Tomorrow the US will have their chance to dive deep into the Alien mythology as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus enters their cinemas on a wave of high expectations tempered, no doubt, by a cool critical reception.
With the film doing fairly well after a week in UK cinemas there will be many eyes on the box office return of the coming weeks as future trips to LV223 and beyond will depend on the film’s financial success.
We sat down with Damon Lindelof, one of the film’s writers, to talk about the collaboration, the legacy of Alien and the deeper questions at play here. He mentions the sequels, should they come, and the conversations serves to highlight the answered and unanswered questions of the film.
Ben Mortimer was about man around the table, keep in mind that we do SPOIL the film mercilessly.
How close was your working relationship with Ridley Scott?
Incredibly close. Coming from primarily a television background I look at writing as a collaborative process, the story to the set pieces and the dialogue. When I first came in and talked to Ridley about John [Spaihts]‘s script and what my recommendations were, how to evolve it and move it forward and find that balance between what was clearly at the time an Alien prequel but really wanted to be an original movie that had two children – one of those children would grew up to be Alien but the other child, that I was more interested in, was going to be a wild card – people want to go and see movies which end in unpredictable ways. So I said ‘Let’s take these grand themes of Who Am I? and Who Made Me? and Why hath thou forsaken me?’ which were embedded in this draft and bring those themes up and push all the Alien stuff, like the facehugging, chestbursting and the acid for blood stuff down. We’ve seen that before, we love it but we’ve seen enough movie about that. So Ridley hired me and then what ensued was we would have over three or four weeks, four days a week, sometimes five or six hour story sessions, and I would write every word that was coming out of his mouth and would ask him questions. We spent a whole day talking about 2001 and Stanley Kubrick. I felt like I understood the movie Ridley wanted to make so I did my draft and we repeated the process all over again. I know, and John agrees, that we were monkeys sitting at typewriters, but we were just channeling Ridley’s vision of the movie.
Ridley Scott has mentioned that there are no original ideas left in Sci-fi, was this part of the reason for bringing in religion and spiritual elements.
Yeah, one of the things we kept coming back to was how do we take the idea of the creation myth that in Judeo-Christian culture it’s Garden of Eden, God creates Adam and Eve but Ridley was more interested in Greco-Roman or Aztec creation myths where there are many Gods and they make Man out of themselves. The idea that they sacrifice a piece of themselves to create Man in their own image I find very interesting and the question was can we do it on a sci-fi level and so the opening of the movie is that exact idea and that theme carries through to our future which, in this case, is embodied by our creations – David who we make in our own image though we don’t know why. He tries to pick away at it and he says ‘You made me to look like you because it makes you more comfortable…’. So there’s this idea of creating in one’s own image becomes a sci-fi concept. To me the movie was about creation, that’s the fundamental thematic in the same way that Star Trek is about friendship. So to synthesise a movie into one word, which is a useful tool for a writer, you have to look at each of the scenes and see if the idea is coming through. Creation isn’t just what Prometheus was going to be about, it was ultimately going to be the tie that bound it to the original Alien thematically. That movie was about creation too. No-one had thought of that before – that we make, out of ourselves, this creature, this threat. I loved that idea and now we’re dealing with three generations – The Engineers who create us, then we create robots. I thought it would be very cool to have this machine comment on the folly of this mission. It’s a weird family tree that the movie constructs as the end of the movie gives birth to the progeny of all three generations – this is what happens when an android gets involved in ‘fertilising’ something that was invented by The Engineers with a human host which then has sex with another human who gives birth who then recombines with The Engineer. It’s a very weird bastardisation.
There are a few loose ends left at the end of the film, was that part of the writing process, or the re-writes?
