About a decade or so back, I did a lengthy interview with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon about the film he would always be best known for: Alien. Alien first came together from several scripts O’Bannon came up with. One was called Omnivore, a sci-fi horror story about creatures that emerge from a million year life-cycle during an ecological dig. Then he wrote Star Beast, which later morphed into Alien.
Alien was an amazing combination of incredible elements. H.R. Giger’s creature designs, a great ensemble cast toplined by Sigourney Weaver, and director Ridley Scott. Scott was at that point a relative newcomer, taking on a genre he wasn’t initially a fan of, and ended up creating a masterpiece that reinvented science fiction. O’Bannon’s script was the foundation, the germ from which it all grew.
The real origins of Alien can go all the way back to Dark Star, a student film John Carpenter made at USC which eventually turned into his first theatrical feature. Dark Star was a sci-fi comedy that was somewhat like a psychedelic goof on 2001, and the space crew of the film needed an alien mascot.
First crucial step when striving for better in movies: Poverty. “We had to pull the monster off on no budget,” O’Bannon recalled. “And I was just stymied to come up with a space monster that looked half-way decent.”
At first they rented a rubber suit from a movie house, but it looked so terrible they scrapped the footage and decided to start all over again. When O’Bannon realized they couldn’t get a credible looking monster, he decided to give whatever creature they were going to use a lot of personality and have as much fun with it as they could. Then one day director Jonathan Kaplan came walking onto the set carrying a beach ball with a toilet plunger attached on each side. Everyone on the sound stage broke into hysterical laughter at the sight of this thing, but O’Bannon had a brainstorm.
“That’s it!,” he said. “Get me a great big beach ball, and get me some of those rubber Creature From the Black Lagoon hands from Hollywood Magic Shop. Paint the hands like chicken feet, paint the beach ball up in some silly organic pattern, and we’ll make it a real pest, jumping and squeaking. It’ll immediately make you look past its deficiencies to watch what’s fun about it.”
Although it solved a major problem on the film, O’Bannon later said, “I was never thrilled with it,” and the experience left him wanting to create a frighteningly real alien one day. “It was that beach ball that made me want to do Alien so badly.” (One of the great ironies of this is Ridley Scott was no big fan of sci-fi before agreeing to make Alien, but one of his favorite films in the genre was Dark Star.)
Getting back to poverty, before O’Bannon had his big career breakthrough, he was broke and living with Ron Shusett (Shusett would also contribute to the Alien screenplay). “I knew I had to write something to get off of Ronnie’s sofa,” O’Bannon says. “I had gotten good responses the previous year from another sci-fi / horror script I had written called Omnivore. The studios liked it, but they didn’t know how to do the special effects. So I thought on Alien I could do something with a similar feel and quality to it, but make it very clear that the special effects were very manageable by ‘70’s standards, which were of course pretty primitive at the time.”
Writing Omnivore proved very valuable to the development of Alien, and trying to keep the story within budget limitations helped shape the screenplay. “I wanted it to be really obvious to studio executives in 1976 that that the monster was not going to be cripplingly difficult to pull off,” he continues. “I wanted to write it so most of it was clearly a man in a suit, I described it as a tall humanoid, and I limited it to one because Omnivore had dozens of these complex creatures. But it had different parts to its life cycles. I modeled it after microscopic parasites that move from one animal to the next and have complex life cycles. I just enlarged a parasite. I was interested in the biology of aliens, so I wasn’t interested in streamlining the thing below interest level just for the sake of economy.”
A lot of filmmakers get extensive illustrations and storyboards made before pitching a movie, so the executives can get a better idea of the movie. O’Bannon had a hell of an ace in the hole by bringing aboard incredible and uber-frightening Swiss artist H.R. Giger to design the monster to help sell Alien.
“I was struck by the originality of Giger’s paintings,” O’Bannon told me. “Not only were they frightening works, but they were absolutely, utterly original and beautifully executed. Looking at them I thought, If somebody could get this guy to design a monster for a movie, it would be something no one’s ever seen before. So I went in knowing that I had the cherry on top with the visualization of the thing.”
Fox greenlit Alien after the success of Star Wars because they wanted another sci-fi hit.
Next step to creating a great horror classic: Timing. O’Bannon says Alien got the green light from Fox because of the success of Star Wars. “They found themselves off balance because they hadn’t expected it to be a humongous success, and suddenly they wanted to follow through very rapidly (with another movie). The only thing that resembled that was my script. It was a spaceship movie and it was lying on Alan Ladd Jr.’s desk.” (Alan Ladd Jr. was the former head of Fox who green-lit Star Wars.)
Writing in a low budget mindset, and also drawing from classics like The Thing, Alien kept the fully developed monster hidden until late in the film, which O’Bannon did for both narrative and budgetary reasons. “There are many good reasons for doing that, just as a simple dramatic principle of writing something scary, the unknown is the most frightening thing, and you want to make the audience squint, stare and try and catch glimpses of the thing in the shadows. So underexposure is always more effective than overexposure when you’re trying to scare people. And on top of that, the less you saw of the damn thing, the less trouble it was to do!”
Alien was one of the first examples, along with Jaws, of a B-movie done the A way. “Alien was meant to be low budget, but it was not meant to be a toss-off or something amateurish looking by any means,” O’Bannon explained. “The intent was always obsessively serious on my part to make an outstanding movie. As far as I was concerned the distinctions between A and B-movies had collapsed long before I was thinking about Alien, they had been crumbling for some time. The fact that it was technically a B picture didn’t worry me at all, as long as it got an A execution.
