“Alien” is perhaps the most famous sci-fi horror film ever made. It made instant stars of its cast and director — Ridley Scott — and became one the strongest tent pole franchises in 20th Century Fox’s arsenal.
It also made made H.R. Giger an international fine-art star as his hideous, yet somehow beautiful vision of a “bio-mechanical” universe — and monster — remains the single scariest monster ever created.
Yet none of it wouldn’t have happened without Frank Hebert, his book “Dune,” and a failed French attempt to make the legendary book into a movie. “Dune” has long been considered one of the best — if not the best -– sci-fi novels ever written. Its story of humanity 10,000 years in the future is hardcore science fiction at its best.
Before David Lynch’s controversial version of the film, there were two previous failed attempts to make the film — first by “Planet of the Apes” producer Arthur Jacobs, and later by a French group of investors. It’s this attempt where our story really begins.
These producers were telling a far-out story, and like Dino De Laurentiis after them, they wanted a far-out director. In Alejandro Jodorowsky — director of the insaneo “Holy Mountain” (a total crazy film) — they got one.
Jodorowsky’s plan was to make a giant 10-hour movie, featuring contributions by everyone from Orson Welles to Mick Jagger to Salvador Dali. Pink Floyd was going to score the film (in Lynch’s version another rock band, Toto, did the score). To create the imagery for the “Dune,” Jodorowsky hired a who’s who of 70s fine artists, including the great sci-fi novel cover artist Chris Foss, Heavy Metal’s Moebius and the Swiss-born Giger. But it was the hiring of the St. Louis-born Dan O’Bannon that would ultimately make movie history.
O’Bannon had moved to Los Angeles to go to USC’s famous film school. This was truly the school’s heyday as everyone from John Millius to George Lucas to John Carpenter was enrolled there. It was with Carpenter that O’Bannon first really got into flicks as he helped create “Dark Star.” O’Bannon stared, edited, co-wrote and created many of the effects for the cult sci-fi comedy. To help him build the ship, O’Bannon enlisted the help of Ron Cobb, who at the time was known for political cartoons.
It was O’Bannon’s work on “Dark Star’s” effects that got him a job at Industrial Light & Magic working on “Star Wars.” In “Dark Star,” there was a warp sequence that was inspirational to the one’s used in “Star Wars.” Likewise, O’Bannon “kit bashed” standard existing commercial models to build the Darkstar ship itself … exactly the technique later used by ILM to create the ships in “Star Wars.”
In any case, the effects were quite good considering the limited budget and time (1974) and got O’Bannon noticed; it was good enough for Jorodowski to hire O’Bannon to move to France to work on his 1975 version of Herbert’s book.
There in a Paris-based studio, Jorodowsky had all of these separate sci-fi artists (and nerds) gather under one roof in the same office space to help envision a world set 10,000 year in the future. It was there that O’Bannon saw Giger’s work “Necronom IV” for the first time. It was this artwork that remained in O’Bannon’s head even as the project fell apart.
Despite the artistic firepower assembled, the City of Light was not kind to the production, which soon went wildly over budget and shut down without ever having shot a frame of footage.
O’Bannon — and everyone else — was summarily fired. Jobless, broke, homeless — and still weird — O’Bannon moved back to Los Angeles and started writing scripts on fellow and former USC film school friend Ron Shusett’s couch. Shusett’s nice gesture would soon pay off with some wonderful karma in the form of “Star Beast,” the 13th script O’Bannon kicked out while flopping.
The script was basically what we know as “Alien” today, but without the “Ash is a God da#$%# robot!” subplot. Most importantly, it contained the chest bursting scene and soon the name “Alien” as O’Bannon had an epiphany one night regarding the title. It was that scene — and that title — that first put the script into green-lit status.
Originally shopped around to low-budget studios like Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as “’Jaws’ in space,” Shusett managed to get it into Fox president’s Alan Ladd Jr.’s hands. Ladd , who had championed “Star Wars,” immediately knew he wanted another sci-fi movie once his big gamble on “Star Wars” paid off — and “Alien” was the only finished script they had.
The film moved rapidly ahead, but without O’Bannon as director as Fox wanted someone more experienced. O’Bannon, who once had hoped to direct “Alien,” remained with the project, an incredibly rare thing to happen as most incoming directors want no threat of interference. But Scott — famous for “The Duelists” at that point — wasn’t a normal director. He kept O’Bannon on board as something of a watchdog, as he was still very emotionally connected to the script (which was later extensively re-written) and had SFX experience.
Beyond the script, O’Bannon brought the sci-fi art work of Ron Cobb, Chris Foss and Giger to the attention of Scott. In Cobb, you had the technical veracity and realism of a NASA scientist; in Foss you had a nearly fantasy-level imagining of ship exteriors; and in Giger, you had the world of the bio mechanical.
Scott immediately stopped his search for designers, ultimately using Cobbs’ drawings for the human ship/space suits and Giger’s for the alien ship and monster. A former art student/design major, Scott himself also had story boarded most of the movie as well. He kept the two teams of artists separate, but just as in Jorowdosky’s “Dune,” he kept them on the same stage — all the time O’Bannon watching over them.
The end result of their effort remains the ultimate expression of a haunted house in space and perhaps the best “guy in a suit” monster ever created. And it never would have happened without a French company hiring O’Bannon to work on a “Dune” movie.
As one last twist, Scott turned down Laurentiis to direct his version of “Dune,” apparently thinking it would be too much like “Alien.”