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Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene
An oral history with Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver & John Hurt…

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As the Alien Anthology inches its way towards its Blu-ray release, we thought we’d take this opportunity to bring you an in-depth, first hand account of the most famous scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Empire, here is the story of the chestburster from the people who made it…

Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene


In the working draft, the green script, it appears on page 51. As is now history, the original idea came from screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, who wrote a B-movie script called Star Beast in which an alien creature smuggles its way onboard a human-crewed spacecraft inside one of the characters. And when Fox slipped it to producers Walter Hill and David Giler, they stripped it bare. Gone were the cheesy flourishes, the OTT manners and clichés that would have nailed the movie as pulp and left it there, forgotten amongst the ranks of sci-fi’s also-rans. “They didn’t screw around with much description,” recalls Ridley Scott.

But that compelling central idea stuck — an alien incubating within a human. And by page 51 it was about to make its exit. And entrance. “Kane’s face screws into a mask of agony,” read the terse, throb-like description. “A red stain, a smear of blood, blossoms on his chest. The fabric on his shirt rips open and a small head, the size of a fist, punches out...”

“It’s good stuff,” sighs Scott. Who wouldn’t want to direct that?

“The idea of an alien, in a sense drawing from nature, a parasite growing inside oneself,” reasons associate producer Ivor Powell, who had worked with Kubrick on 2001 before joining Scott’s team. “You can imagine that, in the hands of some directors, being pretty crappy. Ridley was the key.”

Jump-cut to Dallas in the spring of 1979, the second test screening of Alien. The first, in St. Louis, had been unconvincing: the sound had been out, the audience restless and the effect muted. In Dallas, the tentative Fox execs were to find out what they had on their hands. Imagine if you knew nothing more than you were about to see a new science-fiction movie — Alien would come as a shock.

As is now so familiar, it built slowly: 45 minutes, as Scott likes to boast, before anything happens. Then: the planet (Acheron in earlier drafts, LV-426 by Aliens); the dead ship (dubbed the “Derelict” by modelmakers); the haunting Space Jockey, a black rupture in its fossilised chest; and the Egg, gently pulsating before it peels open with a squelch — like sucking milkshake... “We were at the back,” laughs Scott, who was eagerly watching the audience reaction. “It was pretty strong.”

But so far, everyone was still sitting down.

Cut to breakfast on the Nostromo. The natural ’70s rhythms of the dialogue, just this working team, a little bumpy with one another, shooting the shit, all of them more than ready to head home slumbering in the “old freezerino” — previously ‘Facehugged’ executive officer Kane (John Hurt) is pale but outwardly okay. Page 51 of the green script, and Kane starts to cough and splutter...

“The first big scare was when the Egg opened and it jumped on his face,” beams Ron Shusett. “The whole audience broke into wild applause. After the Chestburster it was just deafening; you couldn’t hear for several moments.”

“People jumped up, some actually ran, there was spewing in the loo,” laughs Powell. Myth may have embellished truth, but stories run wild of ushers keeling over; someone actually tripping and breaking their arm; audience members fighting to find seats further back, not to be so close anymore; those who made it to the toilets stuffing towels in the speakers to drown out the screams. Fox supremo Alan Ladd Jr. had taken his wife, and claims to this day that she is still traumatised by that evening. As the Chestburster, that baby Alien the size of a cocktail shaker, screeches from the pool of Kane’s intestines, Scott, Powell, Shusett and O’Bannon were grinning, vindicated.

No-one recovers from the Chestburster.

Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene

IMPREGNATION
Sigourney Weaver (Ripley): When I met Ridley he showed me all these conceptual sketches for the Alien and the Eggs that [H. R.] Giger did. Originally the Eggs were going to have little baby faces on the outside. I’d never seen a film like this before.

Ridley Scott (director): Dan [O’Bannon] took me aside, like he was showing me a dirty book. It was Giger’s Necronomicon. My eyeballs nearly fell out. I flew to Zurich to meet him — Giger won’t fly. He was very straight, almost an artist engineer. A great practitioner. We had the Alien, from the book, and I said, “You’ve got it there, don’t change it. You’ve got lots of other things to design: the Egg, the Facehugger, the Chestburster...”

Ron Shusett (executive producer/screenwriter) : The studio would never hire H. R. Giger until Ridley. He called up and said, “I know I don’t have any power right now, but I’m absolutely not going to do this movie unless you hire this guy Giger. The reason is, I’ll always know what it could have been.”

