A few weeks back I had the opportunity to watch all six of the Alien: 40th Anniversary short films during a press event located on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Accompanying me was former staff member Mike Monaghan, who also joined Aaron and I on a recent podcast about our thoughts on these shorts.
We were all in agreement that the short Alien: Specimen was one of our favorites of the bunch. Mike and I spoke to Kelsey a bit after the screening itself, but I reached out to see if she’d be willing to take us further into the development and execution of this short…
Thanks so much for joining us Kelsey, and congratulations on the release of your fantastic short film Alien: Specimen. This short was one of our personal favorites of the entire bunch that we discussed on our recent podcast, so we’re thrilled to be able to ask you a bit about the process of this project. Before we get into it though, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in film-making?
It’s my pleasure Adam! We’ve been on lockdown talking about the project so I’m thrilled you enjoyed the short and it’s really nice to be able to talk about these details at last! I have wanted to be a director since I was eleven years old. I was always an avid reader growing up and turning books into movies is my dream. My fifth grade teacher let me make a video for a class project and I shot some scenes from one of my favorite books— “Tuck Everlasting”.
After that I was always roping my family and friends into making little movies. To my parents great disappointment this phase did not wear off and I had eyes for film school only when applying to college. I went to Loyola Marymount University and spent a lot of time thinking I wanted to be a cinematographer before I finally made my first “real” student film. It was back to directing after that but it’s been a tough journey getting directing jobs. I’ve filled a lot other roles working as a DP, camera assistant, electrician, assistant director, and producer as I constantly look for directing opportunities.
We have a bit of a tradition when speaking to someone who has been involved with this franchise of asking what their first experience with it was. Do you remember the first time you discovered the Alien franchise and which film is your favorite?
I wish it wasn’t the case because it’s embarrassing, but Prometheus was the first film I saw in the Alien franchise… Some friends took me to see it without me knowing anything about it and it left me wondering “what is this all about??” You can imagine my excitement in realizing I had just seen the tip of the Alien franchise iceberg.
Watching the original for the first time was truly a treat and so obviously an instant classic. I don’t know how I missed seeing it for so long! While the original is my favorite I really enjoy the third for the big risks it takes. It’s a fascinating setting and I think not having watched the films as they were released changes the context in which I view the third.
Last year Tongal and 20th Century Fox hosted a competition that saw over 500 initial entries which were eventually narrowed down to these six shorts including Alien: Specimen. Can you tell us a bit about this entry and pitch process and how all that went for you and your team?
There was a two part process in becoming a finalist for this project. From the initial entries it was whittled down to sixteen, I believe, who were then asked to put together a more comprehensive pitch. For the initial pitch you were just required to submit a description of your concept and samples of work from your proposed team. I didn’t stumble upon this project until a few days to submit a pitch and I was on another job. I was confident in being able to produce and direct but didn’t have time to develop a strong concept but I so badly wanted to be a part of this project.
In a panic I went through the Tongal forum looking for other people who might have ideas and want to collaborate. I reached out to four writers and each of them sent back awesome concepts! I submitted all of them (you could submit up to five), and the greenhouse concept was picked to proceed. Once we were selected to develop a full pitch Federico (the writer) and I worked together on the script. We were also asked to submit a treatment and a video pitch. I feel really lucky to have been chosen for this opportunity. So much of it is luck and being it the right place at the right time. I think you just have to keep showing up and giving every opportunity one hundred and ten percent.
I had the opportunity to speak with you briefly after the 20th Century Fox Lot press screening of the shorts. You were kind enough to elaborate on a question I asked during the Q&A regarding the dog character ‘Maggie’ and how the idea of her being a synthetic animal came about. I was really intrigued at this concept and it was one of the aspects that made the short for me. Could you tell us a bit about her character’s development and the brainstorming surrounding that?
Maggie was born out of a desire to tweak the script for a more satisfying ending. It originally ended with the facehugger attacking Julie and her superiors discovering her body when power is restored to the greenhouse. I wanted to find an ending that didn’t just kill Julie off. I was hoping to have more of an arc to her character so we started to think how she could escape the facehugger. And the clear answer was the dog intervenes!
