This Friday, Prometheus makes its U.S. premiere, bringing Ridley Scott's long-awaited Alien prequel to theaters and if all goes well, kick-starting a brand new franchise based on the universe he first introduced to audiences way back in 1979.
The new film is co-written by Damon Lindelof (Lost, Star Trek) and Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour), who spoke to Newsarama in London a day after Prometheus premiered in the U.K. The pair discussed the origins of the script and why Prometheus isn't your normal “prequel” story by any means, and also offered some updates on a few other projects on each of their plates these days, including the World War Robot movie and a reboot of The Mummy franchise.
Oh, and Lindelof told us what we can expect to see from him on the comics side of things down the road, too.
Newsarama: The entire Alien franchise is steeped in so much mythology, and Prometheus adds even more back-story to universe of these films. How much of the mythology in Prometheus did you two create, and how much has been there from the start?
Jon Spaihts: Obviously, what exists in the prior films was always a guide to us and was the bedrock on which we were building but when it came to this film in particular when the project began, they – meaning the studio and Ridley's company – did not have a particular notion of what the story would be. They wanted to go back before Alien in the Alien universe and tell a new story... to plant a new seed. Everything after that is stuff we made up. [laughs]
Damon Lindelof: I think that Ridley obviously has spoken over the years of his own curiosity, asking things like, what's the story with the space jockey? As a fanboy, I think for both Jon and I this was such an interesting thing. We were like, “You mean you don't know? That's up for grabs?” [laughs] So this was an opportunity for us to sort of write fanfic – for lack of a better word. When I read Jon's draft, I was sort of like, “Oh, this is a very, very compelling idea.”I had always imagined that there were these ginormous, elephantine aliens that were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and got overtaken by these xenomorphic parasites, but what if that's not what it was? What if there was a little bit more to it? The idea that ended up being Prometheus didn't need to be a strict connection of the dots from this story to the original Alien, but [after you see Prometheus], when you see Alien and the Nostromo comes across that derelict ship, you have a context you didn't necessarily have before in terms of these things that are not innocent bystanders, but are in fact progenitors of the fate that befell them. I thought that was a very, very exciting and unexpected take on the franchise, and obviously that became the foundation upon which the whole movie was built.
Spaihts: It's what pulled us away from prequel territory. Obviously, the great mystery of Alien is where did all of this come from and who was the big guy in the chair? That's where we're going to begin with Prometheus. But it's a fierce problem for a storyteller. Here's a 12-foot-tall, elephant-headed giant, so what are you going to do, write a movie about the elephant-headed giants? Who's going to watch that?
Lindelof: I would watch that…
Spaihts: [laughs] Well, certain die-hard nerds would watch it, but it's hard to make people care about human characters they can relate to directly, let alone investing in characters so strange. So the only way I thought to make that compelling was to ensure that the story of Prometheus was deeply connected to our own story, and that the question of who these beings were would tie in shockingly and unexpectedly to questions of who we were ourselves.
Nrama: There always seem to be fantastic director's cuts and extended editions of Ridley Scott's films that offer some additional story elements to the movie. How much did original script for Prometheus change from what we see on the screen?
Lindelof: In the process of making a movie, there's always stuff that ends up on the cutting-room floor. But in the case of Prometheus vs. something like Blade Runner – where there's material that creates an entirely different interpretation of the film so the movie that has origami unicorns in it will basically lead you down a different path in terms of “oh my god is he a replicant” – there isn't anything like that in Prometheus. There isn't a cut of the movie that is more definitive. That being said, there's stuff on the cutting-room floor that probably deserves to stay there, because Ridley didn't want it in the movie. At the end of the day, whatever Jon and I bring to the table as writers is all funneled through Ridley's vision. This is the world he created and we're just invited to play in it.
Spaihts: The story is driven and modified by him every day, every step of the way. He's a fountain of ideas and constantly tinkering, so as much as we might sit in a theater and say, “That's Jon's section” or “That's Damon's section,” it's all Ridley's.
Nrama: Going into the writing phase, was there a directive to not link this film directly to Alien, and leave room for a new franchise? How did you approach the story, knowing that you were expected to create a prequel that wasn't a true prequel, but something that didn't reboot things, either?Lindelof: I think we were always looking at it in terms of the result of this movie being that it will have two kids. One of those kids is going to be Alien, and the other kid will be its own sort of genetic, original line, and that child – like Cain and Abel – is going to go off and have an entirely different set of its own kids and adventures that will feel like they are of the same universe. There's a particular feel to this universe in terms of the future that Ridley has designed and the characters that populate it. In terms of what the storytelling can be and the thematics are, this line is more interested in dealing with these larger, mythological constructs. And when we say mythology, we mean the essential, Greco-Roman mythology – the creation myths that involve gods that walk amongst us and meddle with us, versus a deity that started existing 2000 years ago that's something we pray to, but isn't in a conversation with us.
Spaihts: Yeah, it's not the abstract divinity of the monotheisms. The gods of Egypt and Greece meddled and were jealous and impetuous and fickle…
Lindelof: They sound like screenwriters…
Spaihts: [laughs] … Or screenwriters bosses. But those were the gods of the mythology that we worked up. From the very beginning, we wanted as much runway as we could leave to make it possible to tell more stories in this space, but we also needed to tell a story that stood on its own feet and delivered a respectable feeling of completion at its close.
Nrama: The technology used by the characters plays such a big part in the film. Where do you find inspiration for the technology of Prometheus?Lindelof: I think a big part of it is just Ridley’s obsession with technology. He has an amazing production designer, Arthur Max, and for him, it’s not just how everything looks, but it has to have a real functionality to it. When you walk on the set, it’s not just computer screens running fancy data – they’re actually hooked up to hard drives, and people can operate them. So on a writing level, you basically say, “there’s a lot of flashing lights here, and there’s a hologram of a map here,” but you leave the design work to the designers.
Nrama: You mentioned the desire to leave enough room to tell more stories that develop along a different line than the Alien franchise. Have you discussed what could happen in potential sequels for Prometheus?
Lindelof: Ridley was interested in having conversations with us about the ultimate answers to the questions that the movie is posing. We presented those answers, and then he decided which answers will be in this movie. One of the reasons we were attracted to his films before we were doing this for a living ourselves is that there's a certain degree of interesting ambiguity in his movies. You leave the theater and talk amongst yourselves about what you think those answers are. Blade Runner might not have done particularly well at the box office when it first came out, but that ambiguity is one of the reasons it has a real afterlife.
Spaihts: People are still avidly watching Blade Runner, and I think it's because he allows shadows to remain at the edges of the frame in his stories, both in the history and future of the tale and in underexposed mechanisms. For example, in Blade Runner, you're constantly hearing about the colonies off-world and they're a powerful, powerful influence in the story, but we never see so much as a photograph of them. They're an idea, an influence.
Lindelof: That's why they have power when Roy talks about them right before he dies, because we haven't seen them. We're seeing them through his eyes.
Spaihts: That's right. It's the stuff of legend. It's like an explorer coming back and telling about the far Indies. And in the same way, in Alien, the space jockey and the derelict ship with its dead pilot are this huge, shadowy frame in which the rest of the story plays out. So our hope going forward is not to become one of those terribly preachy sci-fi movies where some character lays down all the rules for you in a lecture scene, but instead to say as little as possible to define the bounds of the story and let the shadows be pushed back by whatever light we shed, only to reveal deeper shadows and further mysteries.
Nrama: The timing of Prometheus seems especially interesting, given all of the recent news surrounding private space flight and the successful flight of the SpaceX capsule...Lindelof: Again, it's really a testament to what Ridley was already thinking about when he did the original Alien and Blade Runner in the late '70s and early '80s – this idea of privatized space exploration and expansion, terraforming, space truckers and miners…
Spaihts: … And those Japanese names and faces, because that was the fear of that era: that the Japanese were going to own everything and outperform everyone.
Lindelof: I think Blade Runner is set in 2019 or something like that, so I'm not entirely sure Los Angeles will look like that in seven years, but the idea that if you want to go into outer space, you can buy yourself a ticket, and that space exploration is really profiteering, seem to be highly predictive. One has to wonder, is it the chicken or the egg? Did these guys see Alien and say, “Hey, wait a second, maybe we should start throwing some money into propulsion.” With Prometheus, what we started asking was, “If Rupert Murdoch was to be coerced into outer space, since he's made so much money already, so what could possibly entice him? What if it were something other than pure profit? What would that be?” That became the foundation of some interesting questions.
Spaihts: And the corporation with a capital “C” – the company – is part of the canonical lore of the Alien universe. The company is always back there, and the corporation wants something. In that sense, corporate or private space flight is built into the lore, but going into the prior time frame of the franchise, we were definitely looking to root that kind of flight in a more relatable space – a more contemporary world that sort of builds the bridge from SpaceX out to what that might look like with vaster technologies and on a vaster scale.
Nrama: And hopefully without killer aliens?
Spaihts: [laughs] With any luck, yes.
Nrama: Switching gears a bit, can you give us an update on how things are going with World War Robot, your big-screen film based on the IDW Publishing comic?Spaihts: We are in the final tuning of that one. Jerry Bruckheimer himself has sort of laid hands on the project now and gotten into the mix. I very much hope that that means we'll be going out to directors sometime soon. It's a sprawling epic of such scale that there aren't too many directors who can handle it. It's a very delicate business trying to give birth to something that big.
Nrama: Since it's not a comic that's well known to the general public, do you feel less pressure to be loyal to the source material?
Spaihts: I believe dogmatically in being loyal to the source material wherever possible, or else why bother? So often we've seen stories turned into something almost unrelated to the original material, but it keeps the name – and I don't understand why you do that. If you're going to do that, you should write something original. The source material of World War Robot is intensely evocative, and blessedly for me as a writer, it is also elliptical and fragmentary in story terms. There's not a lot of plot and there's not a lot of armature, which leaves me an enormous amount of freedom to create. So I've been loyal to it as much as it was possible to be loyal to it, but still able – because of that looseness – to tell a new story.
Nrama: Damon, we know you have the Star Trek sequel coming up, but you've also written a few comics here and there. With everything that happened with Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, will we ever see you doing a comics project like that again?
Lindelof: I love reading comics. Writing comics is an enormously time-consuming process, and one that I'm not sure I'm particularly good at. I wrote a 10-page Superman story last year that was a lot of fun, and as far as my bandwidth, I feel like I'm going to do amuse-bouches as opposed to entrees. I just did a 10-page Batman story that comes out the same day Prometheus does, with Jeff Lemire. We collaborated on the story together and he drew it, and I'll do that kind of stuff until the cows come home, but I just don't know if I can take on any sort of long-term, multi-issue arcs – because it took me four years to write six issues.
Nrama: And Jon, what about that film based on The Mummy that you're working on? Where's that at these days?
Spaihts: The latest is that everyone is very excited to move forward with it. There's tremendous pressure to get it written and that's why I will not be writing any comic books anytime soon, or leaving my house. [laughs]
Nrama: So you're working on it now?
Spaihts: I'm very much in the mix on that one, and I'm also still finishing work for Bruckheimer on an original project which is a sci-fi love story and action-adventure, which I'm very excited about as well. It's a great breath of fresh air, just like I'm sure Star Trek was for Damon after Prometheus…
Lindelof: [laughs] Yes…
Spaihts: [laughs] We did such terrible things to people in Prometheus, so to do something funny and exuberant and lighthearted has been a great change of pace. But The Mummy is hanging out there and we're deep in the story already. What I can tell you is that it will be scarier than we've seen the mummy be in a number of outings. It will be contemporary, but I think it will retain the epic, fun sense of swashbuckling adventure, too. It still needs to be a saga, not a horror movie. It should pull broad audiences into the theater, not just people who love to be terrified. But it's going to tap into both our fear of that shambling monster and our terror at the implacable gods and monsters of Egyptian mythology.
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