Thirty-two years old and officially enshrined as a sci-fi masterpiece, Alien is still the scariest night in this side of the galaxy. Thanks to Ridley Scott's meticulous collection of Alien artefacts and Empire's own Ian Nathan, a world-leading xenomorphologist, the film's rich universe has been brought to glorious, detailed life in a new book, Alien Vault. There's enough riches in here for Clive Owen to hide amongst - from Dan O'Bannon's facehugger concept art to a glorious array of rarities and unseen photos to schematics of the USCSS Nostromo (yes, you can rebuild it yourself, should you so desire).
With Alien Vault out now, Ridley Scott has dipped into his treasure trove to share ten on-set pics, designs and stills. Nathan takes up the story...
Ash was the point of much debate before and during the shoot. Scott was intrigued by how much he was aware of: did he already know about the creature? And thus, did The Company already know of its existence? Did Ash sleep? And if he didn’t, did he wonder the Nostromo while the others reclined in hypersleep? Indeed, Scott wondered if Ash had a penis (he attempts to ‘rape’ Ripley with a rolled up magazine). Did Ash know he was a android? “He does in this instance,” was the director’s conclusion to this, “then he goes through the theatre of pretending to be who he was…”
Tom Skeritt and Veronica Cartright rehearse the Nostromo’s landing platform arriving on the planetoid surface. Giger himself carved the wind-tortured rocks of the forbidding landscape, the idea being for the derelict spaceship to be, at first, indiscernable from the surrounding terrain. Producer Gordon Carroll, who had fretted about including Giger, was gobsmacked by the sets: “Seeing the richness, it began to get to you. We realised Ridley was bringing this picture to the highest possible creative level.”
Fox had tried to pull to plug on this strange, deceased denizen of the ‘derelict’ alien craft, but Scott fought for him. “I wanted him in,” he said, “we’d become fully confirmed hardcore space freaks. I mean to have them walk in there and find nothing, was absolutely bloody pointless.” Twenty-six feet tall, with an internal framework of steel, he would cost $500,000, but remains a staggering embodiment of the film’s ambitions. Indeed, as far as we know, forthcoming quasi-prequel Prometheus will be centred around this extraordinary species.
The schematics for the Nostromo: for those that have often pondered the geography of Alien’s famous human ship - deliberately kept obscure and nightmare-like for the movie - these detailed blueprints were created. They date from the release of Aliens, the giveaway being the logo top-right: in Alien the company name is Weylan-Utani (briefly glimpsed on a monitor), for the sequel James Cameron added the ‘d’ for Weyland-Yutani (he felt it look neater).
Ridley Scott fine tunes Ash’s slime-smeared decapitated head: the director came up with the idea of using food-stuffs for Ash’s internal workings from his days shooting tableaus of pricey food for adverts. “I wanted pasta, cheap caviar, glass marbles, and milk,” he explained. “It’s so high-tech, you don’t know what it is.” Holm’s head ended up thrust through a hole in the table, and the poor actor was required to dribble milk, which he despised.
A sheet of famous ‘Ridleygrams’, Scott’s personal storyboards for the film: a fine artist himself, Scott storyboarded the entire script before production began. Despite carrying a Moebius-like feel, it remains remarkable how well they match the designs and scenes of the finished film. The film existed in the director’s head before a frame was shot.
Enter the alien: the chestbursting scene, and its creation, is now cinema history. The scene was built of three set-ups: the scarlet cone erupting in Kane’s chest over the dinner table; then the bursting itself; before, finally, the creature zips across the table to its freedom. “From a technical point of view, we were more worried about it than any other effect in the film,” confessed Scott. “If we hadn’t got it right we might as well have forgotten the whole thing.” Did the cast know what was to happen? Inevitably, they did. But they may have not have been prepared for its severity. “Those six actors all happen to be sensitive actors,” relished the director, “all a bit queasy and therefore they did react very naturally to what they saw.”
H.R. Giger’s painting of what became known, to the crew, as the ‘Space Jockey’ from his collection the Necronomicon: although Fox had been aghast at the idea of using this “sick” artist, but when Dan O’Bannon put the book in front of the director, he was convinced. “I’ve never been so certain of anything in my life,” he recalled. Giger was then hired to help design and create anything that was ‘alien’ in the picture.
A discarded early attempt at a poster for the film’s release: before reaching what is now seen as a definitive marketing campaign (“In space no-one can hear you scream”) the studio tried out a number of poster styles. This one reveals a certain ‘70s aesthetic, the use of the word “Alien” as a “word of warning” leans toward horror rather than science-fiction. Scott, a master of advertising, was impressed with the actual campaign. “They sold the film as hard as they could,” he appreciated, “but they never gave the game away.”
Besuited Dallas and Lambert explore the insides of the derelict: the suits, based on a design by French comic-book artist, Moebuis (and built by John Mollo) were a nightmare for the cast. The natty plume of CO2 would leak into the helmets, and nurses were on stand-by in case of collapse. Rumour has it John Hurt was the one to pass out. Even then, navigation was impossible, but Scott was delighted by their blindness and struggle, it was exactly as it would be on the storm-swept planetoid.