There’s a phrase that’s sometimes used in Hollywood: “Development hell.” It’s usually used to refer to projects that get bogged down in all manner of negotiation, politics, script rewrites, casting problems, and so on – the type of movies that may or may not ever see the big screen, and even if they do, it’ll probably take years for it to happen.
“Development hell” would also be an accurate term to describe another facet of the Hollywood production line: how the story idea of a big-budget film goes from the imagination of a writer to the shooting stage. The whole process can sometimes get very messy, and Alien was one of those times. This is the story of how the sausage was made.
If you take a look at Alien’s credits, things seem pretty straightforward. The story credit – which usually goes to the person or people that came up with the idea for a project – is given to two writers, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. The screenplay credit – theoretically given to the person who actually wrote the script that is being shot – is O’Bannon’s alone. That’s pretty cut-and-dry, right? Think again.
The writing process for Alien was downright convoluted, and serves as an example of the murky world of Hollywood writing credits under the Writers Guild of America (WGA). I won’t bog this down with too many details, but here’s the gist of what happened:
The original idea for Alien did indeed come from the two men that are credited with the story for the completed film: Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. O’Bannon was a graduate of USC film school who had worked on an extremely low-budget sci-fi film called Dark Star. This caught the attention of Shusett, who held the rights to the Philip K. Dick story that was eventually turned into the film Total Recall, and O’Bannon agreed to help Shusett with that project as long as Shusett agreed to help him with O’Bannon’s pet project, a screenplay he had written on spec (meaning without being paid for it initially) called Alien. (Incidentally, the writers did wind up working on Total Recall together, and they’re officially credited with both its story and screenplay.)
Here’s where things get murky. As is often the case in Hollywood, O’Bannon took his screenplay-in-progress for Alien and tried to sell it to a production company. If a screenwriter is successful in this endeavor, the production company is said to have ‘optioned’ the script, which means that they have a certain window of time in which to turn the screenplay into a film. Depending on the specifics of the contract, a screenwriter usually gives up a pretty big chunk of their rights to a story when his or her screenplay is ‘optioned;’ the production company essentially has free reign to do with it what they please.
None of the major studios had initial interest in O’Bannon’s story, but one much smaller production company did: Brandywine Productions. The company was run by three producers (Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll) and they had only produced a couple of small-budget films at this point in the company’s life. They bought the rights to O’Bannon’s story and Hill and Giler went to work.
Over the course of the next couple of years, Hill and Giler dramatically changed much of O’Bannon’s original screenplay. They liked O’Bannon’s general concept, which remains in the final film, but rewrote the script from top to bottom, renaming all of the characters, replacing most of the dialogue, and adding a brand new element: the subplot involving Ash (Ian Holm) being a robot sent to essentially spy on the crew for the mysterious Company.
When Star Wars was a hit and 20th Century Fox was looking for a new sci-fi property to produce, Brandywine Production was able to strike a deal with them to co-produce Alien. It was at this point that director Ridley Scott was brought on board and the film was eventually shot, with Hill and Giler’s rewrite essentially being the shooting script.
O’Bannon, for his part, was of two minds: he resented the idea that these two producers had rewritten his project and added what he considered to be a “cheap subplot” that turned the film into a “trite social statement.” On the other hand, he was on set when the film was shot and his ideas were welcomed by Ridley Scott, whom he respected a great deal for elevating the work.
So this story begs a major question: how did Alien’s screenwriting credits get the way they are, with no mention of either Hill or Giler?
The answer to the question is complicated, like pretty much everything else that has to do with WGA rules. What Hill and Giler did to O’Bannon was pretty scummy, by rewriting his work without his permission, but ideally they should also be recognized for their substantial contributions to the script. The end result, however, was that O’Bannon got to keep the screenplay credit so that it didn’t appear as if Hill and Giler were unfairly trying to wrest it away from him. (And because Hill and Giler would already profit from the film in their roles as producers, anyway.)
It was a compromise that, like a lot of things in L.A., worked for the people involved but completely sacrificed the truth. In the end, the writing credits for Alien don’t accurately reflect the evolution of the film’s story.
Not surprisingly, this kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time.
Both the O’Bannon and Hill/Giler versions of the Alien script are freely available online, so check them out yourself and see which you like better. The original version, dated 1976, is here. The revised final draft of Hill & Giler’s script is here; it’s dated June, 1978 and was essentially the official shooting script for the film.
And to see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: