Interview: Writer Ron Shusett on ALIEN, Dan O'Bannon, Ridley Scott and PROMETHEUS (Part 2)

Ron Shusett has made a profound impact upon science fiction cinema by adapting Phil Dick’s We Can Remember It for You Wholesale to the big screen as Total Recall and collaborating with Dan O’Bannon on the screenplay for Alien. In part two of our interview with Shusett we discuss how he came to collaborate with O’Bannon and the invention of the chest burster:

Midnite Ticket: How did you and Dan O’Bannon come to work together?

Ron Shusett: Dan and I both worked on Alien and Total Recall together. I didn’t know anything about Alien. I saw his movie DarkStar and it was impressive to me. Dan wrote it and starred in it and did the effects as a college thesis. It was good enough for Corman. We see over and over he has discovered so many people. Corman gave Dan sixty thousand dollars and released it commercially. When I saw it I said, “Wow, I should be working with this guy”. I hadn’t made any movies and I had been struggling for four or five years at that point. I write a lot of things that require effects and I knew that Total Recall would require a lot of effects. I knew I should be working with a guy who knew how to do them at a lower budget. I looked Dan up and I contacted him. He said, “ Send me something you’ve written”. Dan was sort of like Joe Biden. What was on his mind would come right out of his mouth even if it was a little rude. He wasn’t a bullshit guy. He said, “Look, everybody thinks they’re a writer. I’d like to see what you’ve done so I can see how I feel about you”. I sent him something I wrote that never got made. It was a good script, maybe not a great script. Dan said, “OK, you’re good. Come over and visit me.” He was living on the USC campus in an attic. When I told him I had the rights to Total Recall he said he loved it and wanted to help me work on it.

Phil Dick wrote a lot of short stories and with those you’ve got a beginning but no second or third act. At that point no Phil Dick story had ever been made. Blade Runner was ’82. This was ’76 or ’77. Dan said, “I’ve got a movie that I want to do and I’ve been trying for two years to get a second and third act.” This was the same problem with Phil Dick, where you’ve only got the setup. He said “I want you to read this but I don’t want to give it to you because I don’t know you.” I can understand that. I could have Xeroxed it and stolen ideas from it. Who knows? So he said, “Just read it while you sit here.” So I read it, the first 29 pages. The weird thing is it was exactly what you saw on the screen right up to where the face hugger jumps onto the screen. I said, “Dan, it’s brilliant!” He said, “Yeah, that’s what everybody tells me but I need to get the rest of the movie made. I think you can help me. Reading your script, you had some amazing ideas in there.” I gave him a few thoughts on what I had read. He said “I’ve only known you two hours and already we’ve made more progress than with anyone I’ve talked to in the last two years. This is what I propose to you. We’ll work on these two projects together. We have the same problem. You need a second and third act.” We started on his project first and there was a very good reason. Dan said “We could get lucky and get it made by Roger Corman and just do it for $700,000.” This was 1977 and the average major budget was only five or six million for the studios. We could do it on a small scale but creatively like he had done on DarkStar. It won’t be huge like a studio movie but it could still make our careers like Texas Chainsaw or Night of the Living Dead or any of the classics B movies. So we decided that’s what we would do. We worked first together on what became Alien and then we worked on Total Recall. The interesting thing is in that moment both movies were born. We didn’t have agents or attorneys or anything. Dan had one movie that was released but it didn’t do all that well because audiences didn’t know anything about it. He had little credibility and I had less. Both huge hits began in that moment. We got them made and we got them made exactly the way we wanted. The odds of that are a million to one. Two guys sitting in a room.

Corman, incidentally, offered to finance Alien for us. When we finished it he was the first person we showed it to and he said yes in one day. How many people has he discovered? Ron Howard. Jonathan Demi. Cameron. The guy has vision. Everybody would think a goddamn lizard coming out of somebody’s chest is nuts. Corman said “Yes, I’ll give you $750,000 to do it right now.” Right before we signed the contract we accidentally got the movie from Fox, which was the first studio we showed it to. Corman was fine, he said “God bless you! If you can do it on a big budget. It will be someone else I’ve discovered. Dan and Ron. I don’t resent you.” It did turn out to have a huge impact on cinema and we were ready to do it for $750,000.

Every major director and star turned it down. At that time science fiction was just starting to get big. We showed Alien to Fox before Star Wars came out. They were trying to get name stars. Candy Bergen, Jane Fonda, Kirk Douglas. Nobody wanted to work with a robot and a giant alien running around. They thought it was low class then. Star Wars hadn’t yet become the highest grossing movie in history. Ridley Scott was nobody then. He had made one movie that flopped. He was big in commercials. He was the eleventh choice after every big name turned it down. Nobody could have directed it as well. That was a gift from god. Sigourney Weaver had made no movies then. We discovered her off-broadway. She did a reading and gave the best screen test. You had a whole bunch of un-established people. The other people were character actors. Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ton Skerritt.

I was lucky that I got Paul Verhoeven coming right off Robocop to do Total Recall. Very few science fiction movies at that time that had Robocop’s budget were nearly as successful artistically and commercially. I was just lucky he read the script and Arnold was number on at the box office. Four years earlier I couldn’t get it made with him because he wasn’t big enough. After he did Predator and Twins he calls me up and says “OK. I’m ready to make your movie” and gets the money for it in one day after we were trying for eight years. You need a lot of luck no matter how much talent you have. You certainly need some amazing breaks along the way to be this lucky.

MT: You have been credited with creating the idea for the chest burster in Alien. How did that come about?

