You think you know all about Ridley Scott's Alien? There are still plenty of dark corners in the backstory of the movie that helped birth (so to speak) the genre of space horror. A new book, Alien Vault, is chock full of amazing art and totally weird Alien facts.
Writer Ian Nathan has interviewed everybody associated with the film — or in some cases, assembled old interviews with people who are now dead — and created a compelling look at how this fairly low budget production managed to achieve so much. It's striking, after reading the book and looking at all the images, just how many weird minds were brought together in this one production — including almost all of the great concept artists and designers of the 1970s. You'll also come away from the book with a new appreciation for just how much of a miracle it was that Alien even got made, and avoided being hokey.
To give you a flavor, here are some of the crazy things we learned about Ridley Scott's masterpiece from Alien Vault: The Definitive Story of the Making of the Film.
We owe Alien to the failure of Jodorowsky's Dune. Writer Dan O'Bannon was hired to design special effects on Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarre adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, which would have featured Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali among others. When Jodorowsky's Dune fell through, O'Bannon was so shattered he had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in a mental institution. When he returned to Hollywood, penniless, he had nothing to do but finish co-writing a half-finished screenplay about an alien loose on a spaceship.
Roger Corman almost made Alien. Corman, who was in his heyday with films like Battle Beyond the Stars, was excited by O'Bannon and Ron Shusett's screenplay, originally called Gremlins and now renamed Starbeast. Corman's version would have been much different — for one thing, O'Bannon and Shusett's version of the script was much more Lovecraftian and the dialogue was much less deadpan and matter-of-fact. All of the characters were male and one-dimensional, with names like Cleave Hunter and Chaz Standard. Plus Corman would have made it for a few pennies — but after Star Wars hit big, suddenly studios were willing to spend real money on space films.
There's an actual blueprint of the Nostromo, as well as a detailed schematic. If you've ever wanted to understand the geography of that claustrophobic ship, these ultra-detailed drawings will be a huge help. You also get to see Ron Cobb's early Nostromo sketches, which are all about function — he remarks that he always designs spaceships as if they were absolutely real, "right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever." There are also Chris Foss's more fanciful Nostromo drawings. (And apparently in the original screenplay, this ship was called the Snark, in a wry Lewis Carroll reference.)
The Nostromo was a self-contained set. Long before Duncan Jones sealed himself and his film crew inside the moonbase in Moon, and Joss Whedon built the Serenity as one complete set, Ridley Scott had a spaceship set that you couldn't get out of except by walking all the way through it. The actors felt trapped inside the set, adding to the film's realism. And with time and money running out, Scott didn't have time to light a lot of the scenes — he just adjusted the ambient lighting in the corridors and kept going. But budgetary constraints meant that production designer Michael Seymour had to abandon his plans to build a single complete Nostromo set, three storeys high, so that actors would have to climb down companionways from one level to another.
The Who's Roger Daltrey gave us the weird light show when the facehuggers are awoken. Remember that carckle of electric blue light when the Nostromo crew disturbs the resting place of the facehuggers? It's thanks to Roger Daltrey — the singer and his crew were in a villa next to Shepperton Studios, experimenting with laser beams for their next tour, and they let Ridley Scott borrow their gear.
Yaphet Kotto was so dedicated to improv, he thought he could change the movie's ending. Every day the actor would greet the harried Ridley Scott with a giant list of ideas about how they could improve his scenes. And on the day that his character, Parker, was supposed to die, Kotto chased after Scott, shouting, "I am not going to die! I am going to beat that alien." So Scott had the Alien (Eddie Powell) warn him which entrance Kotto was hiding at, so Scott's cameras (and the Alien) could catch him by surprise.
Sigourney Weaver wore thigh-high hooker boots to her audition. Even she doesn't quite remember why she was wearing those. She couldn't have looked less like Ripley, but at least they made her look tall and imposing.
It's a myth that the ten-minute self-destruct countdown unfolds in real-time. People often claim that those 10 minutes last exactly 10 minutes on screen — but they don't. Critic Roz Kaveney timed it, and found that the first two minutes take only 20 seconds, while the second two minutes take 30 seconds. The first nine minutes take about six minutes, and then you're in real time for the final minute.
All in all, Alien Vault is a must-read book for anybody interested in science fiction movies — and if you want to delve into Alien lore ahead of Scott's Prometheus, it's especially important. The awesome reproductions of storyboards, concept art and early sketches give you insight into at least five great visual artists: H.R. Giger, Moebius, Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, and Scott himself.
This is a gorgeous art book as well as an essential source of information — if anything, it's almost too beautiful, because you want to keep thumbing through it for more weird facts, but you don't want to risk ruining such a lovely book. The thing comes in a fancy cardboard slipcase, and here and there are little translucent envelopes containing huge, folded up glossy reproductions of Alien storyboards or concept art. It's kind of unwieldy, but absolutely lovely. If you're rich, you'd almost want to buy two copies.