2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the film that started it all, the original Alien! To celebrate the 4 decades of Alien, 20th Century Fox teamed up with Tongal to create six short films made for fans, by fans, all in the vein of Alien.
And we had to hunt down the people behind some of our favourite shorts and find out about their experience working on the Alien: 40th Anniversary Shorts! We reached out to the Spear Sisters – Sam and Kailey – to ask them about their fantastic short, Alien: Ore, and they were kind enough to take the time out of their schedules to answer our questions!
First off I wanted to thank you for taking the time to chat to a couple of nerds on the internet.
(Laughs) Of course! We are just a couple of nerds on the internet as well, so we are happy to find more nerds to chat to!
Before we start geeking out about Ore, I wanted to ask you a little about yourself outside of Alien. Who are you and what do you do?
Well, we are twin sisters, as you might know. Actors, writers, directors. We are originally from Bowen Island, a small island off the coast of Vancouver, Canada. Any ideas of where our mining colony got its name? (Laughs) We like to think that a descendant from Earth’s Bowen Island discovered Bowen’s Landing when on the search for a good place to set up a mining colony.
Our love for storytelling started with the books that were read to us by our parents when we were young. One of the things that was read to us, when we were around five, was Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Nights Dream. We went to see the play a few years later and that is what inspired us to get into acting. We wanted to be a part of something like that. We joined theatre school as soon as we could with our eyes on eventually doing Shakespeare. In theatre school, our love for the craft of storytelling increased.
At the same time, we always loved watching films and had started thinking that we would love to take part in making them through acting. At that point any other part of the process of making a film was so mysterious it might as well have been done by magic. Because we didn’t know the process we couldn’t imagine a place for us in the making of it other than acting.
Then, when we were in middle school, we saw Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. That was the game changer. We fell absolutely in love with it! We wanted to be a part of something like that. We wanted to make something like that. It in what we like think of as the golden age of dvd special features. We watched everything and all of a sudden we could see all the parts. We could see the process. We could see it as something that we could do. (Laughs) Thinking of two eleven year olds looking at Lord of the Rings and saying “we can do that!” sounds ridiculously over-confident. But what we were thinking was that we now knew we could work towards creating something like that.
And that is what we are doing now. Working to creating those films that expand your imagination, that get you excited, that make you think. So parents, read Midsummer Night’s Dream to your kids and one day they might make an Alien film! (Laughs)
Whenever we have the pleasure of chatting to someone who has worked in the Alien franchise, something we are especially keen to hear about is the first time our guests ever experienced the Alien franchise. Do you remember your first encounter with our favorite extra- terrestrial? Do you have a particular favourite entry?
Oh yeah! Of course, we remember! It was soon after we decided we wanted to be filmmakers. Our dad realized that we hadn’t seen Alien yet. He was the one that was that urged us to watch it. He said “You have to watch Alien! It’s a classic!” We had heard it was a horror film so weren’t so sure what we were getting ourselves into or whether it was something we even wanted to get into.
At that point, we hadn’t seen that much horror and didn’t think it would be up our alley. We were scared of being scared. But our dad is a smart guy. We trusted him. So we rented it. And, of course, we loved it! It wasn’t what we were expecting. It was so beautifully crafted. It held suspense so well. We loved the characters. We loved the world. And, of course, we loved Ripley.
We remember watching the film and being very aware how uncommon, how special, it was to see a woman helm this kind of story. Something about her reminded us of ourselves. Maybe it was the fact that she was tall, dark haired and freckled (Laughs). We felt inspired and empowered seeing her up on screen. As storytellers, it reminded us to be conscious of bringing characters to screen that may not have had their time to shine.
As aspiring filmmakers who were wanting to enter a tricky industry, an industry that was already telling us it would be harder being female, it was great seeing a woman kick ass against the difficulties that came her way. Fun fact, actually, when we launched into this project we were the same age Sigourney was when she shot the first Alien. A fun little full-circle moment for us!
For a while after we watched the first film we kept on tracking down the others. We love so much of what was done with the other films. Aliens was so great! But the first one; that was the one that kicked it all off. The original sits at the top of our list for sure.
I wanted to ask about your experience with the pitching process. It was something of a two stage process with an initial pitch which was then given funding to be further developed. Can you tell us a little about that process and how Alien: Ore developed over that time.
Yes. The first part of the pitch was a story beat sheet. In the first pitch what they wanted to see was the full story outline as well as some of the key team that would be on board to create the film. There were specs that they wanted to see included in the story. For example, they wanted to see the alien in some form of its lifespan. We had about five days to come up with some pitches.
We actually pitched three ideas, but Ore was the first story we came up with. Then the pitches were narrowed down to a group of around 18-20 or so, including Ore. After that, we had ten days to write the script, do a pitch video and create a full treatment package that outlined what we imagined for the film from locations, to wardrobe design, colour palate, sound design- every piece of the our vision for the film. Then, six films were chosen to get made. We were thrilled when we found out Ore had been chosen! After that we launched into pre-production.
If I’m not mistaken Alien: Ore has the largest cast of the Anniversary Shorts and I think a lot rested on that final shot of all the characters coming together at the end. One of the things I really enjoyed about Alien: Ore was the focus on character and I was particularly impressed by how you achieved so much with the characters in such a short span of time. Was it difficult to achieve that effect given the shorter runtime?
Yes, Ore had quite a large cast for a little film. One of the things that we loved so much about the original film was the ensemble. We wanted to give audiences the opportunity to be introduced to a new group of workers in this universe. While the first film centred around the people who transported mineral ore, ours centres around the people that were employed to mine it.
That final scene was indeed an important one for us. In the world right now we have so many examples of people being divided. We wanted to tell a story that ultimately ended with people finding the strength within themselves to face this incoming problem, coming together, and facing it head on as a team. As an audience we don’t know if they are going to be able to succeed, but we know that standing together they have the best shot. The important thing is that they are trying.
Yes, having such a short span of time made us have to be incredibly specific about what we included. Everything that is shown or said needed to serve a purpose in communicating to the audience what world they were in, who the characters were and moving the story along. There is so much of this colony, and the lives of these characters, that we have built out in our minds that we didn’t have time to show on screen.
Our job was to very quickly drop as much information as we could in that short amount of time so that our audience’s imagination could expand the world of the characters beyond what was seen on screen. It was important to us that the audience felt the world of these characters before and after the events of this short.
Alien: Ore spends a good portion of its runtime below the planet’s surface in a mine. It’s actually such an Alien setting but it’s not one that stands out as being used too often. What lead to your decision to take the setting underground and where were you shooting?
What we love about the Alien films is being able to explore different parts of the universe. Like we said before, Ore was the first idea that came to mind when we were thinking of stories to pitch. At the beginning of the original film there is that title card, you remember the one…
That got us to thinking, who are the people that are supplying mineral ore? In the original film there was talk of other trips made, other cargos. In this universe there must be many mines supplying the materials needed by the ever expanding domain of humans. We were curious to look into the lives of some of these miners who are out there in distant mining colonies working to supply material for commercial export. Perhaps, at previous time, Lorraine and her crew may have even supplied a shipment to the Nostromo.
The choice to make our mine a subterranean mine was inspired from the feeling that we got while watching Alien. One of the things that we loved about Alien was the genius use of location to heighten the feeling of fear and isolation that was so integral to they story. In those narrow corridors there is a constant feeling of claustrophobia. In the spaceship we were locked into a small place, trapped with our fear far away from anyone who could help.
Ore was created to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Alien. With this film we wanted to give nods to what made the original film so great, while telling a new story. Setting the film deep underground in the shadowy corridors of a mine was our way of doing that. It was our opportunity to let our audience experience those feelings of fear, claustrophobia and isolation in a new way.
We shot in Britannia mines just outside of Vancouver, Canada. It is an old copper mine that has since been transformed into a mining museum. It was a beautiful place to shoot!
While Alien: Ore made use a synthetic character who was after the Aliens, she also wasn’t Ash-like in her dedication to retrieving specimens. Was that a deliberate character decision to be the opposite of Ash?
Yes, we wanted to make this model of synthetic work differently than Ash’s. Hanks’ job is safety officer at the mine. Her priority is working to make sure that the workers are safe. However, when the specimens are discovered their safety is bumped to number one. We wanted Hanks to be aware of this conflict. For her this shift in her priority programming does not mean that she doesn’t wish to keep the miners safe anymore, it just means that the safety of the specimens must come above them on her list of things to do. If faced with the choice to act to keep the miners or the aliens safe, her programming will make her choose the aliens.
We imagined Hanks as a model of synthetic made between Ash and Bishop. A little twitchy still, but more refined in her efforts to keep the Xeno safe.
It was a small thing but something I loved about Lorraine was that you made her a Grandmother. I was hoping you could tell us a little about that decision and about the creative processes involved in bringing Lorraine to life.
Absolutely. Part of what inspired us to make Lorraine a grandmother was that wish we spoke of before: to get characters on screen that may not have been given as many opportunities to shine. It seems that, in film and TV, that after the age of thirty the number of females on screen in leading roles drops starkly. In our lives we are surrounded by so many amazing, dynamic, women over this age. They are constantly giving examples of strength. We wanted to honour those women by putting some of that strength up on screen.
