Interview with 'Alien' Co-Creator Dan O'Bannon
'Alien' screenplay writer, Dan O'Bannon speaks his mind about what it was like behind the scenes.
In the below excerpt from Film Fantasy Magazine, Ed Sudden II interviews Alien co-creator Dan O'Bannon. In excerpt, O'Bannon recounts that the concept of the movie Alien began as a simple story called “Gremlins”. I was about a World War II B-17 bomber crew on a mission over Tokyo who are terrorized by a horde of midget monsters. Dan O’Bannon began his career as the the co-author and director responsible for design, editing, and special effects on the movie Dark Star. He also co-starred as Sgt. Pinback. Pinback’s scenes with his alien, a mean-looking and very mischevious beach ball with feet are notable high points of humor in sci-fi film history. Dan went from Dark Star to pre-production work on Jodorowsky’s Dune, the Frank Herbert novel, to effects work on Star Wars and his most iconic movie Alien.
Q: You got a new movie coming out – Alien.
Dan O'Bannon: Right.
And you went through all kinds of hassle and trouble with it.
Yeah, I wrote the first half of Alien in 1972. I was just looking through my notes, I’ve kept a running journal for about the last ten years. At the time I’d written the first half of it but I didn’t have a title for it. Back then we were still working on Dark Star, the picture derives some elements from Dark Star. It was like, while we were in the midst of doing Dark Star I had a secondary thought on it – the same movie, but in a completely different light.
Why didn’t you direct Alien?
I was going to, but my partner, Ron Shusett, wanted to go to the studios, and with the studios there was no way. Back in ’76 I had hit a really bad career and economic slump. I was in a terrible situation…
Rob Cobb was telling me you were sleeping on Shusett’s couch.
A: Yeah, right, that was when Dune fell through. And incidentally, I hear that Dino De Laurentiis now has picked up Dune, but I bet you it won’t be the same picture that Jodorowsky was going to make.
So, there I was on his sofa, didn’t have any prospects at all. It was a terrible situation; I couldn’t stay on his sofa indefinitely so I hauled myself up out of black depression and said I was going to do something – I’m going to write a script. And after haggling over it a little while, Ron and I agreed to do something together. I said, “I’ve got a great first half of a script and I’ve never known what the second half of it was,” and I gave it to him and he read it. And he thought about it and he said, “You had another idea for a film, and it wasn’t a science fiction, it wasn’t a space movie.” It was an idea I had called “Gremlins,” about a bomber in the second World War, a B-17 bomber bombing Tokyo on a bombing mission at night through a rainstorm.
Now on the way back, it’s a several hour flight back to their Pacific island base, Gremlins get into the airplane. And they have to fight these things off. He said, “Why don’t you make that the second half? Put it in the spaceship?” And I said, “Yeah, that would work. That’s good, that’s great.”
And so we talked the story out, and I wrote it for a period of about three months with continual discussions and me pounding away on the typewriter. My belongings were in storage, but I carted out of storage that desk and that file cabinet and that chair, and stuck it in Ron’s front room so I could work. And the traveling typewriter… and I wrote it because I planned to direct it. I wanted to do it for about half a million. I was going to take it around. But when it got done, Ron wanted to go and try the studios. Well, he did, and it worked the first shot out. And that was it as far as me directing it.
Who was it taken to, Brandywine?
It was taken to Brandywine Productions by a fellow named Mark Haggard; Ronnie Shusett made a finder’s arrangement with him. A finder’s arrangement means that if he puts it in contact with somebody who finances a movie, he gets a certain agreed-upon sum. Haggard knew Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll and David Giler.
They read it, they called us in and Gordon said to us, “We’ve read 300 scripts and this is the first one we’ve all agreed on.” Okay? Great compliment. And they proceeded to make a deal with us. And we got into a lot of haggling, there was at least a month of negotiating. Finally we made a deal, an option deal, and they took it to Fox with whom they’d just made some kind of production arrangement for their company. And Fox immediately expressed interest and Brandywine exercised the option which was a real surprise ‘cause it was the first time in my life I’d ever had an option exercised. I’d sold many options but I’d always had them revert. I’d never had them fork over the cash on the barrelhead. Typical. Happens all the time.
Options reverting. You realize that probably half of everything that Heinlein has ever written has at one time or another been optioned, and with the exception of one story, it’s always reverted. Well, this one didn’t revert. They’d paid us wham!-landslide!-cash! It was interesting because it came just in time to pay my medical expenses. I’d been under such stress and other problems plus not taking care of myself, that I came down with a very bad stomach ailment in 1977. I was sick a great deal of that year, I was in and out of the hospital. Then Fox hired me, they put me on a salary to go in and design the whole movie. So I hired Ron Cobb and I asked for Chris Foss who was in England and they actually hired him and flew him over.
