A Long Prometheus Discussion With Writer Damon LindelofFeatures
A spoiler-ridden interview with the Lost writer about Ridley Scott's Alien prequel.
The day after the world premiere of Prometheus, DIY was given a lengthy interview with writer Damon Lindelof, who scripted Ridley Scott's return to sci-fi.
Along with Carlton Cuse, Lindelof was showrunner, executive producer and key writer of six seasons of Lost, after creating the much-discussed series with J.J. Abrams. A huge fan of Lost - we're thrilled that people want to discuss it two years after the finale - but note our interview was very much focused on Lindelof's script, which turned a planned Alien prequel into something much broader. (There was no time to talk about Lindelof's script for Abrams' Star Trek sequel, currently filming.)
As the film is already in UK cinemas - read our review here - we haven't held back on the spoilers below. Consider the entire interview a spoiler, so it's best to read after seeing the film (a lot of it won't make sense otherwise). Already watched Prometheus? Prepare to have your questions answered...
A 30-minute round table chat at a swish London hotel with two other outlets (the fine folks at HeyUGuys and Bleeding Cool), DIY asked Lindelof about the reason for the religious elements in Prometheus, the writing of intriguing android David (played by Michael Fassbender) and his opinions on the spoilery marketing of the film.
How closely do you work with Ridley Scott on a project like this?
The answer is incredibly close. I think that coming primarily from a television background, I really look at writing as a collaborative process from the story right down to the set pieces and the dialogue. When I first came in and talked to Ridley about Jon [Spaiht]'s Script and what my recommendations were in terms of how to evolve it and move it forward and find that balance between what, was clearly at that time, was most definitely was an alien prequel but which really wanted to be an original movie that had two children - one of those children would grow up to be Alien and the other child, the one that I was more interested in, was going to be the x-factor, the wildcard because people want to go see movies that end in unpredictable ways. So I said, let's take these big grand themes of creation and 'Who am I? And who made me? And why hath thou forsaken me?' that are here embedded in this draft, and bring those themes up and sort of push all the Alien stuff - the chest-bursting and the face-hugging, the xenomorphs, the acid blood - all that stuff down because we've seen that a billion times before. We love it, but we have seen enough movies about that, we don't need to rely on that.
So what happened was, he hired me, for some crazy reason, and then I said, 'great, shall I come in tomorrow?' He said, 'what for?' And I said, 'were just going to start talking - are you free?' He said sure, and what ensued was over the course of a few weeks, four days a week, for two to three, sometimes five to six-hour story sessions. I sat across from a table from him with my pen out, writing down every word that was coming out of his mouth. I would ask him questions and we would sometimes talk about the script directly, or sometimes talk about the thematics - there was a whole day we spent talking about 2001 and Stanley Kubrick. The result of that was that I had a whole notebook of notation that I had taken and I felt like I understood; I had a real clear sense of the movie that Ridley wanted to make. I went off and I did my draft, and he read that and we repeated the process all over again. We got closer and closer to the movie that he wanted to make through each conversation. So it was enormously collaborative. And I really feel like, it's not so much a movie I wrote - and I know Jon Spaihts agrees, we're certainly not monkeys sitting at our typewriters - we were just channeling Ridley's vision for the movie.
Ridley mentioned at a Q&A in April that there were no original ideas left in sci-fi - was that why there are notions of sacrifice at the beginning of Prometheus, and obviously religion plays a big part of it? Was it important to move away from traditional sci-fi as such and bring in those spiritual elements?
Yeah it's interesting, because one of the things we kept coming back to, and what Ridley really wanted to do, was how do we take creation myth? This is something that is in Christian-Judeo culture is Garden of Eden, God creates Adam and Eve, etc, etc. He was like, prior to that, I'm interested in Greco-Roman creation or Aztec creation where there are many gods and these gods basically make man out of themselves. This idea that they sacrifice themselves or take a piece of themselves and create man in their own image. I think that's very interesting. Can we do that on a sci-fi level? And so the opening of the movie is basically this idea of dissolving one's self, sacrificing one's own protoplasm or genetic material in order to become the birth of a new life form.
