Whether you loved Prometheus or hated it with every fiber of your being, you can’t deny the fact that it was at least successful in continuing a cinematic conversation about it long after it debuted in theaters. After the film’s Blu-ray release in October, the original script was leaked online, sparking a slew of articles to be written about the differences between it and the final film. (For a look at FSR’s take on that, check out J.F. Sargent’s The 8 Worst Parts of Prometheus Made Sense In the Original Script.)
This week, coinciding with the leaking of that script, we’re going straight to the horse’s mouths about the writing of Prometheus. As interesting as Ridley Scott is, let’s lend an ear to the writers of the film as they discuss the differences in the many drafts of the film.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, be warned: there are many spoilers in the discussion below.
And on to the commentary…
Commentators: Jon Spaihts (writer) and Damon Lindelof (writer and executive producer)
1. Jon Spaihts was originally brought on when the film was simply the “untitled Alien prequel.” After a general meeting, where he riffed for about 45 minutes about what could happen in the film. When faced with a studio saying they wanted to go back to the Alien universe but wasn’t sure how to do it, Spaihts said, “The only way to do it was to go back in time.”
2. After his first meeting, it took only ten days before Spaihts had a meeting with Ridley Scott and the 20th Century Fox executives. He wrote his first draft in only 3 1/2 weeks.
3. Although Scott has said that the location for the opening sequence is not necessarily Earth, Damon Lindelof describes it as a “sort of nascent, pastoral, lifeless Earth” and later identifies it as “the dawn of life on Earth.” However, several minutes later, Lindelof says it’s up for debate whether this was Earth.
4. The opening sequence included dialogue between the Engineers, and this was shot and included in the deleted scenes. However, the dialogue was removed because it was felt the Engineers speaking robbed them of their mystery. Lindelof, who recorded his commentary before the film was released, suspected he would be criticized for not saying exactly what happened.
5. Lindelof says that he and Scott had “a long and involved conversation” on what to call the film. “Ridley would constantly bust my balls about calling it Prometheus because he thought it was pretentious and hard to pronounce,” he says. “I said I agree it is both, but as I am a very pretentious person, I was able to sort of bludgeon him into it, and I think Fox thought it was cool.”
6. The name of the ship in Spaihts’ original script was the Magellan, and the name Prometheus was added by Lindelof. Continuing to admit he’s a pretentious writer, Lindelof says he chose the allusion to Greek mythology because Weyland (Guy Pearce) is trying to get immortality from his creators as Prometheus stole fire from the gods.
7. Even though the dig where we meet Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) was in Spaihts’ original script, Scott didn’t shoot it initially, choosing to start the action in space. This scene was added during reshoots. Other versions of the archeology scene includes one in which Shaw and Holloway make their discovery in a submarine, but it was cut for budgetary reasons. Another version had them finding archeology on Mars, but Spaihts felt that was too much of an easy sell to convince someone that aliens seeded Earth.
8. In regards to Prometheus being labeled a horror movie, Lindelof states, “I think Prometheus certainly has defined horror elements… They just can’t stay out of the attic even if they know that it’s dangerous.”
9. Spaihts identifies what he believes is the biggest shift between his script and Lindelof’s revisions: the amount of alien creatures in the film. Spaihts’ script had traditional facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. Lindelof removed many of those elements in order to avoid telling a standard Alien story.
10. Spaihts also felt a big difference in the script versions was there was “a pretty long drum roll at the top” in his script. Initially there were extended sequences of Shaw and Holloway making their case to find alien ancestors, using puzzle pieces of language, genealogy and pre-history. “By the time we got onto a ship, we’d been running really the ghost story of human past, the mystery story, for a solid twenty minutes of screen time in the scripts I wrote.” In Lindelof’s script, this exposition is put in during the crew briefing. Lindelof says he did this to be more dynamic by presenting the information to the crew members at the same time it’s presented to the audience.
11. Lindelof compares this exposition scene to the crew to his work on Lost. The scripted scene was 8 or 9 pages, and it throws a lot of exposition at the audience. He said when he worked on Lost, he avoided expository scenes “at all costs.” As a result, he says, “people hate me because the show was very confusing.”
12. Lindelof points out that David (Michael Fassbender) is perfectly happy to be a robot. He doesn’t’ have a Pinocchio complex. “Robots are like iPods,” he says. “You can put your own case on them or put your own apps on them.” This is why he emulates Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, to personalize himself rather than to emulate humanity.
13.After she wakes up from cryosleep, Meredith asks David if everyone is still alive. She is specifically asking whether Peter Weyland survived. If he were dead, she would have turned the ship around and gone home.
14. Both Spaihts and Lindelof express disappointment in the casting of a younger, extremely fit actor like Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland. Originally, there were scenes in which David talks to Weyland in his dream, and he appears as a young, fit man. However, Scott dropped those scenes because he didn’t think they were needed. This led Spaihts to refer to Weyland as “a strapping old man” and Lindelof to point out the inherent silliness of not just casting an old man rather than using old-age make-up.
