Executing Alien: Ronald Shusett

As a producer and/or writer, Ronald Shusett’s credits include FREEJACK, TOTAL RECALL, KING KONG LIVES, and DEAD AND BURIED. But his most famous effort remains the 1979 classic ALIEN, about a crew of astronauts bedeviled by an unstoppable alien on board their ship. The lean, simple story-line, coupled with considerable visual brilliance, resulted in a stylish masterpiece of Gothic horror set in outer space. Shusett co-wrote the story with Dan O’Bannon (who wrote the script) and also served as the multi-million-dollar film’s executive producer – an amazing achievement for a young, aspiring filmmaker without a single producing credit to his name.

Below, Shusett explains how he came to be involved with ALIEN, after seeing the low-budget science-fiction film DARK STAR, which Dan O’Bannon co-wrote with director John Carpenter while the two were at the USC School of Cinema. O’Bannon also edited DARK STAR, worked on the sets and special effects, and played one of the lead roles.

SHUSETT:When I saw it, I was really stunned because I had been trying to make movies for six years, and I tend to write science-fiction. Of course, it’s always hard because they’re expensive. Here I saw a guy that designed the effects and did them cheaply and pulled them off amazingly – even though the movie never went anywhere. It was comedic sci-fi, and comedy sci-fi just often doesn’t sell. But I saw the genius in this guy, so I found out where I could get a hold of him. [John] Carpenter had directed the movie, but I was interested in Dan, because I wanted a guy who could co-write with me and help me figure out how to bring in the ideas I had on a budget I could get made. I had not got one movie made at that time.

Shusett contacted O’Bannon, who asked to read a sample of his writing, then suggested a meeting. (Watch the Video excerpt of this interview.)

SHUSETT: I went down to meet him on the USC campus, where he was living in a garret and starving, like me. Neither of us had agents…. I had acquired the rights to a Philip K. Dick story, that later became TOTAL RECALL. Dan said, ‘I love that short story.’ But it has no second act, as Philip K. Dick often doesn’t. He has a great idea and then you’re stuck, trying to live up to his brilliance of the set up. Dan said, ‘Put aside your story. I want you to read something I’ve got. I’ve been working on it a year and a half. I’ve got one act. So you need a second and third act; I need a second and third act. I don’t know you so I’m not going to let you leave her with it; I’m just going to give you these 38 pages to read. I’m totally stuck, and I get nothing but shit from all anybody at film school that I’ve tried to help me lick this. If you can help me with the second and third act, I’ll help you withthe Philip K. Dick story, because that’s gonna cost more. With ALIEN I could probably get somebody like [Roger] Corman [to finance it], because it could be done on the cheap.’ Out of that meeting – here’s two bums with no agent, no credibility, and out of that meeting came ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

O’Bannon’s problem with the script was that he could not figure out an innovative way of getting the monster on board the ship. He did not want to resort to some tired plot contrivance (like the astronauts carelessly leaving a hatch open); he wanted something original and surprising. (Watch the video excerpt of this part of the interview.)

SHUSETT: I addressed myself to that, and Dan suddenly got a job in Europe to co-write and direct DUNE – but it was not the version that was made ten years later by David Lynch. It was [Alejandro] Jodorowsky, a Polish director. Dan went off for six months, just as we were starting to work on his project. I started to write TOTAL RECALL myself; I got up to the middle of the second act and hit a stone wall. By this time, DUNE was called off. He called me up and said, ‘Ron, I was counting on this movie happening; I was paid my up-front money and I have nothing left. Can I bunk out on your couch while we do ALIEN?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Let’s get back to work. We can get that made cheap, and it could become a classic like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.’ So he came back and bunked out at my house. My wife was supporting us. We just sat and stared at each other; we couldn’t crack the nut. After about two weeks, I said, ‘Dan, maybe I’m not good at horror movies.’ I had never gravitated toward horror movies. My interest in science-fiction was more in the Jules Verne [tradition]. But I also loved Edgar Allan Poe. It was simply that I was so frightened by movie horror that I couldn’t even see the earlier horror movies. When I was twelve years old I was terrified of going to horror movies; I never could until I was an adult – that’s how real they were to me. Dan said, ‘No no no, I feel we’re getting close.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to sleep.’ This was not a dream. I woke up in the middle of the night and my brain was churning. I said, ‘Dan, I have it: the alien jumps on his face and plants his seed inside him. Then it grows and gestates and comes bursting out of him in the middle of the movie!’ Within three weeks of that moment, the entire structure, with one exception, fell completely into place.

