Transcript for Script Apart podcast Episode 41: Prometheus with Jon Spaihts

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 (Listen to: Script apart podcast Episode 41: May 10th, Prometheus with Jon Spaihts, 2022)

Script apart podcast Episode 41:
Prometheus with Jon Spaihts



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(2:00) Hello again I'm Al Horner, and this is script apart, a podcast about the first draft secrets of great movies. Each episode, we're joined by a brilliant screenwriter as they revisit their first draft of what became a beloved movie. This week, we're delighted to be joined by none other than Jon Spaihts, co-writer of movies like the colossal recent sci-fi adaptation Dune and Marvel's Dr Strange. Today we're talking with Jon about the project that launched him into the stratosphere as a screenwriter.

Co-written with Lost creator Damon Lindeloff, Prometheus is the bold 2012 prequel to the Alien franchise that no one saw coming. It was a philosophical sci-fi horror that subverted all expectations, divided some opinions along the way and turned Jon into one of Hollywood's goto names for science fiction stories that both thrill and provoke.

As you'll discover in this episode, the idea of an Alien prequel was kind of sprung on him in a meeting with Ridley Scott. In an instant, he blurted out an idea for an epic (3:00) that would take the franchise and its mythology in a bold new direction, switching up the series, close quarter frights and survival tensions for freaky androids and existential questions about the gods that made us. In this special tenth anniversary retrospective of the film, Jon delves into his original draft of the movie, then titled Alien Engineers. It followed roughly the same beats as Prometheus but with a few notable exceptions. For starters Engineers made the bold move of suggesting that Jesus Christ was an alien, and therefor related to the xenomorph of the first Alien movie. It also had a different ending that set up a planned trilogy of movies with these characters which Jon shared with us in detail. It goes without saying if you've yet to see Prometheus, you might want to pause and do you so first because because in space no one can hear you screaming about spoilers. Thanks to Jon for being an amazing guest and and thank you as ever to our Patreon supporters, a list which includes, Marguerite Elmario and Ross (4:00) McTaggart. If you would like to help the show continue to grow, if you would like to access ad free episodes and if you would like your questions for future guests answered on air well, you know what to do head to to get involved. We really appreciate your support. Okay let's get in to it, this is the excellent Jon Spaihts talking about the first draft secrets of Prometheus. Thanks for tuning in, you're listening to Script Apart, hosted by me, Al Horner, produced by Kamil Dymek

Al Horner: Jon, so great to have you with us, how are you doing today?

Jon Spaihts: Ah very well, thanks for having me

Al Horner: Heh, the pleasure's all mine. Erm, Jon, we're speaking almost a decade on from the release of Prometheus which of course is the film we're talking about today. It's been a busy ten years for you since with you know the Oscar nomination for Dune recently, almost like book ending that... that initial ten years in your career since that breakout film. How quickly has the (5:00) time gone for you?

Jon Spaihts:  Oh it's like every decade. They take forever to labour through their days, they take years and then you look back at the end of ten years and you feel the same age when you started and it's hard to believe that a decade's gone by.

Al Horner:  (chuckle) I can imagine, I can imagine. So now we are a decade out for Prometheus, now the dust has settled, and kind of the whirlwind of writing it under what I presume was a massive weight expectancy. Er, you know, I'd be curious to hear what your relationship is with the film today, like how often you think about it and how you would reflect back on the story that you, Ridley and Damon were able to tell together?

Jon Spaihts: Well, it was a pivotal moment for me career wise. Um, you know, not my first studio assignment but the first thing that's magnitude by miles, the first thing that put me in a room er, with a director like Ridley Scott, and um, you know, momentarily at the helm of colossal IP franchise like the Alien universe, er and so in that way it was completely transformative (6:00) erm, and in other ways it was one more story to tell...

Al Horner:  (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: ... back to back in a long screen writing career which are always like icebergs, you know, which is to say that I've, what I've gotten six moves made now, and I've probably written twenty four, and more I don't know, I haven't counted actually, er but you write so much more than anyone knows you've written at the end of the day, erm, that's eventually much bigger for you than it is for others, but yeah, Prometheus was a massive.. a gateway for me really into a higher level of the game

Al Horner: Yeah, and it's curious like, one of my favourite things about this movie, it's kind of sense of defiance. I mean, it's in the life blood of this series to kind of switch up genres and surprise fans, like Aliens was a very action centred left turn compared to the lean, contained horror of the first film. And you know Prometheus at the top of the decade that would be defined by these franchises kind of attempting to rebottle and retread (7:00) the feel and story of the original movies that spawned them. instead, Prometheus was, was another left turn, it was this big philosophical treatise on that man and its maker, our proclivity towards mythology and all these different things. it operated at a wholey different speed to the other Alien movies before it. Was that something you kind of like aspired to from the start with Ridley or you know did the material just demand it. How did you end up switching lanes and kind of making a different type of Alien movie?

