For Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, his son Luke Scott, now a firmly established director who grew up on the set of the original Alien, created a series of short films. Eschewing the tried-and-tested trailer format, the films promote the main event without using clips of the feature, but instead using all original content and parallel narratives. Here, Luke chats to It’s Nice That about how these intend to stir up the staid movie trailer devices, and takes us behind the scenes of their creation.
First off, could you tell us about the films and how this idea of separate mini features came to be?
I’ve done a few now, the first one was for Prometheus. We shot a faux Ted talk in the future with Guy Pearce as his character in 2046, talking about the future of AI and evolution. That went out at a Ted talk in the same year. It was a milestone in new ways to market film.
We did more for The Counsellor and The Martian and each time the budget got bigger and bigger. 3AM got on board, an agency that’s been founded to do exactly this, with big and small movies. It’s about seeing what little nuggets they can deliver to the fans.
On the Alien: Covenant short film series, again it’s all original material. I was working as second unit director on the main film anyway, but we had to treat these like separate elements. For Meet Walter, for example, we wanted to figure out what Walter (a synthetic human played by Michael Fassbender) would look like underneath his skin, which the audience has never seen before. You have to take into account the details from the preceding films, of course, for instance the Ash character in Alien (another synthetic human) who bleeds milk. Care had to be taken as to the nature of these artificial beings, and how it fitted into the franchise. The shorts were made in the middle of the main film’s production, so it was tricky to say the least.
What were your inspirations for Walter’s inner structure?
We looked at present day artificial limbs, and they’re really quite beautiful. The bottom line is that Walter is mechanical in structure but predominantly organic. We chose to put him in a plastic bag because, at that time Westworld had come out and there was a discussion of putting Walter into a milk bath, but Westworld was full of that stuff. For my other film Morgan I’d researched into artificial humans and apparently there is studies into making artificial sheep in plastic bags. So we went for the ‘bake in the bag’ – it reminded me of an oven meal, the cod in parsley sauce from my childhood. We put him in a bag and cooked him up!
Stylistically this film is very different to the rest…
For Meet Walter the whole idea was ‘what would an advertising segment look like for an artificial human?’ We looked at top of the range auto advertising, Audi and BMW, but we didn’t have the time or budget so it was all shot in-camera, apart from the backdrop. When we were shooting I hadn’t found any locations that would work, but the production designer Chris Seagers had luckily made this incredible backdrop so we used that. We get to show it before you see it in the feature film, which is cool.
How about Last Supper and She Won’t Go Quietly: tell us about your approach to these, and their purpose, in your opinion.
Last Supper looks back to the original Alien, with almost a blue-collar feel, the crew hanging out, rather than the technical mode that space movies often present. We wrote all the dialogue for that scene, and the actors were in the full swing of their characters for the main film when we asked them to step out of that. They had fun doing it and I think that comes across. Michael Fassbender makes it, I think, he is really funny.
The narrative of the main film is much more serious. This serves to show these are just regular people, it lends an atmosphere that upsets the seriousness of the movie. It makes them relatable, and humanises them, and complements the imminent horror.
Lastly for She Won’t Go Quietly, that was difficult. Katherine Waterson, who plays Daniels, didn’t have much to play off and it was shot in a bitty way over two weeks, in between filming, but it was about framing the character.
It’s all completely original and separate from the film’s narrative, looking to create an atmosphere and establish personality. There are elements that allude to things, but aren’t lifted from the story.
Do you think people need to see these before the film?
I think it’s about looking at the function of a trailer nowadays. Trailers have become about spoonfeeding almost the entire narrative away to the audience. There’s no surprises. With this approach, if you’re a fan, you’re going to watch it.
I did a couple for the new Blade Runner as well, but I don’t know when they’re coming out. They’re pieces of a puzzle that need filling. If you have a big franchise like this or Alien, there are areas that need filling, and it’s inclusive of the audience. It sounds weird, I do have to express myself as a director, but really I’m thinking ‘what do the fans want?’ You want to deliver something satisfying, rather than something so oblique that nobody gets it.
Does your approach differ to your father’s? And can it differ, when you’re part of a franchise?
Absolutely, but yes you have to be aware of how these things line up. With Blade Runner I didn’t see all the footage of the film cut together, but for the short films I had to be conscious of the stylistic content. It was a bit of guesswork. For Alien, we had the sets and the characters; also as second unit director, if I made something totally different to the rest of the film, they wouldn’t be able to cut it in and I’d get fired pretty quickly! For me it’s a great training process for my own work, it’s a lesson in adaptation. You can get locked into a vision and become blinkered when you’re obsessed with something, but to deliver something coherent you have to keep your peripheries in check. I don’t do it on my own! There’s so many people on the same boat. The art department is incredibly helpful in creating the vision.
There’s no way I’ll be able to step into Ridley’s shoes. He’s one of a kind. He has a tremendous energy, a calibration of vision, which I’m still learning. It’s taken all of his life. We have different interests, so my approach is ultimately going to be different, but my job is to try to land that ship on the crosses. That’s what I’ve learned from him: keep moving. The moment you hit stasis you’re dead in the water. It’s brutal. It is creative, but once you’ve done all the storyboards and you understand the material, the rest is technical, really. If you have a plan, and depending on how well you do your homework that plan is watertight, or not. There’s a level of preparation you have to go through to make the right decisions. You don’t always follow the plan, but it’s about being confident enough to go off plan sometimes.
“Trailers have become about spoonfeeding almost the entire narrative away to the audience. There’s no surprises. With this approach, if you’re a fan, you’re going to watch it.”
Is it weird to go back to the Alien world, having been immersed in it when you were young? Kind of like going back to a strange relative’s house from when you were a kid?!
I love it! My brother and I were in Alien and we spent our summer holiday walking around in these miniature space suits (Ridley apparently used his children as doubles for scale, to appear further away). I became very exposed to this sci-fi thing, and I’ve followed the other films. I must confess I really love Alien vs Predator. I’m glad it’s come back full circle, but it’s interesting to see what Ridley’s vision is to join up the two ends. The original is so much more gothic than everything since. The Nostromo sets were really gothic too. Over the years the technology has encroached, it’s become less gothic and more tech-horror.
When people see this, I’ll get into trouble even for saying this, but there are some surprises and moments that reflect the first Alien.
What are you up to next?
I’m writing a screenplay for a feature film called Hunger based on a true story from 1846 on the emigrant trail in the west US, where a group of emigrants get stuck on the Rockies and all end up eating each other. It’s a fascinating story, so much material, so I’m getting through that. It examines the dark side of human nature.
Alien: Covenant is out in UK cinemas 12 May and US cinemas 19 May.