Nominated for three Academy Awards and director of almost 30 movies in as many years, Ridley Scott—sorry, Sir Ridley Scott; he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, you know—needs no introduction, but we'll do it anyway. His films have featured a variety of characters, settings, and themes. Blade Runner is about a bounty hunter set in a future dystopian noir while Legend is pure fantasy. Kingdom of Heaven takes place in Jerusalem during the 12th-century crusades, but American Gangster is about a 1970s drug lord operating in Harlem. And Hannibal…
You know what, let's not talk about Hannibal. They can't all be winners, right?
About the only thing these movies have in common is that they were directed by Ridley Scott, and it shows in the exquisite attention to detail put into the film even if the film isn't his best work. (Again, Hannibal. Seriously, it's not good.)
Before Alien, Scott owned a commercial production company and had directed only one other film, a period piece titled The Duellists in which the French aristocracy get stabby with one another. Although not widely known today, the Duellists did receive a lot of positive reviews and won an award for best film at Cannes Film Festival (source).
This brings us to Alien, the film that would launch Scott's name into the mainstream. As with any film, it's difficult to say what elements the director was responsible for and which ones should be credited to the producer, writers, actors, costume designers, and so on. Still, it's safe to say that Alien wouldn't have been the genre-defining, franchise-starting film it was without Scott at the helm. Here are two examples of what we're talking about:
(1) Scott hired Mary Selway, who had worked with him on The Duellists, as the casting director. With her help, they were able to cast talented but relatively unknown actors. According to Ronald Shusett, Scott wanted "to cast every other role with the most brilliant actor I can that doesn't need help from me" so that he could "concentrate on the visual style" (source).
(2) Scott also came up with the idea to have one person design all the other human settings and have another concept artists design all the settings for the alien and planetoid. Robb Cobb came on to design the Nostromo and human technology and bonkers Swedish artist H.R. Giger was convinced to come on to design the alien and mysterious spaceship. Their designs not only gave the film its own unique feel but set the stage for the numerous sequels to follow (source).
The film's history is full of these kinds of examples. Point is: Scott made Alien, and he made it work.
It all started with a beach ball alien.
When Dan O'Bannon was attending the University of Southern California, he collaborated with fellow student John Carpenter on Dark Star. Carpenter intended Dark Star to be his master's thesis, but the little science fiction comedy that could eventually made its way into theaters.
Dark Star is, at best, a cult film today—mostly notable for having the only beach ball alien in cinematic history—but while working on it, O'Bannon met future collaborators like Ron Cobb and Ron Shusett. It also made him want to do a film with a realistic, frightening alien. "It was that beach ball that made me want to do Alien so badly," he said (source).
O'Bannon would go on to work with Alejandro Jorodowsky on Dune—a film concept so bizarre that it would have made David Lynch's Dune look like Death of a Salesman. Unfortunately, because we can't have nice things, Jorodowsky's Dune never made it past pre-production. (There is a movie documentary covering the unfinished Dune project, if you're into that.) But something good did come out of this collaboration: O'Bannon met another future Alien collaborator, H. R. Giger.
When the film failed, O'Bannon moved onto Shusett's couch. The desire to move off said couch that got him really working on Alien (source), and Shusett helped O'Bannon flesh out the story concept. In fact, he's credited with thinking up the devious means by which the alien finds its way onto the ship. The script eventually made its way into the hands of Brandywine Productions co-owners Walter Hill and David Giler, and the rest is history.
… Or at least it would be if that is how movies worked. But they don't.
The truth is that Giler and Hill took O'Bannon's script through several rewrites. Some of the changes were small—for example, renaming all the characters—while others were so insane that they would eventually be re-edited out. To give you an idea of how crazy some of those rewrites got, one of their treatments featured Attila the Hun (we kid you not) (source).
One change that did make it through was making Ripley into a woman. O'Bannon and Shusett made a note that they had intended the script to be unisex, so any character could be switched to be played by a woman. Sure, they never intended the surviving character Ripley to be made a woman—but we think you'll agree that the change was a good one (source).
