Interview: "Prometheus" Screenwriter Damon Lindelof Talks "Alien" Fans' Expectations & Ambitiously Hardcore Sci-Fi

Also, what it was like working with director Ridley Scott, how they convinced the stars to sign on, and how those actors dramatically changed their roles.

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It makes perfect sense that Damon Lindelof is the writer behind Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s already polarizing prequel to his 1979 classic Alien. For the last year, movie buffs and science fiction die-hards alike have been speculating over whether Prometheus actually is connected to Alien, a dramatic talking point that has given the massively ambitious film (in theaters tomorrow) an almost unfair amount of pre-release expectations. Meaning, there will no doubt be plenty of unsatisfied Alien fans this weekend, due to the fact that the answers about the 1979 movie’s mysterious “Space Jockey” provided in Lindelof’s Prometheus script aren’t going to make everyone happy—that’s just the way it goes in Hollywood.

Not that the New Jersey-born Lindelof isn’t mentally equipped to handle such pressures. From 2004 through 2010, the television veteran, along with creative partner Carlton Cuse, oversaw the ins and outs of ABC’s divisive, and mysterious, smash series Lost, a show Lindelof co-created with Cuse and J.J. Abrams. And when many Lost fanatics railed against its May 23, 2010, series finale, Lindelof had to weather the storm of viewer disappointments and, in some cases, vitriolic anger.

With its heady ideas about creation, mixed with plenty of gross-out scenes and a surprisingly hardcore edge, Prometheus is bound to split audience reactions down the line—we, it should be noted, dig it quite a bit. Which is why Complex recently chatted with Lindelof about managing Alien fans’ hopes, the luxuries that come from working with a filmmaker of Ridley Scott’s caliber, and the film’s lofty notions about religion and mankind’s origins.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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It must feel good to finally talk about Prometheus with people who’ve actually seen the film, instead of having to maneuver around speculative, “Is it an Alien movie or not?” questions.
It is, yeah. It is a relief to be in the haze of Christmas Day, as opposed to when the presents are all locked up in the closet. [Laughs.]

And now that you’re speaking with people who’ve seen the film, how have the reactions been so far?
Well, like you say, it’s one thing to be talking about a movie that nobody has seen and it’s another thing to be talking about a movie that people have seen. And once people have seen Prometheus, some people totally dig it and other people not so much, but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m more than happy to hear both opinions.

It’s interesting, after the screening I attended, I overheard a few of the film’s haters complaining about how it’s nothing like Alien, or just straight-up comparing it to Alien rather than critiquing it on its own merits. And I guess that’s inevitable.
Sure, the movie invites it, without a doubt.

Exactly. In one sense, Prometheus is such a totally different movie, but then there are those key images taken from Alien that make it impossible not to compare the two movies.
Indeed, and I think that the prevailing question in advance of the movie was, “What’s this movie’s relationship to Alien?” That’s what people wanted to ask us, and now they’ve seen it. On one side of it, they want to make sure that question was answered definitively, and one person’s “definitively” is another person’s “not definitively.” So, while I think that, certainly, it’s pretty clear what this movie’s relationship is to the original Alien, perhaps it’s not clear enough for some people, and for other people it’s not the connection they wanted it to be.

The thing about Alien is that it’s a classic movie, it’s been out there for more than 30 years, and your own imagination, in terms of, “What’s the story of the Space Jockey and the derelict ship?” might be different from the one that Prometheus presented, and you might not like it, as it is your right to not like it.

Speaking of the film’s interpretation of those Alien mysteries, there was already a draft of the script written when you signed on, correct? Did you connect with the original interpretation and ideas?
Yeah, I was sent a draft of what I’m assuming was the latest draft of what Jon Spaihts had written, who was the only writer on the project prior to me. I got the script with the sort of mysterious request of “tell us what you think.” These are essentially job interviews, situations like this, and you don’t know what they like or what they don’t like, or if they even know what to do at that point.