That theme caries through in terms of the future, and the way that we are designing our creations, which in this case is embodied by David, the synthetic human, who we make in our own image for reasons that don't entirely make sense. David is sort of picking away at it and saying 'You made me to look like you because that makes you more comfortable and that's why I wear the helmet'. But there is something in his tone that says 'I'm not entirely sure why you made me look like you. It doesn't seem like the most practical application of a robot, but if it makes you more comfortable for me to look exactly like you, then so be it.' And so this idea of creating one in one's own image becomes a sci-fi construct as opposed to a supernatural construct or a religious construct and I think the movie wanted to dabble in marrying those two ideas.
I find it interesting that David ends up being the strongest character, even though he's an android. How did you conceive him, and why the Lawrence of Arabia influences?
David is obviously the character that was most fun to write. Robots are fun to write because they're not burdened by the same emotional truths and irrationalities that humans are. You just have to decide who programmed them and what did they program them to do. Then you obviously get into the interesting territory of how capable is a robot of original thought based on its fundamental programming – but that's for later. I looked at David in a couple different ways. The first was through the prism of him being like a five year-old. I have a five year-old son, and one of the things my son loves to do, if he loves a movie, he just watches that one movie over and over and over again. I will say, 'hey honey, I know you love Toy Story but there are two more Toy Story films and there is Finding Nemo,' and he'll say 'no, I like this!' So I thought, wouldn't it be interesting... we have always seen robots that have read every book and seen every movie. But if David just likes Lawrence of Arabia, what if he just watches Lawrence of Arabia over and over and over again? Then, in the same way I put a case on my iPhone, I want to mod my iPhone so it looks different to your iPhone, if there are 10,000 Michael Fassbenders out there, wouldn't they want their own, legitimate individuality? So this one wants to dye his hair blonde so that he looks like Lawrence. And what does 'like' mean to a robot?
The other thing that was liberating, is that it has just got really tired to me in sci-fi with robots that they want to be human. Pinnochio robots as I call them, like Data in Star Trek. Why in God's name would a robot want to be human? I thought it would be much more interesting if you had a robot that sort of didn't get humans. It's like, 'Why would you even make me look like you? Or why are interested in chasing these things down, when they just spent the entire movie trying to kill you? These things make no sense to me. I'm not interested in experiencing emotions. Emotions seem like a huge pain in the ass.' More importantly, and ultimately, David's purpose in the movie was to use him to comment on the folly of the mission as a whole. These humans are seeking out their creators and he is hanging out with his creators and frankly, he is not impressed. I felt like using him as that sort of voice was an opportunity for dry wit and humour, a lot of which came from Michael's brilliant performance. He elevated every word on the page, it was just incredible. I could write an entire movie that is just David, all by himself going on all kinds of adventures.
Did you and Ridley discuss the logic for the creation of David by humans, and the creation of humans by the engineers before you wrote it?
Yes, and again, when I read the script, I tried to... if somebody says to me, 'what's this movie about?' My answer is that it's a couple of scientists who find a cave painting. I don't like to talk plot - the movie to me is about creation. That's the fundamental thematic, in the same way Star Trek is about friendship. To sort of synthesise a movie into one word sometimes is a great process as a writer, because you look at every scene and say, how is that word coming across? Creation just seemed, for me, it wasn't just what Prometheus was about, but it was ultimately the tie that bound it to the original Alien, thematically. That movie was about creation too, which is why it was such an original piece of science fiction. No one had really thought about an organism that had come from inside us before, that we make. John Hurt actually makes it as a result of looking into that egg. He makes that threat, gives birth to it, and dies in the process. We're dealing with three generations: the engineers, they create us, then we create robots. It would be really cool if this robot had a direct commentary on the folly of this mission. There's this conversation between Holloway and David, where David says, 'why did you create me?' It becomes a prism into that gradation of a weird family tree the movie constructs. Ultimately the end of the movie gives birth to the progeny of all three generations. An android gets involved in fertilising something that was invented by the engineers with a human host, who has sex with another human and re-combines the engineer themselves. It's a very weird bastardisation.
Can you talk about the loose ends? Did they come from re-writes of the script?
One man's loose ends is another man's ambiguity. I think that Ridley was very interested in ambiguity, as I referenced, we were talking about 2001 a lot. Ridley's a huge Kubrick fan and he's still trying to make sense of the end of 2001. He'd say to me, 'explain to me what the ending of 2001 is?' What happens when he goes through the crazy LSD star sequence? 2001 is a lot more interesting to me that 2010, which explicitly spells out what happened in 2001. We're up against two things. Number one is, how does this movie want to delve into the mystery - is a science fiction movie really going to answer the question fundamentally of where do we come from and has God turned against me? Or should we just put out the empirical evidence and let people talk about it themselves. How much room should there be for future films? The question that arrives on the heels of Prometheus is why do they want to destroy us if they made us? Is it as arbitary as hey, we're done with this Petri dish, we're going to throw it away, or did we do something to deserve it. This is the question that we ask ourselves; whenever something befalls us, when we get sick, we go, what did I do to deserve this?
All these ideas where on the table, and yes, there were drafts that were more explicitly spelled out. I think Ridley's instinct kept being to pull back, and I would say to him, 'Ridley, I'm still eating shit a year after Lost is over for all the things we didnt directly spell out - are you sure you want to do this?' And he said, 'I would rather have people fighting about it and not know, then spell it out, that's just more interesting to me.' Maybe that's why he sought me out in the first place. I know it's horribly obnoxious to say you need to see the movie a couple of times in order to truly appreciate it, but I do feel like it was designed that way, and there are little things that seem like a throwaway on first viewing. For example, when they do the carbon-dating on the dead engineer and realise he has been dead for 2000 years, then you wonder about when, 2000 years ago, the Engineers decided to wipe us out. What happened 2000 years ago? Is there any correlation between what happened on the earth 2000 years ago and this decision that was already in motion? Could a sequel start in that time period and contextualise what we did to piss these beings off? I think it's a very interesting question to leave dangling. Is it a loose end? Yeah, probably. But it's probably what sends you to the pub after the movie and has you arguing with your friends as to what you think it might be. I will suffer the slings and arrows. I went and saw Inception five times. Each time I see it I change my mind as to whether or not it was all Cobb's dream. And I'm not sure Christopher Nolan wants me to have a clear answer on that. If you said to me there was a DVD where Nolan answers it on the commentary, I wouldn't want to listen to it. He wants me to decide for myself. Maybe it feels like a cop-out, but that's the kind of storytelling that turns me on.
Presumably you and Ridley know the answers to these questions?
I can definitely tell you that if a lot of people go to see this movie and there is a critical sense of people wanting there to be another one, the second movie would clearly answer the question of 'what did we do to deserve this?' I was always driven by the idea, which was Ridley's idea, that Shaw was the only true believer among the entire crew. That feels outdated in 2093. It feels old-fashioned. She gets very excited to learn she was created by these beings as opposed to a supernatural deity, but it doesn't make her shed her faith, it instills it. Ridley wanted the movie to end with Shaw announcing she was still searching, even though she had gotten the most horrible answer one could get when they seek out their creator, like if you were adopted and your biological parents turned out to be huge assholes who didn't even want you - what next? If there was a sequel to Prometheus it wouldn't be Alien. Because it's moving off in its own direction.
Prometheus is answering questions that Alien posed - was there a juggling act?
