At the end of January ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ premiered at the Sundance film festival. It had been a few years since I had been to Sundance, something I used to enjoy more often, but given my proximity to the festival, I found the opportunity to see the third screening of the film. The director came on stage to introduce his movie to the audience before it began. I was there with my girlfriend and two friends of ours. We all really enjoyed what we saw, which was a different kind of exploration into the film than we were used to.
The day after the screening I was fortunate enough to sit down with Director Alexandre O. Philippe in Park City to ask him some questions about his new film…
Firstly thanks so much for joining us for this interview. I really enjoyed the film and how different it was from traditional behind-the-scenes material that has been produced for Alien. What motivated you to take on this project and how did all the planning for it get started?
Initially I was really interested in the idea of making a film about the chestburster, and very specifically its significance. I’m interested in these moments in culture or moments in cinema that really resonate with us, that change culture in a certain way, that have this massive impact. I’ve been doing this for a while now, looking at my filmography, but there’s really something about the chestburster that was intriguing to me in the way that I think jolted the audiences to a different kind of consciousness.
And so approaching that scene, to me was a very different approach than the Psycho shower scene. Very quickly you realize that it couldn’t be done the same way, and I became very interested in in the mythological elements of Alien. I think that ‘Memory’ is not just an origin story but it’s very much a mythological take on the movie Alien and all the influences that Dan O’Bannon drew from and the symbiosis between Dan O’Bannon, H. R. Giger, and Ridley Scott. There’s a lot there. I mean there’s so much there to explore and I felt that this needed to be a feature film.
The documentary opens with a scene featuring the ‘three Furies’ inside of a Nostromo-like set. What was your intention behind this dramatic scene and how did this spaceship set come about?
Without giving too much away about Memory because I think it holds a few surprises, I really wanted to establish visually and viscerally the connection that exists between the chestburster and ‘the Greek Furies’ in the sense that there are mythological roots to Alien. So that particular scene really came almost unconsciously. It came from my unconscious, and it felt like the right thing to do in the sense that it sort of froze the audience immediately in this world that has certain elements of mythology. There’s obviously [in the film] the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, there’s very few shots from another Temple at Valtera in Italy, and then we get into this spaceship and here are the great Furies and we have the blue laser and the blue mist which of course Alien fans will instantly recognize.
The Furies have these metal dentures that the fans will also recognize of course, but here they are speaking in ancient Greek. So it’s this sort of blend of the Alien universe and Greek mythology, which the idea was to create instantly a question: what is the connection between Alien and the Great Furies? And that’s a question that is of course answered over the course of the film itself. So it was definitely out there. I had many conversations with my producers about this. I felt very strongly about having that sequence. It’s almost a kind of pure cinema opening sequence. So far I’ve seen that it resonates with the fans so I’m very happy with that.
It seemed to me like the spotlight was truly on Dan O’Bannon here, after him Giger and less so on Ridley Scott. Typically, the focus of them has been in the opposite order. Was it a deliberate choice to keep the focus on Bannon?
Oh for sure. I think that Dan is the forgotten hero of Alien and the course of making Memory really changed when I got to meet Diane O’Bannon, his widow who is one of our Executive Producers, and she very generously opened Dan’s archives for the first time. She’s been very protective of them and I think she was probably waiting for the right project to come along.
When I went to see her in San Diego at her house, she opened the door and there were all these boxes lying around: drawings from Dan, scripts, versions of Alien, sketches of the creatures – obviously pre-Alien before he even met Giger, storyboards from Ron Cobb at a time when the Derelict was just a pyramid. And then of course there were the two different versions of Memory – the script which is only about thirty pages long. There’s a version A and a version B with slight differences.
I had goosebumps. Just being able to look at all this material was overwhelming and ultimately I gained Diane’s trust and it became clear to me that if we were going to make a film about the origins of Alien, and having access to Dan’s archive then it had to be very much about Dan. But like I said, I think Memory, for me, is about the creative symbiosis that happened between Dan, Giger, and Ridley Scott. At the end of the day, if you remove any of those three you don’t have Alien in this particular fashion. There was an extraordinary symbiosis, very specifically between Dan and Giger. Their interest in Necronomicon, their passion for Lovecraft…they were very much on the same wavelength.
And then Ridley came along and he connected with that. They needed Ridley to execute Alien in this particular way and Ridley was clearly the right director. As Ron Shusset said in my film, Ridley was the greatest visual stylist since Kubrick’s prime. So I think there’s all these elements and all the serendipity around the making of Alien – the fact the Dune had to essentially collapse in order for Alien to happen. It’s an amazing behind-the-scenes story which I think goes beyond just a making-of, there’s something way deeper that happened there.
Did you try to bring in Ridley Scott or Sigourney Weaver to discuss the film or did you feel that their involvement in Alien had already been thoroughly covered?
No, I definitely tried. it just didn’t work out. It is what it is but in retrospect, it’s kind of serendipitous in the sense that I think it’s difficult to make a cinematic essay about three geniuses, three creators, and to have two of them absent and one present in the process. So I think if Ridley had been able to do an interview and to participate in the film, I think it would have been a different film. So in retrospect I love the fact that we get to have their presence but only via archival footage.
One of the things that really interested me was that you had access to Dan O’Bannon’s vault. Outside of what was in the documentary, what were the most interesting things you learned about Alien from diving into O’Bannon’s archives?
Oh that’s a good question! I’ll just say there are many different versions of the script and there are pages and pages of story notes with alternate endings which I found absolutely fascinating. The very first version of Alien, so the first version of the script when it was actually called Alien, not Starbeast, not Memory – what’s fascinating is it’s roughly 115 page script I think, and the chestburster scene actually happens on page 73 or 75? So very, very late in the story. We talk of Alien as a slow burn when it was even more of a slow burn in the early stages of Dan O’Bannon’s process, and Ron Shusset at that point was also involved in the writing. To me it’s been really fascinating to explore all these different notes and these different ideas from Dan O’Bannon.