15. Spaihts addresses a common complaint about the Prometheus being so much more advanced than the Nostromo, even though this film takes place many years before the events of Alien. He points out that the Nostromo was “a tugboat,” and it’s possible that cruder ship had been around for 150 years. “I don’t trip too much over the anachronism of the technology.”
16. Lindelof compares Weyland’s quest for more life (rather than more money) to Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Scott’s Blade Runner. However, instead of an artificial being seeking more life from humanity, this film features a human going to his creator and asking for more life. He says, “For me, Prometheus was all about making an Alien-Blade Runner mash-up, using the best themes from both movies and dropping them all into the same world… I just assumed they were sequels of each other.”
17. Spaihts wrote five drafts of the film, generally adhering more to the original Alien and including more of the derelict spacecraft (which is later referred to as a “juggernaut”).
18. In Spaihts’ original draft, the pups used to map the caves rolled and crawled along the ground instead of flying. He admits that they look cooler in the air.
19. Both Spaihts and Lindelof address the often criticized helmet removal by the crew. Lindelof calls it a “leap of faith” for the characters and compares Holloway’s helmet removal to the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss removes his gas mask to prove there’s no danger. Spaihts calls the issue an inevitable tug-of-war. “Logic demands the helmet stay on almost always for head protection, for atmosphere, pressure could blow, infection could set in,” he said. “The director and actors will always want their helmets off for performance’s sake. And there will always be pressure to give the actors a good excuse to take their hats off.”
20. Spaihts originally conceived that the Engineers saw a greater spectrum than humans did. However, so did David, and he could see signs and symbols in the corridors that the humans didn’t.
21. Lindelof says Holloway gave Shaw “probably the worst STD you can possibly get, an alien in the belly.” What emerges is progenitor of the facehugger, and he says, “Shaw and Holloway are kind of that facehugger’s mommy and daddy.” Spaihts also independently calls the alien embryo a sexually transmitted disease, adding, “A chestburster was actually conceived by the love of a man and a woman.”
22. Lindelof further discusses the motivation of the Engineers: “That’s kind of the point of the movie, I think. The idea that our creators really don’t have a particular sense of great ambition or meaning behind what they’re doing as Holloway described it in an earlier draft… The idea that Earth was just these people’s Petri dish. But perhaps there is more to why they created us in the first place, which is sort of the spirit in which the movie ends. Again if you’re listening to my commentary it’s probably because you’re interested in what I have to say or you hate me. In either case, one of the things that I love to do in my writing is not answer questions definitively. As frustrating as this is I rely much more on the human imagination and your ability to sort of theorize as to what you think may have happened. And although that’s why its’ frustrating, people talk about movies after they’re over.”
23. Lindelof anticipates fans taking issue with the explanation and human connection to the space jockey, as he did initially when he read Spaihts’ script. He says, “It’s a controversial idea because anything in a prequel that essentially recasts your understanding of the original movie has the opportunity to lessen that movie and therefore, it’s a risk.”
24. On how the film actually ties in directly with Alien and its sequels, Lindelof is continually vague: “We still don’t know what happened on LV-426. Maybe we’ll never know. This movie goes off in its own direction. But again we sort of wanted to have the sense that if Prometheus had never occurred, maybe Alien still would’ve happened. But we’re seeing a similar chain of events going in an entirely different way.”
25. Lindelof explains that David is hesitant to spike Holloway’s drink with the alien mutagen possibly because of his ethics programming. However, because Weyland has instructed him to do whatever is necessary to bring a solution, but more importantly because Holloway admits that he’d do anything to get his own answers, that allows David to override that part of his programming.
26. Spaihts originally conceived Janek (Idris Elba) as a Captain Nemo type. While Elba doesn’t physically resemble the bearded type Spaihts had envisioned, he did fit the part extremely well. In fact, Lindelof makes several mentions throughout his commentary that he would do anything to add more Janek moments.
27. The sex scene between Holloway and Shaw was originally more antagonistic, in which Holloway was upset because he wanted to disprove the existence of God. Lindelof rewrote the scene for a reshoot to make it more congenial. This allows the audience to feel sympathy for Holloway when he is eventually killed by Vickers (Charlize Theron).
28. In Spaihts’ original script, Holloway was impregnated by a facehugger in the tunnels of the pyramid, after being startled by the holograms and falling down on an egg. The chestburster then emerged while he was making love to Shaw. Spaihts specifically chose this moment to tie together sex and violence, as is often done in the Alien universe.
29. Lindelof added the element of Fifield (Sean Harris) getting stoned in his suit to match the pattern of a horror movie, in which characters that have sex or get stoned often die.
30. After Holloway and Shaw’s sex scene and the attack on Millburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield, Spaihts elaborates: “It’s interesting to see the Alien franchise’s built-in sexualization of menace play out in different fronts here. And it’s something that I think Damon did well, you know, obliged to part company with facehuggers and chestbursters which are very rapey and sexual phenomena. Pregnancy. And you, know, oral rape and impregnation as the way of being done in a by a monster, really ghastly. It’s why there is an Alien franchise and not one scary Alien movie… The blasphemy of it, the fact that it is so vile and it’s so transgressive in the way it victimizes a human being I think is what makes it resonate, what makes it so dark.”
31. In Spaihts’ script, David finds a huge cargo hold of eggs, which was meant to undo the experiment on Earth. David captures and restrains Shaw when she confronts him in there. She is impregnated by a facehugger, and because she witnessed Holloway’s death, she knows what it will do to her. This is what causes her to escape and use the Med-Pod to extract it. Spaihts says that this deliberate exposure of Shaw to the aliens is what he misses most about his screenplay.
32. Spaihts says his idea of the C-section alien removal is what got him the writing job because no one had ever survived that before in an Alien film. “The real trauma is the exit wound,” he says, “so if you get it out clean, you might live.” In his script, once the creature was removed, it was ejected from the Med-Pod, and Shaw stayed in there for hours to heal, all the while watching it grow and eventually kill people. “Either way, she ends up running away, bloody and half-naked,” he admits.
33. The imagery around David accessing the Engineers’ stellar cartography hologram was inspired by a painting from Joseph Wright called “The Orrery.”
34. When Holloway is torched by Vickers, Spaihts points out the challenges in Lindelof’s script: “This is a difficult moment. And I can see Damon here looking for answers. You know, deprived of the facehuggers and aliens that otherwise killed these characters, how do you do away with them and how do you provide a moment for the evil for your villains to play out?”
35. Lindelof identifies what he considers to be the fundamental difference between his and Spaihts’ scripts, which influenced the name and direction of the film: “Weyland was not a character in Jon’s draft other than at the opening. He’s not on the ship. He was driven by the idea that finding the Engineers would result in breakthroughs in terraforming technology and thus could make the company a lot of money. In this version, Weyland is not driven by money at all. He’s driven by the one thing his money can’t buy him, which is some iteration of eternal life.”
36. When the surviving Engineer awakens, Lindelof points out that there are no answers to what exactly the Engineers were doing. David gives a theory, but there are no answers, though Lindelof hints at some ideas that could be developed in further films. Spaihts offers a more concrete reason why there’s no explanation: “If you’re gonna wake up God, you’re gonna have Him talk to you, what on Earth could he say? What speech can he give you that will satisfy you that will be good enough, cool enough, deep enough? Here’s the alien super-race that made us what we are. What do they have to say to us?”
37. The Engineer originally did speak to David, which is included in the deleted scenes, but Lindelof said it was removed from the film because “it robbed him of any coolness or mystery.”
38. At the end of Spaihts’ script, after the juggernaut crashes, Shaw has to fight a xenomorph which emerged from the Engineer pilot. Lindelof decided to change it to the Engineer fighting her because he felt it was a movie about a creation confronting its creator, rather than a woman fighting an alien.
39. Spaihts chose the name “David” for the android because the first three androids were Ash, Bishop and Call, in that order. Alphabetically, David was the next logical choice. David was also a reference to Michaelangeo’s famous sculpture, which was a physical model for the Engineers. He’s also the first android to be referred to by a first name instead of his surname, and he was the first in chronology.
40. As he wraps up his commentary, Lindelof goes back to the question of whether this is an actual prequel to Alien or not. His final argument is: “This movie doesn’t end with a bunch of eggs on LV-426, and that’s partly what makes it not fit as a direct prequel.”
Best in Commentary
- Lindelof: “That was my attempt to get Charlize Theron naked, but cooler heads prevailed.” (Regarding Meredith Vickers doing push-ups in her underwear after waking from cryosleep)
- Lindelof: “How far away is that from LV 426?” About 185 LVs, whatever that means. Yes, I’m not as nerdy as I should be.” (Regarding the location of LV-223)
- Lindelof: “David is not really the guy you want as your OB-GYN.”
- Lindelof: “A spoiler alert here. If a man and a woman have sex, you can make a baby. And if that man has just been infected by a crazy android with weird black goop, that baby is going to be strange and upsetting.”
- Spaihts: “Both of the women in this movie are in insane shape. It’s terrifying how muscular and powerful they are. Either one could kick my ass.”
- Lindelof: “If you hated the movie, again, I apologize. And hopefully this made you hate me even more. And if you liked it, I’m really grateful that you did. And hopefully we’ll get to spend some more time in this universe because it’s one of my favorites.”
Personally, I loved Prometheus, and I tend to like Damon Lindelof’s work. There’s a clear disconnect between the two writers, and it’s interesting to see them take unseen jabs at each other (as well as stroke each other’s egos). Spaihts’ script is clearly more in line with a traditional Alien film, and die-hard fans of the series are going to wish that had been made instead of what happened after Lindelof took over.
Still, considering what a slaughterhouse the writing process for feature films can be, this commentary track was fascinating to retroactively see the timeline Prometheus took on its way through development.
Does Damon Lindelof come off as pretentious? Sure, but at least he admits it. And Spaihts gives and inspiring look at how he became the writer of a massive motion picture.