Our visit to the Alien: Covenant set is bursting with excitement
It’s hard to think of anything more exciting than being on the set of director Ridley Scott’s new Alien movie at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, but that’s exactly where we were on June 27, 2016. Somehow, we lived to tell about it. Here’s everything you need to know about our Alien: Covenant set visit before the movie opens on May 19, 2017.
When we arrived, the crew was on day 60 of a 75-day shoot, a more compressed schedule and reportedly a smaller budget than Scott had to work with on the previous prequel, Prometheus. We are led to the art room, where we are struck by concept paintings and photos from the New Zealand wing of the shoot, depicting massive forests containing trees with swelling, cancerous growths. That should be a good indication that this entry will be even more of a horror film than Prometheus was, which is exactly what they’re going for.
“It’s very hard to scare people,” Scott told us during a brief break during shooting. “The bloody horror films you see ironically are not even frightening, they’re just like, ‘yikes!’ So I thought I’d try to come back and do one. The trick is I think ‘Alien’ way back when ran its course. Then I thought with that special kind of creature it shouldn’t really run its course. It shouldn’t have really ended, so we’ve come back with a very simple idea, which is who made them? No one ever asked that question.”
To answer that question are a new crew of unsuspecting colonists aboard a terraforming ship called the Covenant. En-route to their scheduled planet of arrival, they take a detour when a human distress signal diverts them to a planet once inhabited by the mysterious Engineers of 2012’s Prometheus. A Pompeii-like calamity of some kind has occurred in the intervening ten years, which is partially glimpsed in the new trailer with a shot depicting thousands of engineer bodies leading to a huge Roman-esque temple. In the art room, we saw a foam core model of this temple along with very tiny Engineer cutouts to show the massive scale.
When we last saw Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the android David (Michael Fassbender), they were heading to this planet to find out why the Engineers created human beings and then subsequently the Xenomorphs to destroy them. We WILL get to Shaw in some capacity, but it is David who has been a busy boy and he holds the key to what goes on in the new film.
“In terms of what has been occupying his time, those traits that we saw in ‘Prometheus,’ his appreciation of beauty and nature, that’s all relevant,” Fassbender revealed about David’s evolution. “I suppose he’s on this planet and — like a human — thinking, ‘Why do we do all this?’ We want to leave something of us behind after we go. There’s a legacy of some sort that we’ve left behind. We sort of saw in ‘Prometheus’ the concept of David witnessing Weyland meeting his creator, and so David was in some respects, as Peter Weyland was, in awe of his creator. Until you see the fallacies of your creator, and how mortal they can be. It would be fair to say I think he’s moved on. (laughs)”
Another familiar face will be back for Covenant: The iconic Xenomorph, as envisioned by H.R. Giger for the first Alien. The beast will be a man in a suit with a puppeteered mouth, still utilizing rods and cable controls like Carlo Rambaldi did in 1979. We see some of these guys in the creatures department, where we also see familiar facehuggers and giant leathery eggs being manufactured. One of the effects guys spring-loads a facehugger and launches it right at the author, a dream come true to be sure.
In the creature department, we also see a newer version of the Deacon introduced at the end of Prometheus. He still has a pointy head, but the mouth is more of a butthole shape/texture. The anus was definitely referenced, and a beak-like thing juts out from it. It is truly disgusting. There’s also a toddler version of the Deacon that is pretty horrifying in its own way. One of the practical effects guys tells us this is the “bloodiest set” he’s ever worked on.
There’s also a fascinating engineer anatomy sculpture being painted, like something you would see in a medical school. On the wall there’s an Australian spider chart, and we’re not sure if it’s for practical or film purposes. Since the release of the new trailer, they showed a Xeno with a spider-y gait to it, so it might have contributed!
We then got to meet some of the new crew, led by Katherine Waterston as the film’s heroine Daniels.
“Daniels is the chief terraformist on this colonization mission,” Waterston reveals. “There’s a massive wing of the ship that’s dedicated to this machinery that we’ll need when we get to the planet. There’s green houses and farming equipment. I’m in charge of all that forwards and backwards, and I’ve been working on it for ten years before we take off and we’ve been prepping for seven months up there and we’ve gone into a sleep cycle and the film starts and we’ve come out of it. We’ve all been prepping on it for a year so, we all know each other.”
Everyone onboard the Covenant is paired as a couple in a Noah’s Ark-type fashion, including Daniels with the Captain played by James Franco, and Demian Bichir’s Sergeant Lope, who is in charge of the military side of the expedition. Lope also happens to be gay, and he and his partner (played by Nathaniel Dean) are both tough hombres you don’t want to mess with.
“One thing we do is thank our commanders, because we are grateful to serve on this mission together given the fact that in the past he worked under my command as my subordinate,” Bichir says of having a husband that has to take orders from him. “That can create a problem, but not among us, because we know who we are and we are trained for anything. We are basically trained to obey orders and obey ranks but that might raise some eyebrows. The fact that they thought it would be a good idea to be put together on the same team, we are just grateful for that. Before partners, before husband and before lovers we are professionals and we know we can’t cross that line, because that would be the difference between dead and alive. No one really crosses any line, the rest of the crew is also formed in couples and whatever happens in our cabins is private.”
One crew member not paired up with anyone is Walter, the ship’s android also played by Michael Fassbender in a dual role. When asked why he had Fassbender play both bots, Scott replied, “How many Mercedes Benz are there? You get a great android it’s good business.”
“Walter is very much a synthetic minus any of the human traits,” Fassbender said, stating that David’s more “human qualities” were too troubling. “They designed the following models with fewer of those human traits. Well, none of them really. So Walter is just a very straightforward, logical synthetic. He’s more like a Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock type character.”
“I never forget that it’s a robot, I never feel like its Michael,” Waterston says, revealing that she and Walter have something of a buddy relationship as the story progresses. “What he’s doing is so powerful and so convincing, especially in the scenes where we’re not running from something and just talking. I am quite bonded to one of the characters he’s playing. We are friends and that’s why I said exploring that relationship is strange. Even now as I say, ‘we are friends,’ Daniels knows that’s a ridiculous thing to say about a robot. And David, well uh…”
“It’s been ten years since we last saw David, without any maintenance,” Fassbender added. “So those human qualities have sort of gathered momentum a little bit, I suppose. They’re as much a part of him now as his synthetic qualities. But Walter’s just really there to serve the ship, and its crew like a very efficient butler/bodyguard/technician. So there’s no complications in his programming, not like anything we’ve seen in the previous ‘Alien’ films. I suppose he’s more like Bishop in ‘Aliens’ but with even less of those human traits.”
Brilliant character actor Billy Crudup is also on hand playing Christopher Oram, who is the first mate and chief science officer aboard the Covenant. Though Oram’s religiosity makes for strange bedfellows among the more secular crew members, Crudup doesn’t necessarily see him as a bad guy.
“When I first auditioned for this, the script that I read, he was sort of an antagonist,” Crudup admitted. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not so interested in playing him like that.’ I’d rather play him as someone who really thinks he’s doing a great job, and he’s so focused on that that he’s doing a horrible job of socializing and a horrible job of leading, but it’s not because he’s a sh*tty guy and it’s not because he’s nefarious or something.”
“I think because she doesn’t think of herself with the Captain, she’s one of them,” Daniels says of her camaraderie with most of the crew besides Oram. “Like Ripley in the first ‘Alien,’ she’s technically third in ranking and that changes as the film progresses.”
“The problem with Daniels and her partner is that he’s the captain,” Crudup adds. “And he’s also younger than me, and I’ve been a part of this program for some time and then in the system for some time. I think Oram had the expectation that he would be in charge of this mission and that in fact his faith, or his struggle with his faith, was an impediment to him ascending. So I think that’s the source of the conflict in addition to him being very self-serious and them being, um…. normal.”
Daniels doesn’t fit the Ripley mold precisely, though.
“What will you do in a crisis?” asks Waterston rhetorically. “Will you be the type of person to think clearly and make decisions quickly or do you fall apart, weep and then get a Xenomorph tail in your eye? I thought I saw that when I read that in the script, she doesn’t start walking around knowing she can kick ass. She starts to discover her strength and her courage as the circumstances present themselves.”
Unlike prior Alien movies where the crews have been relatively small, the Covenant contains over 2000 people, which makes for a large colonist buffet line for the Xenos to munch on.
Once we made our way to the soundstages, it became immediately apparent we were on a Ridley Scott set by the huge wall of fog that hit us. As we learned on The Martian set visit, the man loves his fog.
To see the full-scale Space Jockey set is awe-inspiring. The end of it was lit up, and there were also those signature Giger bio-organic tunnels all around the set. Entering these tunnels we are struck by how ridged, bony and dark they are. A woman is adding paint to texture it, very detailed. A little nook where Shaw is hiding out in makeshift quarters holds a bed and a rack of human space suits behind a plastic curtain. We see Fassbender’s body with something around its neck.
On Stage 1, we find the interior of the Engineer cathedral, which has been fossilized Pompeii-style. Inside there are seven huge heads sculpted into the surroundings, so big that only the bottom half of them has been built practically, with the rest to be added in post. We step up huge Engineer-sized steps (each one covered in hieroglyphics) into tunnels on both sides and a door in the center leading to fossilized bodies.
We head back to Stage 2 to witness filming at video village. We see Katherine and Michael shoot a scene where they’re exploring Shaw’s makeshift hovel. Their flashlights mostly light the scene, along with a few overhead lights. They see Shaw’s helmet. Water drips onto her hard bed and Katherine examines an object. Walter is stripped of emotion like Spock.
After a quick sojourn to costume designer Janty Yates’ department, where we see a cool yellow spacesuit Danny McBride’s Tennessee will wear (inspired by comic artist Moebius’s work), we head back to Stage 1 (the giant head stage) where Ridley is pumping in atmosphere. Drizzles of water cascade down the face of one of the heads. Another modular head almost runs us over as we’re chatting with Ridley, who seems as committed as ever to this universe.
“The first ‘Alien’ was seven guys and gals in a steel hull, frankly the very old idea of ‘The Old Dark House,'” Scott recollects. “Who’s gonna die next? The fundamental basis of ‘Alien’ was a pretty old B-movie, but because of the cast and talent involved it came out an A+ movie. So we’ve reinvented the idea of ‘Alien,’ I think, which is that ‘Covenant’ gets us a step closer to who it was and why they decided to make human beings.”
20th Century Fox will release director Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant in theaters on May 19.[Gallery not found]