KNIGHT OF TER­RORS

Ri­d­ley Scott has re­turned to the thrilling fran­chise that first pet­ri­fied au­di­ences al­most 40 years ago, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

‘In space, no one can hear you scream” was the tagline for Alien, that bril­liant com­bi­na­tion of sci­ence fic­tion and hor­ror that burst on to the screen in 1979. Al­most 40 years later, its di­rec­tor, Ri­d­ley Scott, re­turns to the fran­chise with Alien: Covenant. And one of the first times he got his new cast to­gether, he re­calls, he wanted to hear them scream.

The film is set in 2093, and it takes its name from the Covenant, a space­craft on a colonis­ing mis­sion. A crew of 15 is in charge of the colonists, set­ting out to­gether on the long jour­ney to a dis­tant planet.

Scott, fast-talk­ing and soft-spo­ken, says he de­cided to try some­thing dif­fer­ent with the ac­tors play­ing the crew. “One of the dif­fi­cult parts of my job is break­ing the ice so that ev­ery­one feels se­cure and they are go­ing to en­joy it, and they don’t feel like an out­sider.”

On an im­pulse, he took them into a big sound record­ing room and told them, “I’m go­ing to stand each one of you in front of an in­di­vid­ual mic, and we’re go­ing to read the whole thing through from top to bot­tom, blood­cur­dling screams and all. We’re gonna do it now, no re­hearsal. “It was a lot of fun. We got a sense of the whole story, and we found out who was a good screamer and who wasn’t.” It was a first for the ac­tors, he says, “And it was a first for me too.” It’s im­por­tant for him to try dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, he says. “You’ve got to keep things fresh.” Things aboard the Covenant don’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. The seven-year jour­ney is in­ter­rupted; the crew is wo­ken from hy­per-sleep by a freak in­ci­dent, and there’s an ac­ci­dent with tragic con­se­quences. A trans­mis­sion from an un­known source leads them to in­ves­ti­gate another des­ti­na­tion, a seem­ingly be­nign planet whose ex­is­tence they had been un­aware of. A land­ing mis­sion takes them there, to a place of ex­tra­or­di­nary nat­u­ral beauty and un­nat­u­ral si­lence: it brings them in con­tact with all the shapeshift­ing ter­rors that we have come to ex­pect from the Alien uni­verse, plus a few new ones. Alien (1979) was Scott’s sec­ond fea­ture, a tale of trauma and trans­for­ma­tion in a con­fined space. His next film was Blade Run­ner, another land­mark work that ex­plored, in a very dif­fer­ent way, some of the themes of ex­is­tence, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and what it means to be hu­man that emerge in Alien: Covenant. He didn’t di­rect the se­quels to Alien that were re­leased be­tween 1986 and 1997: they were made by James Cameron ( Aliens), David Fincher ( Alien 3) and Jean-Pierre Je­unet ( Alien: Res­ur­rec­tion). The com­mon fac­tor in these films was Sigour­ney Weaver as the heroic Ri­p­ley, war­rant of­fi­cer turned war­rior, whose strug­gles against the meta­mor­phos­ing aliens take on mytho­log­i­cal pro­por­tions. Scott made his first re­turn to the fran­chise five years ago with Prometheus, a new and un­ex­pected in­stal- Alien: Covenant, Alien ment in the Alien uni­verse. Its events take place be­fore those of the first film, and it sets up an oblique, some­times be­wil­der­ing re­la­tion­ship to what fol­lowed.

Alien: Covenant begins with a pro­logue fea­tur­ing two key fig­ures from Prometheus. Af­ter the cred­its, it takes us on the jour­ney of the Covenant, 10 years af­ter Prometheus: the new film il­lu­mi­nates some of its pre­de­ces­sor’s mys­ter­ies, but is a much closer rel­a­tive to Alien. It has a char­ac­ter clearly rem­i­nis­cent of Ri­p­ley: she is Daniels, played by Katherine Water­ston ( In­her­ent Vice, Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Scott de­scribes Water­ston as “a spe­cial gal and a spe­cial ac­tress”. He saw her in In­her­ent Vice, Paul Thomas An­der­son’s adap­ta­tion of the Thomas Pyn­chon novel, he says, “and I thought, blimey, this one’s coura­geous, and just won­der­ful with di­a­logue”.

Cast­ing is ev­ery­thing, he says. “I spend a lot of time on it be­cause once I cast I don’t tend to do an overt lot of re­hearsal. I’ve dis­cov­ered over the years that ac­tors, good ac­tors, know what they’re do­ing and they want to stay fresh. You can re­hearse things to death.

“Film is a part­ner­ship medium and my re­la­tion­ship with ac­tors is al­ways a part­ner­ship.”

Even so, many things about the re­la­tion­ship have changed, he says. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have done the ex­er­cise in the sound stu­dio, he says. “Thirty years ago I would have driven ev­ery­one crazy by telling them the whole f..king story. And they’d be ly­ing there dead, say­ing, ‘I’ve only got two scenes, I don’t need the whole story.’ It’s al­ways been out of re­spect to the actor that I’ve wanted to give them more information than they nec­es­sar­ily need. Now it comes down to spend­ing in­di­vid­ual time with them.

“If I cast a re­ally good actor, it means I’m well taken care of by them, be­cause once we’ve talked, and they’ve gone off and thought about it and prac­tised and done their thing, and from my point of view what I love al­ways is to be sur­prised. My big­gest com­pli­ment is, ‘Good god, I’d never thought of that.’ With great ac­tors you can get it down to two or three takes — there’s none of this 90-take crap.”

Scott de­signs his films to al­low for mo­ments of sur­prise dur­ing the shoot — he likes to leave room for ac­tors to im­pro­vise. He painstak­ingly pre­pares his own sto­ry­boards, a prac­tice that helps him leave space for new ideas. “By sto­ry­board­ing, I’ve got the ge­om­e­try of ev­ery­thing in

Di­rec­tor Ri­d­ley Scott with Katherine Water­ston on the set of left; Sigour­ney Weaver as the hero­ine Ri­p­ley in the orig­i­nal 1979

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