One man’s loose end is another man’s ambiguity and Ridley was very interesting in ambiguity. As I said we were talking about 2001 a lot and Ridley is a huge Kubrick fan and he’s still trying to make sense of the end of 2001 and he would say ‘Explain to me the end of 2001′ and ‘is it not some kind of rebirth metaphor?’ and I would agree but 2001 is far more interesting to me than 2010 which spells in out explicitly. So we have to work out if a sci-fi film is going to delve into the question of where do we come from and why has God turned against me? How much do we let people find out for themselves? How much room should there be for future films? We’ve seen the film which is about ‘ok, we’ve unleashed this creature’ and Prometheus is more about who made us, why did they make us and now this question of why do they want to destroy us? Is it at arbitrary as being done with this petri dish, or did we do something to deserve it. This is the fundamental question that we ask ourselves especially when something bad befalls us. This idea of fundamental judgement weigh in. All these questions were on the table and yes, there were drafts with more specifically spelled out versions. Ridley’s instinct was to pull back and I’d say ‘I’m still eating shit a year on from the end of Lost where we didn’t directly spell everything out – are you sure you want to do this?’ He would rather have had people fighting against it and not know then spell it out. I know its obnoxious to say that you should see the movie a couple of times to really appreciate it but that is how the movie was designed – things that seem throwaway, for example when they do the carbon dating of the dead Engineer and realise that he’s been dead for two thousand years and you think ‘if two thousand years ago The Engineers decided to wipe us out what happened back then?’ Is there any correlation between what was happening on the Earth two thousand years ago and this decision? Could a sequel start in that time period and begin to contextualize what we did to piss these beings off?
But you and Ridley know, in your mind, exactly what is happening here?
Yeah, and if enough people go and see the movie and if there’s a real sense of people wanting there to be another one then the second movie would clearly answer the question of what did we do to deserve this. And always the question is that if we want to explain this how do we do it in a dramatic way? It won’t be two people siting in a room with The Engineers sitting up and say ‘Ok, well here’s what you did to piss me off…’ I was always driven by the idea that Shaw was the only believer in the crew and that it feels outdated in 2093, it feels old fashioned – especially as she’s embracing this fundamental scientific knowledge, and she gets very excited when she learns that she was created by these beings as opposed to some supernatural deity but he doesn’t make her shed her faith, it only instills it. So, at the end of this journey and she’s only person who made it through you ask yourself why was that? Was God protecting her as the only true believer? The entire point of being alive is to ask these questions and search for some meaning so Ridley wanted the film to end with Shaw announcing that she was still searching.
David is perhaps the strongest character in the crew, can you talk about the process of writing for him?
David was clearly the most fun to write, robots are fun to write as they’re not burdened by the same emotional truths of irrationalities that humans are. You have to work out who programmed them and what did they program them to do. Then you get into the interesting area of how capable is a robot of original thought? I looked at David through the prism of a five year old, I have a five year old and if he loves a movie then he watches it over and over again, and we’ve seen robots who have read everything but I thought why not have a robot who loves Lawrence of Arabia and just watches it over and over? And in the same way as you’d mod an iPhone if there were ten thousand Michael Fassbenders out there wouldn’t you want them to have their own individuality? This one wants to dye his hair like Lawrence. Also the notion of Pinocchio robots as I call them, robots that want to be human, is used up. Why would a robot want to be human? I think it’s more interesting if you have a robot who didn’t understand humans, or who considers emotions a huge pain in the ass. Ultimately David’s purpose in the movie was to comment on the folly of the mission as a whole – these humans are seeking out their creators and this robot is hanging out with his creators and, frankly, he’s not impressed… A lot of it came from Michael’s performance, the dry wit… I could write an entire movie of David going off on his adventures.
Was there a juggling act with regards to explaining the unanswered questions about Alien while asking new questions?
Prometheus is promoting a question which is where we created by these things and did these things invite us to this place? The answer to that is yes. What isn’t answered it once we get there and realise that whatever they were making here they were going to drop on Earth but it got out and it killed them first. The new question is what did we do to make them want to kill us and Ridley wasn’t interested in answering that in this movie. He liked the idea that Shaw had that question to answer herself and had a choice – to go back to Earth or she can go forward, trying to determine what they did as a species to deserve annihilation. You don’t argue with Ridley Scott about the movie he wants to make. If you have unanswered questions some people are going to be creatively intrigue by it and others will be pissed off by it and that galvanised him – as there’s nothing he loves more than to piss people off. In the right way of course.
In your conversations with Ridley did you discuss the other Alien films?
He hasn’t seen the Alien Vs. Predator films, he likes Cameron’s sequel but he admits to feeling a little conflicted that he was passed over in terms of directing the sequel. He’s a huge Fincher fan and feels sorry that David was so hamstrung in terms of what he could and could not do in terms of Alien 3 and while he acknowledges that it’s a beautiful looking film I think he wishes that Fincher would have been allowed to do what Fincher does on that film. I have a feeling that if Alien 3 had been Fincher’s third film instead of his first then it would have been up there in the pantheon of great sci-fi. We didn’t talk about Resurrection.