Thanks to Alien, O'Bannon was eventually able to move off Shusett's couch for good, but the two did work together again on the classic Total Recall. Despite his subsequent career, O'Bannon is still best remembered for that little alien that burst forth from Kane's chest and ruined a perfectly good dinner—and bought O'Bannon's dinner for years to come.
Alien was produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill through their company Brandywine Productions. Before Alien, Brandywine only had two films to its name, Women in Love (1969) and The Student Body (1976). As you can probably guess from the titles, about the only thing these films have in common with Alien is that they're also films.
The company found its calling with Alien, and every movie they have produced since has been a part of the franchise in some way. It even produced the spin-off films such as AVP: Alien vs. Predator and the kinda-sorta-not-really prequel Prometheus.
Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill were instrumental in making Alien the film it would become. Let's look at a couple of their big moves:
(1) Perhaps most importantly, they got 20th Century Fox to distribute the film, saving it from becoming a low-budget Corman film. Not that there's anything wrong with a so-bad-its-good science fiction B movie—but would we be Shmooping it if were Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder? Let's just say we're glad the money came through.
It makes sense that 20th Century Fox was in on it, as the company has a rich history of science fiction: the Star Wars films, the Planet of the Apes films, the Alien franchise, Predator, Avatar, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Among others...
(2) Giler and Hill also took the script through several drafts. In "The Beast Within: The Making of Alien" documentary, Alan Ladd Jr. states that the Giler and Hill "rewrote the script from top to bottom." Or did they? As Dan O'Bannon says in the very same documentary, "The only thing I could see [they were] doing was just stirring around the elements." And then there's Carroll, who noted that Giler and Hill changed the "whole character of the film" but not its "spine."
We're probably never going to get to the bottom of this (and really, does it matter?), but it seems fair to say that Giler and Hill left their mark on the script.
(3) Of Giler and Hill's contributions, Ronald Shusett said they provided one of the best aspects of the story (spoiler alert): Ash being a robot and the way he's revealed to be.
(4) During the pre-production phase, Giler and Hill also decided to make the film's lead a woman. That's rare today and it was even rarer then, but you can thank Ripley—and Giler and Hill—for characters like Sarah Conner, Dana Scully, Katniss Everdeen, and Tris Prior.
Today, movies from the pre-CGI era can seem cheesy or fake, especially when sci-fi films tried to depict realities no one had ever seen before. Sharp-eyed audiences have spied many a monster's string and complained about the herky-jerky movements of stop-motion animation.
Alien's production screams classic Hollywood. The film was shot on good ol' fashioned film, and principal photography took place on set at Pinewood Studios. During filming, actors walked the halls and air ducts of the Nostromo with nary a green screen in sight. Outer shots of the Nostromo are of a model of the ship, whose building was supervised by Nick Allder and Brain Johnson and filmed at Bray Studios (source).
Another example of this classic approach to film-making is the alien itself. In the pre-motion capture days of 1979, Scott and his crew had to both create a monster costume and find someone to wear it. For the wearing, they found Bolaji Badejo; for the creation, they found H. R. Giger. As he recalls:
So I started with a kind of statue of Bolaji, and directly over that I modeled the shape of the Alien in plasticine, with bones and tubes and lots of mechanical things. The head I built up from a real human skull using plasticine and flexible piping […] See the muscles and tendons of the jaw? We made them out of stretched and shredded latex contraceptives. (source)
We told you there was something phallic about that mouth.
Scott has said of the film design: "I always believe that if you can do it physically do it. You can spend one hundred thousand dollars […] and it's ridiculous. You don't need to" (source). And when it is done right—i.e. you can't see the strings—you get Hollywood magic.
And in Alien, is it ever done right.
Alien's score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and boy this guy can compose. He's written the soundtracks for movies as varied as Chinatown, Gladiator, Total Recall, Logan's Run, The Secrets of Nimh and a bunch of the Star Trek films. And that's just a sampling. Ever heard of The Ballad of Cable Hogue? No? Well, Goldsmith composed the music for it, too (source).
Goldsmith's style has proven as distinct as the types of movies listed above. About the only through line in his career is that he writes excellent music to heighten the experience of watching movies.
Let's consider some examples of how the music heightens the experience in Alien.
In the opening scene, the camera crawls through the Nostromo, the score underling both the mystery and the grandeur. The mechanical drones of the sleeping ship join the percussion instruments rumbling in the soundtrack, creating a sense of foreboding, while the flutes stay invitingly inquisitive. By the time the crew awakens from hypersleep, the sinister percussion underling the score fades out, and the wind and string instruments build to something lighter, giving the sense of awakening and rejuvenation.
When the alien attacks Brett, the score has an unearthly undertone with some discordant strings that rises to a quick, shrill, violent finale to match Brett's death. Then there is only silence and metallic clang of the chains as Jonesy watches nearby. Unlike the opening track, the music here builds fear and parallels the sudden violence of the alien's act.
Finally, when Ripley battles with the alien alone in the shuttle, there's no music at all. Instead, the sounds of the mechanisms, the alien's movements, and Ripley's troubled breathing build the suspense for us. The music only picks up after the alien has been expelled from the ship, booming and dramatic until the alien is finally killed when it fades into a triumphant exclamation of Ripley's defeat of the monster.
We should point out that Goldsmith's score was edited and rearranged in post-production. As David Giler notes, "This is always a trick part because no matter how much of it the composer hums for you or plays on the piano, you don't really hear his score until you are on the recording stage. And his score was way too lush, more like his Patton score, which was not really what anybody particularly wanted. We wanted it more haunting and weird and strange" (source).
Goldsmith has stated that he originally wanted the main title to play out "very romantically, very lyrically, and then let the shock comes as the story evolves." But he points out, "It didn't go over too well, and Ridley and I had major disagreements over that. So I subsequently wrote a new main title which was the obvious thing weird and strange" (Ibid)
Other changes included Freud. Goldsmith composed this track for the movie Freud, and it was only mean to be a temp track for the hypersleep awakening scene. But Ridley Scott liked it, and, since they had the rights to it, kept it in the final version (source). The ending theme was also replaced with Howard Hanson's Symphony #2.
As with most parts of the movie business, it can be hard to draw the line between Goldsmith's work and the work of others. If you want to explore Goldsmith's original score, you can: it's on CD, online, and even available through DVD extras.
Although it may not have reached the critical mass of Star Trek or Star Wars, the Alien franchise has maintained a considerable fandom in pop culture. To be fair, it is a bit easier to cosplay as a Vulcan than it is to craft a convincing xenomorph costume—although it's insanely awesome when done right.
Online, the fandom is dedicated to dissecting every aspect of the film, both on and off the screen. If you're the chronicler type, then you've found your people. For example, Xenopedia is a wiki site dedicated to all things Alien, Predator, and Alien versus Predator, whereas the Alien Anthology wiki stays within its Alien roots.
Strange Shapes is an excellent fan blog that features some amazing original articles researching the history of the films and their production. The articles about Dan O'Bannon's struggles with writing Alien as well as the wacky ideas David Giler and Walter Hill came up with in their many, many rewrites are especially fascinating. Or if you're looking for more interaction within your fandom, Reddit's LV426 has got your back.
Offline, the fans have kept the Alien franchise alive in every medium imaginable. Alien related video games have come out for every system imaginable. (We're not afraid to admit that we spent many an unproductive Saturday morning blasting the creatures on our SNES.) Then there have been the books, graphic novels, fan made films, and, of course, an active crochet community.
Perhaps most surprising, academics have been pumping out academic papers since day one. More than 35 years later, they're still finding new ways to decipher the story and symbols of Scott's 1979 film and its sequels. Writing for Slate, Tom Shone has produced an excellent overview this cottage industry if you're interested. (How could you not be?)
All this is basically to say, if you love Alien and you love anything else, chances are the fandom has brought the two together at some point. Again, Alien crochet is a thing.