Dan O’Bannon, 1946–2009

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Re-release poster by Bemis Balkind.

Alien was a big deal for me when it appeared in late 1979, one of those films that seems to arrive at exactly the right moment. I’d just left school, I was eagerly reading reprints of French and Belgian comic strips in Heavy Metal magazine, and also paperback reprints of science fiction stories from New Worlds; I was listening to Hawkwind and becoming increasingly obsessed with HP Lovecraft. I was, in short, the target audience for a serious SF-themed horror film with contributions from major artists like HR Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and I went to see it three times in a row.

Watching Star Wars two years earlier (for which Dan O’Bannon created the computer displays), I’d enjoyed the special effects but been disappointed by its space-opera tone and dumb heroics. HR Giger’s large-format Necronomicon art book was published in the UK the same year and the sight of his work was a revelation for the way it pushed Dalí-esque Surrealism to a pitch of unprecedented mutation and malevolence. A year later his paintings were appearing in Omni magazine but it was Alien which exploded his popularity. Throughout 1979 you could hardly open a magazine or newspaper without finding a Giger interview or examples of his work. Alien benefited from the SF boom that Star Wars generated but Dan O’Bannon didn’t need George Lucas’s feeble mythology to point him towards science fiction, he’d already made one low-budget sf film, Dark Star, with John Carpenter, and was planning the effects for Jodorowsky’s ill-fated Dune project years before the world had heard of Luke Skywalker. Dune introduced him to Moebius, and the pair collaborated on an SF-noir strip, The Long Tomorrow, which was published in Heavy Metal in 1977. But it was Giger’s connection with the Dune project which proved crucial for Alien:

“(Dune) collapsed so badly,” O’Bannon says, “that I ended up in L.A. without any money, without an apartment, without a car, with half my belongings back in Paris and the other half in storage.”

He retreated to the sofa of a friend, screenwriter Ron Shusett, and didn’t leave it for a week. But depressed or not, O’Bannon knew he had to get back to work. He got his files and typewriter out of storage, and he and Shusett went to work on stacks and stacks of partially completed ideas.

“We pulled out one that I liked very much,” he says, “an old script called Memory that was half-finished and was basically what the first half of Alien is now. I told Ron I’d never been able to figure out the rest of the story. So he read it and said, ‘Well, you told me another idea you had once for a movie. It was the one where gremlins get onto a B-17 bomber during World War II and give the pilots a lot of trouble. So why don’t you make that the second half and put it on a spaceship?’

“That was a great idea, but then we had to figure out the monster. Well, I hadn’t been able to get Hans Rudi Giger off my mind since I left France. His paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.”

The working title was Star Beast. O’Bannon had a fortunate brainstorm late one night as he continued to write while Shusett slept. “I was writing dialogue and one of the characters said, ‘What are we going to do about the alien?’ The word came out of the page at me and I said, ‘Alien. It’s a noun and an adjective.’ So I went in the other room and shook Ron awake and told him and he said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ and went back to sleep. But I knew I had found a really hot title.”

The Book of Alien (1979) by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross

Lest we forget, it was O’Bannon who insisted that Ridley Scott look at Giger’s work during the production of the film after artist Ron Cobb failed to produce a sufficiently nightmarish creature. O’Bannon’s script was mauled by Walter Hill who removed sub-plots, and further scenes were trimmed to speed the pace, but Alien‘s unique atmosphere remains as potent today as it was in 1979. It’s ironic that O’Bannon died in the week that James Cameron’s Avatar (which happens to star Sigourney Weaver) is released. To watch all four Alien films in sequence is to witness progressively diminishing returns, and it was Cameron’s sequel which set the pattern for the later films by dropping the adjective part of the O’Bannon’s title in favour of the noun. There had been plenty of movie monsters before but it was the inhuman quality which we label “alien” that O’Bannon and Giger brought to SF cinema. It’s a quality that few have been able to deliver since, not least in Avatar which (from what I’ve seen) looks less alien than something Frank R Paul might have painted in the 1930s. O’Bannon did a lot more after Alien, of course, but it’s his first big success which will always mean the most to me. I recommend Ridley Scott’s director’s cut from 2003 which restored scenes and shots removed from the original release.

Remembering the late, great Dan O’Bannon
The first action heroine: Ellen Ripley and Alien, 30 years on

Previously on { feuilleton }
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
The monstrous tome

New things for April

Several disparate pieces of news worth mentioning recently, so here they are gathered together.

• Some of my Lovecraft art is to be featured in a lavish limited edition volume from Centipede Press.

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Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft
Centipede Press is now accepting pre-orders.
A unique art book available in a cloth slipcase edition and leather deluxe edition.

• Cloth edition in slipcase—2,000 copies—400 pages, four color, sewn with cloth covers, enclosed in a cloth covered slipcase. Front cover image, black embossing, two ribbon markers, fold-outs, detail views.

• The first 300 orders will receive a numbered copy with a special slipcase and a hardcover folder with an extensive suite of unbound illustrations. $395 postpaid.

• Leather edition in traycase—50 copies—400 pages, four color, sewn with full leather binding, enclosed in a giant size traycase. Front cover image debossed on front, two ribbon markers, fold-outs, detail views, signed by most living contributors. $2,000 postpaid.

This huge tome features over forty artists including JK Potter, HR Giger, Raymond Bayless, Ian Miller, Virgil Finlay, Lee Brown Coye, Rowena Morrill, Bob Eggleton, Allen Koszowski, Mike Mignola, Howard V Brown, Michael Whelan, Tim White, John Coulthart, John Holmes, Harry O Morris, Murray Tinkelman, Gabriel, Don Punchatz, Helmut Wenske, John Stewart, and dozens of others.

The field has never seen an art book like this—indeed, it is an art anthology unlike anything ever published before. Many of these works have never before seen publication. Many are printed as special multi-page fold-outs, and several have detail views. The book is filled with four color artwork throughout, all of it printed full page on rich black backgrounds. A special thumbnail gallery allows you to overview the entire contents of this 400-page book at a glance, with notations on artist, work title, publication information, size, and location, when known.

HP Lovecraft fans will simply have to have this book. Because of its sheer size and scope, this book will never be reprinted and will sell out very quickly. Twenty years down the road people will be paying huge prices for this book because of its scope and the quality of reproductions. This is the HP Lovecraft fan’s dream come true. Don’t miss it!

Yes, it is indeed expensive but this is a book for serious collectors.

Bryan Talbot‘s new book, Alice in Sunderland, is finally out. Read a review of it here.

Arthur Magazine is being summoned back from Avalon, which is excellent news. To celebrate, Jay Babcock has posted Alan Moore‘s history of pornography in its entirety here.

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left to right: Donald Cammell, Dennis Hopper, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Kenneth Anger.

One of my favourite photographs of all time shows four directors at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, all dolled up in their wildest afghan-and-ascot, hairy-hippy finery, and all of them on the cusp of what should have been majestic, transformative, transgressive careers in cinema that by and large never came to fruition. It was not to be—if only it had been.

John Patterson tell you why we need Jodorowsky as much as we ever did.

Update: And while we’re at it, Eddie Campbell also has a new book out, The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Great playbill cover design.

Jodorowsky on DVD

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I am an artist. Now the pictures are not made by artists. They are made by companies and produced by multinationals. The art in the picture is lost. Now when artists make pictures, they make them for museums. But museums, for me, are cemeteries.
Alejandro Jodorowsky.

More from the About-Bleeding-Time Dept. (emphasis on “bleeding” in this case). Some of the most extraordinary films ever made finally receive an authorised DVD release in May.

Anchor Bay will release a special limited edition collector’s box set, The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, on DVD on 5/1/2007 (SRP $49.98). The set will contain El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Fando Y Lis on DVD, fully restored and remastered from new HD transfers in anamorphic widescreen video, with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio (El Topo is 125 minutes in Spanish, The Holy Mountain is 114 minutes in English, Fando Y Lis is 93 minutes in Spanish). The box set will also include 2 music CDs containing the soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, as well as a DVD of Jodorowsky’s never-before-released first film, La Cravate. El Topo and The Holy Mountain will also be available separately (SRP $24.98 each). The El Topo DVD will contain audio commentary by the director, the original theatrical trailer (with English voice-over), a 2006 on-camera interview with the director as well as an exclusive new interview, a photo gallery and original script excerpts. The Holy Mountain DVD will include audio commentary with the director, deleted scenes with commentary, the original theatrical trailer (with English voice-over), the Tarot short with commentary, a restoration process short, restoration credits, a photo gallery and original script excerpts. Fando Y Lis will include audio commentary with the director and the La Constellation Jodorowsky documentary. Subtitles on the discs will be available in English, French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.

Jodorowsky’s official site (in Spanish)
Jodorowsky discusses the new releases with Premiere Magazine
• Jay interviews Jodo: Mean Magazine | LA Weekly

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jordan Belson on DVD
Further back and faster
Kenneth Anger on DVD…finally
The Brothers Quay on DVD
El Topo
Gangsters on DVD
Blade Runner DVD
The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda