Screenwriter Jon Spaihts Reveals and Creates More Shadows With ‘Prometheus’

By  · Published on May 14th, 2012

The site’s most anticipated film of the summer, Prometheus, has long been kept under lock and key for sometime now. “Is it an Alien prequel or isn’t it?” Obviously, the film shares stylistic and world ties to Alien, but would we see the origin of the Xenomorph? That’s a question which remains a mystery, a big question mark that the film’s co-writer Jon Spaihts may or not have taken on with his work.

The questions Spaihts, director Sir Ridley Scott, and Damon Lindelof are exploring are clear: searching for answers we should not have the answer for, what it means to be human, and the mystery of the Space Jockey. Answering some of those major questions can’t be easy, but, as Jon Spaihts put it, although Prometheus will shed light on some burning questions fandom has, it could possibly create new ones as well.

Here is what screenwriter Jon Spaihts had to say about building a whole world, the thematic and visual importance of a female protagonist, and why Prometheus is more 28 Days Later than 28 Weeks Later:

I know Mr. Scott planned on making two Alien prequels. Is Prometheus a condensed story of what was the initial story plan?

No, I think all of these things tend to be living decisions that change with time. I don’t think anyone knows how the story of Prometheus goes forward, but I do believe that the powerful players would like to see it continue. From the very beginning, when Ridley and I were developing the story, we were mapping out a pair of films or even a trilogy that would create a more epic story in this new story space. I think it was always imagined that Prometheus would be the beginning of a new arc.

Damon Lindelof said at Comic-Con there was one core idea he and Mr. Scott were interested in telling. For you, was that the appeal as well, that idea?

To some extent, I can’t tell you [that idea]. The animated principle was the idea that got me the job in the first place, the idea that made Ridley go from a producer to a director, and it remains the central idea of the film; it’s a big epic connection in the fabric of the story’s universe yet. I can’t talk about it yet, but there is absolutely a big story, at the end, that is the animated principle for me.

Obviously being a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie, it’s fair to guess the idea of “what it means to be human” will be a part of the film, especially with David. Is that a question that’s raised?

Yes. The Alien universe has always had built into its story fabric a fascination with the nature of humanity: what it is to be a human being. It counterpoises the human being with the alien. The human and alien dichotomy is central, of course, to the universe. It contrasts the natural human to the art of man: the android. Also, centrally, it’s sort of an archetypical emotion in this universe, it contrasts the human with the corporation. There’s always a corporation, an artificial person, and this alien, and they’re, in some ways, opposite. Those are kind of the compass points of storytelling in the Alien universe. We’ve added something new and revolutionary to that universe, which is really the central point of the story. Those old archetypes are still in play and serve as sign posts and guide posts, both in writing the story and realizing it.

Was it freeing, in the writing process, knowing you could paint a world this big, knowing Mr. Scott was directing?

It was. The world-building, in science-fiction, is a particularly difficult task. I keep telling myself the next thing I’m going to write is going to be set in the present day of New York, because then you can just write “interior taxi cab,” “interior cafe,” and “interior psychiatrist office.” We can all imagine those things, and we know how those things work. If you tell a story in an imaginary world in the far future, you have all these burdens. You write a spaceship, so, well, how do spaceships work in this world? What do they look like? Do they teleport? Are they big or are they little? Someone’s on a phone, so how does a phone work in this universe? What does it look like? You have to explain everything, and that burden never goes away. A guy pulls out a gun, so what does that gun look like? How do guns work in this universe? What is a car now?

And then, of course, you have the lore, the mythology, and the backstory of the tale you’re going to tell, and all of those things are prerequisites to the tale itself. You still have to define character, write your walloping good yarn, and still have to conjure emotions. You have these additional burdens, because of the imaginary world, and the mythology that animates it; it’s hard work. It was a very tough first draft. Every time you start a new scene, you have to invent.

Did you ever approach it the way Star Wars did, that it’s just there and don’t worry about how it works?

Sometimes that’s the best solution. You can really dig yourself in a whole by tacking too much pseudo-science into a script, because every sentence of explanation is something the fans and nerds are going to be picking apart later, and I’m one of the nerds who does that. If you allow technology to exist in a slightly more integrated or magical level, where you just see the phenomenon and get no intense talk, then there’s a lot less to pick at. Sometimes the strongest position of when you’re introducing kind of science to your mythology is: the less said, the better.

