When Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979, there was no question that nobody had seen anything like it before. It’s success helped establish a franchise that has spawned several films as well as video games and other tie-ins, making it one of the most popular science fiction franchises to date.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of the original film, here are 40 behind the scenes facts about the film.
20th Century Fox Didn’t Want to Make It
20th Century Fox, and every other studio, initially passed on the script because science fiction was a risky investment before 1977 and no one wanted to take a chance on a science fiction film that was as grim and violent as Alien.
It took the runaway success of Star Wars to give Fox the incentive to seek out science fiction scripts to produce and they revisited Alien's script and greenlit the film.
It still took some convincing from Ridley Scott to keep in all of the blood and gore, however, because Alien was a different kind of science fiction film than Star Wars, and that's putting it mildly.
Alien Wasn’t The Original Title
The original working title of the film was actually Star Beast, but the writers never liked it. It was only after seeing the word 'alien' repeatedly used in the script did they hit upon using that as the title. They loved it because it described the film when used as either an adjective or a noun.
Except It’s In Space!
A script reader at 20th Century Fox left the note on the Alien script saying, "It's like Jaws, only in space," and this helped sell the film to the studio when they reconsidered it.
It’s Initial Budget Was Puny Compared to Today’s Films.
When 20th Century Fox approved the film, they budgeted $4.2 million for the film, which even today’s dollars would only be about $16 million. When Ridley Scott showed executives at Fox storyboards for the film, they were impressed enough that they doubled the budget, which would be about $32 million today.
By comparison, Avengers: Infinity War had an estimated budget that was more than ten times what it cost to make Alien, spending somewhere between $310 million and $400 million.
Much of the Design Work Came From a Failed Adaptation of Dune
Director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of the science fiction classic Dune never made it into production, but some of the artists and designers from the pre-production phase made it onto the team for Alien. They brought their earlier work with them, defining much of the aesthetic for the series over the next 40 years.
The Practical Effects in Alien Featured Real Guts
The innards of the Facehugger Egg were procured from a nearby slaughterhouse and include cow hearts and stomachs, while the Facehugger’s insemination tube is made using sheep intestines.
H.R. Giger Personally Airbrushed the Space Jockey Set by Hand
Giger’s surrealist artwork was the basis for a lot of the aesthetic of the film, but he also personally airbrushed the Space Jockey set, where the Nostromo crew find the dead alien pilot of a crashed ship whose crew were the victims of the xenomorph species that inhabited the planetoid LV-426.
H.R. Giger’s Alien Design
The design of the Alien came from Giger’s painting, Necronom IV.
The Alien Doesn’t Have Eyes
When Giger was adapting his original painting for the design of the Alien, he decided not to give the Alien eyes as it has in his original artwork. He thought that it would have a more cold, soulless look without them.
The Model of the Alien’s Head Includes a Cast of a Human Skull
The model for the Alien's head used for the close-up shots throughout the film used a cast of a human skull to help define its shape.
The Model of the Alien's Head Also Used Hundreds of Moving Parts
Around 900 moving parts were needed to create the model of the Alien's head.
The Nostromo’s Crew Were Decidedly Blue Collar Workers
Instead of scientists and engineers, the producers of Alien wanted the crew of the Nostromo to resemble truckers in space so that a broader audience of working-class people would relate to them.
Ridley Scott’s Sons Were Stand-ins to Make the Sets Seem Larger
Feeling that the set pieces for the exterior of the Nostromo, the Space Jockey Chamber, and the Egg Chamber weren’t big enough to convey the scale he wanted, Scott used his two young sons wearing space suits on the exterior shots to make everything appear much larger by comparison.
The Actor Who Played the Alien was Found in a Bar
Nigerian student Bolaji Badejo was sitting in a pub when one of the casting directors for Alien spotted him. The thin, seven-foot-tall graphic artist had the perfect frame to fill out the Alien costume and was cast for the role, beating out Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in Star Wars. Alien was Badejo's only film role.
Harrison Ford Almost Played the Role of Dallas
Hot off his performance as Han Solo in Star Wars, Harrison Ford was a natural choice for the role of Dallas, but Ford turned it down, not wanting to do another science fiction film so soon after Star Wars.
None of the Characters Are Gendered in the Script
In the original script, the gender of a character was never identified, allowing the flexibility to cast men and women in any role. This resulted in all of the characters being referred to in the film using only their last names.
However, Ripley Wasn’t Originally Considered a Female Character
Despite a “unisex” approach to the characters, the writers admit that they had never thought of casting a woman for the role of Ripley. As the lead role in a science fiction film, Ripley’s competent, take charge attitude was a trope of the genre—but not for female characters, who were typically relegated to the damsel-in-distress that the heroic lead rescues at the end.
Fox’s Alan Ladd suggested Ripley be female instead and Ridley Scott loved the idea. This way, they could challenge the usual woman in peril trope that audiences had come to expect by having a damsel in distress who was perfectly capable of rescuing herself and didn't need a man to do it for her.
Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ripley in Ridley Scott's Alien as well as its sequel, James Cameron's Aliens, blazed the trail for heroic female lead actors in science fiction and action films ever since.
Veronica Cartwright Thought She Was Cast as Ripley
Veronica Cartwright originally read for the part of Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, and only found out that she’d been cast as Lambert when she showed up for the first day of filming.
The Space Jockey Prop Was Lost in a Fire
The massive 26-foot tall prop of the Space Jockey caught fire and was destroyed when someone left a lit cigarette on the prop.
The Alien’s Appearance was a Closely Guarded Secret
Before the film’s release, no publicity shots showing the Alien were ever given to the press and the Alien itself never appeared in the trailers or other promotional material. The producers wanted to shock the audience when they first see it.
The Alien’s Blood is Acid for a Reason
The highly corrosive, acidic blood of the Alien capable of eating through the hull of a ship is the innovating solution to a simple narrative problem: why couldn’t the Nostromo crew just shoot it?
The Summer Film Shoot Was Hard on the Cast
Filmed over 14 weeks between July and October of 1978, the set for the film sometimes reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This made it unbearably hot in the space suit costumes used for the external planet scenes and Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, and even Ridley Scott's two sons passed out on occasion, requiring the filmmakers to hire of a nurse to stand by on set to administer oxygen.
They Used a Dog to get Jones the Cat to React to the Alien
Getting cats to act is hard, so getting Jones the Cat to react in fear and hiss at the Alien was a challenge. So, the film crew hid a German shepherd behind a screen and lifted it suddenly to startle Jones into reacting.
There Was More Than One Jones the Cat
Four different cats played the part of Jones the Cat in the film.
Alien Was an Oscar-Winning Film
Ridley Scott's Alien won the award for Best Visual Effects at the 52nd Academy Awards, as well as Best Director for Ridley Scott and Best Supporting Actress for Veronica Cartwright.
The Library of Congress Registered Alien for Historic Preservation
In 2002, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress added Alien to its list of films preserved for their historical and cultural value.
Ash’s Blood Included Caviar and Pasta
When Ash is revealed to be an android added to the crew of the Nostromo sent to capture a xenomorph specimen for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, all hell breaks loose. Ash attacks Ripley but ends up being decapitated by Parker, which produces an eruption of a gross, chalky-white substance that androids use for blood.
The design team used a mix of milk, pasta, caviar, and marbles to create the android's blood, producing nearly as alien a lifeform as the Alien itself.
Ridley Scott Changed the Original Ending After the Film was Shot
Originally, the film ended when Ripley got on the escape shuttle and the Nostromo explodes. Scott had a better idea and convinced the studio to allocate extra money to shoot additional scenes for the new ending while in post-production.
The Space Jockey Room and the Egg Chamber Use the Same Set
The set was used to film both scenes. The Space Jockey prop could be removed to give a different look to the set for the egg chamber scene.
The Who Lent the Filmmakers Their Laser Lights
The British rock band The Who was testing their equipment at the sound stage next door while Alien's Egg Chamber scene was being filmed and the band lent the filmmakers their blue laser light to use.
The Alien in the Final Sequence is Nearing Its Natural Death
While the lifespan of the xenomorph species wasn't fully established in series lore at the time, Ridley Scott’s Alien lives out nearly its entire life during the events of the film. Scott envisioned the species similar to the way insects develop rapidly in stages with high metabolisms, but short natural lifespans.
By the final confrontation with Ripley on the escape shuttle Narcissus, the Alien appears noticeably sluggish and non-aggressive relative to earlier appearances because it is already in the process of dying a natural death.
Ripley Was Almost Played by Meryl Streep
The casting team initially considered Meryl Streep for the role of Ripley but decided against it. They felt that it wouldn’t be right to approach Streep, whose boyfriend at the time had just died from cancer, about taking a role in a film where everyone around her dies gruesome, horrible deaths and she is the only one to survive.
The Alien Egg was Originally a Hen’s Egg
Early Trailers showed a hen’s egg instead of the iconic Facehugger egg that was used in the film. The scenes where Kane inspected the egg were filmed in post-production.
The Alien Was Originally Translucent
Originally, the Alien had a translucent body, but as the design team built a translucent suit of the Alien, Ridley Scott rejected it, suggesting instead making a dark, steely figure that could easily blend into the shadows.
John Hurt Was the First and Third Choice to Play Kane
Ridley Scott had originally wanted legendary British actor John Hurt to play the role of Kane, but he had a prior commitment to film a movie in South Africa. Scott then turned to John Finch who made it to the first day of filming, but who suffered a sudden medical crisis on the set and was unable to continue in the role.
Meanwhile, the Apartheid government of South Africa had denied John Hurt a visa after confusing him with another actor—John Heard—who was blacklisted for his militantly vocal opposition to Apartheid. With his schedule open, Scott approached Hurt again for the newly open role and Hurt joined the cast.
The Chest-Burster Scene Genuinely Scared the Cast
During Kane’s famous chest-burster scene, only John Hurt, who played Kane, knew the details of what was about to happen; the other actors weren’t told about the explosion of fake guts and blood that was coming.
The scene was shot in one take with four cameras capturing the genuine shock and terrified reaction of the actors, especially Cartwright's genuine horror as she was unexpectedly sprayed by a jet of blood.
Yaphet Kotto was in such a state of shock afterward that he went home and locked himself alone in a room, unable to speak to his wife for several hours.
Ridley Scott Instructed Yaphet Kotto to Annoy Sigourney Weaver on Set
Yaphet Kotto has said that Ridley Scott secretly asked him to annoy Sigourney Weaver on set between takes during filming to generate tension between the two actors that mirrored that experienced by their characters. Kotto says he regrets this since he genuinely liked Weaver.
Ridley Scott Sought a Woman’s Perspective When Casting Ripley
During casting, Ridley Scott asked several women in the production office to view the screen tests for Ripley to get a female perspective on the performance. Overwhelmingly, they were impressed by Sigourney Weaver’s screen presence and Weaver's screen test of Ripley's final speech at the end of the film won her the role.
The Slime on the Alien Egg Drips Upward
The slime on the Alien egg just before the Facehugger bursts out at Kane in the Egg Chamber is flowing from the ground up, an effect created by placing the egg upside down and filming it from underneath.
A High School Drama Club Produced a Stage Adaptation of Alien and It Went Viral
Last month, a high school production of Alien was put on by the North Bergen Drama Club at North Bergen High School in New Jersey and the story went viral. It even drew praise from Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, who offered to pay for an encore production.