I really liked Jon’s script; I thought there were some very cool and original ideas in it that I thought were potentially dangerous, and I like danger—I don’t respond to “safe,” creatively. I said to myself, “Oh, this is sort of unexpected, but it’s not unexpected just to be shocking. It’s cool.” I read it and enjoyed it, but I just felt like that draft was very married to Alien; 35 pages in, we’re already dealing with eggs and facehuggers and chestbursters and xenomorphs and acid blood.

I felt like that was all the stuff we’ve seen before, and then there was this other idea in the script that I haven’t seen before, so I told them, “What I think this script would really benefit from is a remixing of its ideas, to make the movie about these ideas and themes of creation, and focus it more on the idea of going to visit these beings who may or may not have made us. And a little bit less on things jumping out of eggs and running after us with mandibles of death.” All of which probably would have been awesome in any other context, but I think it would’ve definitely been more along the expected path.

So that’s what I pitched to Ridley [Scott] and the production team, and that’s what they responded to. For some crazy reason, they hired me, and thus began the next year of my life.

Your fascination with this idea of creation can be traced back to Lost, as well, and the show’s final season revelations and overarching themes.
Sure, that’s very perceptive of you to say, too.

Why has the idea of creation always interested you?
It’s definitely something that’s interesting to me, and it was of particular interest to Ridley. What seemed really appealing was the idea of looking at that theme not through a supernatural construct but through a sci-fi construct, in the same way that Frankenstein looks at life after death in terms of what’s grounded in a scientific reality as opposed to a paranormal reality.

This movie was going to say, What if creation wasn’t the result of some kind of all-knowing deity? What if it’s the result of something we can actually go and visit? Are we the result of an experiment, and what’s the purpose of that experiment? Are we deemed a success or a failure?

These were really interesting ideas. Ridley is certainly not the first person to have them; in fact, he often referenced the work of Erich von Daniken and others, like Stanley Kubrick adapting Arthur C. Clarke’s book to make 2001: A Space Odyssey. But these sort of grander themes tied into a sci-fi retelling of them with the idea of saying, “Let’s apply all of that to the Alien universe.” It’s looking at it from the angle where, in the six films that have been made in the Alien universe, it hasn’t really been looked at through that microscope before.

In recent interviews, Ridley Scott has talked about how he’s long thought that the Alien sequels never really tapped into the mythology and ideas that he felt were ripe for narrative exploration in the wake of his 1979 film.
He’s certainly had a lot of this brewing in his head for a long time. I just wanted to make sure I was able to help bring it all to life.

Even back when he made Alien, he fought to keep the Space Jockey itself in the film when the studio executives wanted to get rid of it, thinking it was pointless. It seems like he had this idea in his head that there’s a bigger story connected to the Space Jockey.
Yeah, Ridley Scott was doing Easter eggs back in 1979—it’s a really cool idea.

When you first saw Alien back in the day, did that Space Jockey sequence send your mind racing?
Well, what was really interesting to me about it… Truth be told, I never felt that it was an unresolved issue in Alien. I felt that, OK, this is pretty clear—this is a crashed alien spacecraft that is sending out a distress signal, and the Nostromo is responding to it, and then there are these eggs on-board. So then, obviously, the question becomes, Where did this alien spacecraft pick up these eggs? But then, also, I feel really bad for that guy in the chair, this Space Jockey, because he’s a victim in this thing.

So I felt like I had all the story that I needed: They picked this stuff up, came across it, and it killed them. But the idea that Ridley was advancing for Prometheus was, A, what if those things weren’t as alien as we thought they were? And, B, what if there is a fundamental relationship between those beings and us? And, C, what if they weren’t victims of these eggs but were directly responsible for making them? As in, it’s more of a thing where they made Pandora’s Box and something got out, rather than them being innocent, hapless victims. Those were the ideas that really got me pumped up for Prometheus.

