Sundance documentary 'Memory: The Origins of Alien,' directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe, investigates the roots of the iconic film.
"I didn't steal from anybody. I stole from everybody," says Dan O'Bannon, screenwriter and creator of Alien, in an archival interview featured in the documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien. The film, which premiered on Sundance's opening night last week to multiple sold-out screenings, traces the origins of the sci-fi masterpiece.
The director, Alexandre O. Philippe, who in his previous documentary 78/52 deconstructed the shower scene in Psycho, is a cinephile of the purest form. Although there is a fair amount of behind-the-scenes material in Memory—especially when it comes to the chest-burster scene—Phillipe is less interested in a production story than in how cinema speaks to the story of humankind. In the case of Alien, as Philippe and his slew of interviewees posit, the film's indelibility can be attributed to the fact that it tapped into the collective unconscious. "Alien lives in our collective imagination as a modern myth," says an expert in the film. And like all myths, this one is the product of an amalgamation of stories that have been told for hundreds of thousands of years. In the language of Tolkien, this concept is called the "cauldron of story"; he describes it in his essay "On Fairy Stories" as a pot of ideas that "has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits."
In this way, Phillippe is convinced that Alien was a story waiting to be told. It is a synthesis of visions: O'Bannon's, H.R. Giger's, Ron Shusett's, and Ridley Scott's. But these artists pulled threads from ancient fabric. Direct influences on the film were Egyptian mythology, including Sekhmet, the warrior goddess; Pazuzu, a demon from a Mesopotamian religion; H.P. Lovecraft's concept of "weird fiction" and the "fear of the unknown," which specifically influenced the film's depiction of the alien planetoid; and the artist Francis Bacon, whose grotesque imagery gave birth to Giger's Xenomorph, and was itself inspired by Greek mythology and Christianity.
With unprecedented access to Dan O'Bannon's archives, by way of the screenwriter's widow, Philippe paints a picture of a serendipitous series of events that would ultimately lead to a film that was both timeless and very much the product of its time. The circuitous journey to Alien began with O'Bannon, who wrote the first 30 pages of the script but abandoned it after he couldn't figure out how to get the alien on board the ship. (The film draws an interesting parallel between O'Bannon's conception of the Xenomorph, a parasitic creature that incubates in the human body, and the screenwriter's longtime affliction with Crohn's disease, the gastrointestinal disorder that would eventually kill him.) The project then fell into the hands of dozens of Hollywood heavyweights, such as Robert Corman and Walter Hill, none of whom had the guts (so to speak) to tackle the original vision. When O'Bannon showed Fox executives Giger's prototypes of the Xenomorph, they, too, became queasy. It wasn't until Scott was on board to fight for Giger's contributions that the studio agreed to greenlight the project as all three collaborators envisioned it.
Seen through the lens of time, Alien can now be read as a complex critique of many things the Fox executives, and even the film's collaborators, didn't intend for it to be. In Memory, experts discuss how Alien is a reflection of patriarchal guilt (the Xenomorph as a fantasy of male penetration and rape) the perils of colonialism (traveling to new planets), the threat of terrorism (enemies from within), the struggle of the working class (the ship crew's internal disagreements), and, finally, in the last act, the myth of self-destruction: the problem of our times.
No Film School sat down with Phillippe at Sundance to discuss the film's roots in the universal imagination, why he didn't interview Ridley Scott, and more.
"I don't like 'making of' documentaries. I like to get deeper than that, into the meaning of movies and the moments in cinema that have transformed us."
No Film School: Films about films are challenging. You need the right interviewees to agree to participate. You need something new to say. What was the moment where you knew it would be possible to make this film?
Philippe: I've always had this burning desire to explore the chest-burster scene and crack it open the way I did with the shower scene in Psycho. But very quickly, I realized I couldn't do it in the same way I did with 78/52. Those are very different scenes.
I don't like "making of" documentaries. I don't like to repeat myself. I don't want to be the guy who does the same movie over and over again—I don't think anybody does. I like to get deeper than that, into the meaning of movies and the meaning of moments in cinema that have transformed us. I became very quickly interested in the mythological roots of Alien. As a filmmaker, that's what excites me.
And then there was an encounter with Diane O'Bannon, Dan's [O'Bannon]'s widow, who very generously opened her archives and made everything available to us. At that point, it became really clear to me that that Memory was going to be an origin story—a mythological take on Alien, obviously. Yes, it's a film about Alien, but at the end of the day, it's very much a film about the resonance of myth in our collective unconscious.
NFS: Alien, like the mythologist you interviewed says, and like all great myths, is an amalgamation of so many different stories and beliefs. The elements of Alien have disparate origins. Did you know much about the film’s various inspirations beforehand?
Philippe: No, it's really something I learned during the research. It's very strange when you start tapping into this kind of subject matter. The places where it will take you...I feel like my process in making this film was very much guided by the unconscious.
The film as it is now is completely different from what I had envisioned in the first place. I'm really glad about that. It became an intuitive process; I felt like I was tapping into something and I had to sort of follow it and trust it. And when you do, it's pretty remarkable the doors that start opening. So I think in that sense, my process is a reflection of what the film is about: the unconscious.
I would say probably the single most important interview we had, aside from Diane O'Bannon, was Will Lynn, that mythologist you mentioned. I knew that I had to find a mythologist who was going to be able to express those really big ideas in a way that was digestible and fun and entertaining. He was a godsend.
"I'm absolutely convinced that a lot Alien was unconscious. I don't think that O'Bannon, Giger, or Scott fully realized the story that they were executing."
NFS: Since so much of this film is conceptual, and so much is predicated on archival footage, how did you round out the aesthetic? I liked your decision to stage the archival footage as coming from a steam-punk-esque TV set on a stage, for example.
Philippe: In the opening scene, we enter a cave. Really, the whole idea was that you're entering the bowels of the derelicts. It's a very deep, dark place. And you don't emerge from that darkness until the very, very end.
We were dealing with archival footage specifically from Diane O'Bannon, HR Giger, and Ridley Scott, who are at the center of the film. You can certainly say Memory is about the symbiosis between those three film artists. So, I was playing in this idea that, instead of just showing archival, that they were kind of a distant signal. That thematically works with what Diane talks about when she says that Dan was out of time. She feels that [when he died], he went back into the future from whence he came.
NFS: When it came to figuring out how you were actually going to deconstruct the chest-burster scene, how did you tackle it?
Philippe: That's the culmination of the film. The film is about symbiosis and serendipity, in a way—all the things that had to happen for Dan, Giger, and Ridley to end up working together, right? How each one of those three people was so crucial to Alien becoming the A-movie that we now know.
So, the culmination of Memory is the execution of that scene. As amazing as Dan's journey was—as extraordinary as Giger's contributions were—the movie completely hinged on that scene. That's true, first of all, at the development process. I mean, it's pretty well known that the script would not have sold without that scene. It's the one scene that got everybody excited to make the film in the first place. And in terms of its actual production, there is no successful Alien if the chest-burster scene is a flop.
And there was so much unknown! I mean, you're talking about a puppet on a stick with a bunch of entrails. On set, nobody knew how it was going to manifest. There were a lot of happy accidents. So to me, it was really important to trace it all the way to the execution of the moment—all the little things that happened, all the details that made the chest-burster scene the success that is, and therefore that made Alien the film that it is. The film that launched an entire franchise.
NFS: Talking about unknowns and happy accidents, it was interesting to learn how the way that the film was sold was a little bit less Kubrickian and a bit less grotesque than how the creators pitched it to the studio. They did it their own way.
Philippe: You're talking about the Lovecraftian elements.
NFS: And the fact that Alien has so many psycho-sexual implications.
Philippe: I'm absolutely convinced that a lot of it was unconscious from their part. I don't think that O'Bannon, Giger, or Scott fully realized the story that they were executing.
Ridley Scott talks about making a haunted house movie in space. I think that's what they were focusing on. The eruption of what one could argue is unconscious patriarchal guilt onto the screen, or certain ideas that we need to confront as a society that we are 40 years later now starting to talk about...I don't think anybody thought about it that way.
I don't think you can think about that. If Dan had gone to the studio and said, "We're making a male rape movie in space. Give us 11 million dollars," no way they would've said yes. So clearly the executives didn't have a clue what they were doing. I think Dan was having a lot of fun with it. Giger was, as somebody says in the film, possessed—in doing his art and tapping into, as Will Lynn says, the cauldron of stories that was his imagination. And Ridley Scott, as the visionary that he is, put all this together and orchestrated it in this extraordinary fashion.
Now we can look back and say, yeah there's a lot more to it than I think was consciously happening at the moment [of production].
"Alien...was not supposed to be successful. It was really going against the grain. This was a time when audiences were ready for the cute, cuddly, friendly alien, and not for this."
NFS: That is the beauty of filmmaking. You put this thing out into the world, and it comes with all of your biases and fears that you can't see, and then, over time, audiences read into it through the lens of history.
Philippe: Yeah, and some films get rediscovered, and some films disappear. But I always think that it's crucial when a film has such an impact—whether it's Alien, whether it's Psycho, whether it's The Exorcist. Alien is a very specific case because of the fact that it was not supposed to be as successful. It was really going against the grain. This was a time when audiences were ready for the cute, cuddly, friendly alien, and not for this. So it's even more interesting to look at that movie and why it became the success that it is. Back to the whole idea of unconscious patriarchal guilt, I do really believe that our collective unconscious summons the stories that we need to process, whether they're in the form of books or movies or paintings.
NFS: Or dreams.
Philippe: Or dreams. We flock to the ideas that we need to process. I think that artists like Dan O'Bannon, like H.R. Giger, like Ridley Scott, in a way, have to tap into the frequency of that need to express it. And so, I'm fully convinced that if Dan had not been the one to tap into this, somebody else would have done that. It would have been a very different movie, but I think that it would have happened either way. When you look at all the things that lead to Alien...when you look at the way that Dune had to collapse in order for Alien to happen, this is beyond coincidence. It was a screen moment that was fated to be.
NFS: Absolutely. And with the three collaborators. The specific things that they brought to the table. Just after I saw the film, I was thinking about how their trio of artistic symbiosis is juxtaposed with the discussion in the film about how the xenomorph is not really an alien at all; it just reflects very real parasites that exist in nature.
Philippe: To quote Will Lynn again, he says you can never get to the bottom of Alien. I would add to that that you can never get to the bottom of the making of Alien. Everything has to do with the unconscious....artists tapping into images and ideas that we've been carrying for millennia as human beings and have a very profound resonance.
You look at the Xenomorph itself, and you can see so many different mythological beings or creatures in it. You don't necessarily see it and go, "Oh, this is Pazuzu, this is a Renaissance demon," but it carries elements of it. And it is also very much a creature of its own. It has become its own myth. Alien lives in our collective imagination as a modern myth.
NFS: Since Alien, have there have been any films that approximate this ability to tap into the collective unconscious?
Philippe: That’s a great question. On the level of the collective, I'm not sure. There have obviously been movies that have resonated big time. You look at the Harry Potter series, but that's a different animal. It's very Campbellian. It goes into the hero's journey. But it uses existing creatures that have been around for a while.
"Memory is also very much about the forgotten people of Alien."
The Xenomorph was a completely new thing. And no, I can't think of another movie that has resonated at that level. It existed before Ridley showed up. It was in Giger's Necronomicon. He showed that image to Ridley, and Ridley would say, "That's it." And he would stick to his guns. Obviously, the executives were not very happy about this. This thought [the Xenomorph] was too grotesque, too outrageous, too sexual. That's why Dan and Giger absolutely needed Ridley to respond to that and to have the strength to say this is what it's going to be.
I see it as a creature that came out of Giger's imagination, but that was very rooted in Egyptian mythology and in the passion for Lovecraft and the fear of the unknown. It was a creature that was essentially waiting for a story to attach itself to. Dan was the guy who came along with the story, and the creature pounced on that, in a way. It sounds a little bit esoteric to say that... and of course I'm not saying the creature physically exists, but those are really interesting ideas to think about, right? When a creature exists in our thoughts, in our dreams. We can have a conversation about it. It's no longer just in our unconscious, but in our conscious thought. It carries a certain energy. It has a certain resonance. That's what myth is. It is energy. And then we tap into that energy to learn certain things. Alien is very much a cautionary tale.
NFS: Was the decision not to interview Ridley Scott intentional?
Philippe: No. I mean, we tried. We really tried, and it didn't work out. It is what it is. But I will tell you in retrospect that, in a way, I'm really glad it worked out that way. Because the movie being what it is, [interviewing Ridley Scott] would've skewed it in a different direction. When two of them are gone [O'Bannon and Giger] and one of them is still around, to have a direct testimony from him, then it's no longer a cinematic essay about that symbiosis.
On opening night [at Sundance], a couple of Ridley's executives from Scott Free came to the screening and loved the film. The next morning they emailed us and said Ridley would love to see the film, can you send us a link? So, we sent him the link. We'll see. I hope he likes it.
NFS: From what I've learned from watching this film, anyway, a lot of what really Ridley was for the project was a conduit to Hollywood. So, when you're talking about origins and mythology, he's not the driving force.
Philippe: That's right. I think Memory, I would hope, pays a big tribute to him. But, you know, Memory is also very much about the forgotten people of Alien. There's this beautiful story in the film about what Dan went through when he was just so broke and had to sleep on Ron Shusett's couch. Dune had collapsed and he didn't really know what he was going to do. He had this script but he couldn't get past page 30 because he couldn't figure out a way to get the alien on board. And then Ron Shusett was, at the time, working on Total Recall. These two guys were living in a two-room apartment eating hot dogs because they didn't have money to properly feed themselves. And they were sitting on Alien and Total Recall. How amazing is that?
NFS: What were some challenges that encountered in the editing process?
Philippe: I really believe in scripting first. Before I even got Chad Herschberger, my editor, to do anything, I wanted to make sure the film was going to work on paper. After we had shot the great majority of what we needed, I wrote the script, he assembled it, and then we spent a couple of weeks together, worked through the kinks, figured out what works, what doesn't work. He edits, sends me some cuts, and I go back in at some point. I's very hands-on, hands-off. It goes through several phases.I completely trust him but I also have very distinct ideas about the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it.
But, you know, sometimes what works on paper doesn't work on the screen. So that's where working together is essential because inevitably there were things that just didn't work. And we had to figure out. We had to actually do a few structural changes to the film. And, of course, there's always a few amazing discoveries that you make in the editing room.
NFS: Are you looking forward to making another film about elements of film theory?
Philippe: Right now, I'm working now on a film about The Exorcist. We're in post-production. It will probably be released in the fall. And this is very different. This is actually just William Friedkin. I interviewed him for four and a half days about The Exorcist very specifically, and his process as an artist, and tapping into his extraordinary knowledge of art and music. So it's kind of an intimate portrait of Friedkin. It's a chamber film about The Exorcist. I'm super excited about it.