By Melissa Houghton
In space no one can hear you scream.
I remember the first word I could spell, my first summer job and attending my first summer movie blockbuster and its tagline.
My first summer job was working at Kitty Kelly Shoes on Park Avenue South in Manhattan. At Kitty Kelly, I was assigned to record the previous days’ sales figures; do reception relief at a switchboard (the switchboard had these dangling cords you had to plug into jacks to accept calls); and from time to time, I was asked to help out back in the warehouse. I stuffed tissue paper into sneaker-shaped canvas duffle bags that came in a rainbow of colours. Man, the zippers on the bags really hurt my hands while stuffing them – but making three dollars an hour was worth it! Big money if you lived at home.
It was an uneventful summer at Kitty Kelly, except auspicious that I befriended the office bookkeeper, who invited me to see this movie, ALIEN. I don’t know that I loved sci-fi yet, but this film is the root of my passion for the genre to this day. My friend suggesting that we go to see this movie people were talking about piqued my interest. We were two buddies going out to a movie – and as it turned out, we watched a film that takes you to another world in the deepest part in space, where the hero faces a pure monster, is set in a place where no one can hear the characters scream, and the hero manages to save the cat.
ALIEN, a sci-fi/horror film, was directed by Ridley Scott and premiered in North America on May 25, 1979. Since its debut 40 years ago, ALIEN spawned sequels, prequels, a documentary, graphic novels, a 2019 high school stage play in New Jersey, a video game, action figures, and ALIEN vs Predator xenomorph rivalries. I ask myself, what is the secret to its longevity and cult classic status?
What’s the Story?
Warning: not many but a few making of spoiler alerts. Xenomorph and Alien will be interchanged to mix it up. I will use upper case “A” from time to time as a proper naming convention, technically I see the Alien as the protagonist.
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The script originated from a story conceived by Dan O’Bannon and Roger Shusett. O’Bannon was the screenwriter and he follows textbook screenwriting elements, with tension building at precise plot points and concludes with the hero saving the cat. It falls under the genre coined by Blake Snyder as “Monster in the House”. Monster in the House is comprised of three elements:
A “monster” with some sort of supernatural power or evil at its core (the Alien); a “house” is an enclosed space or the world (the commercial towing spaceship The Nostromo); and a “sin” someone is guilty of bringing the monster in the house (Ash).
Logline: In the distant future, in deep space, on their way back to Earth, the crew of The Nostromo are intercepted during cryo-sleep by a distress signal. They are awoken by Mother to answer the call. The crew are hunted by an unknown and deadly organism they pick up to return to the Company. My logline not the screenwriter’s.
The cat = humanity
The Alien could be metaphor for humanity’s self-annihilation caused by [fill in the blank]
The Company, Weyland-Yutani, is evil and greedy = return the organism for bio-research at all costs; the crew is expendable- big business is all about profit
Behind the Scenes of ALIEN
There are many aspects how the film was made that still captures my interest and imagination. The sets built to life-size scale, and evolution of the Alien was part puppeteering, costuming, make-up and simple special effects. That is also a factor why the xenomorph had to be visually interesting to be convincing and frightening, all to stay on budget and please the studio heads at Fox. All of this contributed to the screenplay and how far the team could go with the visual effects. The monster was conceived and designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who fashioned the look of the Alien, based on one of his artworks entitled Necronom IV, created several years before the film. The image of the Alien has a very sensual look and one could say is also phallic in its design. Giger was a fascinating artist and I encourage you to read more about him, his artistic influences and vision, the latter both literal and figurative.
Never Reveal the Monster too Soon
The monster was kept hidden until late in the film due to narrative and budgetary reasons. It is very evocative that the Alien/protagonist is not seen by the audience too soon; which adds to wanting to catch a glimpse of it and know what is in the shadows and seemingly indestructible. If you have seen the film, don’t you wish if only the cat (Jonesy) could talk? The screams we hear and the shot of Jonesy watching what’s happening is chilling. There is also something to be said for the psychological terror keeping the Alien concealed does for the effective use of suspense. If the characters can’t see it, how can they fight it? Remember, the crew did not have any weapons and needed to resort to tactical methods to try to trap it, contain it and ultimately as it is indestructible, well, I won’t spoil it for you.
Stepping back, special effects were still very crude in the 70s without the benefit of computer-generated-images (CGI). Still, ALIEN, was made by today’s standards on an indie budget of an estimated US$11MM and earned roughly US$240MM at the box office.
Scott did a casting search across the United States to find just the right actors for each role. He wasn’t interested in big name stars because he felt the science fiction aspect, was the star. He exhausted the producers in his search; with Harry Dean Stanton (Brett) being the first actor cast for the film. Tom Skerritt (Dallas), wasn’t that interested to be part of it until he heard Scott was directing. Skerritt was a big fan of Scott’s first feature The Duellists. Veronica Cartwright was supposed to play Ripley, however due to a scheduling conflict, by the time she arrived on set, Cartwright was told she would be playing Lambert instead. There is a small cast of seven, all on a last name basis in the film: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lieutenant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt, 1940 – 2017), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017), and Ash (Ian Holm); with my honourable mentions: voice of mother (Helen Horton, 1923-2007) and Jones (cat). Let us not forget one deadly protagonist, the Alien (Nigerian born, Bolaji Badejo). ALIEN was Badejo’s only film, sadly, he died of a blood disorder at the age of 39.
