The iconic chestburster moment in Alien, where we got our first look at a baby Xenomorph as it violently emerged from John Hurt’s thrashing torso, has managed to stand the test of time. It’s a scene that was intricately constructed by director Ridley Scott and his crew, and Scott had long planned to get a real reaction of shock and disgust from his cast on the day it was filmed in just a single take.
To say it worked is an understatement, and Scott has revealed that even visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick wanted to know the secrets of the practical effects he’d used to show Hurt’s Kane giving birth to what would become one of cinema’s most brutal and remorseless creatures.
“I remember Stanley Kubrick called me up saying, ‘How’d you do that?’” Scott told LA Times in a new interview. “He said, ‘I’ve run it through slowly, I can’t see the cut.’”
Scott talked Kubrick through the details of Hurt’s on-set rig, where he was on his knees with his head protruding through a hole in the Nostromo’s dining table with a fake body lying against his neck. “[Kubrick] said, ‘OK, I got it. I got it, it worked.’” George Lucas’ groundbreaking Star Wars had a similar effect on Scott, as he remembers it. “I think I was depressed for a month when I saw it, ’cause I thought, ‘How on Earth could he have done that?’”
Alien‘s chestburster scene didn’t just reel in Kubrick, though. The cast were just as startled by what transpired during the original shoot, following a plan by Scott to hide the nature of the scene’s climax from them. “I kept the actual little creature, whatever that would be, from the actors. I never wanted them to see it.”
“Prosthetics in those days weren’t that good,” Scott previously explained to Empire (via The Guardian). “I figured the best thing to do was to get stuff from a butcher’s shop and a fishmonger. On the morning we had them examining the Facehugger; that was clams, oysters, seafood. You had to be ready to shoot because it started to smell pretty quickly. You can’t make better stuff than that – it’s organic.”
Alien‘s late screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, recalled Scott obsessively setting up the scene. “I remember easily half an hour was spent with him draping this little piece of beef organ so it would hang out of the creature’s mouth.”
When star Sigourney Weaver first walked onto the set to film the bloody scene, there was an escalating sense of tension. “Everyone was wearing raincoats – we should have been a little suspicious. And, oh God, the smell. It was just awful.”
The director knew he only had one shot to get it right. “Once I blew blood all over that set, there was no cleaning it up.”
Scott’s 1979 movie has since spawned three sequels and two more recent prequels, which he returned to direct. He thinks the Alien franchise is far from dead, despite every film in the series since James Cameron’s Aliens receiving a mixed reaction from critics and audiences alike.
“I still think there’s a lot of mileage in Alien, but I think you’ll have to now re-evolve,” Scott said. “What I always thought when I was making it, the first one, why would a creature like this be made and why was it traveling in what I always thought was a kind of war-craft, which was carrying a cargo of these eggs. What was the purpose of the vehicle and what was the purpose of the eggs? That’s the thing to question — who, why, and for what purpose is the next idea, I think.”