Interview: Ron Shusett on Sequels, Schwarzenegger and Minority Report (Part 3)

Producer and Writer Ron Shusett has made a huge impact on science fiction filmmaking over the last thirty years. In the first part of our interview with Ron we discussed his development of Total Recall and in the second part we talked about Shusett's collaboration with Dan O’Bannon on Alien. In this final part of our interview we discuss Arnold Schwarzenegger’s come back, the challenges of sequels, Ron’s current projects and more:

Midnite Ticket: How do Paul Verhoeven and Ridley Scott differ in their approaches?

Ron Shusett: Ridley is a supreme visual stylist. Paul is a very good visual stylist but Paul is down to earth, meat and potatoes. He is very good at incorporating character with the action so you care about the people and doing shocking things. He’s very violent but he does it in a classy way. Ridley is more the artist and he often gets himself so involved in the visuals that he has to be working with the right people for it to come out right. He gets so involved with the visuals he often doesn’t interact with the actors a lot. He says, “I always cast director proof actors because I’m too involved with the visual style.” They’re both great filmmakers but I think Ridley Scott is the greatest visual stylist since the heyday of Kubrick. Usually he isn’t as astute on story structure as Paul is automatically. Paul said his idol is Hitchcock and mine is too. Paul said “I never want to bore the audience but I don’t want to have it so fast paced that it gives you a headache.” That’s what he excels at. I think Ridley has to work with the right people to get his movie right. If he’s guided into the right version of the script it will come out great. If the writer guides him into a version of the script that doesn’t work I don’t think he’ll realize it and he’ll shoot the wrong movie that the audience doesn’t like. As stated by Ridley, the first half hour he met me, “I want Alien to be a white knuckle, edge of your seat thriller”. Prometheus wasn’t that at all. It has some good, scary ideas in it throughout. It had some interesting concepts but it didn’t hang together. It wasn’t compelling at all. It was the opposite of edge of your seat.

It just kind of wandered and then it had an ending that the audience doesn’t accept at all. These god-like creatures that have evolved so far beyond us, why do they want to destroy us? There had to be some reason for it. “Oh, we’ll tell that in the sequel.” Now there may not be a sequel. You had to have a reason in the third act as to why this race wanted to wipe us out. You didn’t have that. The third act was monumentally disappointing. The first two thirds wasn’t that great. It was good. It was OK but it wasn’t compelling. The thing that kills you the most is an ending that people don’t accept.

MT: Do you feel that Alien lends itself well to sequels?

RS: There were other sequels that didn’t work of Alien. The first two were great and the only other one that was successful was the fifth one, which I worked on. I worked on the first one, not Cameron’s. The next one I worked on with Dan was the fifth, Alien Vs. Predator. The first Alien Vs. Predator. It re-energized it like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. That wasn’t an R. There were scares but it was done more for action and adventure and audiences liked it. We were all afraid it would be rejected because it had been a comic book and a video game for 10 years. We thought people wouldn’t buy it as a movie but they did, maybe because of the change of pace. The second one was a disaster because you couldn’t take more than one movie of those two creatures fighting each other. Otherwise it just got on your nerves as repetitious. Dan and I get credits on all the sequels as “Created By”. On Alien Vs. Predator we also got “Original Story By” credits.

MT: The flashback with the Predator fighting Aliens on the central American pyramid is very memorable. Do you think setting the story in human history would be a good approach for future sequels?

RS: No I don’t. I’m not against sequels but the reason they don’t work is they have to be rooted in what you like and yet they have to have their own personality. That’s almost impossible. Sometimes there’s a good sequel but not very often more than one. Of course, Lord of the Rings, that’s classic Tolkien. I’m saying original creations. When you start trying to milk it too much you dissipate your energies off other original creative ideas. You end up doing the same movie over and over and that becomes your whole career. I’m against that. I think if you have done exactly what you wanted to achieve in the original movie, and maybe one other sequel, then I would not want to do anything else. I really didn’t want to be involved, nobody asked me, but I didn’t want to be involved in the Alien prequel because just what I thought would happen did. It got bogged down in back-story, it got talky and there was no way to justify the ending.

MT: You mentioned original creations. Does the prevalence of sequels and prequels box out original ideas from being developed?

RS: Yes, I think that’s the worst aspect of what’s happening now. They’re so obsessed with what’s happening now. I think they should be open to more creative new ideas and not be so concerned with brand. It fools you. It often doesn’t deliver. There never were so many sequels in history as there are now because they see it as a way to mint money. I think original is far better. Look at how many sequels fail. Sometimes it’s a bigger risk than going with a creative idea that’s fresh to the audience.

MT: What are you working on now?

RS: I’m working on two and the reason I have two completed scripts at the same time is that I wrote them with two different co-writers. I think you know Dan O’Bannon passed on very recently. I’m working with two different co-writers on these two scripts. They’re two vastly different budgets. One is a huge budget. The other is a pretty modest budget. I finished them roughly at the same time and I’m just now ready to go out in the community and chase after financing.

The first one I have is an original. It’s not based on anything. Not a comic book or any other previous material. That’s my favorite thing to do although I love the two Phil Dick stories that I worked on. I also worked on Minority Report. Gary Goldman and I worked on three drafts and there’s not enough left to receive a writing credit because we’re also producers. You have to have two thirds left and anybody else that comes in only needs a third. We lost our writing credits but we did get executive producing credits on Minority Report. That was fun. It was another Phil Dick story Gary and I got to write. Gary brought it to me. Verhoeven had brought him in on Total Recall because they had a relationship and he and I got along so well that he brought me Minority Report and we did that. I’m very proud of that. How can you not be excited about working with Spielberg and Tom Cruise? We got that made at a level that we were very happy with too. We did get executive producing credit and even presentation credit. That was very gratifying.

Phil Dick is such a brilliant innovator that he paints you in a corner by having such a brilliant concept that you need to do near genius work to live up in the second and third act to what he’s given you. Both of those gave us fits but we did it somehow. We made it hold up for a whole movie even though we ran out of Phil Dick’s story half way through or a third of the way through.

I wanted to do a new big budget sci-fi movie. As I was thinking about what I could I started to think about period movies from earlier eras, the 20s and 30s like Gunga Din and The Alamo. Before science fiction was big business. Cinema is addictive. It’s amazing. Everyone in the world has a movie they love. The grand adventures, no matter how much action they had, they didn’t have special effects at that time but they did have characters you cared about. At least forty percent was the relationship of the people even though they had a lot of action and thrills.

The trick was, I wanted to take the type of movie they made then and set it a thousand years in the future and do it as science fiction because that’s what speaks to audiences today. Not copy them but just do that kind of a movie. It changes everything when you set it so many years in the future. It becomes a whole different original story. If you infuse those kinds of characters you care about it would be amazing. It could be right up there with Total Recall. So that’s what I’ve done in this one. It’s going to take a lot of money to make it. Not two hundred million or one hundred and fifty million but maybe one hundred twenty five million. This is set in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Like we all realize, there’s probably going to be a lot of undiscovered rich ore 800 years from now. This is about wildcatters, guys down on their luck, wildcatting in the asteroid belt. There are asteroid as big as some of the states in America. This is set on two different asteroids in the future yet it’s got the classic characters you really care about and get involved with. There are some incredible special effects you’ve never seen in any other movie. Three or four are effects you’ve never seen anywhere.

The second script I just completed is a modest budget. I just got the budget on it today. It comes in around $15 million dollars. Modest budget horror is a very hot item because some of them make a lot of money when they get it right. That’s what I’m doing because the other one is so expensive I don’t know how long it will take to get it made. This one might get made first. That will give me the additional currency that I didn’t get when Total Recall and Prometheus were both unsuccessful. I thought one of them would be successful and then I could do a big budget.

The story I have now is in the classic tradition of Jekyll & Hyde yet it’s different form any other Jekyll & Hyde movies because in this case the monster mode, Mr. Hyde, is trying to kill Dr. Jekylll even though it’s the same body that he’s in. He doesn’t grasp that if he kills Dr. Jekyll he kills himself. That’s a unique turn that makes it different from other Jekyll and Hyde movies. I came up with what I love do to, it’s my joy, at least three effects you’ve never seen in any other horror movie. Most of them I had to do with out CGI. There’s no CGI in Alien and very little in Total Recall. I was able to come up with three effects that I know can be done by skilled technicians using animatronics and makeup. That I think I have a good chance to sell.

MT: Arnold Schwarzenegger is making a pretty rapid come back. I would love to see him star in at least one more big budget sci-fi movie. Do you think we will see that?

RS: I agree. I’m working on that right now with Arnold. I don’t know if he wants to do what I’m going to give him but I ran into him recently. He was doing a book signing and I came by to say hello. I knew he was getting things made. I knew he’d gotten two or three movies already financed. I hadn’t seen him in 16 or 17 years. He embraced me and said “Ron, we should work again together.” I said, “I agree”. He said” When you’re ready to give me something I want to do something with you.” We are talking about something right now and I hope Arnold likes it. His first movie is coming out in a little while. You look at him in person and he looks fine. The interviews he did he was kind of depressed because of the subject matter but if you look at him he looks vital in person. The challenge was I had to take a script and make it suitable to a mad of his age. Let’s say middle age, fifty-five, that age area. Most of the movies I’ve mapped have a hero in his thirties. I did come up with one that fits him perfectly. As you may know, the Conan sequel he’s doing is about an aging Conan dealing with old age. That’s perfect for him. He’s already got financing for that. So I had this same kind of a technique that I’ve used. I’ve made it so that it makes sense for the character to be in his mid fifties or so. Arnold and I are going to develop that.

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