Tag Archives: Ron Shusett

Crew Logs: Dan O’Bannon

12309454_1015835938454642_2022567481_n - Copy

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.

10350993_760249744040804_6895391671200624282_n

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.

thelongtomorrow1

“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.”

11951837_10207482964817160_2369344507371293053_n

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.”

efg

“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

10 Comments

Filed under Alien

Interview with Dan O’Bannon

This interview, conducted by Dennis Fischer, is reproduced here as printed in Monsterland Magazine’s The Aliens Story (1988) by James Van Hise.

How did Dark Star come to be?

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

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

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

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

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

Was Star Wars the next film you worked on?

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

Then a year after the first phone call, Kurtz called me again and said, ‘Well, Star Wars is just about finished, but we still need some people to do special effects work, to do clean-up. Are you interested?’ Since that time I was absolutely flat-broke, I was very interested. So I went to work on Star Wars for a few months doing computer graphics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan O'Bannon with Ron Shusett.

Dan with Ron Shusett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did they film your original script without too many changes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

alien_dan_obannon2

2 Comments

Filed under Alien

Writing Alien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though Dune would never be made under Jodorowsky, it prove to be the most critical preliminary stage of Alien’s development. During this period O’Bannon was introduced to artists Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger. Giger and O’Bannon, two Lovecraft fans, became friends throughout the project, and at one point later in their careers, O’Bannon and Giger were even considering an adaption of Lovecraft’s work“Dan O’Bannon, with whom I’m still regularly in touch,” Giger told Cinefantastique in 1988, “keeps telling me he would like to do Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space with me as soon as he’s able to raise the necessary funds. That could be interesting because he’s definitely one of the greatest Lovecraft experts around.”

Dan and Giger at work on Alien.

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

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

“I love geniuses  and have been privileged to work with several. One was HR Giger; I met him in Paris and he gave me a book of his artwork. I pored over it through one long night in my room on the Left Bank. His visionary paintings and sculptures stunned me with their originality, and aroused in me deep, disturbing thoughts, deep feelings of terror. They started an idea turning over in my head. This guy should design a monster movie. Nobody had ever seen anything like this on the screen.”
~ Dan O’Bannon, Something Perfectly Disgusting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Bannon revealed that before the film went into production David Giler “left for mysterious reasons” and apparently having left script rewrites unfinished. “And finally at the last minute, I saw that everyone, including Ridley, was so fed up with Giler and Hill’s failure to make any of the promised revisions that they said they were gonna make, that a little sliver of opportunity was created. I was standing there, I said, ‘You know, I’ll fix it if you’ll let me.'”

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

“There were two weeks of frantic mutual work between all of us,” O’Bannon continued, “trying to put the script into a shape that they liked. By the time we got done, it was maybe 80% of the what the original draft was. What we got on the screen was actually very close to the original draft.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUNTER: But this thing uses it for blood.

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

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

BRETT: This thing uses it for blood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Cobb also spoke of Dan’s last-minute difficulties with turning Giler and Hill’s constant revisions into a tighter and more tonally consistent film. “I think that the real problems were in Dan’s sphere,” he said in 1979, “because of what they did with the rewriting. It’s terrible, sloppy revisions, some of them pointless. It was very difficult for Dan to tighten the thing back up to keep it consistent and have it make sense.”

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

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

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

5 Comments

Filed under Alien