Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe is no stranger to creating compelling documentaries that not only celebrate cultural moments and films that have helped shape the landscape of genre cinema, but also shed some new light on just why these things continue to resonate today. With his previous efforts on Doc of the Dead and 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, Philippe thoughtfully delivered up his examination of everything from the influence of zombies on modern horror movies to what a watershed moment Marion Crane’s brutal shower slashing became upon its release in 1960.
And for his latest, MEMORY – The Origins of Alien, Philippe goes back to where it all started for Ridley Scott’s landmark horror/sci-fi film, which began years prior to the film’s 1979 debut, when Dan O’Bannon found himself struggling with a script entitled They Bite, and from there, history was made once co-writer Ronald Shusett, acclaimed visionary H.R. Giger, and Scott all came on board to create one of the most unforgettable films of its, or any, time.
Daily Dead recently spoke with Philippe about his work on MEMORY, and he discussed how the project came together, how the documentary evolved over time, how much it meant to include Diane O’Bannon in the project, and what fans can expect from his upcoming documentary that looks back on the process of making The Exorcist with William Friedkin.
Congratulations on creating another fascinating documentary. I’d love to start at the beginning of the process of putting together MEMORY—can you discuss focusing much of this doc on both Dan O'Bannon and Giger, and the influences on their work? I just loved that it wasn’t anything like something you’d see on a behind-the-scenes featurette—it goes really deep and gave me a lot to think about.
Alexandre O. Philippe: Thanks for first of all pointing that I don't make behind-the-scenes docs. As needed as they are, this is not at all what we do at Exhibited Pictures. I love to tackle cinema and pop culture in a way that is rooted in some deep idea that needs to be explored further. And so, for me, really, this particular film, the spark was the triptych by Francis Bacon, the "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," which very interestingly, Ridley showed to Giger and said essentially this was going to be the starting point for the inspiration of the design of the Chestburster.
It's just one of those things, I can't really explain why, but I started becoming very intrigued in this, and I immediately had the sense that there was a story to dig into there, to explore, that potentially could go deeper than just an exploration of how the Chestburster was constructed as a scene. And so, to me, that opened the door to larger, deeper ideas about the power of myth, about the collective unconscious, and of course, it opened the door to the mythological roots of Alien, which run pretty deep. And we're talking about very specifically Greek and Egyptian mythologies, and that led me to what I would really look at as the symbiosis between Dan O'Bannon, H.R. Giger, and Ridley Scott.
And so, to me, this is the story about Alien, and it's a film about the Chestburster, but I think really, it's a film about why certain movies resonate with audiences at certain times, and why it's important to pay attention to those movies. And especially when a movie like Alien, which I think is very much an outlier, becomes so successful at a time when the climate is not ready for it. What does that say? What does that mean? Why would Alien be successful in 1979, but not The Thing in 1982?
And so, that to me is what MEMORY is fundamentally about, and then having this serendipitous encounter with Diane O'Bannon, thanks very much to Frank Pavich, who did Jodorowsky's Dune, and her willingness to open the archive for the first time and come on board as an executive producer. And that really completely changed the complexion of the film. It's not at all the film that I was planning on making initially, but I just kind of followed it, and went along with it, and there it is.
I love the fact that Diane was in this, because you needed somebody there to represent Dan's voice, because he's obviously not able to do so. You also just mentioned that the complexion of this changed throughout the journey of making this. What were some of the surprises to you as you were uncovering these stories, or uncovering these different thematic elements that were at play in Alien? For me, a lot of this documentary was very surprising, because as a kid, I knew I loved this movie because it was scary. But now, putting this context to everything, it feels like something completely different, and it's a movie I want to dive into all over again as a fan.
Alexandre O. Philippe: Well, there were so many things. There were so many things that happened in the making of MEMORY, which I think are quite miraculous. Another encounter which really changed a lot of things was the mythologist, Will Lynn, who appears in the film and he works with the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The things he discusses here gave a lot of things in Alien a whole new meaning. I had some ideas again about the great theories, and the resonance of myth, and all of that stuff that I wanted to explore with him, and it was really wonderful to see him corroborate those ideas. I wouldn't call them esoteric, but I think a lot of the stuff that is explored in MEMORY is pretty out there in terms of why Alien became popular. But this idea that there were forces at work that were beyond the conscious thought of O'Bannon, Giger, Ridley Scott, Brandywine, all those people. I completely believe in this, because as Axelle Carolyn says in the film, if they had gone to Fox and said, "Oh, we're making a male rape movie in space. Give us $10 million." Of course, nobody would've said yes.
The subversion of ideas and images that are that powerful and getting greenlit not as a B movie, but as a major Hollywood film in 1979 is, if you think about it for a second, crazy. It makes no sense that this film would've been greenlit in the way that it was. And if you start looking at the history of it and looking at how for Alien to exist, Dune had to fail. For Alien to exist, Dan O'Bannon had to find Ron Shusett, and he had to find H.R. Giger. And they both had to have the same passion and preoccupation with Lovecraft and the Necronomicon. They were very much on the same wavelength, and they had to find a director who was going to be on the same wavelength, who was going to resonate with the idea of the Xenomorph, so this idea that this mythological creature in a way was waiting for a story to come to life so it could attach itself to it, is something that I believe in.
It’s also the 40th anniversary of Alien this year, which, by the way, that was not a conscious decision. I realized that when we were deep into production. But, in the way of the Me Too movement and all the conversations that we're finally having in our culture, I think Alien is an extraordinarily contemporary film now, because now we can look at Alien with the context of this conversation that we're having finally out in the open, and you go, "Holy shit, this movie was so far ahead of its time." And that's my argument. People were connecting and resonating with Alien in a way that wasn't conscious. It wasn't, "Oh, yeah, women are treated horribly, and this is a subversion of what's going on." And I don't think people consciously thought of that, but I think it resonated, and it made people uneasy because of what was happening. Alien is an extraordinary film, no matter how you look at it.
Before we go, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate how, with many of your documentaries, you don’t dive into these topics in a very traditional way, and MEMORY is yet another great example of how thoughtful your process is as a filmmaker. Between this and 78/52, I always get excited whenever I see your name attached to a new film project. So, really, congratulations.
Alexandre O. Philippe: Well, that's really nice to hear, because we definitely strive for that, so thank you so much. I should probably mention that we have one on The Exorcist coming up very shortly, and that's going to be very different from anything we've done before, too. It's a project that was brought to me by the movie gods in the form of William Friedkin, and it's going to be just Friedkin on The Exorcist, with a very different look at his process as a filmmaker and as an artist. So I think that one's going to be pretty special, too. With our conversations, he's really opened up in a way that he never has before. By far, it’s the most extensive interview on The Exorcist ever, and we still have some things to explore, but the film is essentially in post-production now.
But my whole approach with him was, I wanted to treat this using the Hitchcock/Truffaut model of interviews, where we would sit down over a period of days and really crack it open, but instead of focusing on his entire filmography, to just focus on The Exorcist. So, the first day and a half, all we talked about was the Iraq sequence. That’s the type of discussions we have been having. We never even talked about special effects, but we have talked about art, we talked about opera, we talked about classical music, about Citizen Kane, which he reveres, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet, and 2001. I mean, you can go down the list. It’s going to be a very, very, very different look at The Exorcist. I'm really confident about that, and I cannot wait to unleash that film probably later this year.
Want to read other reviews and interviews from Sundance? Check here to read all of our live coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, including Heather's review of MEMORY – The Origins of Alien.