Jon Spaihts: There are a couple of pieces to that. Um, the first piece is I think intrinsic to the premise and it was called out by.... no called forth by the... the nature of my way in. I took a general meeting over at Scott Free, Ridley's company and they were doing the usual general meeting stuff. They were shoving comic books, short stories across the table at me, trying to see if anything sparks my interest in (8:00) you know my response in those moments is always like "Well, I love your comic books and your short stories, but why don't you tell me you've got a story you'd like to tell and I'll write you a fresh one, I'll get you an original" Erm, and so I was playing that game and at the end of the meeting, they said "We you know what you're thinking, well, we're going back to Alien", and I think by that time, there's always... there'd already been Alien 1 to 4, so that Franchise felt pretty played out to me, like er, Ripley rather was good and dead and it felt like that played an enormous number of notes and... and I think there had been a skid in quality from one and to the subsequent sequels and so it felt like dangerous territory to keep going forwards. i said the only way you could go with I think would be backwards and so they said "we were thinking the same thing." err, "we're looking at a prequel". Erm, "do you have any thoughts about that?", and that was interesting because I hadn't prepared anything for that or contemplated the question on Alien prequel previously (9:00) but the question was instantly fertilising for me. I guess a few things jumped instantly out of me. Before Alien, that original instalment, there is nothing. There is a wrecked alien ship with a giant cadaver in it and a hold full of alien eggs on a remote moon that has not yet to my knowledge played a role in the human story and so what does that mean? The space jockeys, these big aliens doing lying dead in ship are are colossal elephantine beasts. it seemed impossible to me to imagine an audience or a mainstream audience er getting down with a giant movie about fourteen foot tall elephant monsters on another planet speaking alien language ... subtitles bleblebleh. So the only way to tell the story of the space jockeys story prior to Alien is as if their story prior to their discovery of that ship is somehow also our story, and if the Space Jockey story is the human story, then on the scales we're talking about in time and space, (10:00) er, they would have to be playing a role in human history and that makes them suddenly the Von Daniken style aliens, erm, the meddlers in human evolution and in human development, the beings from outer space who might have helped to build the pyramids. It... it taps instantly into a whole vein of modern mythology er that essentially knits primal fascinations of early religion and folklore to our present day sense of the unknown, and that's what these sort of aliens as helpers do to us, they kind of create an ur-mythology that stretches from the boundaries our... of our knowledge now, where our god of the gaps lives and all the way back to Mount Olympus and gods of death and dreams erm from early history er so instantly fully... fully formed came this notion that here were our creators and follow up question why (11:00) then are they in a ship then filled with deadly human parasites and why hypothetically

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: er does the xenomorph seem to be perfectly adapted to kill human beings when it clearly didn't evolve where human beings were. it's capable of pupating inside a human body. Er, it's comparable with our chemistry. Even its gross invasive proboscis

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: is, is perfectly matched to our anatomy like a humming bird's bill to a flower and how could that be? And the answer was well that's because these alien gods made them to kill us and why and that was the seed of the story, and I sort of jumped in and started telling it. Erm, and in the space of half an hour I sketched out what remain most of the major movements of the film that was shot

Al Horner: Eehee, yeah wow, and when you say instantly, you mean quite literally in the room when you were put on the spot basically? (12:00)

Jon Spaihts: Yeah a lot of the embellishments came later, er but the... the live pitch had all of the major movements in it

Al Horner: There's a sense of culmination when you go back and watch Prometheus having read the work you had done prior to that. There's a lot of little elements that you were able to carry over from Shadow 19 and from your Passengers screenplays, so passengers obviously has these medical pods and the idea of someone watching over someone in a state of hyper sleep

Jon Spaihts: Right

Al Horner: That makes an appearance in Prometheus and of course the name Prometheus, that had a presence in Shadow 19 which I should explain for listeners is... that was a.. that was kind of your breakthrough script right, Jon?

Jon Spaihts: It was the first screenplay I ever wrote actually. It was at the time a fantastically expensive film to contemplate um, but it's a far future shoot em map where heavily armoured space marines tangle Alien life on a sort of a hell world. But that was part of a terraforming effort and a terraforming effort was built around a machine named Prometheus

Al Horner: yes, yes, (13:00) so it, the name obviously had a resonance, and you would kind of gravitate towards that word before it became the title of this movie, but it wasn't the original title. Am I right in thinking you were originally working under the name Aliens, sorry Alien Engineers, that was the... the title of the first script as you had it Jon?

Jon Spaihts: That's right, yeah, Alien: Engineers

Al Horner:
That's right, yeah. So what was the kind of journey towards... er, it becoming known as Prometheus. I think at one point Damon had it titled as Paradise, just on its own without any kind of Alien attachment. What was the journey towards that name Prometheus and what does it mean to you?

Jon Spaihts:
Well part of it happened when I wasn't looking. Weyland's ship that finds the Juggernaut in Prometheus, was called Magellan in my drafts and so it was the Magellan that went and... and er got into trouble in this alien world. My script delved somewhat deeper into the mythological and biblical ramifications of the discovery  (14:00) of the Engineers. There's all kinds of fantastic stuff in the old testament about the... the Nephilim, er these sort of giants who dwelt among humanity, um, in the early pages of the bible, were powerful, were teachers and sired children with humanity er to create er er er a breed of more angelic or more noble beings who were leaders among us.

