EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ALIEN & TOTAL RECALL Co-Creator Ron Shusett Speaks Candidly on PROMETHEUS, Remakes & New Age of Sci-Fi
Published: January 7, 2013 - 3:31pm
Writer Ron Shusett created the widely popular Alien and Total Recall films with his partner and co-writer Dan O'Bannon, who has since passed away. Both movies are considered sci-fi classics and in 2012 both franchises saw new developments with the Alien prequel Prometheus and Total Recall remake starring Colin Farrell.
Shusett is currently working on two new scripts. One is a big budget sci-fi tale focusing on a group of miners on an asteroid belt, the other is a twisted take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. During my conversation with him we discussed both of these projects, as well as his dislike -- speaking straight from the heart as a fan and as a writer -- for the current state of the sci-fi film genre; in particular Ridley Scott's Prometheus and the remake of Total Recall:
Director Ridley Scott's Prometheus was a visually stunning film but many fans were divided. Ultimately, it was considered a rather disappointing end product that didn't live up to it's hype. "I didn't want to do a prequel and I could have been invited by Ridley if I had ideas for one and I didn't. I couldn't have done a better job than they did trying to explain the backstory," Shusett told me.
"Prometheus was the opposite of Alien, which was a thriller and edge of your seat nail-biter. [Prometheus] ended up being talky and pretentious. It tried to be ambitious but it couldn't achieve that. It was bogged down with things they had to do that nobody cared about and it was a major disappointment to everybody."
"Ridley is a visual genius. He's the [Stanley] Kubrick of our time. For all of his visual genius that Prometheus had, it didn't have a story that compelled people." He also brought up how the film was simultaneously being promoted as a prequel and an independent story, which "shows you that they didn't know what was going on".
"The space jockey backstory could not be done artfully. They made all the mistakes I was afraid they were going to make. People hated that ending. I read one review that said -- The ending made no f***ing sense!"
He said he felt further frustration over the lack of explanation with the alien race that created mankind who: "For no reason at all decided to [kill us]. You can't just say that we'll tell you the reason why they wanted to kill us in the sequel to the prequel".
Now, half a year after the film hit theaters and a few months after it's home release, talk of a sequel is brewing. Shusett doesn't think it's a good idea in the slightest. "I think they would be insane to do that. People wouldn't even come the first day to see the sequel because they've been burned already. Nobody's going to care because they didn't get the first one right. I don't think it'll ever get made. There were some great scenes in the first two acts but everything fell apart in the third. After 5-6 Alien movies we all know the highpoints and then to try and explain them comes off as pretentious."
The original Total Recall was written by Shusett and his Alien co-writer O'Bannon. He noted that the Philip K. Dick short story from which it was based on, much like all short stories, didn't have a second and third act so the difficulty in writing the screenplay was inventing all of those new elements.
Although he received a credit on the Total Recall remake that starred Colin Farrell, Shusett makes it clear that he didn't work on the movie. The reason he was credited is because the remake featured elements of the first film that were not in Dick's original short story. Shusett said he wasn't happy later on with the credit because he didn't want the fans to think he had something to do with the new film.
"They set out to make a different movie and the fanbase that wanted a re-imagining of the original got annoyed. They took the comedy out of it and that could have worked… but the first one had lots of comedy and that was one of it's charms and why it worked. It could have worked as a straight ahead thriller but it didn't seem to and I think the fans missed the humor. [The studio] didn't want a comic book movie type and it was made to be a comic book movie."
He also felt that actor cast in the lead for the new Total Recall was a major contributing factor to it's downfall, "It's hard for Colin Farrell to live up to Arnold Schwarzenegger who was number one at the box office at that time. [Farrell] is not the kind of actor that can usually carry a movie. He's a good actor and he's made some good little movies but in action movies he never seems to work."
"The audience glazed over about halfway through. You can have the most amazing special effects but if you can't believe or care about the story and characters then the audience doesn't respond well. People didn't seem to care if [Kate Beckinsale] killed [Farrell] or not. She's chasing and chasing him and then people were kind of like 'Oh kill him already, who cares' (laughing)".
The Alien Franchise
The day Shusett met Alien director Ridley Scott the man said something halfway through their first meeting that let him know, even though he was about the 11th choice to helm the movie, that he would do it justice. "Ridley said, 'I want this to be like a classic B-movie in the vein of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of The Living Dead or Hitchcock's Psycho but I'm gonna make it look like Kubrick's 2001 [A Space Odyssey].'"
The idea of the iconic 'chestburster' scene in Alien came from Shusett himself because both he and O'Bannon were struggling with finding an original way to get the monster on board the spaceship. The vision came to him in a nightmare/dream, and it's since become one of the most memorable and infamous horror movie moments in history. I asked him if there had been any other options on the table to get the Alien on board, but at that time there weren't.
"We were totally stuck up to that point and Dan had went to all of his peers and asked for help and everyone gave him bad sh*t up until that point. It took me months of staring at the wall to come up with that."
As far as the many sequels to the Alien franchise, especially with the third and fourth films, Shusett feels hyper critical of their scripts and feels their poor writing was unforgivable. "The first two were great but three and four were terrible. We all know that, they didn't work. The reason why [James] Cameron's worked is because it had a lot of action in it."
On the fourth movie, which was written by Avengers director Joss Whedon, Shusett feels the audience didn't buy the clone thing, calling it a silly idea. On the third, he offered praise to director David Fincher for turning out to become a great filmmaker despite failing at continuing the Alien franchise.
"He was very apologetic about [Alien 3]. There's the old saying, if it ain't on the page it won't be on the stage. Three and four couldn't get a script that worked at all."
Shusett co-wrote the story to the first feature film that officially joined the Alien and Predator movie franchises (AVP) and says that he liked the product. "It refreshed the series. It was the only one that wasn't R but it had fun – Frankenstein meets the Wolfman. It got better reviews than I thought it would and it worked because we didn't try to compete with the other films and be a serious movie."
Shusett didn't like the sequel AVP: Requeim, though, calling it poorly done. He also feels that "now is the time" to stop making sequels in the Alien franchise because he believes people (fans specifically) are overdosed on them.
"This franchise should be put to rest and live in its glory and not let future ones tarnish the early movies."
Star Wars, Avatar & The Current State of Science Fiction Cinema
As far as the current batch of movies in the sci-fi genre that have stood out to him, he listed off Christopher Nolan's work especially with Inception and his latest Batman films saying the director has consistently made one great movie after the other.
Regarding the biggest new sci-fi blockbuster of them all, Shusett said he loved James Cameron's Avatar. In regards to the criticism the film received in (particularly that it wasn't an original story), Shusett said it wasn't meant to be.
"It's a timeless concept in the vein of Pocahontas, where one race falls in love with the other except they did it as a sci-fi movie and it was fantastic. Artistically the only thing that bothered me was that by the start of the third act, it could have been shortened a little. Because Cameron's such a brilliant action director though you can afford to have a third act that's a little longer."
When asked if he thinks two sequels are a good idea in branching out the Avatar universe, Shusett agrees it's good because the people want them. "I think [Cameron] can pull off two sequels and people will love them all the more. I think a trilogy is best when dealing with sequels because once you hit a fourth you start to wear out your welcome."
Regarding George Lucas and the news of him selling his Star Wars franchise to Disney so that new films can be made under a different vision, Shusett said that he believes Lucas was smart for passing on the baton because he didn't feel energized anymore. He also said that he feels a new generation of fans deserve more Star Wars films.
"How can you doubt the creativity of a guy who came up with those first three films? The last three didn't work but I think it's because Lucas became so immersed in his company and the visual effects that he got so distracted by all of that and it ended up dominating the characters and story. Michael Arndt is a great writer and Little Miss Sunshine is a masterpiece of character development as was the third Toy Story. I know he'll get the script right and he'll write the hell out of it. I know they'll get a good director because there are so many talented ones out there and who wouldn't want to be part of this franchise?"
He also said that new actors are especially important and that the new film makers really have to get the cast right this time.
Shusett's New Projects
He's currently working on a completely original script for a movie that he expects to carry a budget of around $100,000,000. The story deals with miners working on an asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars and taking place 800 years into the future. "Some of those asteroids are as big as states in America," he explained. He also said that the film and potential franchise would likely involve five different breeds of alien life forms trying to rob the miners who are there to work. He stresses that he focused strongly on character development, knowing that it's just as essential to the film's success as the action and visuals.
He's also working an intriguing take on the Jekyll/Hyde lore which he says is an idea that he hasn't seen anywhere else and plans to work the script around a modest $15,000,000 budget. "When he is in monster mode, Hyde is intent on killing other people but in this case he wants to kill Jekyll but doesn't understand that they have the same body so it opens the door to a lot of bizarre special effects and plot twists."