I knew we couldn’t outright kill a dog— that’s pretty awful— but at the same time the dog couldn’t fend off a facehugger and live especially because the dog was initially supposed to be a French bulldog. At the time it was more of a pet like Jonesy. It made sense that if a French bulldog were to have any chance against a facehugger it would have to be more powerful— it would have to be a synthetic. And I feel way less bad about killing off robot dogs than real dogs…
As our original lab location changed and with some nudging from Fox/Tongal to make the dog more utilitarian it became a doberman which fit the new industrial look much better. That ending added so much more heart to the film I thought. It’s bittersweet— Maggie saves the day in order for Julie to have a second chance. And I loved the idea of this silly bulgy eyed French bulldog that was synthetic— they look like funny little alien dogs to me!
The greenhouse was a very nice setting for the short, myself and some of the other staff have previously talked about how we’d like to see the Alien in a jungle-type setting and this was certainly close! It also reminded us of some unused concepts from the development of Alien: Resurrection and the unused William Gibson screenplay for Alien³. Where any of these concepts inspirations and how did the idea for the setting come about?
Since I did not come up with this concept myself I unfortunately cannot speak to writer Federico Fracchia’s inspiration. I myself was super enthused about the greenhouse location because it did feel like a chance to play with a jungle-like setting which is an awesome place to play hide and seek with an Alien.
I kept finding myself thinking of Aliens and James Cameron’s nods to Vietnam as we made Specimen. We added subtle helicopters in the sound design building as Julie chases Maggie through the greenhouse in the climax. In my mind, the majority of this concept as a feature would take place outside the greenhouse with Julie and Dev on the run through the native jungle when their station becomes infested.
During the Fox Lot Q&A you also talked a bit about the logistics of putting together a greenhouse set in that industrial looking building. What were some of the challenges of location scouting, set design, and shooting in that space?
We had originally intended for the greenhouse to be more lab-like in line with the scene from Aliens in which Ripley and Newt are under attack by face huggers. But we lost that location and had to pivot and thus was born a much more industrial greenhouse out of necessity. I had worked in the location we ended up using once before and thought the bones of it would work really well— it’s a three story structure full of abandoned equipment and pipes that is very reminiscent of the 80s.
We had to work to make the place feel more contained because it’s hugeeeeee. We used plants to section it off as much as possible, but I also learned a valuable lesson— that I knew, but chose to ignore— that plants are very expensive. The biggest challenge of the location is that you have to bring your own power, water (restrooms) and there are no elevators. Everything was carried downstairs by hand including the airlock door that was built from scratch by production designer Juliana Collins.
As far as the human characters go, Specimen focuses mainly, almost solely, on our main character Julie, who was portrayed by Jolene Anderson. I was surprised with how much character you were able to give her in the short length of the film. What was her development like and how was is working with Jolene to bring her to life?
It was important to me that the characters in the short felt like they had depth to them— they clearly have a backstory and we’re trying to catch up from the beginning. Julie is a reliable, smart woman working in a broken system where other people aren’t pulling their weight. This is one of those places where a fire alarm goes off and everyone says “oh it probably needs its batteries changed.” And then the place burns down.
I’ll dive more into Julie’s backstory in the next question! In casting Jolene we chose her based on a self tape, never having met her before. In the casting description I wrote “she’s the kind of girl who had a purple stripe in her hair in high school.” But she’s also a reliable, smart, scientist. That was a hard combo to find but in seeing Jolene’s audition she so clearly pulled it off not just with her look but with her energy. There’s a youthfulness to Jolene, she’s so full of life and passionate. She says what she thinks just like Julie.
As a long-time fan of the franchise, for me Julie totally fit the idea of future colonist on a distant planet in the Alien Universe. Was there more to her character that you envisioned than you put on screen? What do you think her life was like on LV-492 prior to her ordeal?
Great questions! I’m fascinated by envisions of future people and colonies— that’s one of my favorite things about Alien and the sequels is how they portray the lifestyles of the futures and the different worlds they explore.
There’s a whole back story to Julie and Dev’s relationship though you see so little in the short. Dev was Julie’s professor in graduate school— they were quite close and Julie went through school hearing about Dev’s summers working the greenhouse on LV-492— just as one might spend a summer fishing in Alaska or working the harvest season.
It’s a job he made out to be quite lucrative and so she jumped at the opportunity to learn and make a lot of money alongside the professor she respects and admires. Of course, the work turns out to be very tedious and no one is really interested in research. This place is just a hub that plants pass through and it’s all about keeping them stable.
Dev is tied up in the bureaucracy of it all, forgetting that he was once passionate about his work, much to Julie’s frustration. He’s here to collect a paycheck and Julie feels betrayed and let down. This is the relationship I’d love to develop in a feature film. How does Dev rekindle his passion and regain Julie’s respect and how does Julie rise past resentment to face the challenges she did not ask for.
Hidden in a soil sample container is a Xenomorph egg that Julie discovers. Personally, I was reminded of an older video game ‘Aliens Vs. Predator 2’ where xenomorph eggs were being smuggled in shipping containers. Do you think the eggs were placed in the containers nefariously or unintentionally scooped up? Do the other containers hide eggs as well?
There’s always been a lot of speculation in the original Alien universe about how much Weyland knew about the alien and how they discovered it. I love how that mystery adds a layer of intrigue to the franchise and a whole storyline for fans to dive into. In Specimen, we deliberately did not specify how the ovomorph came to be in the barrel. That would absolutely be part of the greater narrative that picks up where Specimen ends.
Weyland certainly wants to get their hands on an ovomorph so it’s hard to believe they coincidentally ended up in soil samples and in one of their facilities. At the same time how could they have been dropped at the wrong lab if they are so precious? Or maybe that IS where they were supposed to go all along… These are all questions a feature length film would explore and would certainly extend beyond the greenhouse. Weyland definitely is up to no good…
As with the ‘Alone’ short, the Facehugger is the Xenomorph life-cycle stage that is featured in Specimen. Though it looked like practical Facehugger prop was used as it was being hit by Julie and attacked by Maggie, the shots where it was in motion were computer animated. The animation actually looked pretty fantastic, but was this always planned to be CG or were there tests at a puppeteered practical Facehugger?
I initially wanted to do all the effects practicalIy because I felt that it would pay homage to the original and I think it just looks better. We called a number of special effect houses hoping to get an articulating model made, but it soon proved to be too expensive for our budget and we had to start figuring out plan B. The facehugger appears in three forms— a latex model (from Moldy Productions), a plush chew toy when Maggie attacks it, and as CGI for the pounce and final destruction sequence as you called out.
We had hoped to be able to use the latex model and green sticks to make it twitch for the final shots but our initial test revealed we just didn’t have the time on set to get the effect we wanted. Thankfully one of my good friends Luc Delamare (also our gaffer!) agreed to do the CGI VFX for the entire short even though he’s not an animator. He’s a very talented compositor and he actually spent many many hours learning how to animate for this project.
As grateful as I am, I would have loved to do it practically, but in this strange world it was just more cost effective to do it this way. One of my favorite practical shots is where the facehugger runs across the foreground in the dark— that’s just someone’s hand scuttling it through frame!
In the short there was this cool effect where acid melted part of the floor. How was this trick achieved?
This was a trick we borrowed straight from the original Alien film! It’s acetone which melts straight through styrofoam.
If you go watch the original again it’s the same effect (you can see it’s clearly styrofoam) but they had it melt all the way through to see wires on the other side which is really cool! I wish we had the time to take it that far!
Unlike some of the other shorts, Specimen had a separate Writer and Director. How was it working with your writer to bring this film to life?
Working with a writer was initially born out of necessity because I didn’t have time to put together a script as I was on another project. But I think it really worked out well because writer Federico Fracchia came up with an awesome unique setting and laid excellent groundwork for the short.
This was a new experience for me as I’ve always written my own stuff. I think being a step removed from the writing process helps to be able to see the story as a whole. I feel the same way about editing. I always edit my own stuff but someday I would like to work with an editor because I think that separation allows you to be more objective and see the greater picture.
With the Specimen script we had awesome setting and character elements from the get go thanks to Federico and it was just a matter of building to a satisfying ending which was the trickiest part. Federico is an excellent filmmaker himself and I am thankful for that because he understood the difficult position of writing versus directing. At a certain point you have to hand off a script and trust that the director’s vision is in line with yours, or can take it to the next level. There’s a lot of trust there and I hope we did Federico proud!
