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