down!’ Well, Bolaji pinned Kotto to the ground, sitting on him. Could Yaphet shift him? No. Not with all his considerable strength could he get the Alien off. He was ABSOLUTELY furious. Bolaji, the quiet man, won the day.”

Starburst journalist Phil Edwards recalls another incident involving Bolaji and Yaphet that had been relayed to him by Dan O’Bannon. “I had gotten into the production office of Alien almost by accident,” he shares. “The UK distributor had offered me an interview with Dan O’Bannon for Starburst magazine for the recently released Dark Star. The Alien production was a closed set, but the entrée to Dan got me through the door, and stopped me getting thrown out. He shared an office with Ron Cobb. Dan and I hit it off and I spent several evenings at his hotel in Portobello Road, hearing about the events of the day’s shooting. Of several memorable episodes, one involved Bolaji. With the Alien costume being so difficult to work in, and with restricted viewing through the suit, it was extremely difficult for Bolaji to hit his marks with precision, especially as his movements needed to be quite precise. The Alien set was a tense atmosphere, with its several producers uptight about the money, the schedule and Ridley Scott, who had proved himself no push-over to producer demands.”

“During a particularly tough scene for Bolaji,” Phil continues, “where he consistently missed his marks thanks to the suit and the clock on the money running up, one of the producers started to get unpleasant with him. Yaphet Kotto was looking on and became increasingly incensed at Herr Producer’s expletive-laden tirade. Enough was enough. According to Dan, Kotto ‘physically intervened’ and let the producer have it… ‘Leave the brother alone!’… things went very quiet after that.”

“Bolaji was about seven feet tall and looked like he came from a different universe anyway, and they made up this Alien suit for him. Ridley was very careful not to have him standing around, drinking tea with us during breaks and because he was kept apart from us and we never chatted, when it came to seeing him as this creature during a scene, it was electrifying. It didn’t feel that we were acting scared at all.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, The Daily Mail, 2010.

In his diary HR Giger wrote that Bolaji once “greeted [Mia and myself] with a fine surprise”, though he did not elaborate on Bolaji’s gift. At other times he joined Giger “for lunch at the King’s Head” where he unfortunately “complained about the treatment by the [Twentieth] Cent Fox people” who were routinely frustrating the production and, as Phil Edwards relates, even denigrating the performers. But despite his complaints Bolaji spent the next week shooting scenes for the film and making an impression. “Bolaji is still in action,” Giger wrote. “The scenes are awfully brutal and have a strong impact.” When Ridley decided that the Alien would smuggle itself aboard the Narcissus Giger empathised with Bolaji, who had been unable to fit inside the vents for Dallas’ death scene but would now be required to be sequestered within the shuttle walls for a day and a half. “Poor Bolaji,” he wrote, “[he will] not be happy about this beautiful, but for him very uncomfortable, scene.”

Bolaji in full costume as the Alien.

Bolaji in full costume as the Alien.

Then, on Friday, October 6th 1978, Bolaji filmed his last scene for the film – the Alien slithers from its hole and drops to the ground before rising, slowly, in a shroud of smoke. “Bursting out of that compartment wasn’t easy,” he told Cinefantastique. “I must’ve ripped the suit two or three times coming out, and each time I’d climb down, the tail would rip off!” Since the Alien being blown through the hatch would require an actor to be dropped and suspended by wires from a considerable height, the creature was portrayed in its final scenes by stuntman Roy Scammell.

During the film’s publicity phase Bolaji spoke to various publications including Cinefantastique and Starburst. Leone Edwards, who was at the time the wife of Starburst writer Phil Edwards, remembers that “[Bolaji] came to our London flat, and as I followed him up the stairs I thought I’d never see where he finished, he was so tall.” Phil, recalling the episode with Bolaji, Yaphet and a producer that he had heard about only weeks earlier, deigned not to ask him about it. “When Bolaji came to visit our London flat for an interview for Starburst, I thought about asking him about the incident, but decided against it. It just didn’t seem right.”