And the visual scope of Prometheus allows you to fully explore those ideas without any restrictions. When you’re writing a script like this, how much of a comfort is it to know that you have someone like Ridley Scott in your corner? No matter how crazy or imaginative your ideas are, he’ll be able to effectively bring them to life, which he’s proven through movies like Alien and Blade Runner.
Yeah, that’s exactly right, but I think even beyond that you just know that there’s a huge safety net below you. He’s an iconic visionary director, and he’s also operating in a genre that he helped define, so there’s a tremendous amount of trust there. In other situations, I might be collaborating and someone might say, “Do this,” and, “Do that,” and I say to myself, “Geez, I’m not entirely sure that this person knows what they’re doing. This doesn’t feel right to me.”

And that never happens to you when you’re working with Ridley; you’re just automatically like, “That sounds like it’s the coolest thing ever,” because you know that he’s going to be able to execute. And I think that he was really excited to returning to sci-fi. He was really excited about shooting in 3D; he was like, “I want to shoot this thing in 3D, not do a conversion. This is going to be a new use of it, in a way where you’re just not ever going to be aware of the 3D, and it’s going to make the entire film feel more immersive.” I feel he accomplished just that.

There’s certainly a tremendous amount of pinching one’s self when you’re working with Ridley, but as a writer the upside is you can go with God, because he is the God of this universe.

In addition to Ridley Scott, you also had a first-rate cast to work with and build characters around. I was reading an interview where you mentioned how once Charlize Theron signed on to play Vickers, the character changed dramatically from how she existed in your script. Was that the case for each of the actors and their respective characters? Or, for the most part, were these characters set in stone?
Nobody was set in stone, actually. In the case of Vickers, the character was rewritten in order to get Charlize to commit to the movie. We had a number of conversations with Charlize and asked, “How can we put a little more meat on the bone here for you to interest you?” Then, she throws an idea out, we work on that idea, and present it back to her, and she responds to that and decides whether or not she wants to play the part.

In the case of the other actors, from Noomi [Rapace] to Logan [Marshall-Green] to Idris [Elba] and Michael [Fassbender], once those actors got cast I went and rewrote the script every time. These characters aren’t off-the-rack—you have to give them specifications so they fit just right.

Janek [Idris Elba’s character], for example, was originally written as an older sea dog type; that’s the way that Ridley always described him, so I always thought of him as sort of, you know, a Sean Connery, 60-year-old pirate. And then Ridley says, “What do you think about Idris Elba?” And I say, “A, I think he’s a genius, and, B, I need to rewrite the character from top to bottom.” And then you rewrite it, but then Ridley calls and says, “He wants to play him southern—Idris doesn’t want to be English.” So I go, “OK, let me take a stab at that.”

You’re constantly working on the movie to accommodate the actors to the best of your ability, and you hope for the best. But you never just say, “Hey, this is the way I wrote it and you’re going to have to conform to that.”

On a purely tonal level, Prometheus harkens back to a tougher, edgier, and more hardcore kind of science fiction that we haven’t seen come out of Hollywood in a really long time. There are several really visceral and gruesome scenes, namely a rather insane C-section involving Noomi Rapace and a med-pod. Was that also a major hook for you, to be able to take the gloves off, so to speak, and let the carnage ratchet up in the final act?
Yeah, definitely. It’s tricky, though, because there was a lot of talk going into the movie as to whether or not the movie was going to be PG-13 or rated R, and obviously, in terms of potential box office, there’s a big difference between those two. I’ll give [20th Century] Fox all the credit here. Tom Rothman [Fox’s Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer] said to Ridley, “Hey, shoot the movie the way that you want to shoot it, and give us the movie that you want to give us, and we’ll work everything out from there.”

Not that Ridley hasn’t earned that kind of trust, but putting that kind of trust into a filmmaker actually helped curtail us, in terms of, “Well, because they do trust us, we’re not going to have gratuitous nudity or constant cursing—we’ll only use that stuff as it pertains to the script.” But when it came to the visceral gore of the movie, particularly the med-pod sequence, there’s only one way to do that and that’s all the way.

As soon as I saw that stuff, before the CG and just during the dailies, I was like, “This movie is going to be rated R.” And it always wanted to be.

When I saw the film, there were quite a few people covering their eyes and sinking into their seats during that scene.
Oh, cool! Mission accomplished.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

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