Alien: Greenlighting

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a) Steven Spielberg saves Alien from script turnaround
Another side to this was Steven Spielberg, known at the time for "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was brought in to see if he as interested in doing it, but due to prior obligations he couldn't because he was about to make the movie "1941" and the Alien script was known to be in a state of turnaround

This was at a time when Star Wars had come out and Fox wanted to make another film that was going to make money on the same scale. Alan Ladd was there to talk to Spielberg.

Laddy said to Spielberg "
Spielberg what do you think of this script? I put it in turnaround, my executive said it’s too expensive. If you could do it as well as Star Wars "

Spielberg read it and said "
My God, you put this in turnaround? You’re crazy. This is one of the greatest scripts, an all time classic movie."  


Then he added "You’re crazy if you don’t make this movie! It’s gonna make a fortune, I can’t do it myself cos I’m so heavily committed. I don't want to do three science fictions in a row. You wanna wait for me, it'll be three years"

Laddy's response was "No, we can't do that. You're right, it's that good. By then somebody'll come up with a similar thing and we have to do it now"

Spielberg responded. "Okay, forget about it, I can't do it, but don't pass on the movie, Laddie get it back."  

Although Sandy Lieberson appeared to be the one that got Alien greenlighted, as far as Shusett was concerned, it was Spielberg's words put Alien into production

Laddie sent a telegram to Shusett that said "Do not sell Alien. Changed our minds, $50,000 follows. Relight movie immediately"

Shusett once he received it said "Jesus , what happened? I guess they got a star director or something."
 


Spielberg during the filming of Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind

b) Enter Sandy Lieberson 
Sandy Lieberson had left film producing which he had done for nine years, he had been David Puttnam's partner in producing "Melody" (1971) and "That'll be the day" (1973) and through David Puttnam he would know Ridley Scott who was directing the Puttnam produced "The Duellists".

He took on a job at 20th Century Fox as Vice President in charge of production and marketing for mostly outside United States and primarily in Europe and the first thing he did when he went to work for Fox was of course go to Los Angeles to meet the other executives. 

He knew them but not very well, and what he would do was to trawl the hallways of the Twentieth Century Fox asking for projects that could be done in Europe. 

The second floor was where all of the producers, directors, and the writers had offices. 

He knew the likes of Mel Brooks and Paul Mazursky and down the hall from there was a company called Brandywine. Sandy knew Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll. 

Walter Hill had directed the Charles Bronson movie Hard Times that had done well in the box offices and had written some Paul Newman movies, and also Sandy was aware that he had written some Clint Eastwood westerns.  

He asked them his questions finding out what they were doing and what they were developing and as he would say with all of them, "Is there anything we could make in Europe, particularly in England?"

And so they said "Listen we got this script called Alien."

"Well" replied Sandy "Let me read it, I'll take it away"

c) The Light Turns Green
Sandy took away twenty or thirty scripts with him. He took a look at the Alien script on the plane and the first thing he saw was the name on the script, Dan O'Bannon, and it just so happened that he had seen Dark Star.

He found himself saying "Ah,  Dan O'Bannon,  he wrote Dark Star for John Carpenter. That sounds interesting already. Dark Star was John Carpenter's first film. It was a science fiction movie and it was wonderful."  

He thought that Dan O'Bannon having worked with Carpenter was a terrific sign, and so he read the script, "Okay,  This is fantastic. This is really the horror movie set in space. And so we're working with two genres, the horror move genre and the science fiction genre," and it was perfect as something that could be done in the UK. 

He saw how he could market it, at that point the script was part of a package with a director and producer and indeed a Fox project. and so got back to London and he called Walter Hill and told him "Okay, I'm going to recommend this to Twentieth Century Fox"

He took the matter to Alan Ladd Junior, over the phone they discussed it. saying "Listen I've just read Alien, we can shoot this in London, we can make it at a reasonable cost"

However, there was still some doubt about it at the time he talked since when it went through the weekend read, it still required rewriting and finding the right director.