“The echo of an impression I am now left with regarding Bolaji,” says Leone, “was that he seemed quiet, a little conservative and reserved -polite and well spoken of course- and dare I say, trusting. What other potential star would turn up at a slightly questionable upstairs, furnished West Kensington flat (with a shared bathroom and toilet!) for an interview? He could have been walking to his doom for all he knew. What celebrity would do that now? Maybe they were more relaxed and innocent times. I also feel that perhaps he was a little shellshocked – suddenly changing direction and helping to create what was to become one of the most iconic cinematic images of the 20th century.” Leone also remembers that, “I once said to an acquaintance sometime during the 1980’s – ‘The Alien came to my house once.’ He replied, ‘What were you on?'”

Months after its release in the United States, Alien premiered in London’s Leicester Square Odeon on September 6th, 1979. Boyega says that he “cannot recollect the family watching the film together” since all of the various family members “all had our [own] accommodations because of the locations of our colleges, etc., but some of us went with him to the premier and ended up in the club Monkberry’s in Jerymyn Street, West End, where membership was for stars including Rod Stewart, Bob Marley, so he became a member and we started going there with him and with many other close friends of his.” Of his work in the film Yinka explains that “Bolaji was proud of his performance and so were his family, friends and I. We did see the film together and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a night to remember.” All in all it was, Boyega says, “Very cool times.”

Bolaji later “took a course in photography”, his mood remained “always relaxed and entertaining”, and, despite appearing enthusiastic about playing the Alien again in a hypothetical sequel, he ultimately favoured practicality over fantasies of a film career and decided to return to Nigeria in 1980. “Bolaji had relocated back to Nigeria to join our uncle, the well known sculptor, artist, designer and publisher Omotayo Aiyegbusi,” Boyega says, “but he started doing his own thing after two years, and by 1983 he had his own art gallery.” Yinka explains that she and Bolaji moved after he had completed his studies as a graphic designer, and that Bolaji immediately set out “to work with his uncle who had a successful graphic design company.” Bolaji, according to Yinka, “was a humble man, who was glad to have played his part in the success of the film,” and his ultimate goal, she says, was “to make a difference in the graphic designing field with his skills, as he was a gifted designer, full of original ideas.” As Bolaji himself summarised to Cinefantastique magazine, “The fact that I played the part of the Alien, for me, that’s good enough.”

During the 1980’s their children, Bibi and Yinka, would be born, and Bolaji continued to curate his gallery. “Bolaji was jovial, full of life and pleasant,” remembers Yinka. “He was easy to get on with. He set high goals for himself and worked hard to achieve them.” Victor Badejo also relocated to Nigeria and was installed as Archdeacon of St. Lukes Church Uro, Ikere-Ekiti on December 1, 1984.

In 1983 the youngest Badejo sibling, Deji, passed away due to sickle cell anaemia and as the decade wore on Bolaji, who had been diagnosed with the disease as a child, began to succumb to its effects. A 1994 report, Mortality in Sickle Cell Disease – Life Expectancy and Risk Factors for Early Death, analysed patients living in the United States and found that “In contrast to the widely held assumption that patients with sickle cell anaemia rarely survive to adulthood, the median age at death among such patients was 42 years for males and 48 years for females.”

Yinka relates that Bolaji had “never let having sickle cell anaemia affect his life. He coped with it as best he could.” Several months after his thirty-ninth birthday, Bolaji fell ill and was taken to St. Stephen Hospital in Ebute Metta, Lagos, where he died on the 22nd December, 1992.

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“Of course he was the Alien because of his physical attributes,” says Boyega, “but he was not an actor. My late brother was very, very strong mentally, charming, funny, and easy to be with and get on with others … Bolaji did not have enemies; he was humble, generous and entertaining. He was not just my brother, he was my friend … We cultivated friendship as I grew older, which I did not have with my other siblings except the last born, Deji, who was the first member of the family to pass on. He also was a victim of sickle cell anaemia. We are only two brothers left and one sister, but I do communicate with Posi, my elder brother, about our father. Two weeks ago, he had found a picture of our dad with the Saudana of Sokoto…”

“As my father passed away so early in my life I only have fleeting memories of him,” says Bibi Badejo. “I know he was very creative and worked as a graphic designer in his gallery. I remember him playing with me and lifting me up so high. I remember he drove a green VW Gold which had a golf ball shaped gear stick and the smell of his tobacco. I will never forget he was 6 foot 10 and that’s where my brother and I get our tall frames from. The rest comes from stories from my mother and crinkled photos my brother and I have kept close to our hearts over the years.”

“What I have come to learn as I have gotten older is the impact he had on other people and how they remember him despite meeting him decades ago. A perfect example is when I met a fellow lawyer on a case I was working on. We had never met before but she told me she had only ever met someone with the Badejo surname once before. She then described a very tall lean man from Nigeria who would sometimes help her around the house (including painting her ceiling!) It didn’t take long before it dawned on me that she had met my father when she was studying law in the late seventies and they had become friends. They had since lost touch but she never forgot him.”

“There was another time when I had used one of my father’s iconic photos as a profile picture on a social media website. My friend’s mother, again who I had never met, immediately recognised him as the ‘cool guy she met once at a party who said he was going to play the Alien.’ I am not sure if she believed him at the time but of course we all know it’s true.”

Bibi closes: “It’s a huge shame not to be able to speak to him about Alien and a great many other things as I have grown up and am now an adult. That said, it is incredible to discover the legacy he has left and also the fact that even now people are willing to find out about him, give him respect and also give me the gift of allowing me to learn more about him.”

Special thanks to Bibi and Boyega Badejo and Yinka Richardson for their time, memories, and photographs. Additonal thanks and salutations to Leone Edwards and Phil Edwards.

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Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien Head

rambaldialiensketch

“I always like to have these big long heads for the monster,” HR Giger told Famous Monsters magazine in 1979, “because I worked as an industrial designer. Every object needs to have a function. So if it has a long head there’s space for a long tongue. And I also gave his tongue teeth. I thought it was very good as a filmic device.”

But to take full advantage of the Alien’s retractable jaws the production needed an experienced engineer to provide the appropriate mechanisms. They decided to contact Carlo Rambaldi, an artist, effects man and one-time student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, whose earlier credits included Oscar winning work on the 1976 King Kong remake, and also later Spielberg’s E.T.

“It became apparent that we’d need some quite sophisticated mechanisms for the Alien to make his face work,” Ridley Scott told Starlog magazine. “We brought in Carlo Rambaldi,  just by the skin of our teeth.” Rambaldi’s tenure was to be short: he agreed to arrive in England in August, work for several weeks, and then leave for America to join the production of Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing. In his stead he would leave Carlo De Marchis, described by Ridley as a “marvellous guy,” to oversee the shooting of his cable operated head, and to repair or modify it if need be.

At the same time David Watling, who owned an effects firm on the Shepperton lot, was also tasked with building a mechanised Alien head, “for reasons of security,” according to Giger. Watling and his team, who had manufactured the R2-D2 units used in Star Wars, ambitiously set out to work on not only a radio operated Alien head but also a radio operated tail.

“Our brief was to articulate the head with the same movements as the one Rambaldi was making,” Watling told Cinefex magazine, “but by using a radio control system rather than cables. We therefore designed and built remote control devices which gave full proportional control to the lips and the position of the inner teeth mounted on the tongue. The main jaw and tongue were activated by air cylinders which in turn were controlled by radio valves operated by the air supply and a miniature battery pack mounted in the costume on the actor’s back.”

Rambaldi's concept of the Alien head, it's user, and mechanisms.

Rambaldi’s concept of the Alien head, the performer, and internal mechanisms.

But when Giger visited him in late July he was not impressed by Watling’s work. “Unfortunately you still can’t tilt the tongue,” the artist wrote in his diary. “I asked him whether he could replace the old jaw with the new one I’d made. He exploded.” Watling’s proposed Alien tail impressed Giger even less. “The mechanics of the tail consist of a bunch of pressure tanks, relays, hoses, and wheels,” he wrote. “Who knows how they’ll manage to stow all that away. I think the mechanics are too complicated.”

“The tail,” Giger said in an interview for 2001’s Alien Evolution documentary, “unfortunately wasn’t given to Rambaldi to do, but was left over to [Watling] … Every week there was a demonstration, every time he used bigger handles and levers and wanted this tail to move, and it went mmmm-puff, and then it collapsed and was torn, and [he] nearly burst into tears and then he put us off until a further demonstration. And that went on week after week and Gordon Carroll was in despair, and we thought, ‘Hey, that would be brilliant if Rambaldi would do that,’ and Rambaldi was there watching too and he said, ‘That will never work.’ Well it was simply much too heavy, it simply could not work, and Rambaldi said he would have made it with very lightweight elements and that kind of thing.”

Watling’s progress with the tail was intermittent (Giger wrote in mid-September that “I don’t believe I’m ever going to see it functioning”) and when he called Giger for another demonstration in October (only days before the final scenes with the actors were filmed) the results were rather pathetic. “It looked somewhat broken,” wrote Giger, “Like a big trampled worm that is painfully squirming.”

Watling’s tail was eventually abandoned. Giger told Cinefantastique that “a normal tail was used instead … animated with a system of wires which, hopefully, the spectator cannot see!”

Rambaldi himself had arrived in England on August 21st, 1978 (three days late), bringing with him his very own mechanical Alien head. “He brought us an ingenious machine of a head,” Giger wrote, with one reservation: “Too bad it resembles an ape. The way he changed the face and fashioned the lips make it look like an ape. So there are new problems. I just hope he can fit the face to our heads.”

“I used fibreglass for the skull and moving parts, and aluminium inside for support. The tongue, for example, was fibreglass mounted on general metal tracks and could extended about twenty centimetres, either slowly or very fast. Each moving part was connected to a special sheathed cable –like hand brakes on a bicycle, only more flexible– which ran out through a hole in the base of the head. Normally, each moving part would require only a single cable, but the sideways movement of the head and the mechanism for the tongue required two opposing cables, kind of like reins on a horse. So there were nine all together. The cables were seven meters long and connected to hand operated levers mounted on a wooden panel. By operating the levers in various combinations, a great many moves were possible.”
~ Carlo Rambaldi, Cinefex magazine, 1979.

The next week Giger began work on fixing the Alien’s face. “We at the car park studio are tinkering around like mad. Patty still hasn’t attached the lips. In the course of a conversation with her, we disassemble the face, which was badly executed anyway, and once again I had the lovely job of doing a job that everyone else was fed up with. But since it has to be finished by 8am tomorrow, I took it on. Since Rambaldi’s head will not be finished by tomorrow, they will have to use ours, the non-mechanised one, whether they like it or not.”

Clearly, Giger was still both perplexed and worried by Rambaldi’s alteration of the Alien. “There’s something ape-like to the Italian’s lip construction,” he writes again. “I have difficulties imagining how he will turn it into our ‘Alien III’ head. I’m sick and tired of his whole Alien business.”

Rambaldi's concept of the Alien...

Rambaldi’s concept of the Alien…

Carlo

… and his work in progress.

There was also some underhanded competition between Watling and Rambaldi’s crew. “The [English] production manager, who is an ardent nationalist, finds these Italo-American products a thorn in the flesh,” Giger wrote. “He promises me all possible support in my work if I will boost the homemade product, the engineer’s Alien head that only half works, for use in the film. I won’t do anything of the sort. I’m only interested in quality, no matter where it comes from, and in the resemblance of the head to my own design; not in this internal nepotism.” In the same spirit, Giger later told Famous Monsters magazine that “so many films look alike” because they only utilised local studio crews. “But if you have a choice of talent from many places, it may be more difficult to get started but maybe the final product looks different and fresh.”

The Italians were likewise noting the poor work of the inhouse effects artists. “There was another head made from an English engineer,” Carlo De Marchis noted in a 2013 interview. “The problem was that when Ridley went to see that one, he said, ‘I am sorry but I can’t work with that.'”

But Rambaldi’s presence was not devoid of its own drama or difficulties. “What happened with Alien,” special effects supervisor Brian Johnson told originalprop.com, “is that Carlo Rambaldi turned up … he used to come onto the set, and he had a manager who was completely dressed in black, head to toe. Very sharp Italian suit, and Carlo would come on and Ridley would say something and the manager would translate back and forth. When you’re outside a meeting, and you caught Carlo speaking, he’d be saying, ‘We have to do this and that’… he was pretending he didn’t know English, so he could listen to what everybody else was saying. A lot of that going on as well. Politics. And of course lots of things got changed with Ridley, because the thing with Ridley is, he doesn’t like to keep going and pushing frontiers and things, and the mechanisms were all altered and such. It’s gotta be just right for someone like that.”

Rambaldi finished his head on August 31st, and quickly gave Giger a demonstration. The artist was especially pleased with the results. “They tried out all the movements of the lips and jaws. The highlight was how the tongue sprang out.” Rambaldi gave another demonstration for Ridley the next day, where Giger again noted that “the movements were very impressive,” but “unfortunately the ape-like aspect has not entirely disappeared.”

The next day was Rambaldi’s last on the set. “He’s driving to the airport at noon with his manager Dean, to go to Los Angeles.” As agreed, Rambaldi left Carlo De Marchis to oversee the heads. De Marchis himself kept one of the mechanised tongues as a souvenir. It had broken when Bolaji Badejo turned his head sharply just as De Marchis released the mechanism. He created a new tongue (“like a pneumatic pistol”) to replace the one he took.

Giger spent the next few days modifying and painting both Rambaldi and Watling’s heads. The Alien’s first day before the lens was due, on Monday the 4th September, and Giger was evidently worried: “Tomorrow, I’m going to be  standing on the set again like an ass.” Typically, there were problems with its first scene, though not with the props or mechanics, but rather one of the actors. “The cat that has to play along didn’t really want to,” Giger wrote. Shooting was postponed until the next day, and the crew took the opportunity to busy themselves with the heads. Watling’s head was finally due to be finished just in time for shooting, “So tomorrow we will have two mechanised, one non-mechanised, and one half-mechanised head.”

The Alien heads. Giger's

The Alien heads. Giger’s “ape” complaint is probably most evident on the painted head in the centre-left.

The Alien finally went before the camera on September 5th. The scene: the Nostromo leg room, with Brett searching for Jonesy and his subsequent death. The four heads were ordered, but only three turned up, since Watling was still having trouble with his. Still, Giger was displeased with the craftsmanship on the props that arrived. “[They] all look pretty shitty,” he opined. “They were badly sanded and glued with rubber cement.”

The scene was filmed over the duration of the next few days; the dripping water and oil took its toil on the Alien suit’s paint job, and the stunt wires tore the tubes from its shoulders, but Scott hid the flaws by shooting almost exclusively in close-up. For the shots of the Alien’s head, the crew put Rambaldi’s head to use. Watling’s team could not complain: even two days after the deadline theirs was yet to be finished.

Still, there were problems with Rambaldi’s contraption: the Alien’s slime was gluing up the mechanics. Despite this, the rushes for the scene left an indelible impression on Giger, who called it “particularly overwhelming.” Bolstered by these results, he went on to claim, “It will be the best monster of all time. Being its creator, I’ll probably become well-known for it.” Typically, there were later complaints when De Marchis again modified Rambaldi’s head. “Now it looks like a fish in profile,” groaned Giger.

Despite Watling’s lacklustre results with the tail, he still managed to get his remotely operated head finished. But in a further streak of bad luck, his prop was never put before a camera. “We never used it,” explained Ivor Powell, “because there was no call to use it. Most of the shooting was finally done pretty close up, and therefore the cable system of Rambaldi’s was much more practical. Remote control just isn’t as subtle as a hand-operated mechanism. If we’d wanted a lot of long shots, though -with freedom from the cables- the Watling head would have been very useful.”

Ridley, on the other hand, was far too pleased with Rambaldi’s head to relegate the creature to long shots: “[Rambaldi] designed the mechanics of the head, made the lips work, made the jaws function. Normally you can’t stand to have the camera take a close look at things like this, but it was so good I just did a huge close up on it.” Giger likewise told Starlog that, “I think it works wonderfully.”

Rambaldi, despite being honoured for his contributions to Alien with an Academy Award for Visual Effects (shared with Giger, Brian Johnson, et al) was somewhat critical of Ridley’s directorial choices. “They use all the movements,” he explained, “but the head cuts are so quick, and the action is framed so predominantly in extreme closeup, that frequently it’s impossible to tell what you are seeing! In my opinion, I gave the director one hundred possibilities, and he used but twenty.”

One of the mechanical heads today.

One of the mechanical heads today.

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Thank You for the Nightmares: Hans Rudolf Giger, 1940 – 2014

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“I still see the H stage, the studios at Shepperton, filled with smoke and oil burning. Outside, the sun was shining and we entered the studio and were suddenly in the mist…”
~ HR Giger, Cinephage magazine, 1992.

In 2012 the Swiss tabloid Blick asked HR Giger if he ever regretted not having children. “No,” he answered, “my pictures are my children.”

And what a progeny.

That Giger was one of the twentieth century’s foremost talents is no hyperbole. That he fathered a radically different and disturbing aesthetic is no exaggeration. That he influenced and will continue to influence generations of future artists needs not be prophesied. Biomechanics is HR Giger.

Of his art and interests, Giger explained that his fascination with the morbid came early, during his childhood in his hometown of Chur. “When I was about 5 years old my father got a human skull,” he explained. “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.” New friends brought new interests: “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.” 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.”

Giger’s involvement with Alien owed itself to the tenacity of its writer, Dan O’Bannon, who had met Giger in France when Alejandro Jodorowsky was attempting to make Dune in the mid 1970’s. The two Lovecraft aficionados clicked, so much so that O’Bannon went home to the United States with a head full of biomechanic creatures writhing in his grey matter that were eventually expelled onto the page as Alien. “I love geniuses, and have been privileged to work with several,” O’Bannon wrote in his essay Something Perfectly Disgusting. “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.”

O’Bannon had not only set out to write Alien with a “Giger monster” specifically in mind, but also fought the film’s producers to get Giger personally involved in the production of the film. The producers themselves, unimpressed by the notion of some “whing-ding” from Zurich working on their movie, preferred to hire someone from Hollywood; someone with other movies under their belt and reputable contacts in their phone book. Hiring an unknown European artist seemed laughable. Enter Ridley Scott, who found Giger’s Necronomicon thrust upon him by an eager O’Bannon. Scott looked through the book and was astounded. He threatened to walk if Giger was not hired. The producers acquiesced. Ridley explained that “My enthusiasm with regard to the film increased significantly as I realized we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past.” 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.

Alien’s production was a difficult experience for Giger. He struggled with changing scripts, excised concepts, the film’s designs and the producers’ demands, routine conflict with other artists and artisans and even irritation with dishonest taxi drivers – but there were internal difficulties as well as external ones: sleeplessness, fatigue, frustration, boredom, persistent nightmares and more. In May of 1978 Giger enthusiastically wrote in his diary that “I am on the Alien trip!” But subsequent journal entries revealed how fraught he was with the film’s demands: “I’m so worried about not finishing the monster on time that it’s making me sick.”

Mia Bonzanigo, described then as Giger’s “secretary-girlfriend-muse-model” by Cinefantastique, revealed Giger’s state of mind during those scorching summer and autumn months in England: “He used to have nightmares and would even talk in his sleep because of the terrible pressure imposed on him by the production,” (Giger and Mia, who can be seen in some of Alien’s behind the scenes footage, would marry after the film’s production. They later separated.) There were other problems. In July ’78 he wrote that “I like the H stage less and less. It all looks pretty shitty.” By August, before shooting had even fully commenced, he was writing that “All I want is to be back in my garden in Zurich with Mia … The work bores me.” There seemed to be more disasters in September: “The costume of [the] Alien was ruined … The four wings or tubes were broken and had to be attached with wires.”

Hard work had always been an ethic for Giger; he readily acknowledged that the life of an artist was likely to be busy and possibly largely thankless. But fame was not his aim, merely personal satisfaction with his own work and creativity. “I have worked hard,” he summarised in the 2012 interview with Blick newspaper. “Especially between 1972-1992 when I painted my large-scale airbrush paintings. Sometimes when I am a little depressed, I flip through my work catalogs and see what I’ve done. It gives me enormous satisfaction.” As for those troublesome days on the set of Alien, where “Everything is wet and full of slime and oil,” gratification was not far beyond the toil: “At least,” he assented in his journal, “there’s one satisfaction. It will be a good film.”

Death did not trouble Giger. “I’ll never count the friends who come to my grave,” he told Blick. “I myself never go to funerals, because they just depress me … I think that everything ends with death. I think, unlike Carmen, not even in rebirth. The idea that anything goes on or that I even want to come back to this world is terrible.” Above all, family and friends aside, it was the legacy of his work that concerned him. “I do not want to live again. Once is enough. It’s also all so terribly exhausting. But, even if I’m gone, my art lives on. I’m glad, and I hope that it finds recognition in future generations.”

The Giger circle has been kind to Strange Shapes and myself. No consolation can truly dull the pain of their loss, but we offer them anyway. Our condolences go to Carmen, his wife of eight years, his friend and agent Les Barany, and the many close associates and assistants that gathered around, helped and contributed to the last years of Mr. Giger’s extraordinary life.

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