You’d worked with Foss on the Dune project?
Yeah. And I tried to get Cobb on to Dune, but it never worked out. So I felt a debt of honor to Cobb because there Ron was with his bags packed on my word and it never happened. So I felt real upset about that and I felt like I owed him one, and SO I really wanted to make sure he was on Alien. But of course that was hardly the principal reason. The principal reason is because he’s so good.
You know, Ron Cobb gave continual input to the film right from the very start. He gave us one of the major plot elements, the monster has an incredibly corrosive bloodstream, one of the reasons the monster can’t be cut up or fired at is that its blood would eat right through the ship. That was Ron’s idea and I want everyone to know it.
I think we both agree that Ron’s incredible!
And I got them both, and we spent the whole summer in some little offices there, designing it.
You spent seven months designing before they found a director for it?
No. They had a director – Walter Hill. Hill was scheduled from the beginning to direct the picture. But finally in the summer of ’77, Walter Hill withdrew from directing Alien to go do The Driver instead. He preferred to do The Driver. And that left them without a director. The monster has an incredibly corrosive bloodstream. It can’t be cut up or fired at or its blood would eat right through the ship!
So they got Ridley Scott?
No, it didn't happen that quickly. Gordon had to go out and look for other directors and the very moment he started to look the Directors Guild went on strike. They were on strike for several months. All we could try to do was get some preliminaries out so when the strike was settled, maybe then Gordon could make some moves. When it was all over Fox said, "Here.” They handed Brandywine a list. And Ridley was at the top of the list and they said “Pick one.” So they took the first one.
I remember getting this call from Gordon Carroll. He said, “You must meet Ridley. You’re going to like him.” I was real skeptical because we’d had a difficult time even to that point. I went in, and there he was. Ronnie Shusett had feverishly rushed up to him and shoved a copy of the original draft of the script into his hands because Giler and Hill had begun to rewrite it. We were disturbed by the content of the rewrite. Ridley read it and he said, "Oh yes. We have to go back to the first way, definitely.” So it was Giler and Hill’s turn to be disturbed. As a result, the entire remainder of the production ended up being a battle between camps. One camp wanting one version of the film and another camp wanting the other version.
And all of you inextricably involved?
Yes, inextricably involved, right. And boy, believe me, I was inextricably involved, because if there was any way that they could have pried me loose and gotten me out of their hair they would have. ’Cause I was such a thorn in their side.
I remember being faced with what I considered a moral decision. My agent, my manager, and everybody else was going over to England to start working on the film proper, and they said, “Be sure not to antagonize anybody ’cause their so important, it’s your first project and it’s a major studio, everybody’s liable to be on you to make friends.” I got over there and I found that the confusion was so great and the babble of voices was so loud that I couldn’t make myself heard without being obnoxious. I couldn’t make any impact and there were things that I felt so strongly about that I wanted to have heard. I wanted to win points, certain points I felt very strongly about it.
So I finally decided, “All right, I’m going to go against good advice for my career; I'm going to fight.” And my reasoning was, in 40 years I’d still be able to sleep with myself. That I wouldn’t look back and say, “You know, there’s Alienand it stinks and if I had fought, maybe it wouldn’t.” And I looked forward to that in my own frame of mind. And I decided, “All right, I’ll fight,” even though that it's tacticly the wrong thing to do.
There are inspirations for Alien—I had a lot of second thoughts about Dark Star, that was one of them. Well, another source was that I met Giger when we were working on Dune, and I'd looked at his picture books and when I got back to America I was still haunted by his work. It was on my mind and when we sat down to do Alien I ended up visualizing the thing as I was writing it, as we were thinking it out and I was writing it, I found myself visualizing it as a Giger painting. And I wrote this script. But then I was thinking of a half million dollar picture done here in LA. There would be no money to either import this guy or to pay him, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to have him. So at first I thought I would have Cobb doing that monster —he’s quite superb—it just didn’t happen to be any of his (Cobb's) monsters that I had landed upon in my head when I was thinking about the script. Well when they started to do it the big way, the first guy I started pushing at them to do the monster was Giger. I had a heck of a time trying to get the producers to hire Giger. They really didn’t want to get involved because he’s not a movie professional, he was some “whing-ding,” in Zurich. They wanted to find somebody who had done this before, that they could count on.