So that seemed very fertile mythology for our Alien story, erm, and that of course, in Greek mythology the Titans loomed large, and in particular Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to bring it to people seemed like a very relevant touchstone for us mythologically.

So in my script there was more biblical quotation and more direct conversation about ancient mythology and Prometheus was specifically discussed uh as er er an archetype for the alien engineers (15:00) who guided humanity forward in its evolution. So some time after I was on the thing, when... during... on Damon's watch, I think the Magellan was renamed Prometheus, and er the title of the film shifted. Part of that also was about er a kind of change of heart on the part of the studio about positioning the movie as an Alien property, er, so they originally set out to make the prequel to Alien, um and noise is about in the press that they were doing a prequel to Alien, they were excited about it and then at some point, some of the top brass, I think Inception came out just then and big original movie made a huge splash and I think some of the top brass went and saw that movie and said "Man look at this, this is an original.. an original film driving cinema audiences mad in their seats and what are we doing? Making one more sequel and prequel, erm one more franchise film" and so some (16:00) shiny thinker had the idea that there were enough original ideas in this Alien prequel that maybe it just... call it an original movie so they wanted to reposition a little bit, just I think, because they felt the cultural moment was calling for an original stuff because Inception just so happened, it felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down, and so more for business than creative reasons they got interested in thinking about the movie more as an original and it was retitled for that reason and a couple of other pivotal changes were made 
Al Horner: That's interesting, And man you're not kidding about the er biblical elements in your draft, there's like a throwaway line about an hour in, fifty seven pages, Holloway says, "something killed them off back around the time of Christ, maybe he was one of them, a great teacher sent from heaven, Jesus the last engineer", and it's a bit of a throwaway line that Shaw or Watts as she's known in this draft kind of laughs off but it did make me kind of make me like wonder if there was ever a moment kind of during the (17:00) evolution where you were working in even more biblical material or you were leaning in even harder the idea that that Jesus was an engineer and that's all Christianity mythology kind of stem from there. Was there a moment at all before you kind of for where you kind of changed through this draft where you were kind of going even harder on the biblical elements?

Jon Spaihts: That's... that's the deep water right there and that line specifically is Ridley.

Al Horner: Oh really?

Jon Spaihts: : Um, right, I spent a ton of time with Ridley working up that script which was a non stop delight, and that was a thing that came to him, almost exactly as it comes to the character in that scene. He bless his heart would have, every time we met he would have this beautiful silver tray brought in with this china pot full of great coffee and like a plate of kind of English short bread, so I did not get skinnier making this movie but I was very happy all the time and we would sit there eating cookies and drinking this very good coffee and riffing about story and parasitic insects and ancient mythology and just everything that dove tails with what we're up to  (18:00) um and it was one of those moments where he says "Maybe Jesus was one" and he cackled and drank his coffee, and I just loved the idea that blasphemous notion that maybe Jesus was a scion of some giant alien, erm, so it felt like the only non-incendiary way was to insert that idea would be in the same throwaway and jocular mode in which it was pitched in the room, to let it be a throwaway joke.

 Uh yeah, but that was, but that was Ridley's bit

Al Horner: In terms of the elements that you knew, that you had to play with in terms of solving some of the mysteries that have kind of surrounded this franchise for years. What did you have to play with? Obviously there was the kind of pilot that we mentioned, the kind of elephantine pilot glimpsed in the first movie. What were some of the starting points in terms of brain storming fun ways to answer these decades long mysteries that had amassed around.. around the earlier films.

Jon Spaihts: We had the furniture of.. of the first film which is the crashed ship that I named the Juggernaut, and (19:00) that alien, the pilot's cradle who had been nicknamed in lore for a long time the Space Jockey, and around the Space Jockey and the design of that ship, the Giger-ness of it raises a host of other questions because the xenomorph itself, the alien predator looks like the ship it was born in. The ship in a sense presents itself as an extension of xenomorph biology. It has the same er. repetitive units, the same chitinous carapace look to it, the same black sheen. So in the Giger fuelled design of that original Alien movie, the interior of the juggernaut that extends to the xenomorph itself, to the walls and bulkheads of the ship and to the cradle in which the Space Jockey, sits, and the Space Jockey, himself who appears to have fused with what looks (20:00) like in many ways vintage pilot gear. So he's kind of an elephantine monster but it looks very much like he's wearing a World War 2 combat helmet with breath mask, the breathing tube, but it's all fused with his body and part of the parcel with him.

So that is a great riddle in and of itself. What does it mean that here is a place where there is a kind of unitary technology that fuses biology with machinery and extends all the way up and down through everything we meet inside this space. So it implies a... a different technology and it also implies that the makers of the ship are the pilots of the ship and the makers of the ship were also the makers of the xenomorphs. So it's not just the case of some particularly nasty triple like infection of this alien star cruiser. It seems to me from their placement and from the design of the xenomorphs, when they emerged, the only logical explanation er is that they were and intentional (21:00) cargo of this vessel and they have a common maker

Al Horner: That's interesting. So did in your early discussions with Ridley, did he kind of er, yeah, give you any insight into, when he planted that in the first film originally, did he have any kind of mythology or was it like this seems kind of like a nice thing to plant in here, as something that would allude to a greater story around this. So what information was given to you from him in terms of like the original placement of the Space Jockey.

Jon Spaihts: I didn't... not very much. He was looking for design cues er... In his very early process, he came upon Giger and a number of elements er in the film, from the Space Jockey himself or itself to the xenomorph to the various elements of ship design were lifted part in parcel from that book and you know, given Ridley's spin and integrated by him, but I think he just found deeply alien design schemes and aesthetic infused with gothic horror but (22:00) almost biological alienness, you know like deep sea organisms fused with human nightmares. And it's often the case I think in film making, it's a very interesting thing about the interaction of film makers and fans. A film maker needs a world behind the foreground action and will often suggest that... that world with some throwaway lines with some decor in the background with a transition. These things operate in various ways like matte paintings in classic film, but they also share very often the quality of matte paintings in that they are paper thin and are of low resolution and you're not meant to walk up to them and put your nose six inches from the canvas and interrogate that thing. Sometimes there's a film maker who will go deep like a Dungeons and Dragons player and you know build a mythological universe behind the action but much more often in my experience film makers think up (23:00) as much as they need to do to tell their story and everything beyond the ragged border of that zone quickly fades to grey. What happens a lot when a franchise becomes successful, everyone goes looking for how to do more on that space and there are all these bits and bobs in the matte painting that attract attention and some of them might support the weight of further story, but many of them I think will not. I think that many of them are fairly thin. A great example is Star Wars, you meet Ben Kenobi, he says "Uh, I fought with your father in the clone wars" I think that's a rad thing to say to somebody, you fought with your dad in the Clone Wars, you don't even know what that means. Who's cloning what, what's a "kl'tz" (?), but it sounds cool. It is good matte painting, but then you have to go and invent a clone war and make it interesting and did they succeed in that, I'll leave that question to the audience, but um I don't think (24:00) it's the most fertile story seed, matte painting is thin. um. Thee interesting thing about this instance is that it was me being called to do a thing I'm generally skeptical of was to go take a matte painting detail like this and elaborate on it until it's a story in its own right and it worked in my opinion only because it dovetailed so neatly with so much detailed mythology already present in hearts and minds of people around the world because we do wonder where we come from, we do wonder how the wonders of ancient civilisation were accomplished, we do wonder about our kinship here with what might be out there and of course there are provocative questions raised in that first Alien film that can resonate when connected with those ancient questions

Al Horner: Hey this is Al, just jumping in to tell you about two of our great sponsors this week, If you've written a script and wondering what step to take next, well you need to check out we screenplay, we screenplay not only offers (25:00) amazing free resources for emerging writers like virtual events where your questions are answered by leading hollywood professionals, it's also the industry's number one script coverage service with incredible 72 hour turn around and format specific feedback tailored to your specific goals, We Screenplay is used by thousands of different writers in every different phase of their career from first time writers to Oscar winners. So if your script is ready to go, check out one of We Screenplays labs where dozens of writers have been repped, optioned snd staffed as a direct result of their real life industry meetings and hands on workshops. Don't stay stuck we screenplay wants to help. Head to to find out more or click the link in todays show notes . Support for this episode also comes from Arc Studio Pro. Screenwriting for me is all about immersion. I want to say immersed in that dreamy fantasy like state while I weave my story and craft my characters, I don't want to be distracted by anything I certainly don't want to be thinking about text formatting. (26:00) Arc Studio Pro understands that, it's so intuitive it has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to say completely focused on the story I'm trying to tell. To take your screenwriting to the next level, visit where you can either download a free version or get thirty dollars off a pro account to unlock its full host of amazing features. Use the code friends at checkout to get that discounts. That's Okay let's get back to the conversation.

And that relationship between, yeah, the fans and the text, what did that translate to in terms of youn know being someone with a lot of buzz about you as an emerging screenwriter but nothing yet on screen I don't think at this point. Did you feel that weight? How daunted were you, by... by the task in front of you, Jon?

Jon Spaihts: It didn't feel harder or more problematic than any kind of other story telling. I was excited about my ideas. Obviously the thing I stumbled into (27:00) has a premise felt so good to me as an engine for a story that I felt very confident of the prospects for it. It was more about the business contexts for it all and how that changed the work. Once piece was how fast this thing took off. It was something Ridley had been noodling around for years. You knw  everybody took a meeting about maybe another Alien movie, but at the end of this meeting the exec I was talking to got very excited and asked me if I would write up... because I didn't even pitch the first thing to Ridley, I pitched it to one of his guys and the exec I talked to got very excited and asked if I would write that down erm for Ridley which you're not supposed to do, you don't write down your story even if it's a leave behind for the executives, they'll go and hire someone else to write it. But it's Ridley and it's Alien, so yes I did it and I, I wrote it up as quick as I could go and I sent it in and that thing went straight to Ridley, and then shot upstairs (28:00) and in barely a week I was sitting in front of a bunch of top brass at the studio and they were saying "you came up with this kind of immediately. We sort of like to hit a release window with a movie like this. Ridley's got a window to make this. How fast can you write this?" And they basically asked me in the room if I could get them a draft of this in like five and a half weeks later.

Al Horner: (Chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: And I said the only you can say that was "Yes of course. Course I can do that" and then I walked out of the room, and you know, had a mild heart attack

Al Horner:

Jon Spaihts: So. The first draft of this thing was written with desperate speed and it got done in little under six weeks. Er, so that was the first way in which I was aware of it as a different kind of property because suddenly there was this rocket engine under it and then the other thing was just the fan appetite for even the faintest inkling of what this project might be (29:00) about. So this was the first thing that I worked on that was locked down from end to end. You know things had passwords, things were legible only in self destructing timed electronic archives, you know, signing various oaths to never speak a word of this to anyone or surrender my first born child. So the... the engine and the internet, once they knew that Ridley was going "do it" was ravenous and buzzing and people were poking at me online, so just feel the hunger for it and

 Al Horner: mmm

Jon Spaihts: This... that knowledge that if I were to leave my notebook in a cafe by accident, I could cause an international incident. 

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: Erm so in those ways it was different, but as story telling, it was like any other story

Al Horner: And you know, you've kind of like touched on it er, already in our conversation about, you seem someone who likes storywise, you know there's a logical process in which you're like, this is the starting point so therefor (30:00) you can extrapolate this. 'What would someone do in that situation?', extrapolate, extrapolate, extrapolate. There's...there's a quote I like from you er about how sometimes you're you're approached to writing is sometimes I'll start with a concept, sometimes with characters, and sometimes with a seminal image. Erm, so it varies from project to project you've said, but you know in general you begin with character and that character's nature or fate will call the conflict out of the ether. If you start with a predicament, it will invoke generally the sort of protagonist you want to invoke in that sort of predicament. So how did that play out in terms of Prometheus? Who was Shaw or Watts as she's known in this draft and how did you begin to build her out from the predicament that she was going to face in this movie

Jon Spaihts: There were several pieces to that. One was that they were going back to the well in the Alien universe, and they've got a number of these movies already, and so two things are true. One is that there is some furniture in that universe that is essentially intrinsic. I think in Alien movie, you want to feel a (31:00) malevolent corporate presence

Al Horner: Yeah

Jon Spaihts: And the pressure of corrupted human morality seeking power and wealth. One of the reasons the original Alien did so well is that it juxtaposed a woman in jeopardy with her opposite. You have a frail human body, er, a captain trying to save her crew and keep them alive, a kind of mother figure to this population.  And then opposed to that you have a prototypically male and very rapey alien design, that it inserts its proboscis into you and impregnates you with its spawn. It is hard shelled, armoured, impervious. Er its exterior tells no tales and so in that with the beauty and the beast of Alien felt to me like an essential dynamic.  And it felt like that female protagonist was deeply built into the fabric of this story telling (32:00) universe, but you didn't just want alternative Ripley to walk into this story. So the question how do you make that different? There was one thing that we felt we never seen, er, which was a couple, like an active romance. People who loved each other, moving into one of these films. You tended to get essentially military configurations of people. People brought together by a mission, a military unit, a prison sentence, shoved together by circumstance without strong emotional bonds. And so I thought it would be interesting to go the other way and to find people who loved each other and put them in the way of this menace, and that particular... in particularly will allow you to play a cruel trick where you meet this couple at the top, it feels like the man is a bit more of the protagonist and then in mid stream you take him out. And she becomes the protagonist and carries the full weight (33:00)of the story from there and so those are again predicaments and what protagonists did those predicaments call? Well if you're going to play the game where the male gets taken out and the female then has to shoulder the full weight of what had been a dual protagonist before, well you want her to feel more junior, you want her to be younger, erm, maybe she's actually a former student of this professor type fella and so it feels like more of a difficult step up for her to pick up the whole weight of his genius. You want to put him on a pedestal so that losing him feels like more of a loss and so you build a slightly asymmetrical relationship with the luminary leader and a former student who is a genius in her own right but as yet, unfulfilled in her gifts, um and you set up a tension that will be rewarded by the predicament you throw her into

Al Horner: yeah it seems like so much of her personaly ladders up to sort of the key theme or themes of the film like she's struggling to become a mother and that speaks to the kind of creation story (34:00)  at the heart of Prometheus. And you know she obviously has like a relationship with concept of faith as well so there's a lot of interesting things going on there. This also, there's a lot to discuss in the opening scene to this movie which has been interpreted in a multitude of ways and in your first draft it's pretty much exactly as we see it on screen give or take a few things. In.. in your first draft you talk about these black scarabs boiling out of the dark material of er the cake I believe you describe it as

Jon Spaihts: Hmm

Al Horner: ... the engineer eats. There's an ambiguity to that scene and I think it's impossible to watch this movie and to not be immediately drawn in by the mystery of that opening. As I mentioned, it's been interpreted in a multitude of ways. Can you talk to me a little bit about your intentions with... with that scene and why it was you thought it's important to start the story here rather than leaping in straight away with Holloway and Shaw?