From Alan Ladd's side the words coming over were "Well, we're not sure about this script, we've had this for a long time, it would make a very expensive movie. We're not really sure about it

It was then up to Sandy to budget the film which so he could present the whole thing to Alan Ladd Jr, they discussed it further.

Sandy flew out to LA when they agreed "Yes let's do it" and so the project was green-lit.


Sandy Lieberson




Source quotes
  1. The next step in producing "Alien" was picking a director. The choice was crucial because it is the director's vision that makes a movie a success or failure. Without a director who had the ability to use special effects for the futuristic space scenes and to scare a movie audience, "Alien" would have to be scrapped. (The Wall Street Journal)
  2. Alan Ladd: We had asked Walter at first place if he wanted to direct it, since he was part of the package.  (Direction and Design: The Making of Alien, documentary)
  3. David Giler: Walter was originally gonna do it. Then he er, erm, decided that he did not have the temperament for special effects (Direction and Design: The Making of Alien, documentary)
  4. Sandy Lieberson: Ah, well in 1977, I left producing, er I had been doing it for nine years, er, and took a job at 20th Century Fox as vice president in charge of production and marketing, ah, for mostly outside of the United States and primarily in Europe. And erm, the first thing I did when I went to work for Fox was of course go to Los Angeles to meet the other executives, I'd known them but not well and so um, I went out there and of course the first thing I'm looking for are projects that could be done in Europe and I er, trawled the hallways at 20th Century Fox. On the second floor they have all the producers and directors and writers have offices on that floor and I knew most of them, I mean from Mel Brooks to Paul Mazursky and down the hall from them was a company called Brandywine, erm run by Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill.  Walter Hill was a really interesting director, David Giler a very successful writer, and Gordon Carroll, a very successful producer. And amongst the people that I went to talk to, to find out what they were doing what they were developing, "Was there anything we could make in Europe, particularly in England?" and it dfwas the same question to everybody, and Brandywine, ah, I knew David Giler quite well, and er, Gordon Carroll, and they said "Well listen , we got this script called Alien", um I said "Let me read it. I'll take it away" and it was by Dan O'Bannon, and Ron Shusett, and I had known Dan O'Bannon's work from Dark Star, the John Carpenter, Dark Star and I said "that sounds interesting already" and I read the script, it was brilliant, perfect for what we could do in the UK, er, scifi horror movie, I could see how we would sell it, market it, erm, it fit into a genre and with it came an entire package, it was a screenplay, there was a producer, there was a director and it was a fox project. So, erm, I presented it all to Alan Ladd Junior who was the head of Twentieth Century Fox and we discussed it and flew out to LA, they agreed yes, let's make it, they set a cap on a budget, I think they said it was ten million dollars and took the project forward. Started to go into pre-production, budgeting, scheduling, looking at studios, Walter Hill and David Giler and Gordon Carroll came to London, and everything looked as if it was really on the cusp of happening and we even had a provisional start date, we were beginning to think about casting and I got a call from Los Angeles from Gordon Carroll saying Gee I'm really sorry, but Walter Hill is not going to be able to do the film, he's not going to be able to direct it, and so I said "well that is bad news, because we've already invested a lot of money into developing it, and I said well, let me think about it ... (Alien Makers 2, documentary)
  5. 36) Former music agent Sanford (Sandy) Lieberson was David Puttnam's partner in producing Melody (1971) and That'll Be The Day (1973) before going on to head 20th Century Fox's UK operation at the time they back Alien (1979) (Gilliam on Gilliam, p34)
  6.  (slightly rough transcription and if you listened to the talk on youtube, you would see why ` problem should arise) Sandy Lieberson: I know that Fox didn't hire me just to supervise just the marketing, erm, but they wanted me to put films into production in Europe and so I knew I had to find something very quickly and I organised a trip to Los Angeles and to Fox. It was a great Studio, it still is. In the middle of Beverly Hills, beautiful huge lot with writer's bungalows, trees and (art-ism?), very pastorial, completely marvelous, and I went up there into the hallways of Fox, and introduced myself so say that now I was a vice-president of Fox in London, and I'm looking for projects to do there. And one of the places I visited was a company called Brandywine and I knew the director um Walter Hill and he had done a very good film for Fox, I knew he had written some of the Clint Eastwood westerns, and he was attached to direct the film of Alien, but the film had languished for four years at Fox. The problem was that they needed the initiative to make the film so I said "give me the script", I took the script and I went back, um, on the plane, the first thing I saw was the name on the script, Dan O'Bannon. I said "ah  Dan O'Bannon,  he wrote Dark Star for John Carpenter. Dark Star was John Carpenter's first film. It was a science fiction movie and it was wonderful." I thought it was a terrific sign that John had Dan O'Bannon. and I read the script, "okay,  This is fantastic. This is really the horror movie set in space. And so we're working with two genres, the horror move genre and the science fiction genre, and I got back to London and I called the producer and er Walter Hill and I said "Okay, I'm going to recommend this to Twentieth Century Fox"spoke to my colleagues, "well, we're not sure about this script, we've had this for a long time, it would make a very expensive movie We're not really sure about it"
    "let me get the film budgeted"(Sandy Lieberson in Master Class ESPACI J&B, youtube.com)
  7.  Sandy Lieberson:You can see the films I produced were rather an eclectic group of films, there's nothing sort of predictable about them really, and so when I was contacted by somebody I worked with as an agent, Alan Ladd,  he was a president of Twentieth Century Fox, and they just begun the production of Star Wars, they didn't have any idea of what it was going to do, of what the film was going to be, er, but they wanted to have a presence in Europe, and so he asked me whether I would take a job as vice president of production and marketing in Fox. basically responsible for all the production they would do outside the united states 

    And "I said listen, I think you know,Why would you want me , I'm not a major studio sort of person, I've always produced films that,  many of them were moderately successful, but they weren't part of the mainstream kind of film making"
    And he said "well, I trust you and I trust your judgement" and, er so I decided to take the job, erm, I'd been working as a producer, er, already, having produced 20 odd films, didn't have any money, never made enough money from producing movies, so this was a nice opportunity to take an important job working for a major studio, and an opportunity to actually earn a decent living, so I joined Fox in 1977, and I knew that the first thing I had to do was get a production, mains to works very very quickly, so I went to Los Angeles, and erm, Fox is a wonderful studio, it's a huge studio, I think in Beverly Hills, and erm, in the outskirts of the studio, round the edges of the studios at that time were all the writers and directors, they had their own little bungalow, ah, and erm, also on the third floor of 20th Century Fox Studios, all of the offices were film with writers and directors, and so what I did when I got to Los Angeles, maybe was in '77, I went to each one of those producers and directors and said, "look, I've just got the job, working for Fox, we're going to make films in Europe and what have you got, have you got any scripts, because I knew I needed a script, I couldn't, I didn't have time to work through development and all of that, and so I took a whole, must have been twenty or thirty scripts with this group of people, took them on a plane and I think the second or third one I read, was the the script of Alien. Now Fox had had that lying around for four or five years, erm the production company was a very active production company but for some reason they'd never got this script made. I called my boss, I said "listen I've just read Alien, we can shoot this in London,  we can make it at a reasonable cost", and he said "fine" erm, "let's get it budgeted" There was a director who was a partner of the production company, Walter Hill, uh, who was attached to direct the film, uh, the producer was Gordon Carroll, and so we got the film budgeted in England and we got a greenlight to make the movie, except at a final moment, Walter Hill said "I'm not going to direct it, I've got my own script that I've written called Southern Comfort and I'm going to direct that film , so I'm not available to direct Alien."(FICVIÑA 2012 · PRESENTACION SANDY LIEBERSON _ PARTE 4, youtube.com) 
  8. Ron Shusett: Then the most amazing thing happened. All of a sudden, like right before going back to Corman, I get a telegram, cos there was no faxes in those days, Do not sell Alien. Changed our minds, $50,000 follows. Relight movie immediately. From Laddie himself. I said, "Jesus what happened? I guess they got a star director or something." I never found out why they did. And then they went right on and hired Ridley, Sigourney Weaver who’d never made a movie, they discovered her by auditions, screen tests, several people, they found her off Broadway, and the rest of the cast was all just so superb character actors, they weren’t names, Harry Dean was brilliant as a character actor. ( report of what was said for the Alien Evolution interviews