Well, when Ridley came to the project; Giger constructed the monster of clay, skulls, pipes, tubing, veterinary and medical supplies and a veritable graveyard of bones. While Ronnie was rushing up with the original draft of the script I was rushing up with copies of Giger’s work. Ridley saw Giger’s stuff he was snowed. He said, “This is it!” I really won some of the very major things that I planned in the beginning, some of the very broad strokes.
I had this vision right on this very sofa, of a Giger monster around which a science fiction horror movie was based and it ended up happening. In fact the design that they ended up getting, almost by coincidence, I had settled on in my own mind. One of Giger’s designs that I liked and I wanted to see as the monster. Later on Ridley went through Giger’s work and he found quite a different sorce of inspiration and he had Giger design from that. But the funny thing was, when it got done—when Giger ended up adapting it and designing it and shaping it up—it ended up being similar to the thing that I’d had in mind that I had never mentioned. I was just so happy to get Giger that anything he did was fine by me.
When I started thinking back. I said, “You know, it’s amazing. Damn it, it’s even similar to the one I’d been thinking of.” There’s a head distortion on the creature and the one I wanted distorted the head toward the front. The one that Ridley picked distorted the head out toward the back, they’re in the same family.
I’m told that Giger built the monster himself.
He sure did! He had expert help because there’s some crafts involved that I don't think that Giger had done, like casting it in rubber materials. But he’s quite a craftsman, actually.
It was an amazing sight. Giger fixes himself up to look like Dracula, he wears black leather, has black hair, black eyes, and pale complexion, he never takes off his coat, his black leather jacket, and he had them set him up, built him a little sculpting studio in the corner of one of the sound stages with a padlock on it where he could work.
He wanted clay, and basic sculpting materials and he also wanted bones. As many bones as they could lay their hands on. They ended up buying all this stuff, veterinary supplies, medical supplies, and the little sculpting studio turned into a boneyard. They got him a rhinoceros skull, three of the most perfect human skulls I’ve ever seen in my life. They were beauties, they must have borrowed them off a living person to get them that perfect, every tooth was intact, not a filling. I think they cost something like $700 each, they were so primo.
He had snake skeletons in perfect preservation, they looked like lace. And junk too, just old smelly bones out of a slaughterhouse and he started sculpting.
The first thing Ridley did was he had contortionists come in. He wanted to see contortionists tie themselves in every possible knot and walk around and see if they could build a costume around a contortionist. He had two contortionists tie themselves together and walk around. And he had three contortionists tie themselves together and walk around. He finally concluded that it was just too awkward.
Finally, he bought this big expensive picture book on some part of Africa, it was photographs of some remaining native tribe that still has a somewhat primitive lifestyle. There were all these really striking color photographs and this particular tribe has a very striking appearance. They’re all very tall and very black and there were some very, very impressive photographs of these tall, thin powerful-looking men with very supple, gleaming muscles. They’re very graceful, sort of sensual, and at the same time powerful and very handsome, but almost ethereal, almost not human—very striking.
That image burned itself into Ridley’s brain, he liked that power of unearthliness and grace and strength. He wanted Giger to see if he could do something around that kind of a shape of person. At first, Ridley had contortionists tie themselves into every conceivable kind of knot as a possible shape for the alien monster. Then they found their actor who is this seven-foot-African . . .
So the monster was actually designed for one person rather than with a visual image of a particular type of human in mind?
No, more along these pictures out of this book more of this Nubian black racial type.
The thing we liked so much was the grace of these black people. Giger then came in and Giger has a feel for grace, but a different kind of grace. Giger loved grotesquery. So Giger started building up around this graceful figure, his pipes and tubes and running, rotting sores and joints and pustules and strange shapes and building it up and came up with something most bizarre.
The plaster shop took a cast of the actor, full body cast and mounted it standing up on its toes on a wooden base and Giger put it into his studio and he began to build up on it with clay and bones, an air conditioning duct, screws, and human skulls—the face of the thing is a real human skull. He took one of the human skulls and jammed it right on the front, riveted it in place, and then started modifying it.
It was such a beautiful human skull, you know, it had been a real person, not like one of those plastic model kits— and he takes out his hack saw and he saws the jawbone off and extends the jawbone, like six inches, puts an extension in it, and creates this distorted jawbone! Then he starts attaching other fixtures to it and building a new extension on the back of it. He’s doing this to a real human skull!
When he finally got all done they took a cast of it, it was a craftsman who actually cast the rubber costume of Giger’s sculpture. When they were finished casting in rubber he used his airbrush and painted the costume the same way he paints his paintings.
It’s terrific. I’ve really got my fingers crossed. I truly believe that that monster in Alien is absolutely unique looking. I think that it is two strides beyond any monster costume in any movie ever before. And some of them are goodies, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or This Island Earth, the bug with the exposed brain, some of those were terrific. I really think this is a step beyond. I don’t think anybody’s seen anything like this.
Was the original grace of the actor maintained? That image?
Well, oh, that image, yes.
It wasn’t too clouded by Giger’s ...
No, no. Definitely, Giger has a very very graceful line too. No, definitely that thing was very supple looking. Unfortunately, the real grace was lost, because the suit proved to be very awkward to move in. Ridley was forced to stage around the physical awkwardness of it. The actor wasn’t able to make many moves in a graceful manner. So he had to stage around it. But the visual appearance of power and grace was retained, quite different, quite striking.
Ron said that during some of the dailies, especially during some of the bloody sequences, people who had been working on the film were dumbfounded.
It didn’t bother me (laughs).
What I'm getting at is, from a prurient interest I hear it’s pretty bloody and gory and ... when you see a set and all the technicians are in coveralls and the cameras are covered in plastic ... there has to be something going on.
That was great. The day that they shot that I reserved myself a box seat. I went to the set very early in the morning and I looked around where they had the cameras placed, and I picked the best possible spot for myself where I’d be out of the way and I sat there and didn’t move.
There was a pretty big audience for that shooting, a lot of the people involved in the film came and looked on that day and just basically stayed and waited. A lot of people were interested. Fox had been giving Ridley a lot of hassle because he gotten a slow start, the first couple of weeks of shooting were slow, they were jumping all over. The reason they were slow was because they had allowed inadequate time to design and build the sets, and on the first day of shooting no single set was fully completed so Ridley had to shoot around the sets for a couple of weeks. And they still jumped all over him, they said he was too slow.
So fairly early in the shooting they got to that scene, a very bloody scene, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t actually give the point away in the interview, you know, allude to it without letting them know what’s going to happen. You know what scene we’re talking about? FF: It hasn’t been described.
Good. Okay, I thought you knew about it. Well, I'm going to stay vague ’cause I want to allude to it but I don’t want anybody to know exactly what it is until they see it.
For obvious reasons. I want the audience to get it straight in the face without any preparation. And the producers also want to keep it quiet but for what I think is a somewhat pettier reason. They don’t want it stolen for TV. I just want the audience to get it fresh. I don’t want it getting out in advance. But I was there watching that thing and at a time when Fox was putting enormous pressure on him for being too slow, he took an entire day to film one short sequence. I was there and they had three cameras set up 'cause they wanted to catch it from all angles and all of the cameras were covered with clear plastic tarps. The lenses were covered with flat optical glass like underwater cameras and Ridley and the D.P. and all the main technicians were all wearing coveralls up to their necks. It took them three to four hours to get the actor who was going to do the stunt rigged because there was mechanical stuff involved. Meanwhile, the other actors didn’t come on the set, I don’t know where they were, they had a room where the actors could hang out and talk to each other. Then they brought them in when they were ready for it, they hadn't seen all the preparation. All they did was they walked on, they saw all these tarps, and they saw these huge hydraulic machines with hoses leading to this rigged man, and they saw everybody wearing coveralls’. I looked at Sigourney Weaver, whose the lead, I saw her face as she looked at the tarp, coveralls and camera, and she seemed to go a little bit shaky. The actors looked real uneasy when they saw that set-up because it looked like they were trying to prepare for Vesuvius.
I don’t even know if they’re going to leave it in the picture. I understand they're getting a little bit chicken-hearted in the cut. But the amount of blood was just unparalleled. I saw Veronica Cartwright get drenched from head to toe in blood and scream her fool head off and fall backward over a table and brain herself.
What were they using?
I don’t know, artificial blood, not real blood. Then afterward these two people pick Veronica Cartwright up and she was weak-kneed and they had to help her off the set. She was drenched, all her clothes sticking to her, and her hair sticking to her with this red dye and she was near hysterics.
And 20 minutes later they came back and they had showered her and fixed her up and put a duplicate costume on her and she looked the same, but a little spooked, and I went up to her and I said, “That was really terrific. Was that all acting?” And she looked at me and she said kind of spooked, she said, “Well, I was a little freaked-out. I just saw her in Body Snatchers, they just released it, I hadn't been able to see it even though she did it before she did Alien. She was one of the best people in Body Snatchers.
Have you seen a final cut of the film?
No. not yet.
Do you think, from everything that you've seen of the production work and the dailies to this point, that it’s your film? Is it the way you wanted it?
What was significantly changed, what was changed to your dismay?
Can you start with a couple of little things? Can you point them out?
They dropped a major plot element out of the script.
Can you elaborate?
In the movie, the Earthmen discover a wrecked, derelict spacecraft. Actually no, that’s not correct. In the movie, the men discover a wrecked construction of non-human manufacture and inside of it they find eggs which end up being the eggs of the monster. In the original script the men find a crashed derelict spacecraft and they enter it; they discover that the alien crew are all dead. They return to their own ship to contemplate what may have killed the alien crew and then they discover a pyramid on the planet which appears to be indigenous and is primitive. They enter the pyramid and there they find the eggs. They combined these two elements, they squeezed them together into one sort of uneasy entity.
The idea behind that, I would assume, being that the dangerous aliens were coming back to spawn or something?
No, they were two different races. In my script, it was a space-going race that landed on this planet and had been wiped out by whatever was there. And now the Earthmen come and they endanger themselves in the same way. In the new version it’s just sort of a surrealist mystery.
And whatever they find there in the alien construct is actually the menace?
Yes. So they combined, and they did some things ... and there were some changes made that were better. There were some improvements made.
In what direction?
I think they made some of the characters cuter than they were. Some of the dialogue is definitely snappier than it was in the original draft. I think that a lot of the designs that Ridley supervised differ because his visual hand is very strong over the surface of the picture. I think many things like that changed. You asked if it was my film. And I said no. And you said in what way and I said every way. And you said, can you name one of the things that disturbs you, well not every way in which it is different disturbs me.
A lot of them are okay?
Ridley has this lavish, sensual, visual style; and I think that Ridley is one of the ‘good guys.’ I really think that he is was the final pivot point responsible for the picture coming out good. And so a lot of the visual design and a lot of the mood elements inherent in the camerawork, while they’re not what I planned, are great. They’re just different. Also, it’s not 100% Ridley either. It’s Ridley superimposing his vision over the cumulative vision of others, you see. Now this could be such a strong director's picture because Ridley’s directorial and visual hand is so strong. There will probably be a tendency among critics to refer to it as Ridley Scott’s vision of the future. And he did have a vision of the future. But it was his distillation of the contributions of everybody else that came before, that’s what his vision is.
Basically, Cobb and Foss and Giger and you ...
And Ronnie Shusett. And if it sounds like I’m knocking Ridley, I’m not.
No-no, it sounds very complimentary. What's the next project?
I’m writing a novel, called “They Bite.”
What’s it about?
Well, it's Alien only a lot better, considerably different. It’s another monster story with a different setting and a different monster and a different plot, and it’s better. And I’ve been sitting on it 'cause I’d been wanting to take a break and not work on a film for a while. I wanted to write a book, and I thought, “Well, hell, if I’m going to write a book why not use that, it’s the best material I have right now.” So I’m gonna write a book. Another scary monster book.
Why not another film?
I may write another script, to direct myself, but I’m never going to get into the hassle I got into with Alien. It’s amazing. Back in September of last year I started negotiating and hassling for my screen credit. Giler and Hill wanted the credits to read: "Screenplay by Walter Hill and David Giler based on a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Shusett." They didn't shoot Hill and Giler's rewrite, Ridley shot my script.
So I took it to the Writers Guild for arbitration. On a Friday I get a call from the WGA telling me that they’ve decided in my favor. Then in the next breath they tell me Hill had immediately submitted an appeal of that decision. Finally after months and months of hassle the WGA has decided and the writing credit will read: "A Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon from a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett." I’ve been vindicated. I still don't know about my design credit but we’ll see.
The problem with the money-men is that a lot of them don’t care about making good films, and don’t understand movies, yet they insist that you do it their way. The very people who say, “I don’t understand anything about it, and I don’t like it,” they rewrite, they change everything you do, they don’t let you do it yourself. That’s what’s so infuriating. They go, “You know, six months ago I couldn’t spell auteur, and now I are one.” I’ve got an insight for you. This is something that I’ve finally learned which has disappointed me very, very greatly.
I’m finally realizing this: movies are fun to watch; movies are not fun to make. They’re fun to think about, they’re fun to plan in your mind .. .the best part is when you make it up in your head. And you see that movie ... to me that’s the best part. That’s stimulating. Then you try to make it and the trolls come at you. And the trolls have all the money.
“Ooo-ahahah-ooog! Me eat your guts, me want marrow, ummm, me producer, me want to suck out marrow, throw away artist, good, ummm, throw away, give me another artist, me hungry. Suck marrow out of another artist."
Well, I just hope that the released version of the movie pleases you.