32 Things We Learned From the ‘Alien’ Commentary

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Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s latest magnum opus, a groundbreaking cinematic achievement beyond our wildest imaginations. At least that’s what we’re all hoping for with the film. At the very least we’ll take a return to the sci-fi terror Scott unleashed on audiences earlier in his career, but Prometheus is a film moviegoers all over will be talking about. We’d love to hear Scott talk about it, probably along with screenwriter Damen Lindelof. We’ll take Jon Spaihts just because he comes with the package deal, but it’ll be a commentary that delves into the depths each man had to go to craft yet another legendary, sci-fi tale. That will be amazing.

Anyway, here’s the commentary for Alien.

Seriously, though. How can you introduce Alien?

Alien (2003 Director’s Cut, originally released in 1979)

commentators: Ridley Scott (director), Sigourney Weaver (actress), Ronald Shusett (executive producer/story by), John Hurt (actor), Dan O’Bannon (writer), Veronica Cartwright (actress), Tom Skerritt (actor), Harry Dean Stanton (actor), Terry Rawlings (editor)

  • Scott begins the commentary praising Alan Ladd, Jr., producer and head of 20th Century Fox at the time Alien was made. The director recalls how successful Ladd was at that time having just got a little film called Star Wars made. Thanks, Laddie. He hates being called that.
  • The initial idea for the opening credits was to have the title made up of bits of flesh and bone, which Shusett explains was far too gory. Scott recollects he saw the poster design for the film, and asked that the film’s title be used with the same font. He notes the title as its revealing itself looks like a hieroglyph.
  • Much of the set of the Nostromo was made up of skeletons of old aircraft. Scott wanted to give the ship an aged look, as if it’s been bandied about space for, as Hurt calls it, “donkey’s years.”
  • “If you think about it, it doesn’t quite make sense,” says Scott regarding cryogenic freezing and deep sleep for traveling in space. He’s unsure if the technology could ever exist, but he says it’s at least a long way off. James Cameron will figure it out.
  • Scott recalls how determined he was about the casting being just right. The studio grew nervous with the production start date approaching, but Scott wasn’t ready until he was sure his Nostromo crew was perfect. The way he sees it, the right casting can solve 50–70% of the problems the film might run into.
  • Jon Finch was originally cast as Kane, and came down with illness during the first day of filming. He was taken to the hospital where he learned he had diabetes. Scott had to decide who to recast over lunch that day and landed on John Hurt, who was performing a play in the area. Hurt was the original consideration for Kane, but couldn’t do Alien because of a schedule conflict that ended up not happening.
  • Scott gets into the differences between the theatrical and director’s cut, which got a theatrical release in 2003. He notes the director’s cut is 12 minutes longer, and most of the moments and scenes that were taken out were done so because of structure or pacing. This may have been a form recording of what Scott says about all his director’s cuts, but there’s no evidence of this.
  • “Nobody respects you later for having been a nice guy and giving up,” says Scott. Fine words, but he comes to this point from talking about how much he wanted the chairs to wobble when the Nostromo lands on the planetoid. For all we know, Ridley Scott is who we have to thank for D-Box.
  • “He’s a Replicant, basically,” says Scott about Ash. Yes, we get it, Ridley. Decker is a Replicant. Ash is a Replicant. We’re all Replicants. You happy? He does point out Ash’s quick, little jog in place might be a clue to him being a robot, that maybe all robots get stiff and need to keep their joints active. Someone go see if Harrison Ford ever does that in Blade Runner.
  • Hurt recalls how he and Cartwright were nearly poisoned while filming the exterior shots of the planetoid. At one point during shooting, tubes broke on their suits causing some kind of aerosol to leak into their helmets. They both struggled from fainting, but were assured it was all very safe. Hurt is less than convinced.
  • One of the ways Scott created atmosphere on set and, as Shusett explains, captured the mood of H.R. Giger’s original concept art works was by filling every set with a thin smoke, uniformly distributed throughout the set so no billowing clouds could be seen. You can’t see the smoke, as it’s everywhere in most shots, but it provides the resulting mood.
  • “I figured the Space Jockey was somehow a pilot, and he’s part of a military operation, if that’s the word you wanna apply to his world, and therefore this is probably some kind of carrier, a weapon carrier, a biological or biomechanoid carrier of lethal eggs,” says Scott. And Prometheus is explained. Spoiler alert, dude.
  • Scott does point out how the gestating alien picks up attributes from its host, an idea that many have assumed from things Scott and others involved in the film have said over the years but don’t fully get from Alien.
  • The Facehugger seen moving while still in the egg is Scott’s gloved hands flicking about when the light hits them. The top of the egg was made with steel hydraulics. The Facehugger as seen in the opened egg is various bits of cow innards and probably other animals. The tail of the Facehugger is an intestine and a blast of air being pumped through it. The Facehugger dissection scene involved raw oysters in a plastic mold of the creature. Now go make your own Alien movie.
  • The Facehugger was planned to be painted green, but O’Bannon, seeing the unpainted Facehugger on set and noting how inventive its human flesh-tone color was, argued for it to remain as is.
  • During one take where Weaver is asking Harry Dean Stanton why he always says “Right” whenever Yaphet Kotto’s Parker says anything, Stanton responded by improving the line “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” It’s not that interesting, but it sure made Harry Dean Stanton laugh.
  • Skerritt had seen some of the design work being done on John Hurt, but most of the actors didn’t know what exactly was going to happen during the famous Chestburster scene. Scott set up four cameras. They only did one take. The look on Cartwright’s face is absolutely genuine. “And I thought it was real,” says Stanton.
  • According to Scott, O’Bannon’s lifelong dream would be to have been able to direct Alien. Scott was the fifth or sixth director chosen to direct it, and though he threatens to but doesn’t name names, he does say directors turned down the job.
  • The room where Stanton’s Brett gets taken out by the Xenomorph was a point of contention between Scott and the producers. They didn’t understand why there would be water pouring or chains dangling in a ship such as this. Scott, feeling he needed the extra movement in the scene, stuck to his guns and got his chains.
  • Scott got the hissing reaction from Jones the Cat by flashing a German Shepherd into the cat’s sight – a method still loads more humane than Milo & Otis.
  • According to Shusett, part of Scott’s pitch for directing the film was he wanted Alien to be “the most straight-forward, unpretentious, riveting thriller like Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby or even the most brilliant B-level like Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I want it to look, and I’m going to do this, like 2001.” That was when Shusett knew Scott had the right frame of mind to capture the film as it needed.
  • It was concept artist Ron Cobb’s idea to have the Facehugger and Xenomorph bleed acid. The idea came when O’Bannon ran into a wall with the screenplay in how to handle the last half of the movie. He needed a good reason for why the crew members don’t just shoot the damn thing and kill it but still not make it an indestructible monster that can’t be killed. The acid blood was the idea that solved this problem.
  • There was discussion to include a gay relationship between Ripley and Lambert. Cartwright and Skerritt both joke that Lambert and Dallas were having an affair, which explains why she doesn’t want to abandon ship until after he’s dead. Basically all the characters in Alien are sleeping with all the other characters in Alien. Let your fan fiction pens do their work.
  • The character of Ash, and subsequently an android character being introduced into the film, is what O’Bannon calls a “Russian spy,” someone on a mission who it is discovered intends to sabotage said mission. “If it wasn’t in there, what difference does it make?” the screenwriter asks. “I mean, who gives a rat’s ass? So somebody is a robot.” O’Bannon was annoyed by the character being added and calls it “an inferior idea from inferior minds well acted and well directed.”
  • Before filming the scene where Ash shoves a rolled up magazine into Ripley’s mouth, Scott told Weaver actor Ian Holm was going to stick the magazine “up her hooter.” Of course, he is referring to her mouth, though Weaver was more than a little confused at the time, but Scott does mention shoving the magazine into Ripley’s mouth was a form of sexual release for the robot. That one’s for you fan fiction writers, as well.
  • A different version of Ash explaining to the remaining crew what his mission was had much different dialogue. According to Cartwright, Ash originally asked them if they had tried to communicate with the Xenomorph yet. There was also dialogue about the alien being an experiment of some kind.
  • “Would I go back for my dogs? Absolutely,” say Scott answering anyone who might question why Ripley would go back for Jones.
  • The shot where the Xenomorph’s tail goes through Lambert’s legs and up her back was actually a shot taken from when Stanton’s character, Brett, is killed. If you look close, the pants and boots don’t fit what Lambert is wearing in the scene where she encounters the alien. Originally her character was to crawl away from the alien and essentially die from fright hiding in a locker, but this was never shot.
  • It was also originally intended for the destruction of the Nostromo to be the finale of the film, that Ripley would record her sign-off just after this moment. However, Scott felt there needed to be an additional scene after this to show the death of the alien. He calls it the “fourth act” and notes how, up to that point, thrillers such as this didn’t have this final moment of suspense before the very end. After Alien, many screenplays picked up this element.
  • There were intentions to shoot what Weaver calls a “quasi-sex scene” with Ripley and the Xenomorph in the final scene. The alien was to investigate her and be fascinated by her body compared to his/her/its/whatever’s. The production didn’t have time to film the scene. Sometimes there just isn’t time for sex.
  • Weaver mentions the interest in making Alien 5 and how she would be interested in going back to this world. Scott mentions he’d be more interested to see where the Xenomorph came from and explore who the Space Jockey really is and what its ship is. Scott and Weaver bandy back and forth for a bit about possible Prometheus script ideas long before it was even Prometheus.
  • It was Weaver’s idea to sing “You Are My Lucky Star” while preparing to get rid of the Xenomorph. Scott mentions how much flack he got from the production because of how expensive the rights to the song were.

Best in Commentary

“It’s Ten Little Indians in The Old Dark House.” – Ridley Scott

“When it comes to texturing a scene, texture, mood, subtlety of mood and feeling and atmosphere, he really is superb. Without it, it would have been a much lesser picture.” – O’Bannon about Scott’s direction

“There’s the value of novelty. If it’s new and you haven’t seen it before, it has impact.” – O’Bannon

“I was thinking about pussy the whole time.” – Harry Dean Stanton, and this goes without explanation. It’s best left ambiguous.

Final Thoughts

The Alien commentary, though loaded with bits of good information, actually suffers from having too many people contributing, especially when Scott and either O’Bannon or Weaver or all three of them would have been more than enough. The way it is, we don’t hear what Scott has to say from some key moments. We hear from Skerritt, Cartwright, and Stanton during the Chestburster scene, not even anything from Hurt, who is the focus of that scene.

Still, when Scott goes into the detail of every aspect of this film, whether it be the look of the ship or the look of the creatures or the way things move or how the ship sounds, you realize how determined he was to craft something novel as well as durable. But it’s not just insight into Alien we get from the director. There’s a long period where he discusses the horror movies of the ’70s and even giving good lip service to The Exorcist.

Though not everyone on this commentary has much to contribute – Hurt isn’t heard through the last 90 minutes of the film – and it would have added much overall if some of them had been cut, there is plenty to enjoy in this commentary. Scott is a very focused director who knows what he wants and won’t stop until he gets it. The passion he brought to Alien shines through in the way he talks about it.

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