Prometheus is advancing a question, and that question is: where we created by these things, and did these things invite us to this place? The question we wanted to answer was, yes, they did create us. The question we didn't want to answer is was whether what they were making here, they were going to drop on Earth. But it got out, and it killed them first - it was their own undoing. This is something we're familiar with when developing our own weaponry - sometimes the anthrax gets out of the vase. The new question that is derived is why would these things want to kill us? And that's a question that Ridley wasn't interested in answering in any form with this movie. He liked the idea that that was the question that Shaw wanted answering at the end of it. She has a choice - return to Earth, and Earth is going to be fine. Or she can go forwards and trying to determine what it is they did as a species to deserve annihilation. I was like, yes sir!You don't argue with Ridley Scott about the movie he wants to make. You give him every single angle that you can. You say, look, when you ask questions that the movie doesn't definitively answer it's a double-edged sword. Some people will be completely totally creatively engaged by it, some people are going to be pissed off by it. That only galvanised him more because if there is one thing Ridley loves doing, it's pissing people off! Hopefully in the right way!
The first Alien is made up of Freudian nightmares. Did you want to purge it or answer any theories specifically?
I feel like it was exploring the very basic idea that is at the root of all great science fiction as a cautionary tale. I feel like the first great science fiction story is Frankenstein. People perceive it as gothic horror but Dracula is gothic horror. Frankenstein is science fiction because Frankenstein is using science, not supernatural means or mythology and it's not a monster he creates. He reanimates a dead body with science, and he shouldn't. There is a natural course of things – we are born, we live, we die, and if you try to subvert that, there is always a consequence. A penalty that needs to be paid. All great sci-fi is about getting close to that line that shouldn't be crossed, and if we cross it there are severe consequences. I think that Alien didn't really explore that idea. It was much more of a traditional horror story. We wander into the haunted house and we weren't seeking it out. We just answered a distress call on the Nostromo, it wasn't our fault. This time, the concept behind Prometheus is we're really looking for it, we are looking for the haunted house. This entire mission is being motivated by a guy who doesn't want to die in the same way that Frankenstein wants to find an answer to immortality. This thing that is created at the end of the movie is all related to us, we become the progenitors of it.
During your discussions with Ridley, did you ever discuss his feelings towards the other Alien sequels?
He hasn't seen any of the Alien vs Predator incarnation. He likes very much Cameron's sequel, but he's admitted that he feels a little bit conflicted about the fact he was passed over in terms of coming back to that universe. He's a huge Fincher fan, and he feels sorry for David, that he was so hamstrung in terms of what he could and could not do with Alien 3. He wishes that David was able to have done what David does on that movie. If Alien 3 had been David's third movie instead of his first movie, it would be right up there in the pantheon of great sci-fi. We didn't talk about Resurrection.
What is your opinion on the marketing, as there were concerns it was too revealing?
I'm of two minds of it. I definitely feel like the Prometheus marketing showed too much. That there were times where, oh they released another three-minute featurette, or another five-minute featurette. Now here is the international trailer. And you go like, I wish they hadn't shown that. But I am a storyteller, I am not a marketer. At the end of the day, marketing's job was to get people to go see the movie, and they will always err on the side of showing too much. As a storyteller, my job is to protect the secrets of the movie so you can experience the story in the purest form as possible. So I will always err on not giving you enough. It's true in all the press I was doing for the movie, particularly before the trailers came out, everyone was getting increasingly frustrated with my answers, as they were like, you're not telling me anything. People were getting frustrated with me for not giving away enough, and with marketing for giving away too much. You just hope somewhere in the middle is ultimately where it's going to live. The reality is, that we as geek culture and huge fans of the original Alien, and for us it's too much. But for the uninitiated, you have to play as much of the song as possible in order to get them to buy a ticket to the concert. If they don't buy a ticket to the concert there aren't going to be any more concerts. I would rather have given away too much and had a huge opening weekend and a huge zeitgeist around the movie and have some people say, 'wow, I wish I hadn't seen so much.'
Watch one of Lindelof's nicely vague interviews from last year's Comic-Con below: