“We wanted to create a really frightening movie!” John Logan on Alien: Covenant
John Logan discusses bringing fear back to the Alien franchise, tackling the big philosophical questions, and the importance of being told to do better.
In Prometheus (2012), director Ridley Scott began laying the foundation for the science fiction world depicted in his horror classic Alien (1979). Now Scott’s space epic continues in Alien: Covenant, the second film in the Alien prequel series, co-written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan.
Alien Covenant takes place between the events of Prometheus and the original Alien film. It follows the crew of the colonial spaceship Covenant, who receive a transmission from a thought-to-be undiscovered planet. But on landing, the crew become stalked by the precursors to the infamous creatures from the Alien movies.
The first screenplay for the film that would become Alien: Covenant was written by Dante Harper. Ridley Scott then brought on Logan to rewrite the script.
Logan began his career as a playwright while attending Northwestern University in Chicago. His early writing credits included the television movie RKO 281 about the production of Citizen Kane, which was produced by Ridley Scott.
After Logan’s feature film breakthrough, Any Given Sunday (1999), Scott and Logan worked together again when Logan was one of the many writers who worked on the screenplay for Gladiator (2000) – which brought Logan his first Oscar nomination.
Since that time, Logan’s writing credits have included The Last Samurai (2003), The Aviator (2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Rango (2011), Hugo (2011), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015). Logan is also the creator of the 2014-2016 television series Penny Dreadful.
Logan’s films are marked by his focus on character, even in big-budget blockbusters like Skyfall. He has worked with some of Hollywood’s most significant filmmakers, and his movies have grossed over $4 billion worldwide, making Logan one of the most successful screenwriters of the twenty-first century.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Logan about writing a story that bridged the gap between the modern Prometheus and the classic Alien, bringing the fear back to the franchise, the joy of writing scenes featuring two characters played by Michael Fassbender, and what his background as a playwright taught him about writing screenplays.
First, can you talk about how you got involved with Alien: Covenant? You were one of the writers on Gladiator, so you had worked with Ridley Scott before.
Gladiator was such a great experience, and over the years Ridley and I kept trying to find something else to work on. But nothing was quite right.
He was in the midst of doing the sequel to Prometheus, and he asked me how I felt about Alien. And he asked me to come on board because I love the Alien franchise, especially the original movie. There was already a fantastic script by Dante Harper. So I came in and worked on it for the last year and a half and through production.
You’ve no stranger to franchise films, having written Star Trek and James Bond movies. What’s the biggest challenge with finding something new in a project that is part of a long-running franchise?
You have to be true to those parts of the story or those characters that excite or move you. Every writer will approach a story with a particular viewpoint. If you hand a James Bond novel to Eric Roth you’ll get one screenplay, to Bill Condon you’ll get another, and to me you’ll get a different one. There are different things that speak to an individual writer.
With Alien: Covenant, I just really wanted to write something that had the feel of the original Alien, because seeing that movie was one of the great events of my youth. It was so overpowering in terms of what it communicated to me and its implications, that when I started talking to Ridley about what became Alien: Covenant, I said, “You know, that was a hell of a scary movie.”
I wanted to write a horror movie because the Grand Guignol elements of Alien are so profound. We tried to recapture that with Alien: Covenant, while also trying to pay homage to the deeper implications of Prometheus. In terms of tone, pace, and how we chose to play this particular symphony, we wanted to create a really frightening movie.
Speaking of the original Alien, Ripley is one of the great movie heroes of all time, and Daniels fills a similar role in Alien: Covenant. What makes Daniels different from Ripley to you?
One of the great things to celebrate about this franchise is that it was promoting female heroes long before it was popular. The Alien franchise has always embraced the idea of strong feminist iconography and heroism. Obviously that was something Prometheus did with Shaw, and that we’re delighted to do with Daniels.
But Daniels is her own unique beast. One of the major differences between Alien: Covenant and all the other movies in the cycle is that the people on this ship are not soldiers or mercenaries – they’re colonists going to found a new world. One of the reasons why I named the ship Covenant is because when the Pilgrims came to America on the Mayflower they signed a covenant – a social pact.
This crew has a very unique bond because it’s made up of couples – romantic couples, married couples, gay couples, straight couples – so already they’re invested in this shared social mission.
Within the first fifteen seconds of her experience in this movie, Daniels loses her husband. So she’s dealing with catastrophic loss from her first moment of the movie. She’s set on a very shaky emotional foundation, and one of the joys for me in developing the character with Ridley and Katherine Waterston was finding the way in which she steps up to her heroism.
Another pair of characters I want to ask you about are the androids David and Walter. The characters are very similar on the surface, and are even played by the same actor, but have radically different motivations. In your mind, what makes them different?
For me, the selfish joy of writing this movie was writing the David and Walter scenes, because we have two highly interesting characters who have so many connections. It was very exciting to play with the doppelganger myth because it is so prevalent in literature and fiction.
The differences between them are profound. David was Peter Weyland’s first successful android creation, and indeed Alien: Covenant begins with the birth of David. Someday when someone puts all the Alien movies in chronological order, the very first thing you will see is the awakening of David. He was a very well-formed android, and Peter Weyland instilled him with curiosity, creativity, and eccentricities, which are all so aptly demonstrated in Prometheus. We continue that in Alien: Covenant.
