- “After going
over a few other projects, Michael Costigan, president of the company,
mentioned they wanted to revisit the ‘Alien’ universe,” the writer recalls.
- Jon Spaihts: I was brought abroad as the writer of Prometheus before it had that title, it was at that time the untitled Alien prequel, and I got the job almost sideways or accidentally. I had come into Scott Free, Ridley's company, to talk about anything and everything. It was a general meeting, they liked some scripts that I had written and so I came in and talked about different books, different ideas of my own and late in the meeting they said "you know, we'd like to go back to the Alien universe, we're not sure how", and there was at that time not really any way that anyone could see to run farther forward with Alien franchises as it stood, the sequels had become pretty strange and so the only way to do it was to go back in time and do prequels, something before that. (Screenwriters commentary for Prometheus)
- Collider: How did you get involved with Prometheus?
JON SPAIHTS: I had written a couple of scripts that had gotten the attention of the folks over at Scott Free, Ridley’s production company, particularly a science fiction epic, called Shadow 19, and a science fiction love story, called Passengers. On the strength of those scripts, I was brought in to talk about finding something to do together. It began as a general meeting, with books and comic books across the table, and they asked me if I had any original ideas of my own. Late in the meeting, the fellow I was talking to – Michael Costigan, the head of Ridley’s company – mentioned that they had wanted, for a long time, to return to the universe of Alien and tell a new story, but that nobody had been able to crack it. And, it seemed they couldn’t really go any further forward with the story they’d come up with, so they had to go back in time, and they asked, “So, what do you think?” (https://collider.com/jon-spaihts-prometheus-world-war-robot-interview/)
- Filmmaker: So how did you get Prometheus?
Spaihts: I went to a general meeting with Scott Free. They just wanted to meet me on the basis of things I’d written that they had read. As is often the case in general meetings we shot the breeze about a lot of different possibilities. They owned the rights to certain books, they wanted to rewrite certain movies. They wanted to know if I had original ideas. Late in the meeting, they said that Ridley had been thinking for a long time about returning to the Alien universe. Since no one could see how to continue the existing franchise forward it would have to be a prequel, something set before the time of the first film, and they asked whether I had any ideas. I hadn’t been asked to prepare anything for the meeting or really thought about it before but I found that I had a lot of ideas.(https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- Screem: I read that not only are you the first of the two screen screenwriters on Prometheus but you also pitched the script to Fox originally.
Jon Spaihts: It's true. I went to a meeting at Ridley's company, Scott Free (Productions), in what was probably late 2009. They were impressed by a couple of scripts I had written and wanted to see if they might find something to work with me on. They pitched me a number of things that they had in their hopper-books they had the rights to, films they were remaking - the usual general meeting. It was only late in the meeting that the head of the company, Michael Costigan, to whom i was speaking, said they had been looking for a long time to make another movie set in the Alien universe, bit nobody had been able to crack the story, Everyone felt that the franchise has played itself out going forward, so the only way was to go backward in time, but nobody knew quite how to do it. (Screem #24, April 2012)
|The Space Jockey wrapped in his chair|
He quickly decided that for the story of the space jockeys to be meaningful, it also had to be the story of everyone, and deeply enmeshed with the human story.
