(Welcome to 10 Stories, a feature where we take a closer look at the making of a film and extract all the necessary trivia you require.)
Alien is perfection. It’s the sort of perfection that makes you ask, “How did they do that?” 41 years after its release, any story to be told about the making of the movie has been told. Nevertheless, we can never talk too much about Alien, especially for those of us who haven’t read or seen everything about the making of the film.
The exhaustive number of docs and making-of features have never dispelled or undercut the magic of the movie. The special features for the film, as well as most of director Ridley Scott‘s filmography, are a film school student’s dream. No stone is ever left unturned. Scott has never been shied away from sharing his secrets or his process.
So we dug into the various special features for Alien to see what we could learn from the master himself about his horror classic.
Fighting for Those First 45 Minutes
Alien eases audiences into the terror. The wait-and-see setup makes the inevitable all the more dreadful. According to Scott, he had to fight for the opening. “I always remember arguing with some of my colleagues, in particular the studio [about the opening],” Scott said. “They’d always say, ‘Well, nothing happens for 45 minutes.’ I’d say, ‘That’s the whole point. Once it starts to happen, I think we should have them.’ Nothing happens in the first 45 minutes, but it’s revealing the world these workers in space function with.”
The abandoned alien ship and the planet it rests on, at least in close-up, didn’t work for Scott. As a result, he got creative. “I decided to shoot the view of the spacecraft through a monitor because, for financial reasons, our model did not stand close examination,” Scott said. “Not of the spacecraft, but of the planet itself. Suddenly, I made this [introduction shot] up on the day with an old domestic camera. I filmed everything hand-held shoved towards the actual model, and then, I ran it back to the monitor and then filmed it.” The model, which the director likens to a musical instrument, was only four feet long. Scott always wanted to do an Alien 5 and 6 about what he called “the battleship.”
Hand in Glove
Scott’s hand makes a cameo in Alien during one of the film’s many iconic moments. When the egg is first revealed, Scott’s hand is inside it. “We did the pickup shot on the egg later,” the director said. “When the liquids are going upwards, we did that by turning the camera upside down, basically. The movement inside the egg, those are my hands in a pair of rubber gloves in clear fiberglass. I always believe if you can do it physically, do it. You could spend $500,000 on a movement like that. Ridiculous. You don’t need to. The top opening is hydraulic, and it looks serious. If you put your hand in there, you’re going to lose it.” For the egg, a production member visited a meat market to get the insides of the egg just right. The skin of the stomach of the cow was used for the egg.
A Very Cool Cat
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Dallas (Tom Skerritt) had, in an early version of the movie, a romantic past. Scott still isn’t sure if it was needed. “At one stage, there was a suggestion Ripley and Dallas had some kind of a relationship,” he said. “It didn’t go anywhere, therefore it was puzzling, therefore we didn’t need it. It was better to keep it all about business. It was a good scene we had, but sometimes, on reflection, the innuendo of a relationship might’ve been useful.” Scott sees Dallas as simply a cool cat, as well as a reminder people are still people in the future.
The Last Supper
Famously, Scott didn’t show the actors the baby Xenomorph (“the baby boy”) before it burst out to say hello to the world. “I didn’t ever show the cast what would come out,” the director said. “We did all this in one take with four or five cameras. Once he’s on the table, it’s all pre-set to go. All that is mostly one camera when he’s thrashing. It’s all handheld. When the burst happens, I had to have a little railway track to get rid of it. I didn’t know how else to get rid of it.” A lot of KY Jelly was used that day. Typically, Scott shoots with four or five cameras at a time.
Brett’s (Harry Dean Stanton) death is completely telegraphed, and yet, utterly suspenseful. The set is gorgeous, too, with a surprising amount of gold involved. “Because this is one of the equipment rooms, I just got fairly exotic equipment, like small bulldozers,” Scott said. “We just sprayed them all gold. Somehow, it just works as a very high-tech piece of equipment. Harry always loved his close-up in that scene. He found me at the premiere and thanked me for the close-up. The sound you hear [during his death scene], that’s the sound of a pulse. It’s a very pulled-back heartbeat.” It is one of the many organic sounds in the movie.
“Fear can be a great motivator,” Scott once told composer Hans Zimmer while working on a different film project. The director gave the composer a strict deadline, Zimmer delivered, and Scott then shared that piece of wisdom. When Dallas dies in Alien, Scott was forced to get creative under pressure as well. “Somehow Tom makes the audience feel put in the same situation,” Scott said. “We know he is going to die. It’s inevitable. You feel his panic, which is wonderful. Oddly enough, that was a sequence we weren’t really prepared for. We didn’t have enough of a set. Again, when you’re forced to be inventive, the best comes out of it. It works very well.” The vent was no longer than a 30-feet tube.
The sound team worked forever on Ash’s (Ian Holm) voice as he died. In the end, the team with a spooky doppler effect when Ash professes his admiration for the Xenomorph, an unclouded species. “It’s a doomy speech about the indestructibility of it and the perfection of what they were against,” Scott said. “It was a scene written during photography. We were never happy with what we had. Dan [O’Bannon] had to work on it incessantly to get what we had. I think Dan came up with the words on the morning of the shoot.”
No Silence on the Set
Many directors use music on a set to create a mood for the actors and the crew. Scott did just that for Weaver when the shit hit the fan in the third act. “I put this music on for her, which seemed to help Sigourney,” Scott said. “Actually, when I got into the Nostromo and the shuttle at the end, I lined the set with 15 speakers. I played [composer] Isao Tomita in the shuttle. Instead of a silent set and me saying, ‘Action.’ I asked Sigourney, ‘Do you want some assistance?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, listen to this.’ I had ‘The Planets’ by Tomita. It helped Sigourney, just having that massive orchestration around her.”
The final minutes of Alien are a stark contrast to the opening. It is sensory overload. In part, because the director, again, wanted to help his lead actor. “I got kind of bored with the lighting after a while,” Scott said. “We needed to escalate. On this film particularly, I’d say, ‘How can we assist ourselves by assisting Sigourney? She’s doing a fantastic job, but if the ship is going wrong, therefore the electrical systems are kicking into emergency reactions.’ We got strobe lights, which I attached to the head of the dolly. I could adjust them. You could get delay. That’s why the whole thing is alive with flickering light. At the time, it looked new, but now I’ve seen it in many films.”
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