Ivor Powell (associate producer): What I learned from Kubrick was they need to have names. Then people can identify. So very early on we had the Egg, Facehugger and Chestburster.

Ridley Scott: Giger proved so efficient and always right, so I said, “Do you want to think about the landscape?” Giger did models of the planet, the tunnel, and the Space Jockey — everything do to with the Alien. One brain on all the Alien stuff.

Ron Shusett: I must say, in favour of Fox, when the sets were being built, the executives said, “We were wrong. These should be hanging in a museum of modern art.”

Ridley Scott: Inside the Egg you can see movement — that is my hands in rubber gloves. When it opens by hydraulics, inside is a cow stomach — from the abattoir, steam-cleaned. That thing that hits him in the face is from a hose. I put an intestine on an air-line and turned it on. That intestine was like gossamer, it came out like a whiplash.

Ivor Powell: You wouldn’t see that today, because they would bloody CGI the lot.

Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene

GESTATION
Ridley Scott: I had cast Jon Finch, who was Polanski’s Macbeth, as Kane. First day, first shot, Jon collapsed. I talked to him and he said, “I’m a diabetic...” He had gone yellow and couldn’t get up — we had to lift him out of the scene. He was fine, but he had to recuperate. He hadn’t taken his insulin and was drinking too much Coca-Cola. That night we looked at the book and came across John Hurt, who I have always liked.

Ivor Powell: It’s just a disastrous thing that happens. We had only started shooting and then had to go bloody back to square one.

Ridley Scott: John lived in Hampstead, so we called and I drove up there. We sat down with a drink. I said, “Do you want to do this?” He said, “Yeah... I trust you, when do I start?” “Tomorrow morning, a car will come for you.”

Ivor Powell: We had to shoot all his scenes again.

Ridley Scott: Giger wasn’t happy with his initial design for the Chestburster. He had this sack around his arm and kept prevaricating, then showed it to us. It looked like a turkey on his arm. We were in fits. I just said, “How will it fit in his stomach?” In the end Roger Dicken built the creature from his designs.

Roger Christian (production designer): I remember John strapped beneath all that stuff, sat in a deckchair, just his head and arms poking through. It was lunchtime, I think. We had to supply him with cigarettes. I can picture him, a cigarette in one hand, a dry white wine in the other.

Ridley Scott: Poor old John died on the breakfast table amongst the bacon and eggs.

Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene
Ridley Scott's original storyboards for the Chestburster sequence.

BIRTH
Ron Shusett: Ridley didn’t tell the cast; he said, “They’re just going to see it.”

Sigourney Weaver: They were crafty. They pitched the story so that you feel John Hurt’s character would be the only true hero amongst us.

Veronica Cartwright (Lambert): Well, we knew what was going to happen. We read the script. We weren’t stupid. We just didn’t know what the hell we were supposed to be looking at. They showed us a mock-up, but they didn’t show how it was going to work. They just said, “Its head will move and it’s going to have teeth.”

Sigourney Weaver: All it said in the script was, “This thing emerges.”

Ridley Scott: The reactions were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor is just acting terrified, you can’t get the genuine look of raw, animal fear. What I wanted was a hardcore reaction.

Veronica Cartwright: They take John down in the morning to prep him and we’re upstairs for four hours. We’re sitting upstairs and nobody knows what the hell is going on. Harry Dean [Stanton] is sitting in the hall playing his guitar.

Ridley Scott: Prosthetics in those days weren’t that good. I figured the best thing to do was to get stuff from a butcher’s shop and a fishmonger. On the morning we had them examining the Facehugger, that was clams, oysters, seafood. You had to be ready to shoot because it started to smell pretty quickly. You can’t make better stuff than that — it’s organic.

Dan O’Bannon (executive producer/screenwriter):
All it said in the script was, “This thing emerges.”
Once the creature was rigged up, they stuffed the chest cavity full of organs from the butcher’s shop. Then they ran a couple of big hoses to pump the stage blood. During all this Ridley moved about, tending to the finest detail. I remember easily half an hour was spent with him draping this little piece of beef organ so it would hang out of the creature’s mouth.

Roger Christian: I had to go and get the stuff from the abattoir in the morning. It was quite fresh but would cook under the lights, so there had to be no hanging around.

Ridley Scott: Roger came in with the little demon in a shopping bag. We had an artificial chest screwed to the table. John was underneath: it was an illusion his neck was attached to the body.

Veronica Cartwright: When they finally take us down, the whole set is in a big plastic bag and everybody is wearing raingear and there are huge buckets around. The formaldehyde smell automatically made you queasy. And John is lying there.

Sigourney Weaver: Everyone was wearing raincoats — we should have been a little suspicious. And, oh God, the smell. They went to a local butcher’s or something. It was just awful.

Ron Shusett: He had four cameras running. Two guys, technicians, were under the table with a compressed blood machine. Nobody said a word, but Sigourney looked really scared. I said, “You’re really getting into character.” She said, “No, I have a feeling I’m going to be pretty repulsed right now.”

Yaphet Kotto (Parker): We were all wondering what the hell was going on. Why is the crew looking at us the way they’re looking at us right now? Why are they wearing plastic shields?

Ron Shusett: Later I read an interview where Sigourney said, “Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett were in the corner like kids on Christmas morning. I knew it was going to be a bloodbath!”

Veronica Cartwright: We start to do the scene. They have four cameras going. You see this thing start to come out, so we all get sucked in, we lean forward to check it out. They shout, “Cut!” They cut John’s T-shirt a little more because it wasn’t going to burst through. Then they said, “Let’s start again.” We all start leaning forward again and all of a sudden it comes out. I tell you, none of us expected it. It came out and twisted round.

Roger Christian: We were pumping something in the range of six gallons of blood on each take. It literally went all over the set.

Sigourney Weaver: All I could think of was John, frankly. I wasn’t even thinking that we were making a movie.

Ivor Powell: I hadn’t expected it to be quite that intense.

Sigourney Weaver: Look, I worked with Roman Polanski on Death And The Maiden — he would shoot a gun off. You can act, sure, but when you’re surprised, that’s gold.

Ron Shusett: Veronica Cartwright — when the blood hit her — she totally passed out. I heard from Yaphet Kotto’s wife that after that scene he went to his room and wouldn’t talk to anybody.

Yaphet Kotto: Oh man! It was real, man. We didn’t see that coming. Can you imagine, we’re struggling with this guy, and here we are acting. You know they are going to do something, you don’t know what, then all of a sudden this thing splats in front of you, and it breaks loose. We were freaked. The actors were all frightened. And Veronica nutted out.

Dan O'Bannon: This jet of blood, about three feet long, caught her smack in the kisser.

Veronica Cartwright: I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to say, “Oh, I’m acting now.” Your reaction is just going off what you’re seeing. It was totally a visceral thing. That huge thing of blood hit my face and I backed up and flipped upside-down. It was on the dailies, it was hysterical. But that was it. It was a one-off. Everyone’s reaction was totally real.

Ron Shusett: From that moment on, they were really into it. It wasn’t a game.

Alien: Anatomy Of The Chestburster Scene

EVOLUTION
Ivor Powell: That was the moment that absolutely sold the movie.

Ron Shusett: It was like pornography.

Ivor Powell: In a sense, the original Facehugger is fucking you orally and laying its eggs down your trachea. Very Freudian, isn’t it?

David Thomson (Critic): I think very few people then foresaw that the monster was going to demand birth from Kane’s body. We had not really understood the title, Alien, until this scene, and the absolute parasitic subduing of one organism by another. We did not know, and had not yet acquired, that metaphoric sense of invasive illness that has been conveyed by AIDS. Cancer was the most evident route of the metaphor. And the nausea, the gulping and retching, came in the sudden upheaval of understanding, of what had been done down Kane’s throat. For the man had been made pregnant.

Sigourney Weaver: Sometimes I read these wonderful articles, especially in Europe, about what Alien really means. I’m sure Ridley gets a big kick out of them too. We were making all these Freudian images that took people out of where they felt safe.

Ivor Powell: There’s not only the sexual metaphor, but the idea of disease. The beast is like having a cancer living within you, something malignant and evil.

Ron Shusett: People have read all kinds of things into it that we didn’t intend, not even subconsciously. But there was one thing we did do. It was our idea that it would be the life-cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyse it and lay its eggs in it; its eggs grow off the living spider, like a surrogate mother.

Sigourney Weaver: The creature was born, the rest is history.

Interview by Ian Nathan


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