[Fantastic Fest interview] ‘MEMORY’ director brings cinematic experience to documentary about the creation of ‘ALIEN’

Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe. Courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN – Opening at the Texas Theater this weekend is the riveting visual essay MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN (read my review here). The film centers on the collaborative effort to make one of the most acclaimed sci-fi horror films of all time, Ridley Scott’s 1979 stunner ALIEN

MEMORY is not a glorified DVD extra. It’s an all-encompassing documentary that delves into the history of its creation (from Dan O’Bannon’s scripting phase, Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s original designs and Scott’s incredibly simplistic direction) and how the iconic chest-burster scene shifted the cinematic paradigm.

Fresh Fiction spoke with MEMORY director Alexandre O. Philippe (78/52: HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE, THE PEOPLE VS. GEORGE LUCAS) at the film’s regional premiere at Fantastic Fest in September. Highlights from the interview include Philippe developing a taste for film anatomy, how MEMORY evolved into another beast entirely, and what makes art transcend time.

You can read the full conversation below.

Preston Barta: Something that I have gathered from watching your films is that you are a meticulous movie watcher. Is that something that you recognized about yourself early in life, or did it come later?

Alexandre O. Phillippe: “[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I grew up as a film buff. I grew up watching Hitchcock and horror films. I was ingesting movies. From a very early age, I was very into watching movies over and over and over again. I was looking for new things to think about and examine.”

I remember very distinctly watching certain scenes frame by frame (which were on VHS) and wondering how it was done. I didn’t know it back then that I was going to be making those kinds of films, but I think the impulse to be (as you said) meticulous about trying to understand movies is something that I have had since I was a kid.”

Can you pinpoint the earliest movies that had this effect on you? What were the films that made you pause the VHS player and watch them over again?

“Well, I will give you two. One is VERTIGO. I feel that VERTIGO has always played a big part in my life. For me, it’s a perfect movie. It’s a film that is spectacular on multiple levels, and it breaks my heart every time that I watch it. I get something new out of it every time I watch it. And then BLADE RUNNER had a profound impact on me as well. In my teen years, I was watching it every day. It’s a movie that I just adore and revere. I think those two films for me more than any other were the ones that set me on this path.”

You have a lot of different voices that you include in your film. Some were a part of making ALIEN, some were friends or family to the people who were a part of it, and others studied ALIEN and the sci-fi genre. It certainly makes the film multi-dimensional. How do you keep from leaning too much in one direction?

“Initially, it started as an examination of the chest-burster scene from ALIEN. I was curious if I could approach it in the same way as I tackled the shower scene from PSYCHO. But I very quickly realized that it wasn’t working. It wasn’t working because ALIEN and PSYCHO affected audiences for very different reasons.”

I think ALIEN, very specifically, taps into images and ideas that go back to our ancient past. It’s a film that resonates because of its mythological range. There was a point that I realized, ‘No. If I keep going down this path, we will end up having a rich and entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary. But that’s not what I do. That’s what you were talking about earlier [before the interview happened] when you said it could have been a glorified DVD extra. I’m not saying anything bad about DVD extras. I love them. But it’s not what I do.”

“So, to me, it was realizing this film had to be something else. It had to be a psychological take on ALIEN. It needed to be a film that explored the ancient and mythological origins of ALIEN, which really starts with [ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon].”

This idea of all of the serendipitous accidents and all the stuff Dan O’Bannon was ingesting from B-movies and comic books – all the things that happened to him, like working on [Alejandro Jodorowsky’s DUNE and it collapsing]. I felt like that was really the story. The moment I started going down this particular path, that’s when I met [Dan’s wife] Diane O’Bannon and [H.R. Giger’s wife Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger] and their estates. All the doors started opening. It became this specific take on ALIEN that makes it different from anything else that is out there.”

Did you feel that specificity is what caused everyone to trust you to tell this particular story? What do you think brought everyone on board?

“Yeah, definitely. I look at the films that I make as individual pictures. I suppose now they are considered film essays. I think they are very unique in their angle and take. There’s no question: When I met Diane O’Bannon for the first time, she told me she had a number of requests for features and featurettes. She was not interested. She had been keeping Dan’s archives very close. But when I explained to her what I had in mind, she saw very quickly that this was going to be different. She thought about it for a few days, but she got back with me and said, ‘It’s time for me to share this. I think it’s time to open the archives and give it to the right project, and this seems to be the right one.’ So, that’s how it all started.”

Dan O’Bannon’s script for ‘MEMORY,’ one of the earliest drafts of what eventually became 1979’s ‘ALIEN.’ Courtesy of Screen Media Films.

