ALIEN NATION CREATOR ROCKNE S O’BANNON AND DIRECTOR GRAHAM BAKER TALK ABOUT THE BUDDY COP THRILLER WITH AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL TWIST
ODD-COUPLE-IN-A partnership flicks were pretty popular in the ’80s, even if in retrospect some of the films that explored interracial relations now seem heavy-handed with their stereotypes. Following the releases of 48 Hrs and Lethal Weapon, Alien Nation was an attempt to put a science fiction spin on the mismatched buddy cops premise. It focused on the unique alliance between a maverick veteran cop named Matt Sykes and his more pedantic new partner from another planet, Samuel Francisco.
Having landed on Earth a few years previously, Francisco is part of a once enslaved extraterrestrial race who have been gradually integrated into LA society – much to the disdain of his human counterpart, whose former partner was killed by one of these “Newcomers”. Rockne S O’bannon, the man who went on to create sci-fi shows such as Seaquest DSV, Farscape and Defiance, was inspired by another iconic TV show when he penned the initial story (originally entitled “Outer Heat”) in collaboration with producer Richard Kobritz. “I wrote it in the mid–’80s when I was working on a remake of The Twilight Zone TV series, which was my first job as a professional writer,” O’bannon tells SFX. “I was inspired by what Rod Serling did with the original, where he realised he could say things metaphorically about society in a science fiction or fantasy setting without being absolutely direct about it.”
It’s a testament to the strength of O’bannon’s original script (which evolved from a concept for what was originally intended as a TV pilot), that it subsequently made its way into the hands of powerhouse couple Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron. “Gale and Jim had just come off the one-two punch of The Terminator and then Aliens, so nobody was hotter than the two of them at that time,” continues O’bannon. “So when I heard that they had responded to the script and they wanted to be involved I was over the moon for obvious reasons.”
However, with Cameron consumed with his “aliens underwater” feature The Abyss, the search was on for an appropriate director to helm Alien Nation. One filmmaker who was interested was John Mctiernan, who had just directed the original Predator. “There was some internal politics going on, so it wasn’t offered to him – but then he went on to do Die Hard, which worked out incredibly well for him,” notes the writer.
“My assumption was that since it was being produced by Gale Anne Hurd it would be directed by James Cameron, until it became evident that he was totally occupied with his brainchild and passion, The Abyss,” director Graham Baker recalls. Ultimately, the British-born filmmaker was offered the opportunity, due to his previous association with 20th Century Fox: having directed The Final Conflict, the third instalment in their highly successful Omen film series, and the sci-fi mystery flick Impulse.
Describing O’bannon’s script in its original form, Baker remembers: “It was essentially a film noir thriller, brilliantly combining the buddy cop genre with a completely original take on the alien genre; a beautifully written, provocative, intriguing, witty riff on immigration, prejudice and relationships.”
Cameron performed an uncredited pass on O’bannon’s screenplay, which the writer claims made it grittier. “It was Jim Cameron, so I didn’t mind at all, and I was dying to see what he was going to do,” he says. “My original version took place in cleaner upscale environments and regular suburban neighbourhoods, which I thought created a greater contrast for the alien immigrants. As with The Terminator, Jim’s taste tends to be a grittier one, so he moved the action to more urban downtown streets and grimy alleyways.”
Crucial to successfully capitalising upon the unique partnership between a human cop and his otherworldly partner was getting the casting of these two characters right. “The first challenge was to find the vital chemistry to achieve this,” continues Baker. “But the actors on the wish-list for the role of Matt Sykes, the human cop, fell short of how I visualised him.”
Both Baker and Rockne S O’bannon claim they put forward James Caan, the Oscarnominated star of The Godfather and futuristic sci-fi thriller Rollerball. At the time, however, Caan had been in self-imposed exile for a number of years, due to some significant personal issues. Gene Hackman was also considered before Caan was ultimately cast. Portraying his alien colleague Samuel Francisco was Mandy Patinkin, who had memorably played swordsman Inigo Montoya in Rob Reiner’s acclaimed fantasy adventure The Princess Bride. “To emphasise the odd coupling of the alien cop with Sykes, Mandy Patinkin was perfect,” Baker says.
“What was great was that he and Jimmy had very different acting styles, which I think added to the ‘two fish from different ponds’ [concept],” adds O’bannon. “Jimmy is a very physical actor and Mandy is much more cerebral, so it works perfectly for these two characters playing off against one another.”
Originally O’bannon had named the alien character George Jetson, in reference to the patriarch from ’60s space-age cartoon The Jetsons. However, Fox was unable to obtain permission to use the name from Hannabarbera, the animation studio and production company behind the show, which was looking at reviving it.
“I ended up calling him Sam Francisco, as nobody was going to sue us over that,” explains O’bannon. “Then in rehearsals, Jimmy Caan kept calling him ‘George’, and he really liked saying George with the hard ‘G’. There was just
something about that name which really worked for him in terms of performing it. So it was literally just like in the movie, where he says, ‘My name’s Sam Francisco’ [and Sykes replies] ‘I’m going to call you George!’”
Terence Stamp brought his trademark gravitas as the antagonistic Newcomer who leads a criminal network that manufactures a strength-inducing alien narcotic. However, the somewhat debilitating alien make-up process – which took up to four hours – had some psychological issues for the British thespian.
“It caused Terence to sink daily into a deep depression, as in the mirror he saw his famous good looks being buried under layers of latex,” Baker recalls. “He was ideal to play the ruthless, devious, William Harcount. I felt his Brit accent suggested a carefully constructed persona, devised to ingratiate himself into the higher levels of human society.”
A lighter side to the Newcomers comes through their innocent misappropriation of adopted names, such as Richard Nixon – in addition to the quirk of becoming intoxicated on sour milk. “For me, that’s always fun – coming up with the strangest stuff that you can think of [and letting it] filter through your imagination,” laughs O’bannon. “Sour milk is very unlike liquor so it’s even more unusual, and the fact that it’s boring to us humans but to them, they like it and get drunk on it.”
While Alien Nation didn’t set the box office alight upon its 1988 release, it developed a cult following, and O’bannon has fond memories of it coming together. “I remember watching the first day’s dallies with Richard Kobritz and we were both very taken with the terrific economy of what Graham Baker had shot and the energy of it, so it certainly got us very excited with what he was going to bring to it,” he recalls.
“Writers often grouse about how their first films turn out. There were some of the social aspects in my original script that I felt were a little bit underplayed. It may have been a case where we were dealing with an alien race that we’d never seen before, coupled with the unfamiliar idea of extraterrestrials integrating among us, so perhaps the studio thought we needed to dial down the social commentary part so we’re not making the audience work too hard.”
Regardless, the influence of Alien Nation is still felt, particularly in contemporary films like David Ayer’s 2017 Netflix blockbuster Bright, and perhaps even Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. “I don’t know if you’d call Bright a homage but at the time people kept saying to me, ‘Gee, isn’t it great that they’ve remade Alien Nation,’” muses O’bannon.
While Baker looks back at the film with a mixture of frustration and disappointment stemming from a slew of complex creative differences, O’bannon has more positive reflections. “I saw it on opening night with my family. We watched it with a regular audience at the theatre and I was just gratified that they seemed to really like it, as I was always concerned, ‘Are people going to ‘get’ this?’
“At the end of the day, it accomplished what I wanted it to,” he continues. “It may not have pushed the envelope as far as I had hoped initially, but in terms of something that had never been done before, it succeeded on that level. And it still being well-regarded even today, for me, is very encouraging.”
Coming soon in SFX, we look back at the spin-off TV series of Alien Nation through an interview with showrunner Kenneth Johnson.
A beautifully written, provocative, intriguing, witty riff on immigration and prejudice