- Jon Spaihts:“I just started riffing about how you’d have to do it and what the
secrets behind the first film would have to be,” he says. “At the end of
it, he asked if I could write down what I said and email it to Ridley,
who was editing ‘Robin Hood’ at the time.” (https://variety.com/2012/film/news/prometheus-writer-on-the-origin-of-fox-s-alien-pic-1118053998/)
- Jon Spaihts: So I came in, they asked me if I had any notions on how to go back to do a prequel to the original Alien, and I found instantly that I had opinions about it, that I had notions although I had never asked myself the question or thought about it before, and I just started mouthing off, and I riffed for forty five minutes, (Screenwriters commentary for Prometheus)
- Jon Spaihts: At the end of it all, Costigan looked at me and asked me if I
would write that down for Ridley, who was then in the editing room
working on Robin Hood (2010)
Your reps, if you're a writer, your reps will always tell you not to write the story down and leave it behind, because people can steal your ideas and steal your work, but this was Ridley Scott, is I promptly wrote it down and left it behind. And after that things took off almost immediately. In something like ten days, I was sitting in a conference room with Ridley and the co-chairs of 20th Century Fox, and Ridley was no long talking about merely producing the film but directing himself (Screem #24, April 2012)
- Jon Spaihts:...part of another species of alien greater that our own. All the mysteries have alien players: the exoskeleton nightmare and giant pilot of the ship, the elephantine titan that was called the 'space jockey' in the fan literature. How do you make anyone care about events between creatures like this? (https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2012/05/03/how-an-unsung-screenwriter-got-to-work-with-ridley-scott-on-prometheus-and-ended-up-riding-a-bronco/#110d8b9846a0)
- JON SPAIHTS: It was interesting
because a question I had ever asked myself or been asked before, and
certainly nothing I had prepared for the meeting. But, I found that,
when the question was asked, I had opinions that were, in fact, pretty
strong opinions, so I just started riffing.
The original Alien left behind some tremendous mysteries about the universe and the world in which it was set, and the mysterious were provocative. I followed a thread of thought into how those mysteries would have to be resolved. That seemed, to me, to make the best sense, and I told the story for 30 or 45 minutes. (https://collider.com/jon-spaihts-prometheus-world-war-robot-interview/)
- Spaihts: I talked for maybe 45 minutes and when I was done I had outlined a story, main characters, set pieces, a mythology and sort of fleshed it out in the room.(https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- Filmmaker: What do you think accounted for your ability to do that on the spot? It is because you area a huge fan of the Alien
films and remember their world so well? I’m a big fan of those films
too, but to be honest it’s been a long time since I saw them and I don’t
think I’d be able to jump into that universe at a moments notice.
Spaihts: I think, yes, Alien and to a slightly lesser extent Aliens, have lingered in my memory, and so I did have some facility about the universe. But I also think some of it was pure blind chance. I don’t think I have some magical power to whip out a fully-fledged screenplay idea at the drop of hat every time I’m asked a question. This was just a question that hit me at a crossroads of my own fascinations. It was the right question to ask me. I’ve been asked the wrong question hundreds of times in interviews. I really don’t mean to claim some superpower — it was just a question that landed near a lot of things I love. So I was able to make connections between them and find my way into a story and mythology I found really compelling. It worked for me because I got excited. (https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- Scott: Before
we get to Passengers, let’s jump into some of these projects you’ve
worked on. Starting with Prometheus. What were some of the challenges of
world building that you did when you were writing Prometheus?
Jon Spaihts: It was getting to extend the fictional canvas beyond the borders of the frame of the original Alien movies. Scott Free Production wanted to go back and look at doing a prequel to the original film. That meant returning to Ripley’s original film and looking at what doors had been left propped open that I could go through and explore.
Obviously, the origin of the Alien, the Xenomorph, was going to be the critical question. It was found in a derelict spaceship wherein we see the cadaver of an alien giant with an elephantine face, who’s clearly fallen victim to a Xenomorph himself.
That was the vector. Whatever that giant alien was, the “space jockey,” he and his kind were how this thing got here. That meant the prequel really ought to be, in some respect, the story of the space jockeys, but I didn’t think it would be easy to make a popular film [laughs] starring a bunch of 15‑foot elephant giants.
I quickly decided that for the story of the space jockeys to be meaningful to us, it also had to be our story, the story of humankind.
Given the age of the wreck as it’s characterized in the first Alien movie, my first thought was that these ancient giants must have been the von Daniken‑style aliens who some believe helped to shape ancient civilizations, and raise our early monuments, and, perhaps, even to shape the development of the species itself.
I imagined them as the Engineers who fomented sentient life on earth and then schooled that life into their own image, both cognitively and physically. I suppose the closing idea was that that elephantine alien face of the space jockey was merely a mask. Underneath it, to our astonishment, it would be revealed that they looked like us. Or, perhaps more accurately, that we looked like them.
