I remember the first time I watched Alien. It was summer time and my family and I were spending our weekends in Rhode Island. I can vividly see the film being played on our small television set and being absolutely mesmerized by what was unfolding. Never did I think that the film would become such a staple in my life nor did I think it would have such a huge impact on how I view sci-fi and horror.
Recently, I had the opportunity to check out MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN (you can read our review here), a fascinating documentary which takes viewers on an exploration of the mythical themes presented throughout the film as well as a deep dive into Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger‘s archives, including O’Bannon’s original script, “Memory.” A week ago, I had the chance to speak with director Alexandre O. Philippe, the man responsible for bringing MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN to life. During our chat we discussed everything from his love of Alien, to working with mythologist, as well as having the chance to look through O’Bannon’s never-before-seen archival footage.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Alexandre. I absolutely adored your documentary and I’m curious to know, how did MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN come about?
Alexandre O. Philippe: Initally, I was just really curious to see if I could do a deep dive into the chestburster in the same way I did with the Psycho shower scene [in 78/52]. Very quickly I realized you can’t, they are just very different scenes even though they have a lot in common. It’s really interesting, they both occur around the 40 min mark or so, they both happen in a very safe place that is brightly lit, and they both really completely changed cinema and culture. I think they have a lot in common but I think the reason why you can’t approach them in the same way is that I think Alien and Psycho resonate with audiences for completely different reasons. I think Alien really is a film that came out of being conscious, very specifically with Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger, and I think it’s a film that resonates very profoundly on a conscious level with audiences.
When was the first time you watched Alien and how did that impact you?
Alexandre O. Philippe: I actually waited a few years. I had a friend in Switzerland, where I grew up, who had an original one-sheet poster on his wall and I remember just staring at that poster and being so fascinated by it and really wanting to watch the film but also dreading the idea of watching it. I waited a few years and I think I actually watched it for the first time on VHS and it completely blew me away. Even as a kid, I was a very active re-watcher of movies. There was a time when I was watching Bladerunner every day and Alien became one of those movies that I very quickly embraced as a film that I needed to keep watching.
When it came to choosing the different individuals to speak with for the documentary, how did you go about that?
Alexandre O. Philippe: It’s an organic process. Obviously once I had figured out that MEMORY was essentially a mythological take on Alien, it really narrows, in a way, the approach. I really think that a story has to be narrowed. I like to focus on the details and the small things and through that small thing find a way to tell a bigger story, a larger story. I think that was the real sort of trick in finding the people. It was also important to have subjects who were going to be able to express those ideas in a way that was going to be accessible to a general audience, which is easier said than done. MEMORY, I think it’s safe to say, has some pretty big ideas in it. I don’t see my work as exactly film studies, it has to also entertain. I sort of see it as a bridge between cinema studies and the general public. To do that you have to find voices who can craft the narrative that you’re looking for with sound bites that are going to be accessible and entertaining and easy to grasp. For me, the real find is – I mean, there’s many, obviously everybody that was in the film I’m really grateful for their participation – but Will Linn, the mythologist that I actually found through the Joseph Campbell Foundation. I sent them a message through their website and within 15 minutes I got a call from the head of the foundation and he said, “I got just the guy for you.” Then 30 minutes later I was on the phone with Will and explained to him what I was doing and he just blew me away. I instantly knew that this was going to be the right guy. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of mythologists these days (laughs).
What were some of the most surprising things you learned while making the documentary?
Alexandre O. Philippe: For me, as a fan, it was really delving into Dan O’Bannon’s archives – it was just a spectacular thing. It’s incredible to be able to discover all these boxes of stuff from early storyboards to sketches of what the alien might look like, to alternate endings to, of course, the screenplay of the very first script, called MEMORY, which is only 30 pages. That was, to me, a really fascinating realization that he had been working on that story since before 1970 and in different forms. You can certainly argue that Dark Star is a version of Alien, it’s the comedic version of Alien. You can argue that his unproduced script, They Bite, is a version of Alien, which also has elements of The Thing. It’s almost like he kept refining it and finding ways to tell that story until eventually it became Alien.
Lastly, what would you like viewers to take away from this film?
Alexandre O. Philippe: I think the film isn’t just for hardcore Alien fans or hardcore cinephiles, it’s also for people who are curious about Alien and people who are curious about movies and how we interact with movies on the big screen, this idea of the ritual of movie-going and what it does to us. Even though the film is about Alien, it’s also really a film about our collective conscious. It’s a film that brings up certain ideas in the form of a film essay about our connection to these very special movies in Hollywood that have transcended cinema to become cultural moments. So I think on that level, anyone who cares remotely about movies should be interested in seeing it, but of course, I’m bias (laugh). But also, it’s safe to say that hardcore Alien fans will find some new things. If nothing else, they will be able to see Dan’s archives for the very first time.
MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN is now in theaters and On Demand.