When it comes to making-of books, no one in the game is performing at quite the same level as J.W. Rinzler, author of The Complete Making of Indiana Jones: The Definitive Story Behind All Four Films, multiple Making of Star Wars books, and this month's The Making of Alien, debuting at this year's SDCC (Booth #5537). As such, when I was asked if I'd like to receive a review copy of Rinzler's latest, I leapt at the opportunity: as BMD readers know, anything Alien-related has long been my jam, and there was zero doubt in my mind that Rinzler would deliver the definitive version of that particular tale.
A few days later, The Making of Alien arrived, and I was not disappointed. This is a jaw-dropper of a book, a must-own for Alien fans that's positively overflowing with excellent artwork, new interviews, script excerpts, and a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes photos I'd never seen before. It's quite the achievement, and shortly after pouring over it I was given the chance to speak to Rinzler about how the book came together and what he learned while writing it.
What follows is an edited version of the chat we had, alongside eight exclusive images from The Making of Alien. Enjoy.
(Note: All photos contained in this post are taken from The Making of Alien by J.W. Rinzler, published by Titan Books. Used with permission, copyright Alien ™ & © 1979, 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)
BMD: Before anything else, I just wanna tell you that this is a stunning book. It seems like an insane achievement, putting something like this together. There's just so much information.
JW Rinzler, author: Well, thanks, I'm glad you like it! We do have to put these things together fairly quickly. I've done a number of them now, though, and have been working with a packager down in Petaluma, a guy I know by the name of Ian Morris who I used to work with at Lucasfilm, and we've got a good M.O. We can do it fairly quickly, though I do wish we'd had a little more time.
You say you have to put these together fairly quickly - how quickly is "quickly" and why did you have to have it done in that amount of time?
It just seems to be the way things work when you're a freelancer. When I was at Lucasfilm, I could take my time, and I had control of pretty much the whole shebang. But now that I'm freelance ... y'know, I don't know why, but it just always seems to happen that way. I did a Planet of The Apes book just before this and they told me they wanted the whole thing in six weeks.
And that one's about the same [size].
Right. So, everything's going on simultanenously. I mean, almost. You have to do the research, you have to interview people. The research is usually in a few different places, you're getting images as you're writing and that usually takes a few drafts. But, anyway, I'm glad you like it! I'd have to go back and look, but I think we did the whole thing in three or four months.
You are speaking to someone who's profoundly untalented at organizing things, so that's truly mind-blowing to me.
It's just a question of experience! When I wrote my first couple of books, it took a lot longer. A lot more learning involved. At times it can be overwhelming - you might even feel like you're not gonna finish it, especially if the schedule's rushed.
I assume some of the crunch can be attributed to this year marking Alien's 40th anniversary.
What happened was, the head of publishing over at Fox - which is now Disney, but we'll just refer to it as Fox for the sake discussion - was Carol Roeder, my boss at Lucasfilm. I'd gone freelance while she went to Fox, and one day she called me up and asked if I had anything to pitch. So I pitched the Planet of The Apes book, which she approved and which went very well. Then [Fox's] Steve Asbell asked me if I wanted to do Alien, because he's good friends with Ridley Scott and he said there'd be all these good stories, that Ridley would want to help us and so on.
And that's exactly what happened! I got to go down to L.A., and Ridley Scott was kind enough to meet with me for several hours, alongside Steve and a couple of his people. Ridley Scott is 80 years old now but seems like he's 50 - he looked great, has an incredibly sharp mind. The whole thing was a lot of fun.
In all your research, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the making of Alien?
Y'know, I go into these projects as a fan - of course I've seen all the movies - but I've never really been the type of person who knows a lot about any particular movie, so I got into Alien not really knowing much at all. In that sense, everything was a surprise! I mean, obviously I knew that [H.R.] Giger was involved and that Ridley directed it and that sorta thing, but beyond that? I knew about as much as the average person on the street might know.
A casual fan.
A casual fan. I didn't know much about Dan O'Bannon, I didn't know anything about Walter Hill or Dave Giler or the whole writing process or the controversy that occurred during [the writing]. I didn't even know it was Sigourney Weaver's first film! But I like it that way. I'd rather have no preconceived ideas or biases. I just go into it and let the facts speak for themselves, while telling the most complete story I can.
Would you turn down a project if you were a raving fan of the movie beforehand? Like, if there was a chance you'd come to it with some kind of bias?
Haha, no. I still need to make a living.
Right off the bat, the introduction to this book makes mentions of H.R. Giger's "frank assessment" of the production as it was taking place. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on that for a moment.
Well, I mean, that's all open to the public. He wrote at least two books on Alien - when [the film] came out, he released what was basically an abridged diary, and then later he put out his unabridged diary, which was the same thing, but with even more of his frank assessments. Obviously I couldn't speak to [Giger], as hes passed away, but I did work on a project at Lucasfilm when he was stillI alive, and I did get to know his longtime agent just a little bit, through email and telephone calls. That meant I was able to go back to [Giger's agent] now and get permission to use certain photographs and such.
And, frankly, most people were very frank about their experiences making Alien in previous interviews. Dan O'Bannon was. David Giler certainly was. Walter Hill was. Ridley Scott has always been, and was when I spoke to him. It's not like anyone's running down other people. Certainly, the production's issues are well-known. I don't think I discovered anything new [in that regard]. What's great about doing these books decades after the fact is that everyone involved is a lot more calm about everything.
The book is filled with storyboards and original artwork, some of it rendered by Scott himself. Can you talk about those for a bit?
Well, Ridley Scott is a great artist. Heavy Metal Magazine was a big influence. The storyboards he spends a lot of time on - they're incredibly detailed, very thought out. They're works of art, in my opinion. In fact I'd love to own an original, if he reads this!
Wouldn't we all?
Wouldn't we all! But the Ridleygrams are different. These aren't quite stick figures, but [they're close]. When he couldn't quite communicate with the people he was working with because his ideas were too complex, he communicated visually. You see a few of those in the book, and they're like these chicken scrawl things called Ridleygrams, which are somewhat famous in the film world.
But some of the storyboards ... they kinda saved the movie. Alien was going to be a fairly low-budget movie. It spent a long time in pre-production and almost didn't happen a number of times, and then when Ridley Scott got hired onto it he spent six weeks or so storyboarding out about 60% of the movie. Then he came back to Fox and showed [those storyboards] to them and they were so impressed that they basically doubled the budget right then and there. In all my research, I've never come across a story like that. It's kind of unprecedented, but that's how good Ridley Scott's artwork is.
Do you have any thoughts on what it is that makes the Alien franchise so enduring?
As with any franchise that has lasted over the years, I think it's a testament to the thousands of people who work on [these movies], and you really have to give credit to the first film, which does most of the heavy lifting. The same is true for Star Wars, Planet of The Apes. So, it's Ridley Scott and Roger Christian and all the actors, obviously. It's Jerry Goldsmith. Everyone worked together on this thing that's bascially truck drivers in space, with a very unique monster design, and the whole thing's just beautifully done. That's an accomplishment in and of itself.
But for a franchise to endure, the second and third ones have to be good, too, and Aliens was fantastic. Now you have a juggernaut. At that point, people were gonna keep seeing these movies for as long as they're making them. Well, until something kills the franchise. Then again, franchises will keep going even if there's a bunch of clunkers.
Titan Books and J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Alien will debut at this year's SDCC (reminder: that's via Titan Books, at booth #5537). If you're not going to be at SDCC this year, you can purchase yours here. Special thanks to Titan's Polly Grice and, of course, the legendary J.W. Rinzler for taking the time to speak to us about his latest project.