Specifically for grandmothers, we often find that their place in stories is just come in and drop some sage advice or to pull at some heartstrings. We don’t often get to see different types of grandmothers or feel the wider world that they live in; their friends, hobbies, work life. Lorraine, like many grandmothers out there, had her child young. She is a single mum who now is helping raise her child’s child as she balances work. With this film we wanted to take this opportunity to help widen our view of what it means to be a grandmother. We were thrilled to be able to work with Mikela Jay who played Lorraine; it was her who really responsible for bringing life to the character.
Getting into some of the background lore for Alien: Ore…where did you imagine the eggs actually came from? Was Weyland-Yutani mining for them or had they been placed there?
Great question! That is one part of the story that we wish we could have got into more. On the off chance that anyone chooses to expand this story further we would love to keep that mystery a secret. What we will say is that when Lorraine brought the camera over to the deceased miner Hanks knew what she was looking at. She knew that was the work of a chestburster.
Something that took me by surprise with Alien: Ore was your CG adult Alien. We’d seen the practical suit make appearances in the trailer so I when I saw your Alien leap onto the wall, I was pretty shocked. Why did you decide to go digital?
We are ridiculously huge fans of practical effects. Everyone who knows us will have been subjected to our long impassioned gushing about how much we love them. If we had the budget and the resources to go practical, we would have. That being said, we were incredibly lucky to have the ridiculously talented VFX team at Image Engine on board creating our Xenomorph. The movement, especially, that they were able to achieve was amazing.
Without Image Engine, or access to a cirque du soleil level performer and an incredible rigging system, there would be no way we would have been able to achieve the Xeno’s leap onto the wall. They have really opened our eyes to the possibilities VFX can offer to the storytelling. They brought a lethal dexterity to the character that added to our understanding of how this killing machine was built and what it can do. We sure as hell wouldn’t want to be stuck in a tunnel with a creature that can leap up onto the walls like that.
Now that Alien: Ore has all come together and been released, looking back on your experience what has been the most satisfying aspect of working on this film?
That is an easy one. Working with our crew and cast. We feel incredibly fortunate to work with every one of the incredible people who came on board this project. Watching them pour their talent and care into this film was so wonderful to witness. Still seeing smiles at five in the morning after having worked hard all night in a cold mine was amazing.
Were there any scenes that you shot but didn’t include in the final edit? Or any scenes that got significantly modified?
The film stayed pretty darn close to the shooting script. There were shots of Anna’s group of miners that we would have loved to include in the edit but, with only ten minutes and an alien to go find, we didn’t have time. In a longer form we would be able to feel more of some of those other characters.
How did you imagine events played out after the cameras stopped rolling? Is Lorraine still alive and kicking?
Oh yeah! We imagined a lot of what would happen after the cameras stopped rolling. What would happen to Lorraine, to the other miners, to Hanks, to the foreman banging on Hanks’ door, to Anna and her daughter, to Anna’s fellow that Lorraine is not fond of, to Martin’s wife Mayumi and their kids, to the Weyland reps who would have started traveling to Bowen’s Landing to collect the specimen.
We’ve all seen Aliens… We know the fate of Hadley’s Hope. Bowen’s Landing may not have the same fate, but one Alien attack in a tunnel is definitely not where we imagined the story ending for all these characters. This is definitely only the beginning for them. As for whether Lorraine makes it out of that tunnel alive, what do you think? At this point, Lorraine’s fate is ultimately up to our audience’s imagination.
How do you feel about the reaction of Alien: Ore? Was it what you expected?
We are thrilled that people have been responding so positively to it. We are always hyper-critical of our work, always nervous that people are not going to respond positively. We went into this wanting to do the fans and the previous creators of this universe proud. Creating something for an established fan base, there are so many preexisting expectations and wishes about what could or should be explored.
We love the world that was created for Alien and, as fans, we wanted to explore a mining colony. We hoped that others would too. There were times throughout making it that we told ourselves: you know what, if we can just make at least one Alien fan truly happy with this film, then we will be ok. We are thrilled that more than one person likes this film! (Laughs) Every message of support that we have been receiving, every positive comment, makes us very happy.
What’s next for the Spear Sisters?
Lots of writing! And reading. We’ve got our eyes on features next so have been working on developing a few concepts and reading scripts. We hope to have something moving soon!
I would just like to take one last opportunity to thank both Sam and Kailey and taking the time to sit down and answer our questions. You can find out more about the sister’s by following them on Facebook and Twitter (Sam and Kailey). If you some strange reason you haven’t seen Alien: Ore yet, be sure to check it out now!