There are only a few film series where the image of a spaceship soaring through space will make an audience gasp and yell and cry out and all for very different reasons: Star Wars for the fun and adventure, Star Trek for the exploration and sci-fi philosophy, and Alien for scaring the living crap out of us. Many talented filmmakers have had their hands on this nearly 30-year-old franchise, but no one’s imprimatur has been as potent as the originator – Ridley Scott. After the mixed reception his return to the series – 2012’s Prometheus – received, he could be forgiven for washing his hands of it and passing it along permanently to someone else. Instead, he’s decided to give it another go with this summer’s Alien: Covenant, and in his own estimation it’s “a cut above what we’ve seen before.”
Relaxed and serene in a black knit shirt and jacket, Sir Ridley Scott is holding court at the Four Seasons in Austin where he has come to show off the original Alien at the South by Southwest Festival, and sneak a few peaks at the new film as well. Speaking with him is what one imagines speaking to an old, wise philosopher would be like as he bounces around from topic to topic, from art school to old movies to the danger of artificial intelligence and the probabilities of extraterrestrial life, before laughing and reminding everyone not to take anything he says too seriously.
Ridley Scott: A big subject in [Alien: Covenant] is Superiority, which we might label God. But if something hovers here in a ship the size of Manhattan and says ‘morning, how are you doing?’ we’re going to think ‘this is superior, might even have godlike capabilities.’ We’ve given the name God to just superiority.
A lot of scientists, I got close to a lot of guys doing The Martian – mathematics and astrophysicists, all that sh*t — get seven geniuses around the table ask them basic questions like, ‘who believes in God?’ There’s a murmur, a giggle then four of them go ‘well I do.’ Why? They said ‘when I come against a wall in my mathematics I am impressed, ‘who created this wall?’ And I know there is an answer on the other side. So when you guys do, we’re all very keen on movies, you kind of back up a bit, address the wall and go ‘I’ll take that and take that’ and go around and that’s fundamentally science. So science and mathematics is art, it’s not just science. At that level it’s a f*cking art form.
So the Engineers are metaphors for superior beings. Are there superior beings out there right now? I’d put money on it, yes. Like us? No idea. Superior? Almost certainly. But 30 years ago, I was at the Pasadena Observatory screening the original Alien and there was Carl Sagan and he said to me after the screening, ‘the idea is entirely ridiculous, there’ll be no aliens in your lifetime or mine,’ and I said ‘lighten up Carl, it’s only a movie.’ [Laughs].
ComingSoon.net: The original Alien is a legitimate horror classic. Is it difficult to keep making these movies scary?
Ridley Scott: It’s the hardest thing in the world to do today. In a funny kind of way, we’ve been challenged by so much super violence like Saw 13 that you get numb to blood and brutality and inhuman behavior, so people get hardened to it. It’s hard – way back when I was going to do Alien, there was one really serious scary movie, The Exorcist, a perfect engine of scares because it feels logical and possible and when that happens its always scarier. And then I thought ‘sh*t, this is going to be difficult.’
If nothing else, early footage from Alien: Covenant shows just how much work Scott has been putting into what he knows will be the main element audiences are looking for – is it scary? Scott, joined by cast members Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride and Michael Fassbender, screened three extra long clips from the first half of the film to provide a taste of what fans are in for as the Covenant lands on an uncharted planet, which strangely has a breathable atmosphere and Earth plants on it.
The scares are obvious from the get go as two crew members (all of whom are couples) become infected by spores while exploring the planet and must be rushed back to the shuttle and evacuated. The first man back is locked into the medical lab as the character in charge of the shuttle (and wife of the captain) begins to seriously freak out watching the infected man spasm and shake and spew blood through his skin. Before too long, xenomorphs are popping out of people all over, but not in the normal way – they come clawing out of individual’s shoulders and spines and anywhere else they can find their way out from. From design to palette to editing, the look is very much that of Prometheus but with a much more Alien vibe than that film, with several versions of the classic character running around on the screen. When the first xenomorph appears, chaos quickly follows in its wake as it plows through doors and obstacles, sending the surviving crew member running for her life. The scares themselves are very ‘classic’ in their set up and pay off (it’s easy to see the effects of The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre still lingering in Scott) as characters begin having ridiculously bad luck – from slipping on puddles of blood to getting their feet stuck in closing doors – in order to draw the tension out even longer. When the medic begins firing a shotgun at the rampaging xenomorph as her husband calls out to her, it should be no surprise when pieces of the ship start exploding.
If it’s not exactly full of surprises, Covenant is a resolutely an Alien film down to its blue collar approach to space exploration and willingness to engage in extreme body horror and the dark side of said exploration. Sir Scott has been joined in Austin by cast members Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride who needle the old grandmaster about wild ideas while also reveling in working with the man who created Alien on an Alien film.
CS: You’ve created this legacy that people still love, how does that feel, to be a part of that?
Ridley Scott: You get used to it.
Katherine Waterston: It only freaks me out when people ask about it.
Danny McBride: My parents finally think I’m making real movies.
Katherine Waterston: When I first met Ridley, he was like ‘I hire people I think are good at acting and I let them do their thing and figure it out and if they’re doing something really idiotic I’ll tell them, but mostly I’ll just leave them alone. I know what the f*ck I’m doing, you should know what they f*ck you’re doing, you show it to me and then we go have dinner. It’s not rocket science.’
Ridley Scott: The key thing, from my point of view and it’s my best compliment is to be able to say ‘f*ck me, I never thought of that.’ If she does that and he does that then they’re free to move the parameters of what you’ve got and that’s why I take great care in casting.
CS: How did that work when creating Tennessee?
Danny McBride: I like how originally it was a lot of working class people so you had that was his dynamic, he was more working class and he’s paired up with all these brilliant people and trying to figure out how to operate with that.
CS: Did you get to pick out your awesome hat?
Danny McBride: That was one of Ridley’s ideas from the get go, we talked about it being an homage to Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. It was easily embraced. And then it became a science of when he’s wearing it, when he’s not. How stressed out he is – if it’s bad, the hat comes off.
The hat is in clear view during the second sequence showing the shuttle actually landing on the planet. It’s short bit of set up that gives a quick but clear explanation of the camaraderie of the crew and how they go about their jobs. McBride is at the center of it all, piloting the main ship while keeping up with the pilot of the shuttle and keeping everything running without ever turning into a caricature of either himself or older Alien characters. Strangely, the only character not focused on in the early sequences is Waterston’s scientist despite playing the film’s main character, the latest in a long line of strong female characters which has become as defining a part of the franchise as the alien itself.
CS: What made you want to center the franchise so firmly around women?
Ridley Scott: The first one did so well why change it? (Laugh).
Katherine Waterston: We were talking about this earlier. All it takes is a few people with a lot of power with the guts to show something in a new way for the first time. That was just a few people in a room putting together the first Alien there was the script, Ripley’s a dude and they say ‘why not put a woman in the part’ and they say ‘sure, why not?’ rather than ‘I don’t know, would it work,’ and just bullsh*t questions that go on all around Hollywood. Someone had the courage and it changes the business because it sells tickets. It has to be successful to do that.
CS: Is there any truth to rumor that Kath is related to Ripley?
Katherine Waterston: Who started that sh*t?
Danny McBride: I’ve been going around telling people that.
Katherine Waterston: Oh, that explains it.
Ridley Scott: That was probably way back when. That’s very Hollywood, daughter, father, mother of… She’s herself.
SPOILERS AHEAD: While Waterston’s Daniels is the main character, the clips Scott brought to Austin more firmly focused on Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram, from his attempts to save the doomed shuttle during the first Xenomorph attack to the final clip – a face-to-face meeting with Prometheus’ David (Fassbender does double duty as the crazed David and Covenant’s own low-key android, Walter). When David appears, he has been living in a cave on the strange planet for some time, experimenting with the black goo canisters from Prometheus, learning how they transform a biosphere and create different versions of the classic Xenomorph depending on what sort of environment it is interacting with. David’s cave (stumbled upon by Oram) is filled with dissected Xenomorphs of varying sizes and styles: “idle hands are the devil’s playground,” he explains. Having gotten as far he could with observation, he has begun his own experiments with genetics and crossbreeding of the aliens leading to his prized collection – a room full of the classic facegrabber pods, heavily implying David created the version of the Xenomorph we are most familiar with and all David needs is one last ingredient. “What are they waiting for?” Oram asks; “their mother,” David says as one of the pods opens. You can guess what happens next. As much as Alien: Covenant is a return of the classic creature, it also delves deeply into Scott’s fascination with artificial intelligence and explores the way mankind’s own creations (and thus mankind itself) were a part of the development of the villains of the Alien universe, the downside of mankind making its own superior beings.
Ridley Scott: A computer beat a chess master, just barely, but I’m not sure how consistent it may be… I’m just hoping you can’t quite replace a human. Can you have a computer write a screenplay or a book or a poem? It’s always going to be very derivative. And only based on what’s been done on trillions of different ways before.
AMD have a chip right now that is virtually AI. It will be incredibly useful, where it would take time for a group of humans to sort through for an answer – say cancer – this will do it in a fraction of the time. We’ll have cross collateralization of cause and effect, which will bring it down to ‘have you tried this?’ You’ll get that in four days instead of four years or 10 years. It’s amazing. So medically it will be fantastic. I don’t think it will make better movies or books. Movies are getting worse already. Except us. We are getting better and better all the time and this one is the best yet.
Katherine Waterston: Ridley might be an AI. You sprained your wrist, you stopped for like half an hour, his bone healed, kept shooting.
CS: Would you ever let someone else take over again? You can’t do it forever.
Ridley Scott: I’m trying to. That’s why I have AI’s and everything so they can, I don’t know what they do, stick a chip in you.
CS: So you could see yourself doing more Alien movies?
Ridley Scott: I’d like to. This is, dare I say, clever and violent and everything you want, a real cut above what we’ve seen before. It leaves things open and you can see how it can go on. I enjoy doing them so much, honestly I’d like it to go on forever.