The new book Alien Vault gives you a terrific insight into the insane amount of craftsmanship — and the craftsmanlike touches of insanity — that went into Ridley Scott's Alien. Ian Nathan's new book is a ridiculously comprehensive and beautifully assembled tribute to one of science fiction's all-time great movies. And nowhere is it more impressive than in delving into the creative process of H.R. Giger.
Here are two exclusive excerpts from Alien Vault — one dealing with the preparation of the "chestburster" scene, and the other explaining how Giger's contributions helped make Alien into the ultimate psychosexual trip. The other day, we told you a bit about Alien Vault, but now here's your chance to see some of the book for yourself...
THE CREW OF THE NOSTROMO IS IN GOOD SPIRITS. They talk of getting home, joke even, relieved their problems are behind them. The dinner table (not breakfast-they are on their way to bed) is a battlefield of discarded food, amongst which a toy bird nods along with their banter. Even Ash, the reclusive science officer, joins in. Floating here near the Outer Rim, they can leave that cold planet and its desolate spacecraft. They can forget about that thing that had been fixed to Kane's face. Between mouthfuls of spaghetti, even he offers a smile…
We notice first: Kane starting to cough, retch, and convulse. He clutches at his chest. Then his upper ribcage ruptures, his white T-shirt instantly crimson. His cries stretch beyond agony, they hint at invasion.
The actors had known no more than a stage direction. A simple description of the scene due to be shot on this chilly, autumnal morning in a sleepy London suburb: ‘The creature exits out of Kane's chest.'
A few days earlier, Veronica Cartright - the film's jumpy navigator, Lambert - had taken up an invitation to visit the creature shop, where a group of British craftsmen who worshipped Ridley Scott were conceiving hideous alien life. A team led by the hugely talented and equally temperamental Roger Dicken. They had shown her variations on a strange little creature about the size of a whisky bottle with piranha-like teeth that glinted like metal. She left perturbed, yet still unaware.
The call this morning had been for 8 a.m., but John Hurt - the actor portraying Kane - had arrived at Shepperton Studios hours earlier for his ‘fitting.' With a compressed-air valve fastened to his chest beneath an unseemly number of blood ‘caps,' Hurt was, by default, in on the plan. Meanwhile director Scott paced to and fro, running a hand through his ginger hair. In his head, he could see it, feel it almost. This was the moment. He had kept the rest of his cast in the dark, to capture real terror on their faces, because, above all, Scott was determined to ‘stop the scene coming out hokey.'
‘If the actor is just acting terrified,' he notes, ‘you can't get the genuine look.'
He had other tricks to fine-tune their reactions. In fact, the truck had just returned from the local abattoir with its delivery of freshly steamed offal: cow, sheep, and pig intestines in general, plus a few parcels that defied categorization. That made him smile. ‘The damn thing [arrived] in a carrier bag,' he laughs-an inauspicious way for your movie's star to travel.
Meanwhile, in one of the studio's warren of antechambers, the cast was beginning to pace. The delay was running to hours. Mugs of tea were cold, sandwiches limp; the leaden light of the room now the pallor of a prison cell. Sigourney Weaver, taking her first major film role as stubborn, resourceful warrant officer Ripley, was doing most of the pacing, anxious to know what was going on. Yaphet Kotto, magnificent as crabby loudmouth Parker, the ship's engineer, was talking to anyone who would listen. It wasn't clear if anyone was. Ian Holm, the very model of English perspicacity, was staying chipper; Ash, the Nostromo's icy-calm science officer, was requiring the full quota of his considerable talents. Cartright looked disconsolate, but she may have been in character. And Tom Skerritt, the actor designated to be the team's embattled leader Dallas, only stared into the distance. It was as if he knew something they didn't.
Outside in the corridor, Harry Dean Stanton - Brett, Parker's engineering second - strummed mournfully on his guitar. Truth be told, he felt more at ease singing and songwriting than he did acting. Especially this weird science fiction stuff. Stationed where he was, Stanton must have been the first to spot the harried assistant coming to fetch them. Mr. Scott was at last ready.
They arrived on a familiar set, the Nostromo's mess, softly illuminated by Scott's signature low-key lighting: its worn lines and artful clutter, the central dining table, the nodding toy bird, all glinted solemnly like a church. But it wasn't the lighting that struck them - it was the smell. ‘Oh God, the smell,' groans Weaver, thrust back into the moment, ‘it was just awful.' A jolt of formaldehyde mixed with something nasty, literally, cooking beneath the lights.
Ever alert, Weaver scanned the room. The film crew was garbed in protective white smocks, ‘like an operating theatre.' Strategically distant from the intense bustle of technicians, writers-turned-visual design consultants Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett were giggling like schoolboys waiting for their finest prank to explode. Explode into cinema history.
‘We wanted to do something so outrageous that no one would know it was coming,' is how Scott sums up the signature refrain in his symphony of uncompromising horror and, yes, beauty. ‘We wanted it to hit the audience like a wave.'
And so, with cameras rolling, he hit his cast with a blitzkrieg of stage blood and, care of the lights, semicooked entrails.
‘We were pumping something in the range of six gallons of blood on each take,' says art director Roger Christian. ‘It literally went all over the set.' One jet of blood, three feet long, caught Cartright ‘right in the kisser,' as O'Bannon graphically put it.
The B-roll still exists: the actress reels away temporarily blinded, her face squeezed in abject distress, before toppling backwards over a banquet. The myth has her out cold. ‘It was totally a visceral thing,' says Cartright. ‘I didn't have to do anything.'
All Weaver could do was watch Hurt's agonizing death rattle. ‘I wasn't even thinking we were making a movie.'
No villain had ever made an entrance like this. Even when we know it's coming, we lean back, preparing ourselves for impact. Yet no one is really prepared for the chestburster.
H.R. GIGER GREW UP IN VERY DARK ROOMS HAVING VERY DARK DREAMS. There were few windows to let light into the house where he was born in Chur, Graubünden Canton, Switzerland in 1940. ‘Later, you prefer that,' he says of his shadowy childhood. ‘It prints you.' As night closed in, he was tormented by those same nightmares again and again. Only if he committed these phantom visions to paper did he gain any respite. He describes his art as ‘self-psychiatry.'
There was one dream, recorded in 1970, typically twisted and claustrophobic, where he found himself trapped in a Zurich bathroom. The toilet bowl yawned at him. The fixtures shuddered. The pipes turned into skin, pestilent with festering wounds. Unknown creatures glared at him through cracks in the walls. As he turned to flee, he awoke. He began to draw, and finally to paint. Biomechanics was born.
Giger has always defended biomechanics as not simply downloaded psychotrauma. ‘Sometimes people only see horrible, terrible things in my paintings,' he asserts. ‘I tell them to look again, and they may see two elements in my paintings — the horrible things and the nice things. I like elegance. I like art nouveau; a stretched line or curve. These things are very much in the foreground of my work.'
He was nicknamed Count Dracula by the droll grips and sparks of Shepperton. They had a point: no matter how hot those soundstages got, Giger would be dressed head-to-toe in black leather, hair slicked back, eyes blazing with secret intensity. He reminded John Hurt of Harold Pinter.
As it so happened, Giger was an avid reader of novelist H.P. Lovecraft, the granddaddy of cosmic gothic-appropriating his double-initialed form of address and the title Necronomicon for a collection of his own. Of course, he admired Edgar Allan Poe too.
The late Timothy Leary, Giger's friend and legendary counterculture psychologist, placed him alongside such surrealist shamans as William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, Ernst Fuchs, and Salvador Dali. ‘Those who rank high above the migrating columns of humans,' he sang, adding that Giger's work possessed ‘the moist-squirming egg-sperm message of evolution.' Who could be more perfect for Alien?
Let us not forget that Giger predates Ridley Scott on the film. Well before Fox had given Brandywine the green-light, O'Bannon had sought out the eccentric talent he had encountered on Dune to visualize the eggs and the facehugger. Heedless of time differences, he called Giger in Switzerland. ‘He speaks very slowly, so that in spite of my poor English I can understand the important things in store for me,' reads Giger's July 1977 diary entry. ‘I am extremely excited to see what happens next.'
O'Bannon followed the call with a personal check made out to Giger for one thousand dollars and a letter outlining the alien's life cycle. It talks of the interior of a temple belonging to an ‘ancient, primitive and cruel culture' whose floor was littered with ‘spore pods' (the eggs). This ‘List of Elements' confirms how much of the film's dread biology was of O'Bannon's making. He mentions first, second, and third phases of the alien's life. At the end of the second phase, ‘a small creature bites its way out of the victim's body.'
Inspired, Giger began sketching internal studies of the egg and expelled facehuggers like giant shrimp with penile protuberances as long as hosepipes. He made transparencies of his creations and sent them off to O'Bannon. Then he waited. And waited.
A man of fierce passions, Giger would never be at home in the realm of filmmaking. Throughout his tenure on Alien, he squabbled with Fox over money, fumed over abandoned designs, and even left and returned to the project. (In April 1978, he stood his ground in a contract dispute with Fox, and was paid off by the studio, and seemingly off the project. But by May it became clear that his work was indispensable to the film and he was rehired.) Giger never shied away from making his feelings felt. This chance to see his fantasies in three dimensions both frustrated and delighted him. Only when he saw the finished film was he mollified, and in his diary asked for forgiveness of his fellow workers ‘for his outbreaks of rage.'
‘It's the realism that makes Giger's work so strong, not the fantasy,' says Scott. Having studied industrial design at Zurich's School of Commercial Art, including strands in engineering, Giger's art is invested with structural precision. ‘He was very straight,' Scott goes on, ‘almost an artist-engineer. To do those paintings you've almost got to be an engineer as well.'