Of course, there’s that shot in the film of Diane showing audiences all the boxes of unfinished scripts and treatments. I bet you were like, “Oh, if only I could get my hands on that and get inside Dan’s brain a little bit more–”

“[Laughs] There’s no question when you look at a box labeled ‘RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD’ or all the unfinished projects that no one had seen, I was very, very tempted. But I barely had enough time to go through all the ALIEN stuff [Laughs]. I think there were eight boxes dedicated to ALIEN. Well, ALIEN and ALIEN-related stuff, like DARK STAR (which is related to it) and an early script called THEY BITE (which is pre-MEMORY). [MEMORY, where Philippe’s film gets its title, is a 29-page unfinished screenplay.] It was an amazing read. I didn’t look at everything, but I would love to go back. I do want to go back and help her catalog everything and save it. It should be preserved in visual form for people who care about those movies and Dan O’Bannon.”

At one point in the film, Diane says Dan was somebody who could have been from the future that went back in time to tell stories. Looking at all the movies he has done, I can’t help but agree on how forward-thinking he seems in retrospect. So much of his work speaks volumes about today’s world. This is a big question, but what is your opinion on what makes a piece of art lasting?

“Whoa. Yeah. That is a big question. Let me put it this way: I think if you look at the movies, paintings and pieces of music that have stayed with us for decades or centuries. The ones that tend to rise to the surface a few things need to happen: First of all, in a certain way, they need to strike a chord with culture. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily strike a chord when they come out. Sometimes it takes a while for people to catch up with it. There’s a certain element of chance and serendipity – timing. As they say, timing is everything. That’s part of it. But I think when you look at the VERTIGOs and CITIZEN KANEs out there, they are extraordinary pieces of work made by exceptional artists. When you have Hitchcock working at the level that he was when he was making VERTIGO, just like any genius working at the top of his or her game, there are things that happen that are beyond their control. In a way, they are communicating with the universe. There are images, ideas and concepts that start making their way into their work that taps deep, deep into our ancient past, psychology, dreams and nightmares, and things that resonate with us as humans on a profound level.”

“The best works of the greatest artists are not fully conscious. It’s like they become a middleman between ideas and dimensions and art. That’s why you can never really get to the bottom of it. Like MEMORY says, you can never get to the bottom of ALIEN. The same applies to all the great work that we’ve mentioned.”

I made a 90-minute film about the shower scene from PSYCHO, and I’m getting ready to make another one because there’s a completely different take on the shower scene that I want to express. I could spend the rest of my life studying that scene, and it would be a full and fascinating life.”

Anytime you get into those great masterworks, you will always find something new. I don’t think that is true of every movie. But I think there are a few where the more you watch it, the more you discover.”

The opening scene of ‘MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN.’ Courtesy of Screen Media Films.

I want to get into the visual language of your film. You could say it carries over the same visual language of ALIEN. The opening of the film, I have to admit, I questioned whether or not I was watching the right film because it felt like a movie. That continues through your transitions and how you shoot the talking-head interviews. It’s in low light and has a dark and ominous feel. 

“Yes, absolutely. To me, it’s a film about film. In the cinematic essays that I make, they must be cinematic experiences themselves. There were a lot of discussions about the opening sequence. There’s a lot in there. In many ways, the opening sequence contains everything. It’s completely meant to do what it did for you: What am I being thrown into?”

You recognize the images, but you have no idea what is going on. It’s about planting ideas in the mind of the audience (all the connections) and creating a dramatic question that gets answered over the course of the film.”

“The moment you enter that space, that other dimension, it goes back to the idea of time and space. Diane O’Bannon saying Dan was out of time and he went back to the future where he came from is one of the central themes of MEMORY. Those images and ideas are perennial. They come back throughout human history. These stories come back in our consciousness at certain times in history and resonate with us. It’s almost like the ancient past, present and future are happening at the same time. You are in the darkness until a certain point in the film. The aspect ratio is the same [as ALIEN] and the music plays with the darkness of ALIEN.”

There are so many areas in the film that could be their own documentary. What area would you explore more in-depth if you had all the time in the world?

“Gosh. You’re right. There are so many areas. ALIEN is what it is because of the perfect symbiosis that happened among Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger and Ridley Scott. You needed Dan and his ideas and influences to create the seed. You needed an extraordinary artist like Giger, who could visualize those ideas. And then you needed Ridley Scott to execute those ideas.”

“As far as what I would have liked to have explored more, I think it would be artist Francis Bacon. [During the making of ALIEN, the filmmakers looked at various painter’s work for inspiration. Bacon’s 1944 painting THREE STUDIES FOR FIGURES AT THE BASE OF A CRUCIFIXION significantly informed ALIEN.] There’s so much more to say about that and how the influence of the Greeks informed Bacon’s style. There were more strands to get into, but you have to achieve a fine balance with a film like this. There’s a point where you have to think more about the audience and wonder if it’s too nerdy to go deeper.”

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN is now playing in select theaters. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the film is playing at the Texas Theatre over the weekend, starting tonight at 7:30 p.m. Visit TheTexasTheatre.com for screening and ticket information.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.