RS: I did come up with it but I did it in my sleep, if you can believe that. I think I wasn’t really sleeping. I was but I didn’t dream it. The best I can guess is that your subconscious, you’re closer to when your sleeping and therefore I was able to solve the problem we had. Dan said to me when I first read the script “I know what has to be done but I don’t know how to do it. If you can help me do it we’ll get this script done and it will be up to it’s potential. We need to figure out how the Alien gets on board in a way that nobody’s ever seen before.” We worked together for months and we just stared at the wall. We were so broke my wife was supporting us. Dan was sleeping on my couch. I said, “Dan, I don’t know. I thought I could help you fix this but so far I haven’t come up with anything.” He said “No, I feel you’re getting close on it. You’ve come up with possibilities. Let’s just go to sleep and we’ll start fresh start on it tomorrow.” So I go to bed and I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and I came into the living room and I said to Dan “I think I’ve cracked it. I think I know how it gets on board in a way that nobody’s ever seen in their whole life. It impregnates one of them. When they were down there looking they didn’t know what they would find. They find some almost primordial life. It’s prehistoric but it’s moving. That was the egg. They’re going to try and open it up.” We know what happened. Something jumps on his face and puts a tube down his mouth and impregnates him. They can’t see it on X-Ray because like an octopus produces ink it blocks out what’s growing in there. We know it’s breeding in there and then in the middle of the movie it comes bursting out his chest. Dan and I just looked at each other. We knew that would have to happen. Once implanted you have to operate or it comes bursting out the chest. Dan and I just pictured that and we were amazed. We looked at each other in shock. We said “Nobody’s ever seen that on screen.” Within three weeks we had the whole structure exactly as you saw it in the film once that one moment came to me. Dan was right. He knew that would unlock the rest of the movie. It seemed to write itself. It sounds crazy. It took us a couple months to get the dialog but that was easy once we had the roadmap. Most amazing is that we got it made almost immediately with no contacts, no nothing.

Star Wars hadn’t come out yet but Fox was aware it would be coming and had heard amazing things. Lucas made them an A+ movie and put it in our generation and did it in amazing quality and imagination. Science fiction movies were no longer laughable. They wanted the dark side of that. They said, “Now we should get one of these that’s dark horror, not fun adventure.” We were just lucky. Somebody who had a deal at Fox showed it to them and they said they wanted it.

MT:  In Alien you don’t describe the origin of the creature or the back story of the Space Jockey. These choices help give Alien a mythic quality where Prometheus spends a lot of it’s runtime attempting to explain these ideas.

RS: The first time you saw any idea of it was when Tom Skerritt was killed. He was grabbed and you didn’t know what happened to him. You just saw it so quickly but it was so powerful. Dan found Giger. He had never worked on a movie. While we were doing the script Giger was doing the designs for us over in Switzerland. We would send him pages and he would send back designs for what we suggested.

Giger did such a brilliant job it was not disappointing the first time you saw it. Finally in the third act you saw more of it but again Giger’s work was so brilliant it didn’t disappoint. That phallic shaped head and the inner teeth. It was a combination of not overdoing it, saving it till the end, and having a brilliant design. Not only did it not let you down, it lived up to all the build up.

MT: As a writer, how do you decide what elements of the story to explain and what elements to leave to the imagination?

RS: It’s a sixth sense. I can only tell you it’s not even intelligence or craftsmanship. You have to be born with an instinct for stuff like that. You say “How much will be disappointing and how much will be perfect”. Dan and I achieved that delicate balance. The interesting thing is that while we were writing the script, Giger was sending us these designs. That usually doesn’t happen. Usually you have a script and someone comes in and does it. When you’re collaborating with the artist who is going to design the creature you can say “I picture this happening here” and there’s a relationship. He would show us designs and we would realize how much we should show and how much we shouldn’t. That helped a lot too.

You mentioned the space jockey and Prometheus. We knew we should not try to explain the space jockey. We never thought in terms of a sequel. The first duty is to get the first movie good. There’s no sequel if it isn’t good enough. We didn’t bother ourselves with what that creature was it was or where it came from. It did the exact duty it had to. It shocked you. It awed you. It was fifteen feet tall and it gave real scope to the movie. When you saw real people against it you would say, “Wow, this is really a powerful, big scope move.” Just by that one scene and set. You saw it was not a model because you saw our name actors walking around it. We never intended to explain that.

I knew it would be almost impossible to do a prequel because you’d be so bogged down. It’s hard enough to do an Alien sequel as it is. To be bogged down with what the creature’s back story is, that’s what happened I think. Ridley and Dan and I said we were going to do this like a classic B movie. Don’t worry about symbolism. Don’t take it like “This is man turning against his body like cancer” or it’s male birth. Ridley said, “I want to do it the way you wrote it. An unpretentious edge of your seat thriller like every B-movie. Not an A movie that gets bogged down with a message and symbolism and a lot of extra character work. But I will make it look like Kubrick’s 2001.” That was the first day we met him. When he said that, even though nobody had any idea that he could do horror or mystery or suspense, we knew he was going to knock it out of the park. We could see from his reel that he could easily make it look brilliant.

Also he said, “I want to watch with you and Dan every classic B-movie that you recommend to me so that I get the rhythm of how the scares work.” The only A one on that list was Hitchcock’s Psycho. All the rest were B-movies. That’s what scares you the most. These old time B-movies that make you jump in your seat. He absorbed exactly how he could make all the scares work from watching all these classic B-movies. I realized he was going to do it exactly how we had imagined it and that it would be amazing. This was a half hour into the first meeting.

To read about Ron’s experiences brining Total Recall to the screen check out Part 1 of our interview and check out Part 3 of our interview to read about Ron’s upcoming projects, Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger .

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