Biomechanics fused the impossible into a savage logic: metal and flesh, sex and death, hypnotic beauty and violation; its cool, corpse-silver colors pre-empting Scott's industrial-tech aesthetic. The artist's contribution to the film is definitive-he brought the alien to Alien.
But when O'Bannon first revealed Giger's paintings to Gordon Carroll, the producer was appalled. ‘This man is sick,' he said, recoiling. Shortly after, Fox dispensed with the services of both Giger and Chris Foss, leaving the film drifting toward conventionality. It would take the arrival of Scott to reawaken the nightmare.
Days after O'Bannon had shown him Giger's book, and rejecting Fox's previous protestations, Scott flew to Zurich to, hopefully, encourage him back into the fold. The voyage appears to have been worthwhile: On Valentine's Day 1978, Giger arrived at Scott's office in London to join the film's preproduction. And with his design poles in place-Ron Cobb's practicality and Giger's oddity-Scott strategized a vivid division of labor. The enthusiastic American would be responsible for the human (the Nostromo), and the unconventional Swiss would conjure up the alien: planetoid, derelict, and the life cycle of the creature.
Not that the alien's design was solely drawn from the twisted vaults of Giger's lobes. For the chestburster, the director asked him to draw upon Francis Bacon's 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. (Bacon's abstract images are themselves based on the Greek myth of the Furies: winged deities of vengeance and personifications of the anger of the dead.) By his own admission, Giger's first attempt to infuse Bacon in the baby alien looked like a ‘degenerate plucked turkey.' Versed in art history, Scott was layering this ‘B-movie' with the Dantean textures of that wizardly club: Blake, Dore, Bosch, and Dali. But more often than not, he would pull out Giger's Necronomicon and point to what he wanted.
Eventually even Gordon Carroll would applaud Ridley Scott's vision in bringing H.R. Giger back onboard. ‘Seeing the richness,' he admitted, ‘it began to get to you. We realized Ridley was bringing this picture to the highest possible creative level.'
What concerned Scott was that the budget of $8.5 million was clearly not going to stretch, especially as he had come to realize that the only set builder capable of bringing Giger's madness to the screen was, well, Giger.
After another round of stiff negotiations, the budget rose to $11 million; Star Wars's ongoing success no doubt helped to loosen Alan Ladd Jr.'s purse strings. As macabre sets began to sprawl through the studio, Giger and his team of 150 craftsmen became known as the ‘Monster Department.' This hint of witchcraft was surely confirmed when their chief warlock ordered crates of freshly boiled animal bones direct from the slaughterhouse. They were to be used to create moulds for the derelict's cadaverous walls: horizontal ribs crossed with vertical spinal cords. If you want an egg to appear fleshy, use real flesh. If you want an alien spacecraft to feature a carapace of bones, use real bones. Easy.
Turning sculptor, Giger carved the wind-tortured rocks of the planetoid surface, hinting at bent figures. The three actors who venture forth to discover the derelict — Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartright, and John Hurt: Dallas, Lambert, and the urgent Kane — had a tough time with those scenes. In practice Moebius's space suits, patterned in a samurai motif with legs like cricket pads, were torture. The plumes of C02 venting from their backpacks may be another inspired touch of realism, but the gas leaked into the helmets and Skerritt nearly passed out: ‘I could not breathe,' he grimaces. According to Cartright, Hurt would be so caked in sweat after a scene, a nurse was held on standby to give him oxygen. With their vision impaired, breathing hampered, and the lugubrious fabric unbending, it was treacherous simply to navigate. Just as it would have been on that burnished planetoid, Scott might add.
Alongside the inner universe of the derelict, those vaulting circular halls (forty feet from floor to ceiling), Giger was responsible for the outer crescent-shaped semblance of the craft. O'Bannon never liked his concept for the alien vessel. ‘It wasn't technical enough, it wouldn't stand out from the planet,' he moaned, preferring an elaborate Chris Foss design christened the bronzed lobster. This infuriated Giger, who considered the derelict amongst his best paintings, ‘with the biomechanical character of a spaceship built by non-humans.'
Scott's word was final, and he found in favor of Swiss exoticism. He loved how the Giger-derelict's aerodynamic countenance only slowly emerged from the Byzantine landscape. At first you're not entirely sure it's even there. ‘It is something completely alien,' he says, satisfied. Yet, there is an avian quality, a swan's head, to the derelict.
‘His design was so erotic,' enthuses Veronica Cartright of Giger's more unrestrained motifs, ‘it was full of vaginas and penises.' Not least the entrance to the derelict, a full-sized set that allowed him to build, well, a fifteen-foot vagina (the reading of Kane being swallowed up in order to fertilize the egg can't have escaped anyone). Inside was the gangway, arched in moistened bones and dank with smoke, leading to an appropriately phallic cockpit.