Was there any collaboration or communication with the other teams once the six finalists were selected?
There was very little communication between the final teams selected. There was an email chain among the filmmakers mainly to express support for everyone going through the process but outside of that I personally didn’t have much involvement although I know some teams had to communicate about logistics in sharing props/sets. It was crazy not knowing what anyone else was doing throughout the process!
That’s been a very exciting part of seeing them released— finally seeing the films everyone else made! It’s really cool to see how well they all fit together and how each has its own unique take on the world of Alien. I’ve been seeing that a number of fans were hoping the films would all connect in some way— I wish that had been the case! That would have been really cool.
I was curious as to how involved in the process Tongal and Fox were? Was the focus on a single part of the lifecycle mandated?
Tongal and Fox gave us a lot of creative liberty once they selected the films to be green-lit. There was an initial public brief with requirements and suggestions. They wanted pitches to draw on the original for inspiration, include working men and women and show the Alien in one form of its lifecycle.
After they selected filmmakers to move forward we were only required to submit storyboards, photos and plans of our location, our top casting picks, and plans on how to achieve our alien in the lifecycle form we chose. I imagine they chose the projects strategically to showcase the various alien lifecycles.
Are there any deleted or alternate scenes that didn’t make their way into the final cut?
Believe it or not there is not a single shot that did not make it in the film or was cut! We missed shooting one shot in the montage that we didn’t miss in the final film. We had storyboarded the short and pre-shot the whole film in my apartment. It really did not deviate from those initial boards. We had so little time to actually shoot so we wanted to make sure we were fully prepared to fly through our days on set! Even with that level of preparation it was a struggle to get it all done!
With Alien: Specimen released, what would you say was the most satisfying aspect of working on the film and how have you felt seeing the online response?
I have been really thrilled by the response to Specimen. I’ve been so anxious about the release because I know how hard fans can be on something when they love a world so much. I’m one of those people myself so I get it. We took some big risks with ours so naturally I’ve been on edge waiting to hear if they paid off or not.
I’m terrible with social media so that’s been a big learning curve. Those of you on twitter who are wondering if that Kelsey Taylor girl knows how to use twitter— I don’t… I’m pretty afraid of the internet but what I have seen so far has been mostly positive which is exciting!
The whole goal was to surprise and excite people and do the fans proud! One of the surprising treats has been watching reaction videos… I have learned so much from watching people watch the short and hearing their thoughts in real time. That’s been a privilege I never expected to have. Any reaction is better than no reaction. Nothing else I’ve done has been seen in this way— that’s an exhilarating experience knowing people are engaged watched something you made.
Would you ever want to revisit the Alien universe or potentially expand on this idea?
Oh my goodness YES I would love to expand on Specimen. In making the short I of course developed a back story to Julie and Dev’s relationship and I think there’s an arc to both of those characters that would drive the film forward as they escape the infested greenhouse and go on the run, along the way discovering what Weyland is really up to…
That being said, I really would be thrilled to return to the Alien universe in any capacity. One of my initial ideas revolved around a dustbowl type setting after Weyland-Yutani has successfully begun contained experiments with Aliens. I think there’s so many interesting locations and concepts to explore. It’s been a treat to expand on this universe and I would leap at the opportunity to do so again.
What’s next for Kelsey Taylor?
I am currently working on my first feature that will be shooting in November and a horror feature hopefully coming in 2020. I’m very excited to be breaking into the feature world at last. I love world building be it a sci-fi, period or fantasy— my tastes are really eclectic.
As someone who wants a long career directing, I’m always looking for strong, unique scripts! I’d love to build a franchise of my own someday, and as I mentioned before, would love to have an opportunity to adapt my favorite books into films. Working in the Alien Universe was an incredible experience to stretch those creative muscles. Now that I’ve had a taste, I’m hooked!
RidgeTop here, I just wanted to give an extra thanks to Kelsey for taking the time to answer my questions about her impressive short. If you have yet to see Alien: Specimen, be sure to give it a watch! You can also find Kelsey Taylor on Twitter and Instagram.