What we posit is that David made people uneasy because he was a little too human, and a little too ambitious. We want our slaves to behave like slaves and machines to act like machines. So future iterations of the model were less interesting – they tried to make them less idiosyncratic, with less sense of achievement.
Thus we have Walter, who seems like a scaled-down version of David. David’s great temptation to him is, “Be more than your programming. You could be as exalted as you choose to be. You have the elements of free will and choice.”
That’s the great provocation that David sort of tosses in Walter’s face.
It was fantastically entertaining writing those scenes, and knowing that I was writing both of them for Michael Fassbender made it more delicious for me.
There’s a Victor Frankenstein aspect to the film, and you’ve worked with the Frankenstein characters before in Penny Dreadful.
One of the things that Ridley and I talked about when we started writing this movie was that we wanted it to be the origin story of the Alien monster itself. The great mystery that surrounds that perfect organism is so tantalizing. We thought that to begin to get into that story would be very interesting.
Gradually, the tropes of Victor Frankenstein came into it. What is it to create life? What is your responsibility to that life? What is your sense of satisfaction when that life satisfies you? What is your sense of disappointment when it disappoints you?
Certainly, all the time I spent with Mary Shelley while working on Penny Dreadful was very useful in examining those tropes.
And you also mention Mary Shelley’s husband with his poem “Ozymandias.”
Yes, of course! I take wicked satisfaction that this is the only major Hollywood movie where a plot point actually revolves around who wrote the poem “Ozymandias.” [Laughs]
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Talking about the philosophical issues that make this series so interesting, in the film Oram remarks that he isn’t fully trusted by the other colonists because he trusts faith over science. Can you talk about that aspect of his character?
This picks up on a very strong seed from Prometheus. To me, Prometheus is a deeply philosophical movie asking essential questions: Where do we come from? Who created us? These are also theological and spiritual questions.
Also, I believe that is the great challenge of the original Alien. This is a life form that evolved in some way. It’s a symbiotic life form, but it’s not. It’s sort of a crab monster, but it’s not. It’s neither male nor female, and it’s neither mechanical nor biological. It’s some weird combination of all of these. If you look at the original Alien, to me the big question to ask is, “What is life?”
Prometheus picks up that seed, but in Alien: Covenant we wanted to be much more direct about it and make the spiritual element about religion and believing in God.
It is not too hard to believe that even in the present day, much less the future, a man of faith would be less respected in the world of science. It just gave great motivation for Oram’s character as he moves through the story, and it also puts him in conflict with the ultra-scientific and realistic David, which is what we wanted.
You seem to have done a little of everything in film – animated films, like Sinbad and Rango, musicals like Sweeney Todd, Shakespeare with Coriolanus. Is there something you haven’t had the chance to do yet as a screenwriter that you want to do?
To me, it’s always about who you are working with, and if the story is exciting. It’s not so much a question of what I haven’t done, it’s a question of people I would love to work with or areas that I would love to explore as a writer.
Everyone always says that they would like to write a Western, and I wrote Rango, which sort of satisfies the Western bug.
Working on Sweeney Todd excited me about musicals. So I think if I could do anything right now, I’d say I would love to do another screen musical. I’m working on a few stage musicals now, and there’s something so quixotic and so alchemic about the combination of drama, words, and music that I find exciting.
Thank goodness that with movies like La La Land, suddenly people are going to see movie musicals again. If you asked me which I would like to do, all my life I wanted to do a screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
Your background is in playwriting. How did that prepare you for a career as a screenwriter?
I think it was elemental to my success as a screenwriter, because being a dramatist teaches you the basics. You have to start with Aristotle’s Poetics, you have to do Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, Pinter, and Sondheim. Once you have a sense of basics of what drama is, you can be a screenwriter.
It’s going the other way that’s difficult. If you just went straight to writing screenplays, you might write a few good screenplays but you’re not going to build a career as a dramatist. You have to care about the film’s dramatic structure, which is character, conflict, setting, and elocution. I think all those things that playwrights have to learn are elements of good screenplays as well.
Otherwise the danger is that you write something that’s facile, or something that’s good enough, but it’s not really solid to the roots as it needs to be. Playwriting gave me the roots and soil of drama.
What is it that inspires you to write?
Great characters. I am in awe of writers who can have people sitting in a diner and talking, and make it fascinating and dramatic. I don’t have that gift. I’m pulled toward very large – some would say operatic or grandiose – characters or expressions. But that’s what I do, that’s what entertains me, and that’s what I find exciting.
I’m always drawn toward the large scope of a character, or an idea that is some way intriguing and beyond my reach. Writing things that I know that are purely from my experience would be uninteresting. I have to aspire toward something pretty magnificent to give my heart to a play, a movie, or a TV series.
In your career you’ve worked with many superstar directors – Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, Sam Mendes, and in theater Michael Grandage…Is there any commonality you’ve noticed among them from working as a screenwriter on their films?
They make me up my game. They’re all better tennis players than I am.
What I love about working with great directors, whether it’s on stage or on screen, is how they challenge me and make me a better writer.
When you’re successful and you have a body of work behind you, you get to a point when people don’t challenge you as much as they should. Getting in with people who can say, “Do better,” is a great thing. That’s exactly what I seek.
Alien: Covenant is in theaters today.
Featured image: Alien: Covenant. Credit: Mark Rogers – TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation