Director Ridley Scott on his classic 'Alien' and filmmaking after the pandemic

Mark Olsen

"Alien" director Ridley Scott joined Times film critic Justin Chang on Thursday for a conversation about the film, casting Sigourney Weaver in it, and his long, expansive career. The filmmaker, who is currently in Los Angeles, said that for him, quarantine-time has been “a great opportunity to get all those unfinished scripts finished.”

Scott was shooting “The Last Duel,” starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Adam Driver from a screenplay by Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofcener, when the production was shut down due to the worldwide pandemic. On getting back to work, Scott said, “We still have to work out when we’re returning to finish it off, whenever.”

The director joined Chang for a live virtual conversation after Times readers chose "Alien" as the Week 4 winner in the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown series. Scott directed the 1979 film from a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon. Among the other movies released in the same week over the years that “Alien” defeated were “Star Wars,” “The Shining” and “Mission: Impossible.” In the semifinal round of voting, “Alien” went head-to-head with Scott’s 1991 film, “Thelma and Louise.”

A scene from 'Alien'  (20th Century Fox)

In his conversation with Chang, Scott shared his thoughts on the post-pandemic future of moviegoing and the movie business.

“There's something in part of the job that we do, I think, because to make a movie and shoot it is an entirely illogical process where you're bringing a whole bunch of people together to a blueprint called the script," he said. "You all meet in the morning, frequently for the first time, and somehow you put it together. So if you're not an optimist, you shouldn't be actually in the film industry. So I guess I'm an optimist. We'll find a way. This too will pass.”

As for “Alien,” his second feature as a director after his debut with 1977’s “The Duelists,” Scott noted that he was the fifth choice for the job, meaning that no one was expecting the film to become as important and influential as it now is.

With a phenomenal cast that includes Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, the movie is set aboard a space tug called the Nostromo that is invaded by a monstrous creature of unknown origin. The crew desperately tries to fight back as the alien picks them off one by one. Taking its time for the alien creature to first appear, the movie is a remarkable combination of elements, a class-conscious slow-burn sci-fi horror action thriller.

Actress Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott on the set of "Alien"  (Robert Penn / 20th Century Fox)

As Chang recently wrote about the movie, “One of the most remarkable things about 'Alien’ — and what makes it not just a superior piece of sci-fi horror filmmaking but a genuine work of art — is just how patient it is, a quality that seems even more apparent now than (I imagine) it did in 1979. … Unlike so many blockbusters, ‘Alien’ has no desire to bludgeon you into submission; it takes its time because it means to infiltrate your nervous system. Like our chest-bursting little friend, it wants to get inside you.”

The central role of Ellen Ripley — also portrayed by Weaver in three subsequent sequels — was originally written as a man, and Scott talked about how the gender flip came to be, along with how Weaver came to be cast.

“I think the idea actually came from Alan Ladd Jr.,” Scott said. “I think it was Alan Ladd [then president of 20th Century Fox] who said, ‘Why can't Ripley be a woman?’ And there was a long pause, that at that moment I never thought about it. I thought, why not, it's a fresh direction, the ways I thought about that. And away we went.

“And I found Sigourney by word of mouth. Somebody had been told that Siourney was on an off-Broadway stage doing something, that I should meet. And I did,” Scott said. “And there it was, she was perfect. In terms of scale, size, intelligence, her acting is just fantastic. And so it was made for her, really.”

The film’s notorious chest-burster scene, in which an alien creature emerges from within actor John Hurt’s chest, is now among the classic scenes in modern horror cinema. It was shot with multiple cameras because Scott could only really perform the full effect once, “because once I blew blood all over that set, there was no cleaning it up." Hurt knelt so that only his head was visible above a hole in a table and a false torso was placed to meet his neck.

“I kept it very much from the actors and I kept the actual little creature, whatever that would be, from the actors. I never wanted them to see it,” Scott said. “Remember there was no digital effects in those days at all. I'm going to somehow bring that creature out of his chest.”

The chest-burst scene from Ridley Scott's "Alien"  (20th Century Fox)

The relatively simple effect of having Hurt under the table obviously worked, as Scott recalled, “I remember Stanley Kubrick called me up saying, ‘How'd you do that?’ He said, ‘I've run it through slowly, I can't see the cut.’ And I just said that much. He said, ‘OK, I got it. I got it, it worked.’”

The movie that “Alien” defeated in Week 4's final Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown round was the first “Star Wars” film from 1977, directed by George Lucas. Scott recalled the influence that movie had on him at the time, noting, “It opened the gate for me feeling comfortable that science fiction was no longer silly fantasy but actually had a reality to it. … So I was blown away. I think I was depressed for a month when I saw it, ’cause I thought, 'How on Earth could he have done that?'

“My hat still comes off to George,” Scott said of Lucas for the first “Star Wars.” “Without question his was by far the best, still.”

Sigourney Weaver, Yaphet Koto and Tom Skerritt in "Alien"  (20th Century Fox)

Although subsequent “Alien” sequels were undertaken by directors James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Scott returned to the world of the story with 2012’s “Prometheus” and 2017’s “Alien: Covenant.” And he may not yet be done.

“I still think there's a lot of mileage in ‘Alien,’ but I think you'll have to now re-evolve,” Scott said. “What I always thought when I was making it, the first one, why would a creature like this be made and why was it traveling in what I always thought was a kind of war-craft, which was carrying a cargo of these eggs. What was the purpose of the vehicle and what was the purpose of the eggs? That's the thing to question — who, why, and for what purpose is the next idea, I think.”

What's next: On Thursday,“Finding Nemo” narrowly edged out “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in the final Week 5 voting for the next #UltimateSummerMovie. Join Chang at 6 p.m. on June 4 for a live conversation about “Finding Nemo” on the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page, YouTube and Twitter.