In Alien, Ridley Scott’s franchise-spawning 1979 horror masterpiece, the doomed crew of the Nostromo lands on an eerie planet and discovers a chamber filled with rows and rows of giant eggs. When approached by a potential host — in this case the infamously unlucky Kane (John Hurt) — one egg opens, revealing a gooey, stomach-churning interior. It pulsates until a facehugger bursts from within to, well, live up to its name.
It’s the stuff of nightmares. But to one of the movie’s art directors, Roger Christian, the Alien egg evokes — of all things — a delicious British pastry traditionally eaten on Good Friday. “It’s like a hot cross bun,” the Oscar winner tells EW, laughing.
Then again, he has a point. Designed by the celebrated Swiss painter H.R. Giger — who won an Academy Award as part of Alien’s visual-effects team — the eggs were meant to evoke holy imagery. According to Christian, Giger (pictured below) drew a cross to illustrate the folds as a jab at producers for rejecting his original idea: to make the eggs’ openings resemble vaginas, which would have reinforced the film’s body horror and sexually charged imagery. “The first ones he did looked much more like a woman’s private parts, and the producers all worried,” Christian explains. “Giger said, ‘Well, if it’s a cross, then it’s religious, and people don’t worry about that.’”
But the eggs weren’t just unsettling for the way they blossomed rather than hatched. The one Kane approaches — known as the “hero egg” on set — had innards that throbbed. The crew stuffed it with sheep intestines and cow stomach lining to create an organic look, but they couldn’t figure out how to make it pulsate. In the end, it had to be done manually — literally manually, by the director himself, who donned rubber gloves and reached in to finish the job. “People around him were going, ‘Oh my God,’ but he was so focused,” Christian remembers. “He just put his hand in there and pushed up, and there it was. It looked gross, but it looked real. [The eggs] looked beautiful, really. And Ridley added smoke to soften the atmosphere.”
Speaking of which, that smoke had an unusual source of inspiration: the Who. The legendary English band was about to embark on a tour and was rehearsing near the set of Alien, at Shepperton Studios outside London, when Christian had an opportunity to visit. His friend, production designer Anton Furst, had been tinkering with smoke and lasers to vivify the show and invited Christian over to see his work. “I said, ‘We gotta get Ridley in here,’” Christian recalls. “We needed a ‘membrane’ over the top [of the eggs], but no one knew how to do it. They thought maybe we could animate it afterwards…. So this was sheer luck, that I’d gone up to see the Who.”
And that wasn’t the only happy accident contributing to Alien’s success. The star of the iconic poster, a painted chicken egg, obviously never appears in the film, but the publicity team — who only had some early test footage from the egg chamber scene to work with — serendipitously chose the image to represent the R-rated film, without knowing how much the eggs would play into the plot.
Or maybe they just found the image scary — because, as harmless as they seem, eggs can be scary. “There are subconscious fears we all have of something growing inside [of us], of cancer, and also of what comes out,” Christian says. “Eggs are beautiful objects, but at the same time, you wonder what’s inside. Alien traded on those fundamental phobias.” And then it created many more.
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