I encourage you to watch the film and hope you have the same response as many cinephiles do, as to its longevity and flawless execution; and agree it deserves its status on the pedestal of cult classics.
More than Trivia:
ALIEN is the screenplay Dan O’Bannon (1946 – 2009) is best known for. In an interview, O’Bannon stated he wrote primarily with the end audience in mind, but Fox was also coming off the huge success of Star Wars, and the studio wanted to follow up with a similar space-theme movie. O’Bannon’s script was there on the executive’s desk and the rest is history.
A quote from O’Bannon: “The only disposable people on a film is the director.”
Derek Vanlint (1932 – 2010) the Cinematographer, was born in London and was Canadian-British. Vanlint also worked in advertising in Toronto, Ontario and answered a call the producers put out, looking for a cinematographer for the movie. Vanlint also worked on X-Men and Spreading Ground in 2000.
The chest burst scene was completed in essentially one take. The actors were told a puppet would be used to introduce the baby Alien which looks like a strange parasite. They did not know what it would look like, other than Hurt, or exactly how it would be filmed in the scene. The animatronic did not deploy correctly the first-time during filming, but still not revealed until the effects crew made an adjustment. Veronica Cartwright explains in the documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019, Sundance Film Festival and Hot Docs) that the second time they tried it, there was so much fake blood that she slipped during filming. Her character’s fall was kept in the final cut.
The summer blockbuster was born on June 20, 1975, when the release of Jaws opened nationwide. Jaws producer David Brown admitted “The release of the film was deliberately delayed ‘til people were in the water off the summer beach resorts.”
ALIEN sequels and prequels: ALIENS (1986), ALIEN 3 (1992), ALIEN Resurrection (1997), Prometheus (2012), ALIEN Covenant (2017). Besides ALIEN, Ridley Scott also directed Prometheus and ALIEN Covenant.
Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for playing Ellen Ripley in sequel ALIENS (1986).
Ripley Scott got started in the industry at the BBC, and at 27 launched his own commercial production company which very quickly became an international success. Scott is responsible for the brilliant commercial released by Apple “1984” for the release of its Macintosh computer.
Scott was not a fan of sci-fi but established a high benchmark in the space with his direction of ALIEN. He was not really interested in the science-fiction genre at all until the opportunity came to him out of the blue. Once he read the script, he bolted to the studio to commit to direct.
With Scott’s background in art direction, he said he knew exactly what to do to achieve the look and feel of the movie, along with the visionary artist H.R. Giger’s brilliant Alien xenomorph and a stellar cast.
Scott’s filmography cuts across a wide range of themes: Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, American Gangster, Gladiator, Body of Lies, Legend, Blackhawk Down, Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, 1492, Someone to Watch Over Me, Matchstick Men, A Good Year, Prometheus. Scott has a fondness for Africa and four of his movies were shot there or had principle scenes shot on the continent.
Scott is a strong storyboard artist and uses the tools he learned in art school. He uses storyboarding to plan out all the design on his films; to arrive at how it looks before getting to set design: he sketches out what is the landscape, what the characters should look like and what they wear, thus helping to create the mood. Visual direction is considered one of his biggest strengths and Scott enjoys the digital effects that are now available considering the tough work to design the set for ALIEN.
Scott developed his own style in dealing with actors and prefers to partner with them than to over-direct them.
Scott storyboarded ALIEN in the U.K. in three weeks and went back to Hollywood to do the picture. He still has the boards. Scott said the budget had jumped from US $4MM to US $8MM by the time he returned with the visual mapping for the movie.
The studio was not onside with the choice of Giger who they felt was too extreme. Scott had to persuade H.R. Giger to do the movie by flying to Switzerland to meet him.
John Hurt appeared in the film version Nineteen Eighty-Four (also known as 1984); released on October 10, 1984 based on the novel written by George Orwell.
If you’re still wondering, that first word: Vaseline.
Childhood memories of sitting with hushed audiences in dark theatres – before, during and sometimes after a shocking conclusion, shaped Melissa’s love of movies. Her passion for film spans many genres and go-to’s are Indies, Sci-fi and Costume dramas. An image of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Ladyexplains her life-long love of hats. Melissa works in marketing by day. She feels the arts saved her life and is a devoted year-round and festival volunteer for several arts and cultural organizations. She’s been a Toronto International Film Festival volunteer since 2003. Melissa recently fulfilled a wish to join the Sundance Film Festival volunteer roster and has a desire to meet Robert Redford. Melissa will be returning to Sundance for her fifth straight year in 2019. During this Sundance working-vacation, Melissa volunteers on the Artist Relations Box Office team as Box Office Associate. Melissa’s desert island picks are Alien, The Godfather, The Witches of Eastwick, Little Miss Sunshine and My Fair Lady. Melissa’s focus will be independent films. By the way, she has not met Robert Redford, yet.