Spaihts called them the Engineers and imagined them as the ones who fomented sentient life on earth and then schooled that life into their own image, both cognitively and physically.
- Filmmaker: What were some of those things? You talked a little bit about Passengers and the previous script, but what were some of those things in that crossroads?
Spaihts: It’s difficult for me to say very much about Prometheus without getting spoiler-y, so I’ll talk with some delicacy. I had the insight that if you were to try to reach back in time for the history of the universe we glimpse in the original Alien, you are inevitably concerning yourself with the affairs of non-human beings. Both the deadly predator that is the through-line of the Alien franchise and the enigmatic dead alien giant that is the great mystery at the beginning of Alien. Those are interesting entities not fully explained, but to keep an audience interested in those things it couldn’t be abstraction, it couldn’t be a purely “alien story” about things we can’t relate to. It was going to have to be connected to our own story. Somehow the story of those creatures was going to have to be connected to the human story, not just our history but our fate to come. I looked for ways to make those connections, and that’s where I got interested. (https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- John Spaihts: Here's the scene that I think more than anything else that I think got me the job of writing this movie. pitched it in the treatment, sort of pitched it in the room the first time I was asked about the movie. What if our heroine is impregnated by an alien, we've never seen anyone survive, and she saves herself. What if there's a medical machine where she can cut the thing out of her, and I described a kind of gory Grand-Guignol sequence in which she excised er what was at that point a kind of classic chestburster before it could tear her open, because the real trauma is the exit wound, having the thing inside you doesn't kill you, erm, if you get it out clean, you might live, erm, so it was interesting to play that notion, um and this scene plays very true in a lot of ways to the thing I originally described except that what comes is a more conventional eh, chestburster, and in my version of the scene, once the monster's pulled out of her, it's expelled from the pod, and she pulls the canopy closed, and then she's inside the pod for what seems like another eight hours while it sews her up and heals her, and she comes in and out of consciousness in a fugue state and as she wakes up she looks outside and the monster's getting bigger and bigger and going back and forth in the room and she's watching it grow up and eight hours later it's full sized and she's watching it kill people through the glass. (Screenwriters commentary for Prometheus)
- Jon Spaihts: Plays differently in this case, she traps the monster inside the the pod and she makes her escape, er in either case she ends up running bloody through the ship, bloody and half naked through the ship and thoroughly traumatised (Screenwriters commentary for Prometheus)
- Jon Spaihts: and at the end of the meeting, the executive asked if I would write that down for Ridley who was still in the edit room for Robin Hood at that time, and you're not supposed to write anything down. There's a leave behind if you're a screen writer taking a meeting but of course I did because it was Ridley Scott and it went to him, they told me it wouldn't go to the Studio, and it shot instantly into the studio and up the ranks, and in ten days I was sitting in front of the two co-chairs with Fox and Ridley beside me pitching a movie. And I wrote the first draft in three and a half weeks, the whole thing happened incredibly fast (Screenwriters commentary for Prometheus)
- Jon Spaihts: At the end of it all, Costigan looked at me and asked me if I
would write that down for Ridley, who was then in the editing room
working on Robin Hood (2010)
Your reps, if you're a writer, your reps will always tell you not to write the story down and leave it behind, because people can steal your ideas and steal your work, but this was Ridley Scott, is I promptly wrote it down and left it behind. (Screem #24, April 2012)
- Jon Spaihts:At the end of that time, Michael asked me if I wouldn’t mind writing that down for Ridley, who was in post-production, at that time, on Robin Hood. You’re not really supposed to write stuff down, as a writer, and leave the document behind. You’re supposed to only talk about it in the room. But, it was Ridley Scott, so of course, I did. In a very short time, that document had leapt from Ridley’s hands into the studio structure and up the ladder. I think it was less than two weeks, before I was sitting in a room with the two co-chairs of 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott, talking about a deal, and Ridley had turned from being merely the producer of the project to wanting to direct it himself. After that, things moved very fast, indeed. (https://collider.com/jon-spaihts-prometheus-world-war-robot-interview/)
- Spaihts: Something like ten days later, maybe two weeks, I was
sitting in a room with Ridley Scott and the co-chairs of 20th Century
Fox, and we were doing a deal. From there I was outlining and then
writing the script, and I worked through five drafts of the screenplay
with Ridley Scott over a number of months.
