Review by C.J. Bunce
So many books that go behind the scenes of films take a similar approach, skimming the surface with interviews of only top production heads, providing diehard fans of the property who have read all the fanzines little that is new. So when you get an immersive treatise like The Making of Alien, you must take a few weeks to digest every story, quote and anecdote found inside. Maybe it’s because so much of the inception of the other classics J.W. Rinzler has written about is the stuff of sci-fi movie legend, but Rinzler’s research this time around is completely enthralling. Writer Dan O’Bannon, writer and initial director Walter Hill, concept artist H.R. Giger, director and storyboard artist Ridley Scott, actors Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm–Rinzler’s chronology is framed by the entry of these people into the project and their key roles. The account of their intersected careers and efforts resulting in the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic provide a detailed understanding of studio productions in the 1970s. For fans of the film and the franchise, you couldn’t ask for more for this year’s 40th anniversary of Alien.
Rinzler, who has also created similar deep dives behind the scenes of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones films, and last year’s The Making of Planet of the Apes, has established the best format for giving sci-fi fans the ultimate immersive experience. In many ways The Making of Alien is an account of the necessary vetting process behind any major creative endeavor. The first draft of any story is never the best, and sometimes neither is the 100th draft. But the best books and the best movies get reviewed by other people, usually producers, editors, studios, departments, some with prestige and money backing them, sometimes over and over, with changes made to every chapter, with creators and ideas that are tried on for size, dismissed, re-introduced, and sometimes brought back again. By the end of many a film, the contributors are exhausted and disenchanted, some even devastated. Only sometimes this is alleviated by a resulting success. It was even more difficult working on a project like Alien–a mash-up of science fiction and horror pulled together in the 1970s, when drama was in, and science fiction meant either the cold drama of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the roller coaster spectacle of Star Wars. Behind the scenes there would be overlaps in creative types, like famed set “graffiti artist” Roger Christian and sound expert Ben Burtt. But ultimately Alien had to be something different to get noticed.
The stories of O’Bannon and Giger’s contributions and conflicts are the most intriguing of the bunch, and if you’ve read everything available on the film you’ll be surprised there is far more to their stories you haven’t read. The influence of John Carpenter was paramount to getting the idea of the film past the first step, particularly his films Dark Star and The Thing. Along the journey other creators would intersect with the project–people like Steven Spielberg, Alan Ladd, Jr., John Dykstra, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Ron Cobb, Jerry Goldsmith, and even Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
2001 got science fiction films noticed. Star Wars made them popular. But Alien cemented the professions of visual effects and an entire segment of moviemakers in Hollywood and around the world. Science fiction could thereafter also be terrifying and carry an R rating.
In Rinzler’s book you’ll find some good tidbits about Alien′s casting. Like Meryl Streep was the initial frontrunner for the role of Ripley, a role that wasn’t initially even written for a woman. In fact it was the success of films starring women like Jane Fonda that prompted a change to a leading woman for Alien–so the execs at the studios might take notice. Behind the camera Ridley Scott and the assistant directors played age-old tricks on the actors throughout the shoot. In addition to a well-known story of Veronica Cartwright’s reaction to the chestburster alien being her own real reaction (she passed out on set), Scott & Company pushed the actors, especially Yaphet Kotto, to agitate Sigourney Weaver, both to keep her off-balance and edgy and to force her to take charge as their leader once the camera started to roll.
Fans of concept art will love Ridley Scott’s personally drawn storyboards. Rinzler also includes key pieces of several drafts of the screenplay, illustrating various plot and character changes. Readers will leave with a better understanding of why Giger’s own accounts of the trials of working with 20th Century Fox were so problematic, and why the various phases of the alien creatures were so difficult for all the contributors to visualize and finalize.
J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Alien is a big, over-sized hardcover with a massive 336 pages and 1,000+ mostly color photographs and concept drawings. It’s a must for film buffs and fans of the franchise. Highly recommended reading, The Making of Alien is being released in two days, July 23, 2019, so you still have two days to get Amazon’s 30% pre-order discount here.