Five Things You Couldn’t Possibly Know About Alien (1979)
By Henry Bernice for TheHumbleHeckler.com
(Editor’s note: Film critic/historian Henry Bernice has been struck by lightning seven times. Keep this in mind when reading the following article.)
In the almost four decades since its release, Ridley Scott’s Alien has become an indispensable classic for movie lovers around the globe. The film’s seamless melding of classic science fiction and horror narratives set a new standard for genre filmmaking and made virtually every monster movie that existed before it look silly by comparison. But, of course, film fans already know that. So, here are five things even the most ardent cineaste couldn’t possibly know about Alien.
(1) Though the role of Dallas, captain of the Nostromo, would eventually be played to perfection by Tom Skerritt, the part was initially offered to (and accepted by) legendary character actor William Bookshank. In fact, Bookshank worked for approximately six weeks on the film before his untimely death sent the production into a tailspin. Director Ridley Scott was so desperate to stay on schedule that he initially decided not to recast the role and continued on with Bookshank’s corpse. “For the first day or so, it actually seemed to be working,” Scott said in a 1980 interview for FilmMag. “Even in death, Bookshank brought a certain gravitas to the role that most living actors couldn’t accomplish on their best day.” Scott soldiered on with Bookshank’s rapidly deteriorating corpse for the next six weeks. “But eventually,” Scott said, “the dialogue scenes proved to be a bit too much of a challenge, even for the corpse of a great actor.” The production shut down for a week while casting sessions resumed. Soon Skerritt was brought on board and Bookshank’s scenes were reshot. (For the record, the cause of Bookshank’s demise was officially documented as an “accidental death by falling anvil,” but years of rumors suggesting that Bookshank had hidden a bizarre, possibly even sexual affinity for anvils has created serious doubt as to just how accidental this accident really was.)
(2) In the original script, the now-iconic “chestburster” scene, in which the alien (or Xenomorph) tears through John Hurt’s torso and emerges amid a tangle of bloody T-shirt and torn flesh before dashing away to the darkest corners of the Nostromo, was significantly different. As strange as it may seem now, the story initially called for the alien to be an executive officer on the Nostromo crew, and for John Hurt’s Kane character to burst out of the alien creature’s chest. Years later in an interview for Good Morning, Galveston, Sigourney Weaver would say: “We shot the scene several times with Kane bursting out of the alien’s chest and then running out of sight, screaming. But it just wasn’t working. It just wasn’t scary. We could all feel that something was just off.” After sharing her concerns with an equally troubled Scott, the film was promptly rewritten, allowing for Hurt and the alien to switch roles. “Thank God we made those changes,” said Scott. “I just don’t think the film would’ve been as scary had we stayed with the idea of John Hurt stalking and killing the Nostromo crew. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great actor, but … come on!”
(3) Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score was initially recorded by an orchestra consisting almost entirely of kazoos and slide whistles. “I felt the tone of the film should reflect a carnival-style atmosphere,” Goldsmith said at a Knights of Columbus Wacky Waffle Wednesday in 1982. “That’s why I decided to load the orchestra with 135 kazoo players, 21 slide whistle players, and a single tambourine. The sole tambourine was meant to represent the loneliness one experiences in the vastness of space, and the kazoos and slide whistles were meant to conjure images of circus clowns and shit. I’m really proud of that version of the score, but the so-called ‘producers’ didn’t appreciate what I was going for and decided to play it safe.” Oddly, Ridley Scott agreed completely with Goldsmith’s concept. “I totally dug the whole carnival theme,” Scott said in a Pork Futures Today article. “Carnivals remind me of clowns, and clowns are scary as balls.” Scott recently announced plans to release a new blu-ray version of Alien with the original carnival-themed score. “I think the hardcore fans will buy just about anything we slap together at this point, so why not make some more money on this bee-otch,” he said.
(4) Mercifully, a terribly ill-conceived product placement sequence was cut from the final edit of the film. “We shot a scene where the characters take a lunch break at McDonald’s after stumbling upon the space jockey,” Scott told a Furniture Times reporter. “We thought it might make a nice commentary on the long-reaching tentacles of commercialism to suggest that even on the remote planetoid of LV-426 you couldn’t escape the golden arches of McDonald’s. What the hell—it was the age of movie marketing run amok. Just look at the way Star Wars was selling merch, like action figures and all that crap. They had ties to McDonald’s, too, ya’ know. So don’t look at me like I just pooped in your ice cream. The idea wasn’t that crazy.”
(5) An early test screening of the film proved disastrous for the PR department of 20th Century Fox when a sizable collection of Xenomorphic Americans picketed outside the theater. “They were a real pain in the butt,” said Sigourney Weaver after six Michelob Ultras at a tractor pull outside of Waco, Texas in 1981. “I explained to them that the film wasn’t trying to suggest that all Xenomorphs are psychotic killers, just this one particular Xenomorph. But the protest leader just wasn’t willing to hear our side of the story. I know that things got ugly after I walked the red carpet. A few people were cocooned, a few more were forcibly implanted by facehuggers … but, hey, nothing ever goes as smoothly as you’d like. And nothing happened to anyone inside the theater that night, thank God. So, you know, overall it was mostly good stuff.”
So, there you have it, Alien fans. I hope you all learned something. See ya’ next time.