  9. Ron Shusett: I found out a year later in the previews why they even made the movie. And here’s what happened, Laddie told me when the previews came out. He didn’t want to tell me this earlier, or he was afraid I’d hike the price or something, that’s why they stopped us from selling it. They feared we would immediately sell it to another studio. The reason? They showed it to Stephen Spielberg the day after they put it in turnaround. And Spielberg had just done Jaws which was the highest grossing movie before Star Wars was either already overtaking it or was on its way. So here’s the director of the highest grossing movie in history and Laddie said to "Spielberg what do you think of this script? I put it in turnaround, my executive said it’s too - I forgot to tell you that part. Costs were money. If you could do it as well as Star Wars", we realised Star Wars cost ten million, the average budget was five, we realised we were heading up towards twelve. It ended up maybe being fourteen eventually. So that’s why they put us down, too expensive and too crazy a gamble. ( report of what was said for the Alien Evolution interviews)  
  10. Ron Shusett:  But Spielberg read it said "My God, you put this in turnaround? You’re crazy. This is one of the greatest scripts, an all time classic movie." Immediately said. I didn’t find this out til a year later. He said "You’re crazy if you don’t make this movie! It’s gonna make a fortune," and he said "I can’t do it myself cos I’m so heavily committed" He was just either starting or finishing Close Encounters, he had his next movie committed, and he didn’t want to do three science fictions in a row and I think that was gonna, might be a science fiction, might not. He said, "you wanna wait for me it’ll be three years", Laddie said, "no we can’t do that. By then... you’re right, it’s that good, somebody’ll come up with a similar thing and we have to do it now." He said "ok, forget about it. I can’t do it, but don’t pass on the movie Laddie, get it back!" That’s why I got this telegram.( report of what was said for the Alien Evolution interviews) 
  11. Definition "Script Turnaround": The status of a project when a studio decides not to develop it further and offers it to other studios to recoup development costs.  (http://www.hollywoodlexicon.com/turnaround.html) 

7 comments:

  1. Hello,
    you write "He [Sandy Lieberson] saw the name Dan O'Bannon who he knew about already from his work from John Carpenter's Dark Star" but you don't mention the source. Is it "Alien Makers 2, documentary" ?

    Thank you for your answer, and congratulations for this blog : all these informations are truly GOLD

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    1. Thankfully I can say yes to that. In the 47th minute of the documentary

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    2. Okay, thanks for that, I've transcribed the beginning of the interview now for the source quotes.

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  2. Thank you very much !
    And thanls again for your blog !

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    Replies
    1. Well, be happy to let me know about anything else that seems confusing and I'm happy to try to work it out

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  3. Okay well I have updated this page a bit because there are two talks by him on youtube although one is being spoken over in Spanish so it's sometimes guess work trying to find out what he is saying. New parts added today from FICVIÑA 2012 · PRESENTACION SANDY LIEBERSON _ PARTE 4 and Sandy Lierberson in Master Class ESPACI J&B)

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  4. This page now has been broken up so that the paragraph about the other directors approached is to be found on its own page linked from "Ridley Scott comes aboard" page linked at the very top, and the material about Ridley becoming involved has been moved to "Script out of the blue" linked from the same page and I don't know how long that latter named page will continue to have that name.

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