O’Bannon and Shusett had intended ALIEN (which was originally titled STAR BEAST) as a low-budget film that O’Bannon could direct himself. But it would up turning into a multi-million dollar studio project directed by Ridley Scott. (Watch the video excerpt of this part of the interview.)

SHUSETT: We’d finished the script, and Dan said, ‘Let’s go to Roger Corman.’ We made an appointment; he was out of town. We saw his top guy, who said, ‘I love it! How much do you need?’ We said $750,000. We never doubted that it could become a classic. We were thrilled he was going to give us the money. We didn’t take it to any studios. We couldn’t get an agent; they said, ‘This is worthless; six people will come to see it.’ Total blind luck: Before we could sign the contract with Roger Corman, Dan and I were walking down the street, and he saw a guy from film school named Mark Haggard. Dan said, ‘I want to ditch this guy. He’s always telling me he can make money to make movies, but he never has yet.’ We ran across the alley, but he called, ‘Dan, Dan! I hear you got this great script! Can I read it?’ We said, ‘Sure, everybody else is reading it.’ We were too stupid to think anyone would rip it off because we didn’t think it was good enough. He called the next day: ‘I got the money to make it.’ We said we had the money to make it with Roger Corman. He said, ‘I can get it made at a studio.’ We said, ‘We can’t sit around tying this up, waiting on the studios.’ He said, ‘No, twenty-four hours – that’s all I need. I’ll only go to one place. Let’s draw up a piece of paper and figure out what I get if I get you the money – my position and what my fee is.’ We said okay. As I recall, he got a $15,000 fee, an associate producer credit, and two points in the movie. He said, ‘There are two hot writers, but they can’t write science-fiction. They’ve got the confidence of [Fox executive] Alan Ladd, Jr. They’re partnered witha producer who’s one an Oscar, Gordon Carroll, who produce COOL HAND LUKE. They want to do the dark side of STAR WARS. They’ve read fifty scripts, and they can’t write one themselves because they don’t know how to do science-fiction, although they’re both successful writers. [Walter Hill] wrote THE GETAWAY, the Sam Peckinpah version, and he was becoming a hot director; he had done HARD TIMES with James Coburn; [David] Giler wrote the original FUN WITH DICK AND JANE. So it was a natural marriage. They had the clout, and they loved the script. It took us a month to work out a deal, because Dan and I had another way of making it. When you’ve got that, you can walk away from the table, and we weren’t about to be just frozen out of it. We were going to be right in there with it, or we were going to go our low-budget way; otherwise, we would never have had the guts to drive the deal we did, including my name above the title. He had two jobs; I had two jobs. He got visual consultant and screenplay; we shared story, and I got executive producer and above the title ‘presentation.’

The deal meant that O’Bannon and Shusett could be actively involved in the production, instead of just handing the script over to Hollywood and hoping for the best. Although at the time producers Walter Hill and David Giler downplayed O’Bannon’s credit as “Visual Design Consultant” (implying it was an honorary credit with no real substance to it), O’Bannon managed to get several designers hired onto the film, with whom he had worked on the aborted DUNE project: John “Mobius” Girard, Chris Foss, Ron Cobb (who had also designed DARK STAR), and H.R. Giger. The last name was not an easy sell.

SHUSETT: We signed the deal and tried to get them to hire Hans Giger, who Dan had met on DUNE. He’d never designed a movie, but there was some brilliant design work for DUNE. Dan said, ‘This is our guy.’ So we rustled up some money and paid him to do about seven drawings, specifically the alien creature and the spaceship. We also got Ron Cobb, who designed the artwork for Dan’s DARK STAR. That was the ‘Earth Brain.’ He could design a rocket ship so it really looked like an aeronautic ally designed piece of work. So we had two minds: the Giger-alien-bizarre mind and those spaceships you saw, which were so effective and which looked like an old B-29 – you could believe that was a real transport spaceship and those people were truckers in outer space. The problem was the studio let us hire Cobb, because he was more normal; Giger they were terrified of. They said, ‘These drawings are repulsive – people will stay away in droves.’ For eight months they refused to hire him.

During this process, the script went through two uncredited rewrites to generate more enthusiasm from 20th Century Fox. Walter Hill wrote a second draft himself; then Hill collaborated with Giler on a third draft. The revisions mostly consisted of trimming down the script and rewriting almost all of the dialogue to flesh out the characters (who were all West Point military types in O’Bannon’s script). Almost nothing new was added, except for one very important sub-plot. (Watch the video excerpt of this part of the interview.)

SHUSETT: There were two things in that movie that weren’t in the very first script we wrote. During filming we decided that we wanted one more twist. Originally, we thought the alien would be hiding in the closet in the lifeboat [for the surprise ending]. But then Ridley said, ‘Can’t we beat that? Can’t it be somewhere she [Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver] and the audience can’t see it and it just emerges?’ So at the end of shooting every day, we changed the set around the monster. He’d lay in there and we’d rebuild the set over and over. Every time, it looked like Mad magazine – you could see [the alien] was two feet away from her! The guy who played the monster would lay there for hours and hours and we’d shoot it and look at it the next day and say, ‘This is stupid; we’ll never disguise it.’ The trick that really made it work was the [shape of the alien] head. Finally, somebody got the idea, We’ll put an air vent that looks like its head above and below it, so when the hand comes out, it’s not coming from behind anywhere – he’s in the wall. We had just built that. We didn’t know if it worked. So Ridley said, ‘Let’s get the guy back in here.’ We yelled for him – and he was in the wall! We were shot with our own arrow – we jumped a mile! So we filmed it, and it worked perfectly.

The only other thing that was not in that script was the only thing that didn’t come from Dan and me, which was: Ash is a robot. While we were at [20th Century Fox], Giler and Hill, who were my co-producers – I was executive producer, they were producers – came up with this idea and wrote it into the script. Everybody hated it but me. The studio was afraid of it. Dan said, ‘I don’t like it.’ Their own partner said, ‘I’ll be a mish-mosh.’ I said, ‘Let’s film it and preview it.’ I thought it was a brilliant concept and it gave a resonance to everything that came before, because you think back to when Ash opened the door and let the creature on board, you realize he wasn’t human, so of course he could have the lacking of humanity to sacrifice all the humans as long as he saved the alien. That gave it an underbelly that helped it last through the years. When we filmed it, we weren’t sure it would work. We tried it on an audience, an invited audience. That was the only way that everybody said, ‘Oh, you need that.’ This is why: once the chest-burster scene occurred, there was nothing in the rest of the movie that even came close to as amazing; therefore, there would have been a slight letdown if you hadn’t fooled everybody when that head came off. I saw it at a preview in Dallas: when that robot’s head came off, an usher actually fainted!

Finding a director for the project was a problem. Originally, Walter Hill was going to direct; his lean, action-packed style seemed right for the material, but he decided that science-fiction was not his strength. So a search went on for a replacement, while the film was in development. (Watch the video excerpt of this part of the interview.)

SHUSETT: All the biggest directors in Hollywood had rejected the project. They went to every major star: Candy Bergen turned it down; Jane Fonda turned it down. Who wants to star in a movie with a robot and a big lizard that comes out of someone’s chest? So they had no name star, no name director, and two bum writers who one had a low-budget movie produced in college and the other had never gotten any movie made. This went on about a year. Then, enter Ridley Scott, who was the biggest commercial movie of his day but who had only made one movie and it was a flop, THE DUELISTS. He was the only one who was thrilled about it, and they were down to this unknown guy because of his visual brilliance. I didn’t see any signs that he could be a suspense director from these Pepsi commercial, so I had no idea, for a while, how great a job he was going to do. He flies from London, and I knew at the first meeting that he was going to knock it out of the park. He said, ‘I don’t want to flesh the characters out. I don’t want to make this some kind of a message. I don’t want to make it a more important film. I want it to be just like you guys wrote it – a riveting, edge-of-your-seat thriller – but, I’m going to make it look like 2001.’ Then he said, ‘I know nothing about getting the scares. I want you guys to pick out all the low-budget horror films from BODY SNATCHERS TO NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to CHAINSAW MASSACRE, plus Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. And I’ll see how the audience is made to jump. He watched all these movies with us, and he had such a brilliant cinematic mind. Of course, when you put those two together…

Scott’s presence helped Shusett and O’Bannon finally get artist H.R Giger on board, allowing him to design not only the titular creature but also the alien planet and the derelict spaceship.

SHUSETT: They [the studio] would never hire Giger until Ridley – we got him away from the studio and showed him Giger’s drawings. He called up the studio and said, ‘I know I don’t have the power right now, but I’m absolutely not going to do this movie unless you hire this guy Giger. The reason is, I’ll always know what it could have been.” Ridley had the vision to know what Giger could bring to it. I must say, in favor of Fox, when the sets were being built, the executives said, ‘We were wrong. These should be hanging in the museum of modern art.’ So they caught on. Further, they never stopped giving us money…whatever we asked for. At one point they drew the line and said, ‘We’re not going to give you the money to build this one set.’ When you see the so-called Space Jockey. They said, ‘That set costs half a million dollars and it’s only used one time – it’s economically unfeasible! It’s too damn expensive for that one scene!’ One day by accident I went on an errand to do something on the back of the lot [at Shepperton Studios], and the set was being built – the one they said they wouldn’t let us have. I thought it was miscommunication between the art department and the studio heads. I didn’t tell anybody until about a week before shooting. I said, ‘Ridley, they built the Space Jockey set.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us.’ He said, ‘Because if we told you that, you would never stop asking for anything!’ But you needed that one scene – I call it the Cecil B. DeMille shot – to make it the big movie it was, not a little Roger Corman movie. So you’ve got to give them [Fox] a lot of credit. Nobody in it had any credibility. Character actors don’t draw audiences; they don’t open movies. But they were superb. Our dialogue wasn’t the thing. Those actors brought those parts to life. You believed every one of those guys; you cared about them.

Shusett also recalled the Ridley Scott captured the cast’s reaction to the famous chest-burster sequence by springing it on them relatively unexpectedly. That is, he filmed the effects and actors simultaneously, with multiple cameras, instead of shooting the effects later.

SHUSETT: You never do the special effects while the cast is there. They had a hollow body. They had gone to a butcher’s shop and got animal innards: livers, hearts, things like that. Two guys, technicians were under the table, with a compressed blood machine. He [Scott] didn’t tell the cast; he said, ‘They’re just going to see it!’ He had five cameras running. Nobody said a word, but I noticed Sigourney really looking scared. I said, ‘You’re really getting into character.’ She said, ‘No, I have a feeling I really feel I’m going to be pretty repulsed right now.’ A couple years later, I read an interview where she said, ‘The reason I knew it was I saw Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett over in the corner, and they were putting on rubber raincoats and laughing like little kids on Christmas morning. So I knew it was going to be a blood-bath!’ It worked so great. Veronica Cartwright – when the blood hit her in the fact, she totally passed out. I heard from Yaphet Koto’swife that after that scene he would go to his room every night and not talk to anybody. From that moment on, they were really in to it. It wasn’t a game. It wasn’t beneath them. That was the first time they all knew this was going to be something extraordinary. They were superb. There were only seven people in the cast, and each one of them was brilliant.

The result turned out to be a huge success and an acknowledged classic, but creator of the concept had last-minute doubts.

SHUSETT: After we made the movie, Dan was depressed. He was convinced that somehow we missed it, that it didn’t work. Opening night, he was terrified, and he got stoned before he could even come. When we got there, there were lines around the block, people waiting to see it. He was totally dumb-founded. He was sitting behind me. I remember the first big scare was when the egg opened up and jumped in his face, and the whole audience burst into wild applause. After the chest-burster, it was just deafening; you couldn’t even hear for several moments – they were almost cheering. When the cheering died down, I heard Dan weeping. I said, ‘Dan, it’s a hit!’ He said, ‘I know – but it took too much out of us!’ I had a little more faith because I saw the two out-of-town previews that he refused to go to. I said, ‘Dan, this is going to do it for us. We can write our own ticket – make TOTAL RECALL. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were on the cover of Time magazine.’ He said, ‘You’ve lost all your objectivity!’ We were on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.’

Over the years, critics and viewers have read many interpretations into the film, usually of a psycho-sexual, Freudian nature (thanks to the sexually suggestive alien artwork by Giger). Shusett insists none of this was intentional, however.

SHUSETT: People have read all kinds of things into it that we didn’t intend, not even subconsciously. But there was one thing we did do. It was our idea that it would be the life-cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider; its eggs grow off the living spider, like a surrogate mother. That we did want it to be. We didn’t want it to be a human mated with an alien and a hybrid. We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘Yeah, an alien life-cycle can be like an insect life-cycle.’ One other aspect to it: if it came out the size of a cat, it could keep changing and growing – and avoid the one bad feature of most great monsters movies: they eventually become repetitive. With this built-in device, it could keep changing shapes and sizes.

Part of the alien’s life-cycle, as originally conceived by O’Bannon, was that it cocooned its victims, whose bodies then mutated into alien eggs that would give birth to more face-huggers. However, a sequence illustrating this (with Tom Skerrit, as Captain Dallas, discovered by Ripley in the alien’s makeshift egg chamber) was deleted when the film was released in 1979. Later it appeared as a bonus feature on laserdiscs and DVDs; then it finally found its way into the director’s cut, in time for the film’s 25th anniversary. (Watch the video excerpt of this part of the interview.)

SHUSETT: When we shot it in ‘79,when Tom Skerritt’s found…it shows you how hard it is to reach a creative decision. We filmed it, and it was spectacular and cost a lot – we demolished the set with a flame-thrower. When we ran it for ourselves, we found the climax wasn’t working because Sigourney couldn’t automatically know where Tom Skerritt was, so it took nine extra minutes to justifiably believe she could find him. That totally undid the rest of the ending. The audience would say, ‘Come on – get off the ship!’ And it hurt like crazy. When we took out that scene, the whole thing worked great, and nobody missed it.. The only reason we later put it in was we had the luxury twenty-five years later, and everybody knew and were fans of the movie by then, so we could do it. But it’s good we all came to the same conclusion, because we could have made a terrible mistake: ‘Oh, look at that great idea we had, where he says, “Kill me!” and he’s growing the egg!’ It’s like cutting off a little finger: no matter how good some scene or scenes are, if it hurts the overall movie, you have to have the willpower to take it out. The biggest dangers as filmmakers is we tend to get indulgent, and it’s hard to be objective.

Despite having executive produced one of the most frightening films ever made, Shusett admits that he has yet to overcome his own fear of cinematic shivers.

SHUSETT: I never did. When I watched ALIEN, I would scream louder than anybody. I was so scared. As many times as I saw it, as soon as you get close to something like the chest-burster, you hear someone groaning – and it’s me! I can take my own horror films, because I can see the nuts and bolts that went into them, but I still can’t go to anybody else’s horror films. I once went to a David Cronenberg film, when he was going to direct TOTAL RECALL, at Paramount. There was something bloody happening, and I started to squirm. David said, ‘I can’t believe you – the maker of ALIEN!’ I never did get over the fear.

Finally, Shusett cited one example of the film’s enduring quality that went beyond even his optimistic expectations when he was working on ALIEN.

SHUSETT: I was really thrilled – I think it was in 2003 or 2004, the alien egg pod was admitted into the Smithsonian institute. I’m sure – whatever my optimism was – I didn’t think I’d end up in the Smithsonian.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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