“I had grown up on certain classic science fiction horror movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, and they still hold up rather well all things told. I wanted to do something in that vein, but the time was right that things could be done that hadn’t be done before, either for technical reasons or because people’s ideas hadn’t evolved far enough to put them together this way.”
Two B-movies that film buffs point to that contain remarkable similarities to Alien are Planet of the Vampires, directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, and the late ‘50’s drive-in monster flick, It! The Terror From Beyond Space. “I was aware of Planet of the Vampires, I don’t think I had seen it all the way through,” O’Bannon said. “I had seen clips from it and it struck me as evocative. It had the curious mixture that you get in these Italian films of spectacularly good production design with an aggressively low budget mentality,” which you could say Alien followed as well.
“As soon as anybody finds a single source that they recognize, they immediately assume that the picture is a variant of that source,” O’Bannon continues. “They have found the source of Alien! I thought about Forbidden Planet a lot more than I thought about It! The Terror From Beyond Space. My mind was a big basket full of every science fiction story and movie that had been written in the last forty years, so the imagery was simply there for selecting, I didn’t have to limit myself to plagiarizing a single source.”
The story’s pacing, which most studios would consider too slow by today’s standards, also worked to the film’s advantage. “That’s where you get all your mileage, is out of the slow scenes where nothing is happening, but what some filmmakers don’t seem to grasp is that you have to earn the emotional state before you drag the audience through those lulls.
"I had imagined it unfolding more rapidly, but I also believed in taking your first act to set up your situation and not firing off all of your guns in it."
“I didn’t write 'play it slow', which is what Ridley did! He played it slow and he was damn lucky that slow worked so well for that kind of material. It could be deadly, but in this case it worked fine. I had imagined it unfolding more rapidly, but I also believed in taking your first act to set up your situation and not firing off all of your guns in it, because that doesn’t leave you anywhere to go in the second half. The conditions we have today is those kind of attention spans don’t exist anymore. Films today are actually seen as fragments, intermixed with pieces of video games and God knows what else. People just hit the button and go to the next channel.”
Alien also had several happy accidents that made the movie a classic. In the case of the chest burster scene, surprisingly O’Bannon didn’t think it was going to be the pivotal shock moment in the film.
“I thought, Well we outta do something in here, something fairly early that is excessive. Something over the line. Something so awful that you just shouldn’t do it. I’ll just do it once, and I’ll do it early enough that most of the picture still has yet to play. Then after that all you have to do is make sure there’s a lot of dark shadows in the corridors as you’re walking around so you can’t see anything. You can stretch those scenes out until the audience’s teeth will shatter into nothing waiting for the unpredictable moment where the next dreadful, unacceptably thing is hurled at you.
“I lucked out on that scene,” O’Bannon continued. “When I started handing the script around and people’s reactions began to come back, their attention seemed to focus in on that scene. Before the picture was even made, people started to tell me, ‘That’s your Psycho shower scene.’”
The next happy accident was casting a woman as the hero and the lone survivor. One of the legends of Alien is that the character of Ripley was originally written a man, and was changed to a woman. Yet as O’Bannon informed me, “Everyone’s gender in the script was deliberately left up in the air. I figured that the gender of each character would be determined at the time they were cast, and I wrote that into the first script, it’s right there on the last page.”
Originally John Travolta was considered to play Ripley, then out of nowhere, “they came up with this Sigourney Weaver gal. They actually did a screen test with her, and everybody was favorably impressed.”
"My conception from scratch was that this would be a co-ed crew. I thought there was no reason you had to adhere to the convention of the all-male crew anymore."
Women didn’t lead big action films for many years, and Alien is now considered a big milestone film for actresses, but O’Bannon said, “I don’t see it as that revolutionary to cast a female as the lead in an action picture. It didn’t boggle me then, and it doesn’t boggle me now. My conception from scratch was that this would be a co-ed crew. I thought there was no reason you had to adhere to the convention of the all-male crew anymore. Plus it was in 1976 that I was writing the thing, and it just seemed like an obvious thing to do. I mean Star Trek had women on for years.”
For superstitious reasons, Fox released Alien on the same month and day as Star Wars, May 25, now a sacred tent-pole date studios fight for years in advance, and it was a superstition that paid off in spades. Alien was a huge hit at the box-office, it enjoyed great reviews, and it was also a big seller on video at the dawn of the VCR boom.
As Ridley Scott told Premiere, when he looked back on the movie twenty years later he thought, “Boy, we got everything right. Sometimes when you look back on a film you’ve made,t he seams stick out like crazy, but here they just don’t show.”
Before he passed away in 2009, O’Bannon was writing a book on screenwriting that was finally published last year by one of his students, Matt Lohr. Lohr learned a lot about storytelling from O’Bannon, and Alien was one of those films that helped elevate sci-fi and horror to a new level.
Lohr says, “Dan never let anyone regard him as ‘just’ a science fiction writer, or “just” a guy who wrote horror films. Because to Dan, they weren’t “just” anything, they were essential story experiences. You could be writing a low budget creature feature that’s going out on Redbox before it hits any theater, but it’s your obligation to yourself as a writer, you owe it to yourself and to your audience, to write the best $15,000 Redbox creature feature you can every time out.
“I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning Avatar came out,” Lohr continues. “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.”