The Making of ‘Alien’ Was a Chest
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The Making of ‘Alien’ Was a Chest

May 24, 2024

On set, no one can hear you scream.

An interstellar cargo ship travels in the void of space, with a crew about to face a danger that will kill all but one of them. In 1979, Alien was the disturbing contrast to the space opera fun of Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope (1977) that blasted off from a galaxy far, far away. There were no laser guns, no lightsabers, and no poetic words on “the force.” Instead, the world in Alien was dank and gritty, with two new horror and sci-fi icons for fans to love, in the titular creature and Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. What's almost as bad as getting caught by a facehugger? Try these behind-the-scenes facts. The crew, cast, writer, and director might have wished they could have only gone up against the looming, nearly indestructible Xenomorph. The making of this sci-fi horror classic was an intense, constant stream of anxiety.

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The pre-production schedule of Alien was sped up, less like the crew’s glacial stirring from hypersleep and more like Ripley’s scramble during Nostromo’s self-destruct countdown. Director Ridley Scott revealed in a personal essay for American Cinematographer that there were only four months to get everything into place before cameras rolled. Getting H.R. Giger’s biomechanical creature designs to look good off the paper proved another issue, especially in keeping within the movie’s budget, which was around $11 million. Scott commented that “making a feature is marvelous, I think, but it’s a nightmare while you’re doing it — a sort of love-hate process.”

While the director was busy, the cast had to deal with their own hardships. There is a moment in Alien when Ripley learns the true reason they were woken up on their trip back home. A haunting message reads, “Ensure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.” Ripley and her crew are kept in the dark until it’s too late. By the time they learn what their mission has been about all this time, they are in grave danger. While Sigourney Weaver and her fellow actors weren’t in such dire circumstances, filming wasn’t easy on them.

The space suits the Nostromo crew wore were not cozy in any way. After the ship landed on the mysterious planet, a few members head off to investigate, this scene leads to the first glimpse of the Xenomorph, in eggs that have taken over a chamber. The suits the characters had on were heavy, without an easy way for taking them off. Overheating was bad enough on the set, a large desert-like location the actors had to navigate, but a loss of oxygen was another factor.

In a featurette about the making of the film, Fear of the Unknown: Shepperton Studios, 1978 , Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt, who played Lambert and Dallas respectively, talked about walking around while inside those suits. Skerritt nearly passed away, and nurses were needed to administer oxygen to John Hurt, whose character didn’t have any better luck. Put inside the suit, there was no ventilation, so the actors were eventually sucking in carbon dioxide. Cartwright revealed this finally changed after children were involved in the filming. To help make the set appear larger for an establishing shot, children were brought in to wear smaller suits, two of which were Scott’s own children. When they passed out, proper ventilation was properly included.

Cartwright, whose character of Lambert goes through tremendous, physical strain, didn’t have to do much acting for the most shocking moment in Alien. Ridley Scott wanted genuine reactions from the cast when it came time to film what he considered a crucial point in the movie. This is, of course, Kane’s (John Hurt) death by the Chestburster, the unpleasant early stage in the Xenomorph’s life cycle. A crew dinner celebrates Kane’s recovery, but the jovial mood is instantly killed when Kane begins to convulse in pain. He is a receptacle to the metamorphic alien and he’s outlived his purpose. The cast knew what the scene was going to be about, the script described it clearly as, “The fabric of his shirt is ripped apart. A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.” That doesn’t hide much. Weaver and Cartwright were shown the puppet that was the baby Xenomorph too, but Scott did not have the cast see what would happen when filming started.

In the book Cinema Alchemist, art director Roger Christian goes into detail on the scene, about Scott’s desire for an authentic, grisly experience and to hide that the little creature was a puppet. Christian wrote, “I sent one of the team to the local abattoir to fetch a bag full of bloody animal innards. The buyer returned clutching a plastic bag full of liver, intestines, kidneys, and lungs – whatever organs they could find. This was washed so that it was sanitary, but still smelt. It was sanitized in formaldehyde, which in itself smelt bad, making the set smell like an operating theatre.” And with the boiling set lights, the real animal organs and gunk gave off a putrid odor. While the first few takes didn’t work, as the puppet didn’t tear through Kane’s shirt correctly, one take shocked Cartwright when her face accidentally went directly into a surge of blood from one of the pumps. It knocked her back and over a nearby seat.

Health issues affected the cast and crew in various ways. According to the Shepperton Studios featurette, when Ripley is sweaty and hyperventilating as she searches for Jonesy the cat, Weaver feared she was allergic to the poor kitty. Her face went red, and she could feel her skin burning, but it ended up being a bad reaction to the glycerin used to make her look sweaty, mixed with the cat hair.

Bolaji Badejo was a young, Nigerian graphic arts student when he got the role to play the Xenomorph because of his body’s build. In Badejo’s interview from the Autumn 1979 issue of Cinefantastique, he talked about how the suit created by H.R. Giger, “consisted of some ten to fifteen separate pieces, worn over a one-piece black bodysuit, needed underneath to disguise the fact that the Alien fitted together in sections, and because you could see through parts of it, like the ribcage.” The suit was an ordeal by itself, Badejo’s size which gave him the role proved difficult to move around in. He said, “The Nostromo set itself was only about 6’6 high. I’m 6’10, 7′ with the suit on. I had to be very careful how I spun around or did anything. It was terribly hot, especially the head. I could only have it on for about fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. When I took it off, my head would be soaked.” Badejo wasn’t involved in the sequels and sadly passed away from sickle cell disease before he was 40.

If Star Wars is a space opera, Alien can be defined as a haunted house tale. That’s because the Nostromo set might have been the most challenging for those involved in the production. A major portion of the movie is set within the confines of the spaceship, purposely built to be claustrophobic, on-screen and off. Once someone enters there is only one way to leave it. The life-size dimensions helped everyone get into the right mood for filming and ensured there was a feeling of being trapped like the characters are faced with in the story. The incredibly detailed set was as necessary as the Xenomorph. Next time you watch Alien, it might make for an even scarier experience when you realize how much stress it took to put it on the big screen. The making of the movie had its own suffering for those involved.

Chris Sasaguay is a Freelance Writer with a passion for slasher flicks, queer cinema, and veteran actresses. He remembers using a VCR to record horror movies off the TV and misses the perks of MoviePass.

AlienStar Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope Sigourney WeaverRidley ScottH.R. GigerVeronica CartwrightTom SkerrittJohn HurtRoger ChristianBolaji Badejo