Filmmaker: What do you think accounted for your ability to do that on the spot? It is because you area a huge fan of the Alien films and remember their world so well? I’m a big fan of those films too, but to be honest it’s been a long time since I saw them and I don’t think I’d be able to jump into that universe at a moments notice.
Spaihts: I think, yes, Alien and to a slightly lesser extent Aliens, have lingered in my memory, and so I did have some facility about the universe. But I also think some of it was pure blind chance. I don’t think I have some magical power to whip out a fully-fledged screenplay idea at the drop of hat every time I’m asked a question. This was just a question that hit me at a crossroads of my own fascinations. It was the right question to ask me. I’ve been asked the wrong question hundreds of times in interviews. I really don’t mean to claim some superpower — it was just a question that landed near a lot of things I love. So I was able to make connections between them and find my way into a story and mythology I found really compelling. It worked for me because I got excited.(https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- Jon Spaihts: And after that things took off almost immediately. In something like ten days, I was sitting in a conference room with Ridley and the co-chairs of 20th Century Fox, and Ridley was no long talking about merely producing the film but directing himself (Screem #24, April 2012)
- Spaihts: The guy I was talking to, the head of Ridley’s company, asked if I would write the idea down so Ridley could take a look because he was still in post production on Robin Hood at that time. You’re not supposed to write down your stories and leave them behind as a screenwriter if you’re not being paid, but it was Ridley Scott so of course I did. Something like ten days later, maybe two weeks, I was sitting in a room with Ridley Scott and the co-chairs of 20th Century Fox, and we were doing a deal. From there I was outlining and then writing the script, and I worked through five drafts of the screenplay with Ridley Scott over a number of months. (https://filmmakermagazine.com/46440-prometheus-screenwriter-jon-spaihts/#.X02DttZ7n8M)
- Jon Spaihts: The story I developed with Ridley to begin with unfolded in the context of a larger arc that we imagine playing out. So that conversation has never really ended."(https://variety.com/2012/film/news/prometheus-writer-on-the-origin-of-fox-s-alien-pic-1118053998/)
- Jon Spaihts: Every writer takes a different road into a story. In the case of this return to Ridley's 'Alien' universe, there were a couple of fixed points - mainly the mysteries in Ridley's original film that remained to be resolved and Ridley's personal interest in return to that time, doing a prequel. I think the fundamental insight that drove me in the development of that story was that all of the mysteries in 'Alien' are distinctly alien in nature.(https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2012/05/03/how-an-unsung-screenwriter-got-to-work-with-ridley-scott-on-prometheus-and-ended-up-riding-a-bronco/#110d8b9846a0)
- Denofgeek: How much did the good reception of this script in 2007 lead to you putting ideas into Prometheus? As they have several similarities, including a character in isolation as a dramatic fulcrum. And how did the reception of Prometheus then influence Passengers when it finally went into production?
Jon Spaihts: Two interesting questions. Certainly Passengers was a large part of the reason I was brought into the room on Prometheus. Ridley Scott was a very active creative partner in the development of Prometheus’ story. We spent many months on it fleshing it out. The thing that got me the job though more than anything was the question ‘what would you do in a prequel to the film Alien’. I had not been prepared for that question as I thought I was taking a general meeting. But I found I had an opinion on it! I riffed about it for 45 minutes, and it was one of those moments where you’re asked the right question and something leaps out fully formed. Passengers did that. Prometheus did that. The spine of the story of Prometheus was born in that first conversation and never really changed, although I’m sure there was a lot of refinement along the way.
I’m also sure that Ridley loved Passengers and was attracted to me as a writer for that reason, so there were things in Passengers that may have pollinated Prometheus a little bit. There was never any intention to put elements of Passengers in, but I’m sure there was an inevitable ferment when creative projects rub elbows, and of course I’m the guy who invented both stories, so there’s things which I’m drawn to as an artist that recur. As to how the reception of Prometheus might have obliged us to modulate Passengers, I would say there is no way. Prometheus was much discussed, people loved and hated it, and it was fun to be a part of that but the ongoing crusade to make Passengers as a movie existed in a separate space. (https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/jon-spaihts-interview-passengers-prometheus/)
- Spaihts: I was aware that there was an audience to please, but moreover, there is a civilization out there that exists now, of its own accord. The Alien universe has residents. There are people who live there. There are online encyclopedias where hardcore nerds have painstakingly reconciled all of the minutiae of six different movies, computer games, comic book series, fan fiction and novelizations. Many of these things are mutually contradictory because a lot of different writers ran off in different directions in this universe now, but people have tried to make a bible to make all these things make sense to one another. What’s interesting is that these historians of the Alien universe actually know much more about the Alien universe then any one of the writers who has tried to write a story in it, I guarantee you. They write what they call the canon of their universe. All hardcore nerd fan populations jealously guard their canon and they want their universe to be consistent and its awesomeness to be preserved, and you inherit that, as a responsibility, as a new writer entering that universe. You have to balance the responsibility to the canon and all the fans who live, in some part, in that universe, with your responsibility to tell the best story that you can. But, for me, it’s very important to honor canon, wherever possible.(https://collider.com/jon-spaihts-prometheus-world-war-robot-interview/)
- Collider: What was your process of writing the screenplay like?
Jon Spaihts: I wrote the first draft of that screenplay in three and a half weeks, which is a personal record. And then, I was just in the shoot with Ridley for awhile. I would write a draft, and then I would sit in the room with Ridley Scott and his two lieutenants, at that time, and we would talk about the story for weeks at a time. Ridley was tireless and constantly drawing. He has a fierce visual imagination, and was constantly throwing curve balls at the story that I would then need to adjust to the logic of my universe. We worked through five drafts like that, over many months. (https://collider.com/jon-spaihts-prometheus-world-war-robot-interview/)
- I&T Today: I really enjoyed Prometheus.
Was that a challenge taking on a franchise that has all these
expectations and such a vocal fan base? Was that difficult to write or
did you enjoy that?
Jon Spaihts: I loved it but it absolutely came with a number of challenges on its own. Not least is the nature of storytelling canons and fan followings. Because I guarantee you there are people in love with the Alien universe who are keeping better track of all the stories unfolding in that universe and how they relate to one another than any of the actual filmmakers or comic book writers themselves are doing. The deepest scholars of these fictional universes are not among the creators of the universes. They are at the pinnacle of the fan base. So for some of my research I was actually going not just back to Ridley Scott’s original movie and the large works inside the Alien universe, I was going to fan-made wikis online to look at fan theories of how all of these games, comic books, novelizations, and movies could be connected together into a continuous fabric and trying to pick up at least a fraction of the scholarship that the most immersed fans already have. .
I&T Today: That’s probably a good idea. Well, and then also once the film comes out any fan can then access the internet and say, “You didn’t get this one minor detail correct.”
Jon Spaihts: Ultimately it is impossible, especially once a fictional universe becomes very complex with offshoots in different media like Alien, to dot all your I’s and cross all your T’s. Invariably there will be discontinuities and dissonances that some people will call out and other people will like. There again, the thematic requirements of the story in front of you must always be paramount. But just as in a hard science fiction story I think it’s imperative to serve science as best as you can. I think it’s desperately important to honor that universe as deeply as you can whether that’s the world of Alien or the world of Doctor Strange and the cinematic universe.(https://innotechtoday.com/jon-spaihts-writer-passengers/)