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Interview with Ian Nathan, author of Alien Vault: The Definitive Story Behind the Film

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I recently interviewed Ian Nathan, executive editor of Empire, about his new book Alien Vault: The Definitive Story Behind the Film, which contains in-depth information about the creative process of the 1979 classic sci-fi film Alien, directed by Sir Ridley Scott. This film also spawned three sequels and an upcoming prequel titled Prometheus, directed by Scott. Nathan describes his writing process, Scott’s collaboration, his love for the film series, and much more.

How did you obtain the never-before-seen photos?

This was done in partnership with 20th Century Fox, who agreed to open their extensive archive of pictures. There is some amazing material in there, not just of Alien but the whole franchise. I think it’s safe to say with the Prometheus in the works, there was an appetite to return to Sir Ridley’s seminal masterwork.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of concentratingon the film and not the entire Alien works?

Well, the advantages are firstly that I love Alien the most! And it was such a rich opportunity to take a microscope to the original film, which was after all the progenitor of the entire franchise. And the story is so fascinating, this journey from what was ostensibly an imaginative B-movie into a classic — what were the factors that brought about that transformation? Giger? Giler and Hill? The ineffable cast? Ridley Scott? It is a film of both many authors and one auteur. I love Aliens, I’ll never forget seeing it in the cinema, both the more I analysed Alien the more astonishing it became. It’s a cliché, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.

The disadvantages? Well, there are things I would love to write about in depth with the sequels. Especially the third film, a making of a story mired in chaos, but in many way the true spiritual sequel to the first. To be honest, even with just writing Alien, I feel like there was more I could say.

Were you trying for a specific page range or just exhausting every possible content avenue?

I was given specific limits, especially as the book was going to be structured around the incredible pictures. As I have said, I would have eagerly taken the time to bring an encyclopaedic vision to the book, but that might have defeated the binding. The publishers naturally wanted to appeal to the fan as much as the obsessive like me! But I think we managed a pretty decent depth.

Describe the inclusion of the supplemental materials (photographs, inserts, etc.).

As I mentioned, Fox allowed us to go throughout their archive, Sir Ridley also gave access to his personal collection. From there, we were really endeavouring to show things that had never been seen before; not easy with a film as famed as Alien! Then, I thought I had seen every picture available, but marvelled at how much there was undiscovered. I especially like the rare relaxed shots where Ridley almost seems to be enjoy himself. And those contrived publicity shots, with the cast unable to hide their discomfort. It was such a voyage of discovery for me. The publishers then had the idea of adding what they called “artefacts”, those inserts of diagrams and logos. I like the fact they give the book a dimension that can’t be replicated in digital form — you can’t put a book like this on a Kindle. It’s a celebration of the idea of a book.

How did your approach the presentation, specifically giving readers something they had not read or seen (e.g. Alien Quadrology) before?

You’ve hit upon the biggest challenge.  In setting out I really worried what there was left to say about the film? Especially, as you say the Alien Quadrilogy (now on blu-ray called the Alien Anthology) is so definitive. Then I thought, why is still valid to publish new biographies of Charles Dickens or Albert Einstein or Sir Ridley Scott? That was the key, treat this as a biography of Alien, not just in being a remarkable making-of story, but in thinking about what it is like watching the film. So much of the Alien legend is about the sheer experience of seeing it, I wanted to invest some of that into it. There is such a fascinating contrast between the tough creation of the film and the glorious reputation it has. Hopefully, in this, I have found something new to say. And at the very least, the array of pictures are a true winner.

Describe your collaboration with Sir Ridley Scott and related filmmakers.

I have met and interviewed Sir Ridley on a number of occasions over the last ten years, including several in-depth interviews solely related to Alien. The same goes for Sigourney Weaver. Before I was even commissioned to write the book, I was sitting on a treasure trove of material, thinking wouldn’t this make a great book! I have also become very friendly with many behind the scenes personal, a gang of droll and fascinating crew members like Ivor Powell, Brian Johnson, Roger Christian and Dennis Lowe (who is doing a marvellous job collating a video archive of Alien personnel: http://www.zen171398.zen.co.uk/Alien.html). Everyone has strong opinions and fantastic stories to tell. Success, as they say, has many authors and I have got to know a real mix of people in creating the book, many of whom I stay in contact with.

Describe your process – specifically the narrative/storytelling structure and how you assembled the information.

The actual writing?I had a very clear structure planned for the book, which helped me collate all the interviews and research. The book would work across five chapters telling the story of different facets of the overall story of Alien: Birth (its origins and the slow journey of the script), Nostromo (designing and shooting the ‘human’ elements of the film), Perfect Organism (Giger and the ‘alien’ elements of the film), Ripley (the radical choice of a female lead and the discovery of Sigourney Weaver) and Legacy (the success and lasting success, including the sequels and the emergence of an extended universe). Within the chapters there were narratives, particular journeys such as Dan O’Bannon’s, Sir Ridley’s and H.R. Giger’s). All the interviews and research was fitted around that framework. Interestingly, there emerged this alternative universe version of the film, all the abandoned ideas (Bannon’s pyramid, Scott’s idea for having an alien crew-member, the lost romance between Ripley and Dallas) that would have shaped a very different film.

I was surprised how well your obvious passion for the film came through while you remained objective in the book. Is it easier or harder to write the book as a die-hard fan?

I have no idea, I could only write it as a fan! As I said, I was hoping to invest the words with a sense of experiencing the film, that journey from conceiving the “chestburster” scene, shooting it, and then watching it. So, I hope, it helped that I loved it. Also, I watched again about 20 times in the last couple of years – you’ve got to be devoted for that!

How did the other Alien films factor into your process?

Considerably, there is a really interesting tension between knowing what a legacy the film had, and a set of filmmakers hoping to just to get away it! There was this investment in detail for its own sake, that gave birth to a franchise. The history has been good and bad, things have declined, but with Prometheus on the way (although the lead times didn’t allow us to confirm it) the book had to be written in relation to the original’s place in movie history.

Would there be continuing book sequels for each film, even the upcoming Prometheus?

I hope so, we’ve talked about Aliens. Like all franchises, we’ll have to see how the first one does. Although, it is doing very well in the UK, so hopefully. I’m especially interested in writing the full story of Alien 3!

Describe your excitement for the upcoming Prometheus film.

Wow, from what I’ve heard it’s going to be incredible. Can’t disclose anything here, I’m afraid, but there is no film I am more excited about!

Any future book/writing projects for you besides Empire?

I’m working on a smaller, and really contrasting, look at the work of the Coen brothers at the moment. Who are a bit alien!

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  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    This is my favorite book of the year so far