As the hype surrounding Ridley Scott's Prometheus, released on Friday, June 1 reaches fever pitch, the visionary director takes time out to talk about the long-awaited Alien prequel, stomach-churning scenes and why it's taken him so long to return to sci-fi.
By Roger Crow.
Ridley Scott has a glint in his eye. It could be the fact it's a rare sunny morning here in his home country, but it's more likely because the British director's finally ready to release his hugely anticipated movie Prometheus.
The 74-year-old triple Oscar nominee is at least hoping his multi-million pound gamble pays off.
Scott's prequel to Alien, starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, is a 3D science fiction epic that has been gestating for years.
His first blockbuster attracted many fans, not least because of the clever tagline 'In space, no one can hear you scream'.
Alien centred on seven astronauts returning to Earth who were awoken to investigate a distress signal. Landing on a wind-lashed planet, they found a derelict alien space craft and the fossilised remains of a giant humanoid creature.
In the bowels of the craft, Kane (John Hurt) discovered a cache of eggs and was attacked by one of the organisms within.
After recovering from a coma, he and the crew continued their journey to Earth. However, a creature produced from that close encounter wiped out most of the crew, until Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) managed to kill it.
The movie was a visceral, stomach-churning smash that transformed Weaver into a star and marked the beginning of one of 20th Century Fox's most lucrative franchises ever.
While film-makers James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet continued the adventures of the long-suffering Ripley (films Scott diplomatically describes as: "All jolly good in some form or other"), by 1997 the saga seemed to be on its last legs.
Though Scott thought the franchise was "fundamentally used up", that fossilised humanoid nicknamed 'the Space Jockey' continued to bug him.
"Something that had stayed with me ever since Alien, was the mystery behind it," explains the South Shields-born film-maker.
"Who was he? Where was he from? What was his mission? What kind of technology would his kind possess? I thought those questions could provide a springboard for even larger ideas."
Those ideas formed the seed of Prometheus, Scott's first science-fiction epic since Blade Runner 30 years ago.
Though that Harrison Ford vehicle was an initial flop (it recouped its losses later), the director found more success with contemporary offerings such as Black Rain, Thelma And Louise, and period adventures Gladiator and Robin Hood.
During his absence from science fiction, a generation of film-makers and game developers weaned on Alien and Blade Runner adopted Scott's style for their own endeavours.
Like a copy of a photocopy, the freshness of his future worlds started looking overly familiar.
Scott knew that when he eventually found a sci-fi project worth working on, something different was called for.
"Over the past few decades, we've been 'action filmed-out' and 'monster filmed-out' and almost 'science fiction filmed-out'," says Scott. "So the baseline question is: how original are you going to be?"
The answer was to tackle the sort of big issues inspired by Swiss author Erich Von Daniken decades ago in books such as Chariots Of The Gods? and The Gods Were Astronauts: that the human race has ties with extra-terrestrials.
Scott sat down with screenwriter Jon Spaihts and Lost veteran Damon Lindelof to hammer out an original idea which used Alien as a springboard to examine one very simple, universal question: where did the human race come from?
"Out of the creative process in developing the picture emerged a new, grand mythology, in which this original story takes place," explains Scott.
"The keen fan will recognise strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, far-reaching and provocative.
"Prometheus is the singular genre tale I'd been searching for."
Once the title was revealed, fans worldwide brushed up on their history lessons in the hope of gleaning some hints about the movie.
"The film's central metaphor is about the Greek Titan Prometheus, who defies the gods by giving humans the gift of fire, for which he is horribly punished," Scott explains.
"When you talk about the myth on which the title is based, you're dealing with humankind's relationship with the gods - the beings who created us - and what happens when we defy them."
In his 20th movie, a team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey aboard the eponymous spaceship to the darkest reaches of the galaxy.
They land on an alien world and naively expect to find a benevolent race.
What they discover is beyond their worst nightmares and threatens Earth's very existence.
In April, following assorted teaser trailers, Scott proudly revealed 13 minutes of footage to a captive audience which filled in a few of the blanks.
Those present also met three of the Prometheus's crew - Noomi Rapace's God-fearing scientist Elizabeth Shaw; Charlize Theron's ice maiden Company official Meredith Vickers, and Michael Fassbender, who provides much-needed comic relief as blond robot servant David.
Though the film's style and marketing may be cut from the same cloth as Alien, those hoping this will be an obvious prequel to that blockbuster may be disappointed.
Scott explains that "the actual connection to the original Alien is barely in its DNA. You kind of get it in the last seven minutes or so".
At the beating heart of Alien was one unforgettable scene: the moment crew member Kane collapsed during dinner and the creature which, to everyone's horror, had been gestating inside his chest burst out.
It remains one of the most shocking images in film history, and many are wondering if Prometheus will feature something equally as disturbing.
"There is a scene that could be called the equivalent of that in this film," explains Scott, careful not to let the cat out of the bag.
"But that was private, no one witnessed that."
Well, nobody apart from a small crew who shot it on a closed set with actress Noomi Rapace. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo star admitted at the 13-minute preview screening she suffered two weeks of bad dreams after filming that scene.
Frustratingly Scott won't elaborate, but judging by that glint in his eye, whatever happens it won't be for the faint hearted.
Extra time - Behind the scenes :: Prometheus was filmed on five stages at Pinewood Studios - home of Aliens and Alien 3, including the 007 Stage; the latter had to be reconstructed after it burnt down in 1984 while Scott was filming Legend. One of the biggest in Europe, it was increased by a third just to accommodate the scope of Scott's vision.
:: Peter Jackson's company Weta, who also worked on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, provided some of the special effects.
:: As a youngster, Scott's son Jake doubled as one of the astronauts in Alien. He went on to make a string of pop promos; the films Plunkett and Macleane, and Welcome To The Rileys, and recently directed a viral video promoting Prometheus.
:: All of the robots' names in the Alien saga have been alphabetical: Ash, Bishop, Call and now David.
:: Ridley Scott will re-team with Michael Fassbender for a version of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Counselor.
:: Prometheus is released in cinemas on Friday, June 1