Alien: Memory surfaces

leading from

Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett

a) Making contact with Dan O'Bannon
Perhaps somewhere between 1974 to '75, Ron Shusett had not heard about Dark Star, and then somebody was telling him about the brilliant young University of Southern California graduate student who had done this film as their masters degree, the John Carpenter film Dark Star. Scifi was really Ron's love and he also liked suspense. So he went to see Dark Star and was amazed by what he has seen on the cinema screen. As far as Dan was aware, Ron saw the movie at Filmex '74 which was he from March 28-April 9

poster for Dark Star
He made contact with them, first he spoke to John Carpenter over the phone and then he spoke to Dan O'Bannon over the phone and he found that he had much more of a rapport with Dan just from the phone conversations. He found that he had developed an admiration for Dan, since he had written and co-designed the special effects done for a ridiculously small budget, and even by film maker Roger Corman’s standards Ron felt that this guy was someone that was great. 
b) Scripts in Development
So having made contact with Dan over the phone, Ron told him that he liked his film Dark Star a lot and would like to work with him.  Then Dan said to him "Have you got any scripts that you’ve developed? Send me something you've written. 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.

Ron Shusett compared Dan to someone like Joe Biden who would become Vice President of the United States, what was on his mind would come out right through his mouth. Even if he made him somewhat rude at least he didn't talk bullshit.

Of course, Ron had some things that he had done, and so Dan asked him to send him a few examples, because there were so many people that thought that they were writers, and quite simply, in Dan’s view they were not.  Ron sent him two scripts which he remembered that he had either co-written or co-storied, actually it was something that in over two decades later when he came to talk of this information he would no longer recollect which scripts they were.

He noted that when he was involved in doing these things he sometimes wrote the stories, and then sometimes he wrote the actual screenplay. Dan didn’t send Ron any of his own scripts but since he had seen examples of Ron, he was very impressed and he said to him, “okay, you're good, come over, let’s get together and have a meeting

Ron turned up at Dan’s and he lived in a garret somewhere down in an old building by USC. And there he was and Dan said to him when they got into conversation, as recollected by Ron, “listen, I’ve got this story. I really liked the script you sent me, I do wanna work with you. What else have you got in mind?

Ron replied, “I have optioned this property by Phil Dick” which was the short story called ‘We Can Remember it for you Wholesale’.

This was one that he couldn’t work out a script for.

For Ron, whether Dan accepted it or not for himself, it seemed that Dan was one of those people who just about knew everything to do with science fiction and of course he knew that story immediately and he said “I’d like to do this please, I love that story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. I’d love to develop it with you, do you have the rights to that?

Ron replied “Yeah

So Dan said, “Okay, I’d like to do that, but I’d like you to help me on something I have. I’ve got this idea for a project too, it's just a simple monster movie which needs some brand new inspirational idea. It will fall right into place, if we can come up with a simple way of making the monster amazing . I have about a third of it written and I wont, since I don’t know you, I won’t let you take it away, you read it while you’re here

Ron thought about the fact it was a monster movie and replied “well, I never gravitated towards those

c) Memory
So Dan pitched the idea to him the initial idea of the story that would become Alien, he had the first part of it, and there was the problem also that he couldn’t make the breakthrough from there. Ron remembered that it was about twenty eight pages long and it had no title to his knowledge unaware that Dan had named it Memory (which so happened to be the name of a H. P. Lovecraft short story about a conversation between a Genie and a Daemon about who built the ruins in a valley, written in 1919) and maybe by this time it had even become Starbeast. To go even further, at one point it could easily be labeled as a script, but according to Dan, it was not so much a script, since it was not really written at that point, it was just something in the ideation stage, still very sketchy, and so to follow his idea about his truth of it all, he was not ready to write the actual script since he did not have the end of the story yet.

Dan mentioned that the thread of the story which was the monster was not clear to him.
poster for Bava's
Planet of the Vampires
Set in 2087, the script started with an alien transmission which caused the crew of the commercial Starship Snark,  to come out from hypersleep, they're receiving a signal from a mysterious  planetoid in an alien language. They land on the storm swept planet and investigate, they get stalled down there, and their ship breaks down. However they discover that the beacon is coming from a spaceship graveyard, and then they discover the skeleton of a dead giant space captain aboard a downed derelict vessel. Sometime after they land, the computer succeeds in translating the message, it was "Do not land."

The crew takes a number of scientific readings, and return to their ship with a misshapen skull as proof of their findings, at one point referred to by Dan as an artifact. The skull carries the host of an alien creature inside, which quickly matures to full size and begins terrorising the crew once they have set course for home, evading capture by the beast, the crew eventually joins forces to blast that creature into space. 

d) Inspired by Bava's Planet of the Vampires
Dan admitted that he stole the idea of the giant alien skeleton from Planet of the Vampires in which the skeletons were remains of giant humanoid space travellers who had been driven mad into killing one another when possessed by the spirits on the planet.

Junkyard was published in&
Galaxy Science Fiction in May 1953
e) Inspired by Simak's Junkyard
There was a main literary inspiration, a story by Clifford F Simak,  published in May 1953 edition Galaxy magazine and dramatised on the radio as X Minus One, entitled Junkyard and in this story, which was much on Dan's mind, space explorers put down on a blighted asteroid where they find a graveyard of wrecked alien spacecrafts belonging to different races and an indigenous stone tower which they enter through a hole at the top and find something at the bottom that looks like a watermelon, but it was an organism that stole minds and by the time the heroes make it off the planet, they are reduced to near idiocy. The fact that the people in this story were losing their memory may well have contributed to the name of the story in one way or another.

f) Inspired by Jim Boxell's Defiled
In Jim Boxell's comic book story Defiled, the astronaut is sent to retrieve a artifact in the shape of an alien being's head. The astronaut accidently drops it, it comes to life and emerges as a large alien life form which injures the astronaut and infects him with an alien organism growing inside him soon emerging from his chest, and this comic book story would help to seed a major idea later in the development.

See Tim Boxell's Defiled inspired Dan O'Bannon's Alien
page from Tim Boxell's Defiled comic book story which inspired Dan-o'Bannons

poster for Forbidden Planet
g) Along the lines of Forbidden Planet
Beyond there, Dan was not happy with his first draft, he felt that his ideas were to some degree nebulous. He thought that the crew would never get off the planet until the end of the story and the creature would be some kind of a psychic force. So he realised the ideas that he had were like the situation that takes place in the movie ‘Forbidden Planet’, where one of Earth’s starships lands on a mysterious planet, gets stranded there, and bit by bit becomes involved with some mysterious and threatening organism.

h) Ron Read the script
Dan said to Ron, "You sit here and read this, this is what I've got and I'm stuck on it, " Ron read this script, and what Dan had written as far as he could see, it was almost exactly what one sees in Alien up to right before the facehugger jumps out, or as far as Dan said, to the point where they find the derelict with the pilot’s remains, but these scenes came at the same point in the final film anyway. Ron was knocked out by what he read because he thought it was brilliant. Dan had been working on the story since the end of 1971.

Dan told Ron, “I think from the work I saw you do and your other science fiction script, I think you can help me unlock it, and I know I can help you write a good screenplay version of Total Recall.

i) They Shook Hands
So they shook hands on the deal and Ron in time to come looked back at that moment to be amazing because both the movies "Total Recall" and 'Alien" were born in that second, (the "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" script project was to become the Blockbuster Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall, the final act of which Dan didn’t like at all, enough to want to make him eventually sever ties with Ron Shusett),

They started working on another project that Dan had 80% written and Dan wanted Ron to come up with an ending, which Ron suddenly did, and Dan was very much impressed by it. What this project was exactly was something that he never precisely mentioned to any of the interviewers, but also possibly to follow along with the desire to identify this work, Ron recalled that his work with Dan on one film script at this same period of time that they did together called “They Bite” which also had the title "Omnivore", a script that came out so well that a studio optioned it but didn't know how to do the special effects. It might have been the same script but Dan never quite spoke about every aspect of the matter in one single interview in a way that all the pieces could be married together so easily, there was a possibility that he might have talked about it and that the journalists were not really interested because it seemed to have little to do with the Alien movie.

Source quotes 
  1. John L Flynn: Unfortunately, O'Bannon's first screen treatment was little more than a retread of "It! The Terror from Beyond Space" and "Queen of Blood" (1966). Set in 2087 A.D., the script began aboard the commerical starship Snark with the interception of the source of a signal, a storm-swept planetoid, and discovers the remains of a downed spacecraft and its sole inhabitant, a skeletal pilot, The crew takes a number of scientific readings, and return to their ship with a misshapen skull as proof of their findings. The skull carries the host of an alien creature inside, which quickly matures to full size and begins terrorising the crew once they have set course for home.  Evading capture by the beast, the crew eventually joins the forces to blast that creature into space. O'Bannon was not at all pleased with his first draft, and explained his frustration to Shusett: 'Star Beast' is just a simple monster movie which needs some brand new inspirational idea. It will fall right into place, if we can come up with a simple way of making the monster amazing.  ( Alien - The Monster of all Monster Films by Dr. John L Flynn)
  2. Ron Shusett: I think it was 1976, when I met Dan O'Bannon, 'cause I'd seen Dark Star, somebody told me about this brilliant young USC graduate student who had done as his masters the John Carpenter film Dark Star, and I was blown away by it. And I saw it out there and I went down, he lived in a garret somewhere down in an old building by USC and I had talked to him on the phone and I sent in the script.  I told him I liked his film a lot and I'd like to work with him. I made no films in my entire career at this point and I said my main goal is in producing and writing.  I'm not trying to be a director, which is a lot harder to get started as first-time director and I wanted to work with him because I thought he did an amazing job, particularly since he also designed a special effects. So he  said "send me something you've done, 'cause there are so many people that think they're writers and they're not". ( report of what Ron said in the interview with Alien Evolution documentary) 
  3. Ron Cobb (2:59) : We got to talking, I realised that Dan was a cinema student as USC, and had...was in the process of making a kind of a spoof on 2001, a small film called Dark Star, and er, and he was surprised to find that my secret love was, was film and, er, particularly fantastic cinema always, always attracted me. So basically I helped out on Dark Star.(2:59, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story)  
  4. Ron Shusett (3:23): I hadn't heard about Dark Star, and somebody was telling me about these two brilliant young guys, and scifi was my love really, I like, I also like, er, suspense, but I went to see Dark Star, and I , and I spoke to Carpenter on the phone, and er, I spoke to Dan on the phone, but it seemed to me I had more of a rapport with Dan just from phone conversations, and , er, I told him that I had the rights the,  what would became Total Recall which was the original story by Phil Dick was called We can remember it for you wholesale, so he knew the story he said "i love that! yuh, so you got the rights for that?" "I said yuh" He said "okay, I've got something I've gotta discuss with you that I have been working on for about a year and I need to make a breakthrough and maybe you're the guy who can make me have it happen, " and that turned out to be Alien (3:23, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story) 
  5. Ron Shusett: I told him that I wanted to work with him, I liked his work a lot, and he was very suspicious of me, because I had something to look at, his.. his film, and he's, and I never got to make a movie then at that point, my life has been struggling several years, I don't know how many years that time, five years, six years, something like that, seven, I don't know, anyway, he said well, you got some scripts you've developed, so I sent him two scripts that I had either co-written or co-stories, sometimes I'd do the story, sometimes I'd do the actual screenplay and he was very impressed, he said let's get together and have a meeting(1:56, Alien Legacy Starbeast DVD) 
  6. 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.
  7. Ron Shusett: So I Sent him a screenplay I'd written that had nothing to do was Total Recall or Alien or anything. I forgot even what the script was,  long forgotten a script and he liked it a lot.  And he didn't show men anything, he just said "come over"and when I got there that's when I first heard what was later to become Alien . He said "listen, I've got the story", he said "I really like the script you sent me. I do wanna work with you.And he said "what else have you got in mind?" And I said " I have optioned a property by Phil Dick, which was then, the title of the short story was We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"and Dan of course knows every sci-fi,  he said "I know that I love that, I'd love to work on that, you have the rights to that. " I said "yeah" and so he said "okay, I'd like to do that but I'd like you to help me on something I have. I have about the third of it written and I wont , since I don't know you, I wont let you take it away, you read it while you're here." It was about 28 pages written and then I don't think he had the title later he might have said Star Beast, but then that was at one point he started calling it Star Beast. ( report of what Ron said in the interview with Alien Evolution documentary)
  8. Dan O'Bannon: I had this opening, I didn't know where it was going to go, I knew I wanted to do a scary movie on a spaceship with a small number of astronauts. Like I say Dark Star is a horror movie instead of a comedy. I had this creepy opening in which astronauts awaken to find that there voyage home has been interrupted , they're receiving a signal from this mysterious planetoid, an alien language, they go down to investigate, they get, um, stalled down there, their ship breaks down (4:11, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story)
  9. Dan O'Bannon: It was really a labor of love. The idea for the movie goes back to 1972 when I wrote the first half of it. It was untitled at that time. I was working on Dark Star and I thought of doing a similar film but without the humour. A really scary movie. (Future Life #11, Jul7 1979, p28) 
  10. Dan O'Bannon: Astronauts awaken from their long voyage home, to find that their ship's computer has intercepted a radio transmission of unknown origin. When they land to investigate, their ship is disabled, stranding them. Their fatal inquisitiveness brings them to contact with a life form, and it was here, in the realization of the life form, that I knew that Giger could make the film unique. I had a good fix on the storyline, up to the point where the life form manifested itself, and attacked a crew member. After that I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with it. (Something perfectly disgusting by Dan O'Bannon, 2003, Alien Quadrilogy DVD set)
  11. 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 with the 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. (source: September 2008)
  12. Ron Shusett: I went down to see him, and it was really weird because on that day was born both Alien and Total Recall, because I had an option on the short story by Phil Dick then, and I couldn't get a script on it, so I told him about it, he knew the story immediately, he said I'd like to do this buddy, I love that story "We can remember it for you wholesale". He said I love that , I'd like to develop that with you. He said I've got this idea for a project too, and he says, er, monster movie, and I said well err, I never gravitated towards those . (2:40, Alien Legacy Starbeast DVD)
  13.  Dan O'Bannon : I have started work on two screenplays. One of them is called "Memory" and is a terror SF story about a small mining ship which lands on a planetoid after intercepting a broadcast message in an unknown, alien language. After they land, the computer succeeds in translating the message. It is, "Do not land." And so forth. ( December 1971, in a letter to a Scott Derwing, Quote shared by Diane O'Bannon at the Official Dan O'Bannon Fan page at Facebook, 6th November 2011)
  14.  Dan O'Bannon: I had the material necessary for the , for the first half of the script, a kind of forbidden planet situation where one of our starships lands of a mysterious planet, gets stranded there, bit by bit becomes involved with some mysterious and threatening organism. I had that all worked out pretty good, but I really didn't know what to do with the second half." (Alien Evolution documentary 4:25 )
  15. Dan O'Bannon: I went through old script ideas and found one untitled that was basically the first half of the finished movie - the crew of the spaceship are automatically awakened before reaching Earth because they receive a distress signal from an unknown planet. They land on the planet and discover the beacon is coming from a spaceship graveyard. That was as far as I had got. ( "Kill By Mouth" p118 , Neon (UK). December 97)
  16. 22nd February, 1956, "JUNKYARD" 39 02-22-56 :30:00* A galactic survey ship finds a lot of discarded alien machine parts on a low grade planet. When they get ready to leave the crew has forgotten how to power the ship. George Lefferts wrote the script. The cast members were Jack Orrison, and John Larkin, Bob Hastings, Mercer McLeod and Stan Early. Writer: Clifford D. Simak (
  17. Dan O'Bannon: I said I want to do this story now about astronauts who are forced to land on a deadplanet in some remote part of the universe, there they discover an ancient alien artefact, okay, inside of which of course there's some kind of a monster or a threat, and ah, I was having a little bit of trouble making up the monster and I didn't quite know where to go with the second half of the piece.(Alien Anthology Blu-Ray capsules, O'Bannon working with Shusett)  
  18. Dan O'Bannon: So I pitched it to him, I had the idea of Alien, I had the first half of it (3:06, Alien Legacy Starbeast DVD)
  19. Dan O'Bannon(5:08) The threat at the centre of the story, whatever this monster or thing, danger was going to be, was not at all clear to me at this point.  (5:08, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story)
  20. Ron Shusett: So I've got 29 pages written but I don't know you, I can't trust you to leave the house with this story, I know, you have nothing written, I said no, I've just got the rights to the story, I haven't tried to write it yet. And he said okay well you sit here and just read this, this is what I've got and I'm stuck on it quite frankly, but read this. So I sat there and I read it and it was very close to what we actually ended up with on the screen, those first 29 pages.(4:45, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story)
  21. Ron Shusett : First act was fantastic, I said, you know, possibly maybe I could help you with it, he said okay, I could help you on Total Recall, so we decided however we would tackle Alien first because Total Recall would be way more expensive because at that time we envisioned Alien could be a Roger Corman movie, just in one location, you know, several different rooms in an old warehouse. (5:16, The Beast Within : Starbeast:  Developing the story)
  22. Ron Shusett: And he said I can't make the breakthrough from here. He said I'll do, I'll help you do Total Recall and you help me do Alien. And I find it kind of amazing, both movies born in that second you know and so, we did, and so, since he had a start, we would have to tackle that first, and er,  we were, we put aside Total Recall and we thought we'd try to do something about Alien, I tried to help him get further with it, but before we ever could we got sidetracked because Dan was hired to go off and do the special effects on the first incarnation of Dune with Jodorowsky to direct.(3:23, Alien Legacy Starbeast DVD)
  23. Ron Shusett: Dan and  I worked on a film script together called They Bite. It came out so well that the studio optioned it. At that point, Dan went off to work on special effects for the movie version of Dune in Europe. (Future Life#11, July 1979, p28)
  24. Dan O'Bannon: I knew I had to write something to get off of Ronnie's sofa , I have gotten good responses the previous year and another sci-fi horror script I had written called Omnivore. The studios liked it but they didn't know how to do the special effects. So I thought on Alien I could do something with a similar feel and quality to it but make it very clear that the special effects were manageable by 70s Standards which were of course pretty primitive at the  time. (Reel Terror p293)
  25. Dan O'Bannon:Writing Omnivore proved very valuable to the development of Alien and trying to keep story with budget limitations help shape the screenplay. I wanted it to be really obvious to the studio executives in 1976 that the monster was not going to be cripplingly difficult to pull off,  I wanted to write it so most of it was clearly a man in a suit,  I described it as a tall humanoid, and I limited it to only one because Omnivore had dozens of these complex creatures. But it had different parts to its life-cycle. I modelled that after microscopic parasites that moved from one animal to the next and have complex life-cycles. I just enlarged the parasite. I was interested in the biology of aliens, so I wasn't interested in streamlining the thing below interest level just for the sake of economy(Reel Terror p293)
  26. Dan O'Bannon: Well, I've known Ron for a couple of years. I met Ron through Dark Star. He saw it at Filmex in '74 and that's how we met. (Phobos #1, 1977) 
  27. Dan O Bannon: So far, so good; but there are also literary sources. To date, no one has recognized a story by Clifford D. Simak, again from the 1950s, published in If Magazine and dramatized on the radio on (I think) X Minus One, entitled Junkyard. In this story, which was much on my mind, space explorers put down on a blighted asteroid where they find a graveyard of wrecked alien spacecraft, of different races. Next they discover an ancient, indigenous stone tower; one astronaut lets himself down through a hole at the top, and finds something at the bottom that looks like a watermelon. No fruit, this organism steals minds. By the time the heroes make it off the asteroid, they've been reduced to near idiocy.(from the "Something Perfectly Disgusting" essay by Dan O'Bannon for tbe Alien Quadrilogy set, 2003)

No comments:

Post a Comment