'Prometheus': Damon Lindelof on whether it's an 'Alien' prequel
For six seasons on the cult TV show Lost, writer Damon Lindelof learned a few things about keeping fans in the dark. Not a day would go by that someone wouldn’t come up to him and ask what it all meant. Needless to say, he learned to keep secrets and stoke an air of mystery. All of which has come in handy on his latest project, Ridley Scott’s hush-hush sci-fi space epic Prometheus.
Lindelof, who shares a screenplay credit on the film with Jon Spaihts, has been tight-lipped about the film in the walk-up to its release on June 8 — in particular about the question that’s on every fanboy (and girl’s) mind: Is Prometheus an Alien prequel as has been rumored? EW spoke with Lindelof for this week’s cover story; here’s a transcript of the full interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you get a chance to visit the set of Prometheus?
DAMON LINDELOF: Yes, I spent about a month at Pinewood Studios in London — a couple of weeks at the very beginning and then a couple of weeks about a month in. To me, after working on Star Trek, where we did a lot of green screen, I was bowled over by the vastness of Ridley’s sets at Pinewood. It felt like old-school filmmaking in all of the right ways. You walk through those doors and you are transported just by the sheer audacity and magnitude of some of those sets.
The studio has been keeping Prometheus very secret. So I’m going to try to pull some teeth and get you to talk about some stuff you’re sworn not to talk about. How does that sound?
You do your job, I’ll do mine.
Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me how you came onto this project?
We finished Lost in May of 2009. And following that, after doing a show for six years, I dropped off the face of the planet and went with my family to Italy for a month. I told everyone I would be incommunicado. When I returned, I let everyone know that I would like to do a movie project. We had already committed to Trek 2, but J.J. [Abrams] was still putting the finishing touches on Super 8 and I had two or three months before we had to dive in on Trek. So about two days after I put that signal out that I was ready to go on some casual dates, I was driving down Ventura Boulevard in the Valley and my agent called and said, “Are you available to talk to Ridley Scott in five minutes?” I slammed on my brakes for some inexplicable reason and pulled over. I didn’t want to be driving through some bad cellular zone on the phone with Ridley Scott. So I just sat there and prepared to sit there for two hours. Because ‘Are you ready in five minutes’ when you’re talking about someone of Ridley Scott’s stature, just be prepared to wait a while.
Did he say what the call was going to be about?
My agent said he had no idea. They wouldn’t tell him. And as I was sitting there I was praying that it was the Alien prequel that I had been hearing about. As a fanboy, I knew that they were developing it. I said to myself, Please let it be that. And sure enough, five minutes later, my phone rang and it was Ridley. There was no pomp and circumstance. There was no assistant saying, “Please hold for Ridley Scott.” It was just him. And he doesn’t know that he’s Ridley Scott, so he just dove right into the conversation. And he basically said, “Hey dude, I’m going to send you a script. Let me know what you think.” And I’m not going to be like, What is it? I just said, “Yes, sir. I look forward to that.” And that was the entire conversation. And so about an hour later this guy shows up at my house with a screenplay and says, “I will be sitting in my car. When you are finished with the screenplay, you can hand it back to me.” So at this point, I’m like, It’s the Alien prequel! Because with this level of tightened security what else could it be? So I read the screenplay.
NEXT: Lindelof on the original draft of Prometheus
This was Jon Spaihts original draft of Prometheus?
Yes. And I thought it was really cool. It was not at all what I expected it to be. But obviously they were giving it to me for a reason. And this is one of those situations where you’re given no advance sense of what they like, what they don’t like, you just have to walk out on the plank and say, Here is my fundamental reaction to this thing. So when I finished it I went into my office and I wrote an email to Ridley and his producing partners. And this response was basically my job interview. I wrote maybe a four or five paragraph email saying here are all the things I love about it, I think there are some incredible set pieces here, I love the fundamental idea behind the movie, I feel like it’s a cool think piece. BUT I think it’s relying a bit too heavily on the Alien stuff that we’ve seen now five or six times in different movies. Chest-bursting and face-hugging and xenomorphs and I just feel that your idea is so strong and the characters can be made so strong that we don’t need any of that stuff. We can present iterations of that stuff in different ways. That isn’t to say that this isn’t a movie that should be set in that universe, but I look at it more like a story that is running parallel to the original Alien, so that if there was a sequel to this movie, it would not be Alien, it would be Prometheus 2. And then Prometheus 2 is parallel to Aliens. And here’s how we could do that. And so I sent off that email and I got into my bed. I didn’t sleep at all. And at 10 a.m. the next morning, my agent called me and said, ‘Whatever it is you did, they liked it. Can you go in and meet now?’
Who was at that meeting?
