“In space, no one can hear you scream.” So ran the tagline for “Alien,” which went into wide release 35 years ago this week (on June 22, 1979). Then again, we’ve been screaming loudly for the past three and a half decades, through several sequels, prequels, and other spinoffs.
Every movie fan knows that “Alien” launched the careers of director Ridley Scott (it was just his second feature) and star Sigourney Weaver (whose Ripley became the greatest action heroine in film history over the course of the franchise). Most even know that Swiss artist H.R. Giger (who passed away last month at 74) designed the “xenomorph,” the alien that picks off Ripley’s fellow crew members one by one. But you may not know what the alien’s entrails were made of, what scenes were never filmed, or how the notorious “chestburster” sequence was made to look so horrifically realistic. Here are some of the secrets of “Alien,” just waiting to emerge, like an embryo from a leathery egg.
1. Before “Alien,” screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had written “Dark Star,” an essentially comic treatment of the same plot, for director John Carpenter. His idea to rework it as a thriller/horror movie was the genesis of “Alien.” He and writing partner Ronald Shusett pitched it to studios as “‘Jaws‘ in space.”
2. The cargo ship, the Nostromo, took its name from a Joseph Conrad novel.
3. H.R. Giger’s initial designs for the xenomorph were so disturbing that his sketches were held up in customs at the Los Angeles airport. O’Bannon had to go the airport and explain to customs officials that they were designs for a horror movie.
4. Giger made a point of designing the creature without eyes, so that it would look even more chilling and soulless.
5. Veronica Cartwright had read for the part of Ripley but didn’t realize she was to play Lambert instead until she arrived in London for costume fittings.
6. As a child, Cartwright had co-starred in another classic creature feature, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” One of her co-stars in that movie was comic actor Doodles Weaver, uncle of Cartwright’s future “Alien” co-star, Sigourney Weaver.
7. Weaver was all but unknown as a film actress when she auditioned. She was the last of the seven principal stars to be cast.
8. In an early draft of the film was a sex scene between Ripley and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), but it was never filmed.
9. Also never filmed: an ending in which Ripley’s final confrontation with the alien ends with the creature biting off her head.
10. Ash, which proved a breakthrough role for Ian Holm after 20 previous films, was not initially supposed to be an android. The idea of making him a robot came from producers Walter Hill and David Giler.
11. For long shots involving the astronaut landing party, Scott and cinematographer Derek Vanlint put their own children in space suits to make the humans appear smaller next to the remains of the Space Jockey, the extraterrestrial pilot whose corpse is found in an empty ship on the planet’s surface. The body was already 26 feet tall.
12. The space suits were bulky and poorly ventilated, so much so that the actors tended to pass out from heat exhaustion. A nurse had to be kept on hand to supply them with oxygen. Only after Scott and Vanlint’s children found the suits unbearably hot and passed out as well did the filmmakers modify the costumes to make breathing easier.
13. The blue light effects in the egg chamber came from lasers belonging to The Who. The filmmakers borrowed them from the rock icons, who were in a soundstage next door testing out lighting gear for an upcoming tour.
14. The alien’s various incarnations came by their slimy, pungent appearance honestly. The “facehugger” creature was made from clams, oysters, and other seafood. The alien that bursts forth from Kane included organ parts from a butcher shop and smelled of formaldehyde.
15. The actors didn’t know in advance how the scene of the alien’s emergence from John Hurt‘s abdomen would play; Scott deliberately kept it a secret so that their horrified reactions would be spontaneous and real.
16. “All it said in the script was, ‘The thing emerges,'” Weaver recalled later, adding that the crew’s garb should have given the actors a clue. “Everyone was wearing raincoats,” she said. “We should have been a little suspicious.”
17. The fake torso containing the “chestburster” creature was bolted to the dining room table. Hurt was underneath the table with his head sticking up. Camera trickery made it look like his head was attached to the torso.
18. When the alien burst forth, stagehands pumped geysers of fake blood through the cavity. A jet hit Cartwright in the face, and she passed out.
19. To scare “Jonesy” (who was actually played by four different cats), the filmmakers hid a German Shepherd behind a screen, then suddenly removed the screen.
20. Scott meant for the full-grown alien to have a lanky and angular form that no human frame would possess. In fact, there was a man inside the suit, a 22-year-old Nigerian design student named Bolaji Badejo who stood 7′ 2″. Scott cast him after one of the production crew members met him in a bar.
21. Badejo had to stand on the set all day; his costume wasn’t built to allow him to sit. A special sling was constructed to hoist him so that he could rest his feet.
22. The slime dripping from the alien’s jaws was made of K-Y jelly.
23. The film’s cost has been disputed; differing reports place it anywhere from $8.4 million to $14 million. Nonetheless, it was hugely profitable. It grossed some $81 million in the United States. Its foreign grosses have also been disputed, with the film reportedly earning anywhere from $24 million to $123 million overseas.
24. “Alien” won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for another, for Best Art Direction.
25. In 2003, a longer version dubbed “Alien: The Director’s Cut” was released, but Scott dismissed the title as a mere marketing tool, said the additional scenes were superfluous, and claimed the original version of the film was “pretty flawless.”