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Friday, November 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From his Madison Park home, the 'Alien' star Tom Skerritt revisits the classic and reminisces

Seattle Times staff reporter

Screams fill the basement, thick and heavy like gas, reaching into corners.

"Man, that is the sound — " Tom Skerritt mimics the high-pitched hyperventilating staccato, which also sounds a little like sex. " — the sound of terror. Awww, hot dog! This is a good movie."

The movie is "Alien," and the screams are those of Veronica Cartwright (who played Lambert) at the story's prolonged crescendo. The director's cut of Ridley Scott's 1979 space thriller, currently in theaters, has drawn the critical appreciation of an acknowledged masterpiece. (And Scott was knighted in July.) On Dec. 2, it hits DVD in the massive nine-disc "Alien Quadrilogy" (Fox, $99.98). The cut has more than 12 minutes of new footage, including a fabled horrific scene featuring Skerritt's character, Captain Dallas.

Hence the stroll down goo-dripping memory lane with the 16-year Seattle resident. Outside, it's spitting rain. In the basement of the comfortable but unostentatious Madison Park house he shares with his wife, Julie, the lights are dim. His cat stretches in front of a glowing fire while he fiddles with mixed success at the space-age remote for his home theater. One of the few men who can still plausibly wear a mustache, the "Top Gun" and "M*A*S*H" actor is also comfortable and unostentatious in black sweat pants, a long-sleeved "Picket Fences" T-shirt and specs. Announcing that he's 70 would get you shouted down in a crowd of onlookers.

"That's a grubby old freight ship is what it is," he says of the Nostromo at the movie's start. Skerritt's watched "Alien" three, maybe four times since 1979. "It's interesting seeing all this. This is like seeing it new. We all look young."

And Dallas sports some stylin' late-'70s Bee Gees-style facial hair. Skerritt says that's from his previous film, "Ice Castles."

As crew members Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto) grouse about pay and balk about diverting the unwieldy freighter to investigate a signal coming from an obscure planet, low-key Dallas just wants everyone to shut up and get to work. If he'd lived to 70, he'd be telling kids to get off his lawn.

"He's certainly not spit-and-polish Navy guy. You just see it as being sort of I'm tired of doing this same stuff over and over again. Oh, we gotta do this, huh? OK, let's do it."

An insider's view

Skerritt didn't see a classic when he first saw Dan O'Bannon's script. He saw a low budget that wouldn't live up to the planned effects, and no director. Then when Scott signed on and the budget rose, Skerritt came aboard on the strength of the sumptuous visuals in Scott's first film, "The Duellists."

One of Scott's tricks echoed one from the climactic airplane scene in "Casablanca." As Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Cartwright) trudge on the planet's surface in bulky suits, he says, "See those three figures there? One of 'em's my son, I think he was 10 years old at the time. And another one was Ridley's son, and some other kid, in little suits so you get a better scale."

The suits were awful, he recalls. "I almost passed out, whatever it is we had letting steam out of the things. It was CO2, and sometimes it would mix in our helmets, and we didn't get enough oxygen. So we could only go for short spurts and one takes and that sort of thing."

Artist H.R. Giger's organic-looking, mist-shrouded alien ship, Skerritt says, "smelled like a lot of plastic, a lot of Styrofoam." He remembers seeing the "face-hugger" scene — in which a creature bursts from an egg onto Kane's face — with an audience in 1979.

"Pretty gripping. You can always feel the audience response to a film like this. At least you used to be able to. 'M*A*S*H' was the same thing, everybody just laughing their asses off throughout the whole thing. This one, not a sound. Not ... a ... sound."

Later, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) confronts Dallas in a hallway about what's happening, and there's something between them. "In the script, yeah. But that was cut out because it just sort of didn't mean anything. It's not a subplot that works in this movie."

A departure from formula: No kiss, nothing: "This ain't a story about love."

Unshakable images

The naturalistic performances were often improvised, Skerritt says. Scott didn't give a lot of direction.

"Actually, he was so into the visual aspects of it that he left the performances entirely up to us. That's what we recognized right off the bat, was we were going to have to handle our performances ourselves. My recollection of the one time he really spoke directly to the acting was one time when he looked up in the dinner sequence, he looked up from his camera lens and said, 'Interesting.' "

That dinner sequence: when the alien spawn bursts from Kane's chest — one of the most shocking moments in mainstream cinema.

"I knew what was going to happen. I'd seen them work it out." But as a bug-eyed Cartwright gets spattered in gore, he says, "That was her real reaction. Veronica didn't know. Veronica just couldn't contain herself. She was just about on the floor about this time, I think."

Later, the fully grown creature uncoils down into the frame behind Brett. "Isn't that beautiful?" Skerritt says.

The image he can't shake is from a filming break. "They were coming out the stage doors, and he's in the (alien) outfit, this 7-foot-1 guy, very thin, and he's got the head off, got the suit on, and he's walking with a 5-foot wardrobe lady, and they're talking. And he's wearing bright blue Adidas tennis shoes, and the tail's being carried by this flamboyant wardrobe guy, and the wind's blowing his white ascot behind him."

Now Dallas is crouched in a dark, claustrophobic duct, hunting the alien with a sputtering flamethrower. Uncomfortable to do over and over, he says. The scariest electronic dot in film history shows the creature coming toward him on a motion-sensor. And then it takes him. The leading man is gone and all. Formula in this artfully-made B-movie is jettisoned, and all bets are off.

"I think one of the things that appealed to me when I read (the script) was the lead actor who you think is going to be the hero disappears, and the woman becomes the hero. I really like that idea."

After Lambert's death-shrieks fade, Ripley races through the hallways alone except for the alien, the self-destruct siren and flickering lights acting as the ship's and audience's racing pulse.

And here, finally, is the infamous scene: She wanders into a room that's been transformed into a nest, with bodies in cocoons on the walls. Dallas is encrusted in one of them. He begs her, "Kill meeeee."

"Looks like I'm being devoured alive," Skerritt says.

Did the deletion bug him?

"Well, I bought it at the time. We wanted to get the hell off this machine. We wanted to get out of the theater. We want to go home and live our lives, get back to reality at this point — and she's running around here looking for a cat. That's enough. Get off the boat! Get outta there! Then she stops and has a conversation with guys being devoured by egg embryos? Yeah, cut it out because it slows down the pace of it.

"But in seeing it here, it doesn't really. And I think maybe (Scott) felt that it would not only slow down the pace of the departure but that maybe it was one terrifying scene too many."

Does it feel good to have the scene back in the movie?

"I'm sorry — say that again?

"All I know is I've had my mouth open for a good part of the film and had this silly grin on my face — as you've had too."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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