Ridley, two producing partners, and the executive from Fox on it. On my way over there I wrote in my head this sort of very formal speech on how much Ridley’s influenced me and what a thrill it is to be considered for this job… and I got about six words into that speech and he cut me off. He goes, “Let’s talk about your email.” So there we were sitting at a table talking about this science fiction movie that he wanted to direct and that they were considering me to write and I kept trying to leave my body and hover above the table and look down thinking, Oh my god, this might actually happen for you! And we had this great meeting. I think it was on a Friday afternoon. And at the end, he said, “Are you available to come in this weekend and talk some more?” And I said, of course. And at that point I realized they were probably going to hire me. That’s the long-winded origin story.
Did Ridley tell you at any point why he chose you? Was he fan of Lost?
He was definitely aware of Lost. Ridley is not the kind of guy who watches a television series. He will watch 20 minutes of a show here and an episode there. He was aware of it, he knew what it was, he knew what I did. He had seen the show, but he was not trying to present to me, like, Oh my God, I’m a huge Lostie! John Locke is my favorite character! As much as a writer can have a specific skill set or a brand, he was very interested that my brand seemed to be in mystery and ambiguity. And that’s what’s so cool about the original Alien — Hey, here’s this distress call, we just went down there, we see this weird massive alien creature sitting in a chair and there’s eggs everywhere and there’s nobody there to explain what happened. It’s just the situation they’re in. And I think the idea for this movie was, well, let’s have characters who are a little more interested in answering those questions before the s— hits the fan. They don’t just happen upon the haunted house, they’re actually looking for it. They just don’t realize it’s haunted till they get there. We talked a lot about mystery. That was my only hint of why he sought me out.
Did you have any reluctance about working on someone else’s script? Not being the guy who was there from go?
Yeah! Definitely! Especially since I felt like Jon had done a really good job of executing his drafts. I sent him an email as soon as I was formally hired saying, ‘Hey, you’re gonna read about this — that I’ve been hired to do this thing and I want you to know that whatever gets said, I’m going to try to retain as much of what you did as possible because I thought it was great. And then the story came out: Lindelof comes in and pitches this radical new take on this movie that used to be a prequel and is now transforming into its own original thing. I reached out to Jon again to say that’s not at all what happened. Ridley had a very specific idea of the story he wanted to tell. And sometimes you have to look at different versions of it to know what it is you want and what you don’t want. Whatever it is, I didn’t get the sense that there was any bad blood with Jon. They were just looking for someone to say to them, Hey, we don’t need the Alien stuff in here. It shouldn’t be about that. It can be a part of this movie, but it shouldn’t be what it’s about.
NEXT: How long did Prometheus take to write… and is it an Alien prequel?
So how did you flesh out your version of the script with Ridley?
What happened was, I sat in a room with Ridley Scott for five days a week for three- or four-hour sessions and asked him a series of questions like an investigative journalist in an attempt to understand what exactly the movie he wanted to make was, what he wanted it to be about, what he wanted the characters to be looking for, what did he want to get out of the set pieces, is it going to be heady or scary or both? Who did he see being the audience proxy? And when I finished that project, I went off and wrote. You just listen to what they say and you write it down. That’s the way it is in movies, especially with visionary directors like Ridley.
And then how long did you sit down and write?
We met all through July and into the beginning of August. And then I turned in my first draft in mid-September. So it took me four or five weeks to write my first draft.
So the original script was more of an Alien prequel than yours?
Yes. The job that I was hired to do was to scale back the familiar tropes or symbology of what we think of when we think of an Alien movie. When I say Alien to you, you think face-hugger, chest-burster, eggs, acid blood, queen — the concentration of those things was much higher in Jon’s script than they are in Prometheus.
Let me just come out and ask on the record — Is this an Alien prequel?
I do not want to be evasive, but I do have to challenge what you mean by that word. Because that word is a very recent thing. I hadn’t really heard the word “prequel” before Phantom Menace. If your definition is: this is a series of events that precedes an existing movie, then, yes. This series of events that happens in Prometheus precedes the series of events that occurs in Alien. However, one of the other definitions is that the ending of the prequel leads you right up to the beginning of the preceding movie. The Thing prequel ends with a dog running across the Arctic landscape being pursued by a helicopter….
Okay, so this doesn’t lead to the first scene of Alien, but it does take place before Alien in the same world as Alien?
Thank you. I’ve interviewed Ridley four times about this movie now and every time I get a different answer. How do you feel about all of the speculation about the film on the internet? Does it help the movie or hurt the movie?
I usually just put myself in the position of, let’s say I had nothing to do with this movie, and I was one of the people on the internet who was really curious about what it was, my feeling would be — and this is just me — to hear that it’s a prequel, makes the movie less interesting to me than if I don’t really have a clear sense of what it is. And I anticipated that at a certain point the fact that we weren’t openly addressing that question — or being cagey about that question — would lead to a certain degree of frustration, because that’s what I would be feeling as a fan. That’s when Ridley thought that it would be cool that in the teaser he’d have the word “Prometheus” reveal itself exactly the way the title Alien revealed itself in the original trailer for Alien. This is him saying, I’m making this choice for a very specific reason. If you want to continue asking me what this movie’s relationship is with Alien, why in God’s name do you think I would do that? The second thing is we wanted to generate viral content that starred and featured the characters from the movie. Let’s see if we can talk Guy Pearce and Michael Fassbender into doing some stuff that would speak very directly to the prequel issue. So I pitched the idea of the TED talk, which everybody was responsive to and Ridley was able to convince Guy to do. And that TED talk really speaks to the prequel question because it’s Peter Weyland! And Weyland is a name that is very familiar in all of the Alien movies. And we’re going to tell audiences that he is a part of Prometheus. So here’s another way we are showing them, as opposed to telling them, what the relationship between the two movies is. But hopefully with enough ambiguity that you’re generating some anticipation for what the movie is. And I will tell you, the hardest thing to do from the insides of these things is, you and I hate it when you sit in a movie theater and after the trailer, you say, I guess I feel like I just saw the whole movie! So you don’t want to do that. But at the same time, you don’t want to be so vague and precious and pretentious about what you’re working on that you build an expectation that you couldn’t possibly live up to. Everyone wants to know what the relationship is between this movie and Alien. And one could argue that we’ve set ourselves up for an inevitable disappointment. But look who you’re talking to right now. If there is anybody who is known for inevitable disappointment, it’s me. I’m Mr. Inevitable Disappointment!
When you were a kid, were you an Alien fan? Do you remember when you first saw it?
Yeah. I was born in 1973, so I did not see Alien when it was released theatrically. I saw Alien when it was on Home Box Office. I think I was probably 10. I was watching it for four or five minutes toward the end of the movie when Ripley is looking for her cat. I didn’t even know that there was an alien in play. And my dad caught me watching it and he turned off the TV and said, “Do not watch that movie — that movie is inappropriate!” He was upset. And as soon as I got the opportunity to watch it in its entirety, now that it had been stigmatized, I watched it. And I got to the point where the face-hugger bursts out of the egg and breaks through John Hurt’s faceplate and suddenly understood that my father was right. I did not continue beyond that point in the movie. I don’t think I watched the whole thing until I was 13 or 14 with my friends at a sleepover party at my friend Dave Spiegel’s. We watched the whole movie on VHS.
NEXT: Ridley Scott’s influence on science fiction
Ridley calls the original an “old dark house film.” Does that sound right to you?
Yes, because when you say to me: Old Dark House film, I think of a bunch of characters whose car breaks down on the side of the road and they have to go into a place of which they have no understanding whatsoever and they discover that place’s secrets and bring those secrets out of the house with them. It’s classic Hammer Films filmmaking. And of course the marketing around the original Alien was geared to that: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It was more horror than it was sci-fi. That being said, there were so many incredible science-fiction ideas presented in Alien — the whole movie being about the gestation process for what this being is and how original that was and how original that looked, but also the idea of Ash as sort of malevolent artificial intelligence was sort of a direct nod to Kubrick 10 years later. I’m hard-pressed to think of any movies that were released between ’69 and ’79 that had crazy robots in them. The idea of taking HAL and making him into a man and then playing it closed, not knowing that Ash is a synthetic being until he starts to freak out. That was an incredible idea. The biggest thing that makes it an old dark house movie is that one by one the characters are going to be killed and so the most revolutionary thing that happens in Alien is Sigourney Weaver is not really presented to the audience as the main character. So when Tom Skerritt dies about an hour in, you’re suddenly going, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if anyone’s going to make it out alive! Dallas is supposed to be my guy!’ He’s the hero, right? It’s not going to be Harry Dean Stanton! So that Ten Little Indians idea of one by one people are getting killed, is why Ridley, I think, looks at it that way.
What do you think Ridley’s influence on the sci-fi genre has been?
When I saw Blade Runner, my understanding was that Blade Runner and Alien were sequels to each other — or they were related. They were set in the same world. I was not sophisticated enough to know that Ridley Scott directed both of them or even know what a director was. Ridley decided to say, I’m going to look at the future the way it might actually look. I’m going to think about what urban design is going to look like, the ships are going to be gritty and grungy, the people who inhabit this world are blue-collar people. He took the fantasy out of sci-fi and grounded it in a profound way, which laid the track to look at the future in a different way, which was dystopian instead of utopian.
