One of the most anticipated films at Sundance this year, certainly among cinephiles was the latest deep-div making of work from Swiss-born filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe, who previously has looked into fandom’s disenchantment with George Lucas (The People vs. George Lucas), zombie culture (Doc of the Dead), and his critically acclaimed 2017 detailed look at Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene (78/52).
While his new work, Memory—The Origins of Alien, began as a shot-by-shot look at that film’s ferocious chest-burster sequence, it eventually became clear to Philippe that there were forces and influences that went into the creation of Alien that went beyond standard-issue science fiction and horror. The film explores its roots in everything from Egyptian mythology, H.P. Lovecraft, parasitic wasps, comic books, and the paintings of Frances Bacon, while also making it a treat for those who want a peak behind the curtain of the film of one of Ridley Scott’s most influential works (although Scott himself is not interviewed).
At its core, Memory is a love letter to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who wrote a script of the same name in 1971, but picked it up after several years and worked with Scott and artist H.R. Giger to create the highly stylized, sexually symbolic nightmare fuel that we know and love 40 years later. The film also dives into question about why Alien was such a hit in 1979 but a mere three years later, the culture shifted with audiences preferring their extra-terrestrials cute and cuddly (E.T.) instead of horrific and destructive (The Thing). With its wealth of never-before-seen archival materials, storyboards and notes from each of the creative partners, the movie is a masterful film essay that bursts through the heart of Philippe’s love of cinema.
/Film spoke with this dissector of film to understand the beginnings of his obsession with Alien, how his movie went from an examination of one iconic sequence to the entirety of Alien, and what he has in store for his next, already-shot feature on the making of arguably the greatest horror movie of all time.
When you were doing press for 78/52, you announced that Alien was the subject of your next documentary, but it was just going to be about the chest-burster scene. At what point did you realize you needed to expand the scope and talk about the things that influenced the story and visuals?
Alexandre: A lot of things happened. With this film, I felt like I was more of a conduit in shaping the film the way it wanted to be shaped. As you said, the original impulse was to make a film about the chest-burster, but as you know, I’m not interested in make a behind-the-scenes docs. That kind of stuff is great, but it belongs among DVD extras, and there’s already a great one on the Alien box set. But that’s not what I do. Initially, I became very interested in the triptych by Francis Bacon [Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944]. That gave me a sense that there was more there than meets the eye and that there was something to dig into. I started to get really obsessed with the mythological roots of Alien, and talking to Giger’s agent, who is one of our executive producers, about the Egyptian influence on Giger. You’ve got the great Furies and what they represent and the idea of the resonance of myth and the collective unconscious. So all of these things, plus an encounter with Diane O’Bannon [widow of the screenwriter], who is also one of our executive producers and opened the archives for the very first time, came together to make me realize that there is way more here than I thought initially. This is an origin story, and it’s about time that Dan gets his due, and I’m glad the love-letter aspect comes through. In many ways, I feel like he guided me. There’s been an energy behind this project that is otherworldly—that’s the best way I can put it.
To me, even though this is a film about Alien, it’s really more a contemplation on the power and resonance of myth and the way our collective unconscious works. The idea that when a movie becomes as popular as Alien, especially at the time when it was not supposed to be popular, when people were ready for the friendly, cute, cuddly alien, what does that mean? What was going on? And this idea that there were certain images and ideas that we needed to process as a collective, that we’re starting to—40 years later—have a conversation about, it makes a lot of sense to me. I hope that Memory will make people think about popular movies and about the power of the silver screen as a way for us collectively to process certain things that we need to think about in our society.
One of my favorite sequences in the film is when you dig into the reasons Alien was popular but John Carpenter’s The Thing wasn’t a couple years later. Something shifted in a just a couple of years.
Alexandre: That’s the thing that’s so remarkable. You can make the argument that people were drawn to Alien on an unconscious level. People didn’t walk out of the theater why it pushed their buttons. I don’t even think O’Bannon, Gigir and Ridley Scott set out to make this kind of film consciously. There’s a lot of stuff they were doing that was on a frequency, they tuned in of what was going on and needed to be said, but as [filmmaker/actor] Axelle Carolyn says in the film, if they had gone to the studio and said, “We want to make a male-rape movie set in space; give us $10 million,” nobody would have made that. So the fact that this movie was even greenlit, if you consider the subversion, it’s mind blowing what was going on. Even Ridley Scott has gone on record as saying that Alien is a haunted house movie in space. All of these people were working on a certain level, but unconsciously, all of these things were happening, and that’s what makes it so great.
Another way the film is a love letter to O’Bannon is that you settled on the title Memory, which was the original name of his script. What were some of your alternative titles and how did you land on this one?
Alexandre: That was an interesting journey too. For the longest time, the title was Chestburster, but we knew that ultimately wasn’t going to work, if for no other reason than I didn’t like it as a title. It was too on the nose. At one point, it became Nemesis, and that morphed into Dan O’Bannon’s Alien, which I kind of liked as a nod to Jodorowsky’s Dune. By the way, [director] Frank Pavich is the one who introduced me to Diane O’Bannon, so there’s a huge connection there. But I kept wanting a one-word title as an homage to Alien, and at the end of the day, when we started thinking about that this film represents and what it is and the fact that it’s a love letter to Dan, it felt right to call it Memory. Of course, I went to Diane and asked “Do you think Dan would like that?”, and she was thrilled, so it came together beautifully that way.
Do you remember your first reaction to seeing Alien and the things you responded to and obsessed over?
Alexandre: No, and it’s funny because people asked me the same question about Psycho, and I don’t have the actual first memory of watching the film, but I can tell you that I have very strong memories about the poster. As a kid, I was watching a lot of horror films, and one of my best friends at the time was Edoardo Ponti, the son of Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, and he was a big film buff, and I would go to his place in Geneva to watch movies, because he would bring these horror movies on VHS that we did not have a Switzerland. That’s how I got my film schooling at age 12. But he had an original one-sheet from Alien in his room, and I remember the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I was entranced by it, and there was this duel emotion of “I can’t wait to see this,” but I’m also dreading seeing it, so I think I waiting a few years, and I’m pretty sure I watched it on VHS for the first time, and it blew me away.
It’s funny you say that because what I remember seeing first was the trailer with just the letters of the title coming up a little bit at a time, and there was a tension to the trailer that I’d never seen before.
Alexandre: Yes, yes. And if you look at it now, the trailer seems cheesy because it has that egg, right? It looks very simple, yet it’s so effective.
Talk about the process of pulling together your commentators. It’s funny how little you seem to care about the actual making of the film. You care about the ingredients very much, but not so much the making of it.
Alexandre: It’s always a grind, and people don’t realize that with a film like this what a grind it is, because it’s hard to convince people that you’re making a film essay about one of the most important films ever made. And you get dismissed, and it doesn’t matter what I’ve done in the past. We have a pedigree now with these kind of films. And it’s amazing how you get dismissed by publicists. We tried Ridley Scott numerous times. We tried Sigourney Weaver. Nothing doing. And yet, you would think that they would support something like this. And I don’t want this to come across as negative because it is what it is; I know they are very busy people. But I think it’s difficult when you tell people that you’re making this mythological film about Alien, just like when we told people we were making a movie about a scene. It’s difficult for people to wrap their head around, and I understand that.
But to me the story was also elsewhere, and I say that with all love and respect for Ridley, but I don’t think having him in the film would have made it any better. In fact, I would make the argument that it’s probably better without him, because the film is an essay about the symbiosis between O’Bannon, Giger and Scott, and since two of them are gone, to have Ridley Scott comment on that would give a different weight to him. I think it’s better without that, to be honest. The story was about mythology, the collective unconscious, and this extraordinary mish-mash of comic books, movies, and other influences that went into the cauldron of story that Dan O’Bannon put to paper. When you look at his original screenplay for They Bite from 1971, that was a seed for Memory, and then there’s Memory and Star Beast and Alien. Then there are these two comics—Seeds of Jupiter and Defiled—all of that he was aware of, and he never tried to hide it. That story had been told before, but told in B-movie fashion. This was the first time that this story really broke out of the B realm into the A-movie realm, and that’s why it became such a success.
All of that being said, I would love for him to watch the film [laughs]. I would like to think he would really appreciate this film.
Isn’t it interesting too that all of his newer Alien films take place before Alien, and that he seems stuck on this origin story? How do you feel about that?
Alexandre: What I think about it doesn’t matter. He’s perfectly entitled to revisit that universe. I find it really interesting that at this stage in his career, when he has nothing to prove, that he felt compelled to go deeper and deeper into that particular universe. I’m not going to say that I’m thrilled by those movies—I’m not—but that doesn’t matter. To me, it says something about how important that particular myth has been for him and continues to be. That’s what’s really interesting.
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