Alien Anthology (Alien / Aliens / Alien 3 / Alien: Resurrection) [Blu-ray]
opened in theaters on that day, and genre cinema was changed forever as a result.To celebrate the anniversary, IGN recently spoke with Tom Skerritt, who of course played Dallas in the film, the captain of the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo. Dallas is a working class guy who happens to do that work in space, and he finds himself up against much more than he bargained for when his crew, including of course Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, inadvertently brings the xenomorph of the title onboard…
It Could Be an Ed Wood Movie
While Alien would prove to be one of the most important films in Skerritt’s career, he was initially reluctant to take on the project. He was the first actor among the cast to receive the script, even reading it before Ridley Scott was onboard. An indeed, it was Scott’s eventual involvement that would help change Skerritt’s mind about Alien.
“This one came along and I read it and I thought, ‘Well, it’s okay. I mean, it’s crafted well,’” he told IGN. “And they said, ‘You’re the only one they sent it to. There’s no director and no other actors and it’s a $2 million budget.’ And I thought, ‘Hold on, a $2 million budget, no director… And it feels like it could be an Ed Wood movie!’”
Meanwhile, Skerritt had coincidentally seen Scott’s first feature The Duellists around this time.
“It just knocked me out,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I’d love to mentor with this guy, watch him and see how he works.’ A couple of weeks later they called me up and said, ‘So the budget’s been kicked up to $10 million and they found a director and it’s a guy named Ridley Scott. And I said, ‘Sold. Sold!’ It’s really from the beginnings always been about the directors in looking at material. And that’s basically how that whole thing for me started with Alien.”
Once production got under way, the actor followed Scott around on set “like a little puppy.” He says he knew from the get-go that Alien was going to be something special.
“He was omnipotent on the whole set,” Skerritt said. “He would say, ‘Well for this effect, you’d use this lens here that I’m looking at. And now I’m going out.’ And he goes out and he moves some tapioca around on the [prop] head of Ian Holm. You’ve got the head sitting there and the tapioca sitting around there and he’s just moving some of these things, these little objects on a table, toward the back so that you get a little more depth of field and a little enhancement over here and lighting. He would correct lighting because there was some effect he wanted. All this stuff he was sharing with me. … That one I felt, yes, we were making a classic. I knew that. I’d gone through that thing with [director] Bob Altman [on M*A*S*H] and recognized that this is something special. And that’s how I felt about Alien very, very soon into it.”
Ripley and Dallas
One of the most interesting — and surprising, especially in 1979 — aspects of Alien is the subversion of expectations regarding Dallas. The audience is set up to expect Dallas to be the hero who’s going to see us through to the end; he’s the traditional male lead who will defeat the monster. But Alien pulls the rug out from under us about three quarters of the way into the movie when Dallas is abruptly killed off, which of course opens things up for Weaver’s Ripley to take over.
“Yes, that was an appeal to me because, let’s face it, us guys have egos,” he said. “I really don’t have that. … And I said, ‘Great.’ I had done Turning Point, which was basically a woman’s film and I just loved that women were getting some focus. Now, I wasn’t familiar with Sigourney initially. All I knew was she was an up and coming, really good theater — Broadway — actor. Thinking in terms of whether it matters whether you played first fiddler or second fiddle, it’s nice to be in a great orchestra.
Of course, there is the question of what the true relationship was between Ripley and Dallas. Onscreen, it’s strictly professional, with Dallas serving as Ripley’s captain. But in some of the book adaptations, it has been implied that either Dallas had feelings for Ripley or that there was a sexual relationship between the two. Skerritt said that while there was an implication of romance between the characters in the Alien script, they never shot any scenes to that effect.
“There was some innuendo there of her concern about his well-being and a little bit more of that,” said the actor. “But doing it, when you got into, you really felt that that’s intrusive too. Where’s that gonna go? You’ve got this monster and you have no idea where it is or what it is. [Ridley Scott] said he was going to not get into that for those reasons that it seems to have its own pace by itself. And if you have this little love affair going on, it detracts from that. It was too intense, we realized.”
Sorry Ripley/Dallas shippers!
The Death of Dallas
Alien fans know that Dallas’ death in the theatrical cut of Alien is quite different from where he originally wound up when the film was shot. The Director’s Cut reveals that Dallas didn’t die in that air duct where the alien initially attacked him, but rather he was taken back to the Nostromo’s hold to be cocooned and slowly, horrifically turned into an alien egg. Ripley stumbles upon this scene and, with Dallas begging her to kill him, torches her captain to spare him this fate.
“It took a couple of days to really set all that up,” said Skerritt. “And at the time I remember talking with Ridley about that. I said, ‘Does doing this scene slow the pace down? Of her having to get herself off that plane now.’ We feel that. He says, ‘It might, but I want to have it just in case.’”
The actor wasn’t bothered that this scene was ultimately cut from the original version of the film.
“It didn’t matter to me,” he laughed. “All I know is that he doesn’t get to the end. That’s all I knew at the time and it was going to be that way. It was going to be a woman’s picture in the end. That just appealed to me.”
Scott was ahead of schedule at that point in production and “within the parameters” of the budget, so he built the set and took the time to shoot the scene even though he wasn’t sure if he’d use it.
“A little bit of latitude gives a great director, a little bit of experimentation about what you can and cannot do,” continued Skerritt. “And he was able to get what he needed for his own frame of reference out of that at no cost really, because he was already under budget and had some time that he could put into it. So you work with somebody like that, you indulge them. You can do nothing less than learn.”
Even if that means putting on a little bit of tapioca pudding and hanging on the wall for a couple of days.
“Oh yeah, that sounded terrible,” laughed Skerritt. “I’m just imagining the smell of it!”
Go watch Alien tonight and celebrate the 40th anniversary of this classic.
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!