Did you and Ridley ever discuss why he wanted to go back to a movie that he made 30 years ago? Did he feel like there was some unfinished business there?
The only sense of it that I ever got — because by the time I came into the process he was already very excited, he was already ramped — is that in his journey as a film director over the past 30 years, it seems like the movies that people are most interested in and the movies he probably gets asked about the most are Alien and Blade Runner. And so, for him, he doesn’t look at himself as a science fiction director. In fact, when he talks about the five other guys that he was up against to direct Alien, he’s sort of befuddled as to why they chose him. He was the unlikely guy. I don’t think he sees himself as a sci-fi director. So probably over the course of the last 30 years it’s probably confusing to him why people keep asking him about these movies. But I would assume that over time, it would start to get into his head: Wow, these movies that I made 30 years ago really resonated and people are still curious about them, maybe there’s more story there! And I can guarantee you that many times over the intervening years, he was aware of what was happening with the Alien franchise. And his silence on those movies, with the exception of Aliens, which I think he is a fan of and I know he’s also a huge Fincher fan, but post-Alien 3 — both Resurrection and the Alien vs. Predator mash-ups, I think Ridley’s feeling was, It’s time for me to now take the reins and put the ship back on course. I feel a sense of parenthood and I feel like my child needs a stern talking to. That’s my sense of it, it’s not anything that he has said to me.
It sure sounds right though. Let me ask you about the lead character that Noomi Rapace plays in Prometheus. How important is it for this film to have a strong female action lead like Ripley?
I think it was very clear — and this was in the script before I came to it — that she was clearly at the center of this thing. And the inevitable comparisons to Ripley are going to come down the pike and therefore it was really important that although she is the lead of the movie, she be different from Ripley in a lot of ways. And I think that from a jumping off point, Ripley is a blue-collar miner/terra former who is basically doing a gig for money and wanders into this horrific situation and she has to react. It’s just a survivor’s story. And in Aliens, Ripley’s story begins to get fleshed out in a more significant way where she becomes maternal with Newt. But if you just look at Alien, you can’t tell me much about Ripley. We don’t know much about her as a character. Whereas Noomi’s character, Shaw, has a very specific background that leads her to where this movie leads her. She is a seeker. The Mulder character for lack of a better pop culture metaphor. And classic sci-fi, to me, is based on the principle that science has the opportunity to cross a line — the line is defined by cultural and religious ideas. Should we do this? Are we breaking God’s will by doing this? That’s sci-fi. So the idea of just because we have the technology to create life, should we create life? This is the be careful what you wished for, I shouldn’t have crossed that line story, which is what all sci-fi is. In Alien that doesn’t happen. All they do is answer a distress call, which is what they’re supposed to do. They’re not paying for anything they did wrong. I think it was important for Shaw to be directly responsible for everything that happens in this movie. For the hero of the movie to say I want to go find this out and I understand that it may be dangerous, that became a critical driver for her. And something that existed in Jon’s work, but really we talked about a lot as we developed the screenplay.
As someone who’s worked in TV and movies, what is it that you like about film vs. TV?
They’ve each got their own benefits. I think the advantage of film is the canvas is much smaller, which would seem like a contradiction. If you take something like Lost where the story was told over 121 episodes, and you take something like Prometheus where the story is told over two hours, it’s a smaller canvas. But because of that, you have to be so much more detailed. There’s a lot less area for screw-ups. I think movies are more exciting– it’s a slower moving ship. So the idea that I started on the movie in July 2009, I wrote on it essentially through the beginning of production in March, 2010 — that’s seven or eight months of writing. And then Ridley called me into the editing room a bunch of times, so all told it was a year of my life. In a year of my life in TV, you make 30 hours of it.
Last question, tell me about what the title means in terms of the story you’ve told.
I don’t want to sound like the movie is a history lesson, but I do think that the primary take away from the myth of Prometheus is that the Gods were nervous about mankind. They were nervous about what they would be capable of if they had fire. Fire was a big piece of technology that they would build off of. And the story of any creation is eventually a child will try to destroy its parents. It’s a very paranoid world view, mythologically-speaking it pops up a lot. Especially for us Star Wars aficionados. So the essential story is: I don’t want to give my kid this toy because eventually he will develop it into a weapon that will kill me. So I will therefore withhold it from him. And what is the price I must exact on somebody who betrays me? So Prometheus steals the fire from the Gods, gives it to mankind, knowing exactly what mankind is going to do with it and even though he knows he’s going to be punished for it. So this myth felt perfect for this movie because the movie is all about creation, it’s all about punishment, and it’s all about our desire to understand why we’re here in the first place. It just felt like the natural way to go even though we knew people would have a hard time pronouncing it and that it was wildly pretentious.