Jon Spaihts: Part of it is simply that we're asking the audience to take such a big leap with us. We begin with Holloway and Shaw (35:00) in archaeologist mode and spinning tales over what might have happened over a long time ago. We're giving the audience pure abstraction to incubate in their minds as they carry one with the story. And because you want to do a long drum roll, you're not going to go and walk into an alien ship in the first act of the film. You need to get there, you need to feel the length of the journey, You need to feel the difficulty of getting there, its remoteness, um and so it becomes a long time before you make sensory contact with er these things and I'm not... I don't think it's impossible to tell a story that plays that way but I think is profited us to glimpse these beings in advance and know that there was some great mystical discovery to be made so that when we finally uncased the head of the Space Jockey, and the helmet peels away we see that face, (36:00)  it's with a shock of recognition

Al Horner: Another kind of thing that leapt out at me from this first draft was the... so obviously we're introduced to our main characters and they discover another star map in an ancient cave. I think in your draft, they actually discover it in an underwater cave and er... that became the Isle of Skye in the finished film. Or... originally you had the expedition that they go on, er... they visit a different planet right. They... in.. in..  in Engineers, we're touching down on the same planet that the... er, the Nostromo touches down on in..., in Alien and that er yeah, the... the... is the sort of centre of the action in Aliens as well. So yeah, do you... do you think... did it change to kind of expand the universe and give us kind of a new place, and vis.. and new visual textures to explore within the Alien mythology or why did we sort of switch from erm from that original plan to er to er revisit that planet that we had seen in previous films?

Jon Spaihts: It's a good question. We went back and forth a lot over the course of things as to whether or not this was the precise juggernaut of the original (37:00) of the original film. And some of this is just pure pragmatism, the same way that there was a great architectur... undersea archaeology scene at the top of my film with bathyscaphes and a sunken monument that they raised the scan (?) up on the deck of the ship and it was very sexy and fun way to start the story and it was just too expensive, as given everything else we were doing and like that got cut because it cost too much to shoot and you wanted to save your money for the extra-terrestrial stuff rather than stuff down here on... on Earth. When it came to the exact identity of the world, Ridley and I talked about a possible trilogy of movies that round as precursors to Alien and we had a rough sketch of how those things would play but there was a purely pragmatic and worldly uncertainty about whether or not all those movies would ever get made and so we were also talking about leaving ourselves escape hatches, meaning that if it ever started to feel down the road like we were one and done on this prequel thing, (38:00) that it would be enough, so that if we were consciously developing the story as long as we could, that left us with an out... a fork in the road... erm, such that Prometheus could lead directly to Alien or that Prometheus could lead to a branched tr... path and there would be another story that would play in the interstice between Prometheus and Alien and give us more time on this way station moon

Al Horner: That's interesting.  And I definitely want to come back to the sort of trilogy of films that were  originally kind of, you know conceived, sketched out loosely. But before we do, I need to ask about David who is... he's such a fascinating character that there are entire kind of fan edits of both Prometheus and Alien Covenant that kind of knit together all his scenes to essentially tell the same story from his perspective. He is this kind of er Pinocchio like character wrestling quietly in the backdrop with a similar question propelling our.. our human characters; 'Who made me and what does it mean to be disillusioned (39:00) with my makers or to discover that they're flawed and they're destructive. He becomes this kind of agent of chaos in the film. He kind of poisons Holloway and he begins the eruption of violence that takes place on board the Prometheus. How did David come about, Jon, and and what did you see as driving him as he makes the choices he does in the film? He feels more nakedly sinister in your draft, so I'm curious to know about the sort of development of this character, why you felt the film needed him, and yeah sort of how you kind of fine tuned that character based on what the movie needed

Jon Spaihts: Well I would say that, in terms of the... mythic furniture of the Alien franchise, just as much as you need er... sinister corporation and a female protagonist, you've got to have an android and android has to be complex and part of my concept for David, and he was named according to what I think was an accidental progression but you've got Ash, Bishop, Call (40:00) A, B, C, D for David, um

Al Horner: Ahoh, no way!

Jon Spaihts:
But David also for the prototype of the Engineers themselves, er, who was imagined as sort of Michelangelo's David given life. So that connects him as well but he's also um, uh uh, biblical figure and so in many ways, David had resonances as a name. Part of my concept with David was that he was a more primitive version of the androids that we would meet later in Ash and Bishop, and the notion being that he was less convincingly human um, which gave him a slightly more alien and possibly sinister aspect, and was also supposed to be a bit of an uncanny valet although there again pragmatism intervenes because to make an android who looks exactly like a person is free. But to make an android who doesn't look quite like a person is complex and expensive. 

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: Erm and so in the end, David looked exactly like a person, but his dissatisfaction (41:00) was essential. The idea of... of his disdain for the humans who made him, who were in some ways lesser creatures who were weak and needed sleep and could not hold as much in their minds as he can hold. For him, he's like a.. a sad foster child dreaming of his real mom and dad, and along come the engineers, greater beings of vastly more expansive power and ambition and heritage, and he thinks "There's my real mom and dad. That's where I belong" Erm, and so like a kid he builds a fantasy life around this place where he really belongs, erm and allows that fantasy to lead him horrifically astray.

Al Horner: And in your draft, David finds a hatchery under the pyramid as its called where instead of urns with black goo, the engineers were kind of engineering these creatures who were designed to kill humans and they planned (42:00) to take them to Earth, but they made their creations too well and these creatures ultimately turned on them and killed them.

There's an ambiguity left around why the engineers were doing some of these things. So just to unpack a few of the questions, first of all like how did you land on this idea that ultimately this was a movie that was going to be about meeting our maker and discovering that they weren't some benevolent god but kind of like a legion of warmongers in a way and er, yeah was there anything that you wanted to express about man's proclivity to war and violence in that because it's so bleak but it would also explain a lot about the history of mankind er.. that you know, our makers would have their own violent tendencies?

Jon Spaihts: Well built into, erm, the premise of Prometheus is an implied schism among the engineers themselves. if they've played the role that Holloway's certain they have, then they have been meddling very intimately with human development both biologically and culturally for aeons (43:00) and they have by implication moulded us into their own image. Our faces look like theirs. Their faces don't look like ours, they were first. They bent humanity towards themselves. It was a hubristic project and yet here is this death ship and here is its navigation system aimed at Earth with this harbour of perfect predators of such a design that they could ravage our planet killing only human beings, leaving the rest of the biosphere intact, and essentially erase the engineer's project perfectly.

Well why? That's very interesting. And one argument might be that they like laboratory scientists had concluded some experiment, and just like laboratory scientists who calmly decapitate the white mice that they've been meddling with for months to study their brains, they're ready er to wrap their experiment up in a tidy manner
(44:00) but I and Ridley were more excited about the prospect that there actually was faction amongst these people and that there was among the engineers a Prometheus like figure who was excited about the notion of elevating a more primitive species uh, to essentially take the Engineers's place and part of our idea for that was the engineers as a species were approaching a moment of transition a Childhood's End like levelling up, perhaps out of the physical plane and into a more er... energetic sphere or perhaps out of this universe and into another. That they've played all the games that they could play in this big sandbox and are headed for greener pastures. And the Prometheus wanted to bequeath the universe they left behind to inheritors, and inheritors er, not just of some of the technology and some of the culture, but even of some of the... the DNA (45:00) of the engineers themselves. Um, but on the other side of this schism there are abolitionists among the engineers who find this experiment blasphemous and profane, at least beneath the dignity of their species. And that's a nice coiled spring that can create consequence and conflict in subsequence installations of the story, er the notion that there're sympathetic and unsympathetic engineers to the human project

Al Horner:
Wow it does sound like you had a lot of this mapped out for these subsequent movies. Like how much detail did you know in terms of where it could possibly go. Did you get as far as outlines for those movies?

Jon Spaihts: Um, not as, not as far as multi page outlines for those movies. I think usually pays to stay loose as you're writing a first instalment, stay loose about second instalments because things will emerge for you and you shouldn't pretend  that you know where you are going from the beginning, er, because you'll find that you're wrong. 

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: um but we did know (46:00) that there was a war amongst the engineers like a war in heaven, um, and there'd be good angels and bad angels, er, that we would encounter. Weyland Yutani being just Weyland was premeditated and we had plans for Yutani, and the second film was going to be more er, a conflict between human factions in the space of this way station moon. So Yutani was going to show up and have very different agenda and very different wants and there was room to play a kind of Miller's Crossing man-in-the-middle story with Shaw playing dice between them

Al Horner: Wow, (chuckle) that's

Jon Spaihts: Yeah, I very definitely left David and Shaw who was then Watts. (chuckle) Er, I named Watts Watts because it's... was my girlfriend's name at the time now my wife

Al Horner:
Oh wow

Jon Spaihts: But I didn't realise that one of the executives on the project was going to be (47:00) Emma Watts who was a very senior Hollywood exec, and so there was her name in the script, and all kinds of terrible things are happening to this poor woman, er but like Ridley would be taking me into getting confused between the Wattses, like if you throw Emma into a... into a pitch for a scene and she did not like and so that....

Al Horner: (chuckle)

Jon Spaihts: that "evered" (?) away, sorry wife, um and so Shaw it was. So yes, Shaw was in a position to be of this kind of figure in between two rival er, kind of Samurai clans on that way station moon in the next film in my map

Al Horner: Wow that's so interesting, and also kind of tragic because I would really liked to have seen those films. Erm we should talk Jon about the ending though, erm I guess the... the pay off for a movie like this always had to be seen, how the xenomorph was spawned. Erm, there are a few different details though in terms of how we arrive at that point. Peter Weyland is introduced in the beginning (48:00) of your script but doesn't return to have a... a role in the final act here. There's also a few changes in terms of the character ultimately played by Idris Elba who in the finished movie sacrifices himself and his crew to stop the... the alien craft from leaving the planet. This plays out kind of differently in your version. Erm, ulti... ultimately though we.. .we do arrive at that scene place that the engineer giving birth to this terrifying creature, the Ultramorph. Can you talk me through, yeah your approach to this final act and some of the changes that it underwent?

Jon Spaihts: Well, telling the just so story of the Space Jockey which that would have been, because you see the pilot of the juggernaut unite with his pilot seat essentially becomes a living... a living Space Jockey, and he puts on his suit and acquires the appearance of that creature we meet dead in Alien. We also come to realise the reason he was in the Engineers version of cold sleep when we meet him er which was that he was infected and he may or may (49:00) not have known that about it himself, but having been awakened and having no way back he tries to get home. So preserving that fork we were preserving such that if we only got to wake... make one movie, this would a... a... a furnishable er precursor to Alien, would serve as a standalone prequel. The idea of crashing the Juggernaut and killing the pilot and creating the circumstances that Ripley and her crew discovered however many years later was very provocative, but it still left the door open for adventures ongoing, meaning that we still imagined another couple of movies playing out with the second one very much beginning at least and playing out for much of the story on the same desolate moon but under very different circumstances

Al Horner: So that is such... such a... as you say, a provocative ending, and erm, as we talked about the top of the episode, it sort of began this decade off for you that was gonna sort of professioally the end with Dune and you know this Oscar nomination (50:00) which is so well deserved. You... there aren't many writers, there aren't any writers in fact who have been able to play in as many kind of great sci-fi sandboxes. So you've done Marvel, you've done Dune, you've done Alien. As science fiction playgrounds to be made a custodian of, there's only one missing Star Wars. When you kind of look to the future and look to your next decade, what're the kind of things that you's love to kind of work on. Would Star Wars be one of them, and... and if so, is there a particular area of that universe that you'd love to play in? What's kind of like the next chapter looking like in terms of your aspirations, Jon?

Jon Spaihts:
Hm, that's funny. I took a meeting with the Star Wars kids a couple of years back. They asked me what I wanted to do. My hipshot there was well I'd be really interested in what it's like to be a Stormtrooper raised under totalitarianism and to try, and to wake up from it and try to break away, uh and they kind of got a funny look on their faces like "oh you can't, you can't do, that's a good idea but no you can't do that" because they were already doing it.

Al Horner: Yeah

Jon Spaihts:
Um, I think they left money on the table there (51:00) in terms of what that experience is actually like and I'm still curious about it. I love that universe, I grew up in it like you know, anybody my age and would love to play in it, and I'd be most interested in finding a way to branch off from the Ur-myth that they've been retelling in that sort of central story that kind of Rebel, Empire, Death Star trinary um, and find something new, but the great thing is that there's something new in every direction, I mean there are so many organs in that universe that have a complexity to be story seeds in their own. It would be hard to know where to start honestly

Al Horner: (Chuckle) So what is apart from Dune part 2 which it sounds like you're working on. Just finally Jon, what is coming from you? I know that the Forever war is something that you kind of er attached to for a while, I love that book so I hope you might have some news there. Is there anything else coming up that people should be excited about?

Jon Spaihts:
I love Forever War, and I'm very happy with (52:00) the adaptation I did, I don't have news on it except that my hope spring's eternal, erm and I very much hope that some day we'll get to see that film realised in a way that lives up to the novel that spawned it. Just wrote a sci-fi epic called Exodus for a young director named Grant Sputore which I love and that's a brand new baby so I'm very excited about that right now. Er, I'm entering a collaboration with Park Chan Wook, er, based around an adaptation that I can't talk too much about yet. It's all very hush hush, but an extraordinary story and you know one of the living great film makers and that's very thrilling. And ultimately, erm, going forward, the great dream is of course is to not play in one of these great sci-fi universes but to conceive one. So I'm not done with Shadow 19 and I've got other things er in my little bag of tricks that I'm hoping er, to move forwards with as originals and maybe give birth to a universe that (53:00) future writers get to play

Al Horner: That's really exciting. Erm, well John this has been so much fun, I should let you go, man, but thankyou so much for doing this. Thankyou for this movie and er yeah, hope to have you on script apart soon

Jon Spaihts: Well thankyou, real pleasure

Al Horner: You've been listening to Script Apart, hosted by me Al Horner, produced by Kamil Dymek. Thanks for tuning in, we'll see you next time.

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  1. "Transcript for Script Apart podcast Episode 41: Prometheus with Jon Spaihts" was posted on June 19th 2022