In the film you briefly touch on Ridley Scott’s more recent prequel Alien films: Prometheus and Covenant. It seemed like your interviewee was suggesting that the chest-bursting sequence in Covenant felt like an early discarded draft of the idea for Alien. I was wondering if you could elaborate on your own personal feelings on the differences between these two old and new sequences?
What’s interesting is that he does say that but he also says, and I’ll quote him here: “if you give into it, it’s also really delightful.” And that’s what to me is really fascinating about Ridley’s process now is that he is clearly drawn to a deeper exploration of this myth that he has created, of course along with Dan and Giger. At this stage of his career he’s willing to re-explore, to continue to dig deeper into it and to express it in different ways.
So I find that absolutely fascinating. I’m very much old school in the sense that I think Alien, the original Alien is still the best of all the Alien films for me, but I think it’s absolutely great to see him delving deeper into that universe and also really interesting to see that there are certain themes and ideas that keep recurring. Themes and ideas that you see also in Blade Runner. So there are certain preoccupations, I think, that maybe give us a little more of a sense of what Ridley is about now and what he might be thinking about now.
The first documentary of yours that I had seen was ‘The People vs. George Lucas,’ which I thought was fantastic. With Scott’s prequels, and being part of the Alien fandom, I’ve personally felt some similarities to what you explored in that documentary. You have one of the creators coming back and revisiting his earlier ideas to mixed reception. Do you see any similarity there yourself and might you be interested in exploring Alien again and how it has evolved as a franchise as you did with Star Wars?
Oh man, that’s a loaded question. I think any creator, be it George Lucas or Ridley Scott, any of those amazing filmmakers who gave us Star Wars or Alien are completely entitled to do what they want to do. If Ridley wants to make Alien movies for the next ten years, that’s totally his prerogative and I think more power to him. So I don’t think there’s any sort of comparison. I think the issue with ‘The People Vs. George Lucas’ was that George refused to restore and release the original film that we’d seen in the theaters, and it’s still an ongoing debate now, I think, for the fans.
When Blade Runner came out on the blu-ray set Ridley gave us five different versions and nobody complained, you know what I mean? So those are completely different issues. But I think they’re still fun films to watch. When you create a masterpiece like Alien, how’re you ever going to top that? When you create a masterpiece like Blade Runner how are you ever going to top that? I don’t think Ridley is trying to do that. I think he’s trying to delve deeper into themes and ideas he wants to expand upon and I think that’s great, it gives us a different context into his thinking as a filmmaker and quite frankly as a human being as well.
As opposed to another strictly behind-the-scenes documentary, you really focused on the mythology and feelings surrounding Alien, as well as the perfect storm of collaborators who came together to produce something truly memorable. 40 years later, how do you feel that Alien has had the kind of staying power that it has?
I think Alien precisely has the kind of staying power that it has because it tapped into something deeper. I think that Alien is now a myth for our age. I think the Xenomorph is completely a mythological creature. It’s a mythological creature that doesn’t just come out of the blue. It tapped into other myths, other stories, other images that resonate with different cultures as well, and those are creatures that come from the unconscious.
I don’t think you can ever put that Xenomorph into a box and say ‘this is what it is.’ It comes from Pazuzu or it comes from Kali, or it comes from the Bosch paintings or whatever the case may be. It’s all of that. It is a creature that comes from the cauldron of imagination that was Giger’s. In terms of its designs it comes from [his] dreams, it comes from [his] nightmares and it comes from his unconscious and resonates with our collective unconscious. You couple that with the story that is Alien and how great that is and how much of a myth it is as well, then you end up having a movie that is going to resonate forever. It was the right story at the right time, executed by the right people, and that’s why it will always be one of the greatest films ever made.
The Alien series has been very extensively documented over the years. Even though Memory takes a very specific look at O’Bannon, Giger and the Chestburster, did you get in touch with any of the other Alien documentarians – such as Charles de Lauzirika- or utilize their releases?
No. When I do something I like to just do my own thing. Of course I’ve watched what’s been done – we’ve even used some clips – but there hasn’t been a conversation. When I work I tend to work pretty much in a bubble and follow the story that I want to tell. As you’ve said earlier, I don’t make behind the scenes documentaries or making-of, which are great – I mean thank goodness for them, but that’s not what I do.
Are you planning a wide release of the film and when can we expect it to see on Digital and Blu-ray?
At this point it all depends on what happens with distribution. We just premiered the film three days ago now and we already have some offers. We’ve had some conversations. Our sales agent at Indie Sales are handling that at this point. It’s a question mark at this point, but I’m sure there will be a release. I’m pretty confident about that so stay tuned.
Thanks again for your time. Before we conclude is there anything you’d like to tell Alien fans about the film that I haven’t given you the opportunity to?
I think this film is very much is a love letter to Dan. And I just hope that the film will give even the most hardcore Alien fans the desire to dig deeper into what he’s done and what he’s given us and into his craft. They’re going to see a number of things they’ve never seen before when they watch Memory because, as I’ve said before, there’s so many archival elements that Diane gave us access to that were unpublished or unreleased.
So just on that front I think the hardcore Alien fans should have a good time and I think even people who are just curious about Alien are going to learn something about the film itself. But I also want to say that even though this is a film about Alien, Memory is, I think, at its core a film about the resonance of myth in our collective unconscious. So it’s a film about Alien, but it’s a film about a lot more than Alien, and I hope that the fans will find it a fitting tribute on the 40th Anniversary of the Film.