In terms of plotting, how did you go about the exposition? Do you explain it through action or do you go with, say, the beginning text or voice-over?

Exposition is always a burden in these films. The more elegantly you can do it, the better. The more tasks you can accomplish, the better. Nobody ever wants to stop the momentum of the story just to pause for exposition, but sometimes you do. Sometimes you have to, just because there’s too much to say. At the top of Avatar, there’s something like 40 minutes of solid exposition, and they use every imaginable trick: first-person character voice-over talking about his thoughts, feelings, and backstory; throwing a new fish into an environment, so things get explained to him how it all works; we get lectures and audio and visual presentations, virtually every trick. Cameron had an extremely dense mythology, with the biology, economics, the corporate interest, and with the relationship between the military and the scientist, there was a lot to explain. Once you’ve laid it all down and the audience gets it, then the story can move along. We all kind of need that super lesson at the top.

With Ridley Scott very much being a visual storyteller, does he deliver a lot of exposition visually?

Ridley is a visualist. He’s an extraordinary storyteller, but he is most animated by the image. When you talk to him in a story meeting, his hands are always moving; he’ll grab a pen and paper, and then start sketching. His sketches are very rough, to begin with, but then he’ll make these gorgeous storyboards. Just by his nature as an artist and filmmaker, Ridley is drawn more to show than to tell, which tends to push back against long, talky speeches. He’d rather show you a sequence or a shot that tells you everything you need to know.

From the beginning, did you approach it as an Alien prequel?

Yeah, it was very much an Alien prequel, from the outset. It was the untitled Alien prequel for most of the time I worked on it. We tried titles out, but nothing ever stuck. Again, it goes back to that idea I can’t really talk about, but the core idea that got me the job in the first place was a new addition to the mythology and the universe. That new element became very much the central element of the story, the principle point of interest. The other trappings of the Alien universe retreated into the background, in deference to this new central notion. I think the studio looked at that and knew we were really talking about something new here. It has a bloodline connection to the Alien universe, but we’re not going to use that title anymore because we’re really in a new space.

Obviously it’s not a spoiler to say the film involves the Space Jockey, which was such a great mystery in the first film. I’d imagine there’s a real challenge there, with providing a satisfying answer while not taking away from that mystery. Was that something you and Mr. Scott discussed?

If you walk into the shadows with your torch held up, it’ll illuminate some things that were dark before, but in front of you more shadows open up. I think if you do it right, you expose as many closed doors as you open and you move the frontier of mystery back a notch. I think we succeed with that here.

That’s a good way of putting it. How would you describe Meredith Vickers and Elizabeth Shaw?

I felt we needed female energy in the story, honestly. I think that’s a part of the fabric of the universe we inherited from Alien, as we are exploring the tension and duality of the human being and alien, the android, and the corporation. In particular, the tension between scary alien forces and humanity. Honestly, I think a woman is the best protagonist to carry that story forward. Certainly, in the original Alien stories, a woman is the perfect opposite to a beast, this beast that seems perfectly engineered to kill humans, and it does so in particularly transgressive ways: it rapes, impregnates, it has a mouth within a mouth, and it tears and bites; it’s very much a nightmare image. I think a female protagonist is the perfect image to counterpose: softer where the alien is armored; vulnerable where the alien is fanged and toothed; and naked when the alien is basically a walking suit of armor.

Of course the first film raised a question, which was emphasized in the second, the strange parallelism of pregnancy and giving forth life, because we do see that alien life cycle in the first and second film. The female protagonist was almost necessary, in the beginning, for the Alien story cycle. I still think there are elements in the universe, although we’re in a very different space, that makes a female protagonist the right answer. It’s hard to say too much about that, but I think it’s the right answer.

Elizabeth Shaw is definitely no ready Ripley, because she’s a very different character, animated by different forces. She’s occupying that protagonist role, in very different ways. What’s happening with Meredith Vickers is different altogether: a female occupying an archetypical no female has occupied in this franchise, and that’s exciting as well.

You’re right, it would be less interesting just seeing a macho guy go up against a Xenomorph.

Precisely. If you put Schwarzenegger in marine armor and have him tango with a hard-shelled alien, then you just got a battle with two parallel forces. With a female protagonist ‐ who’s not soldier, trained, or expecting a fight ‐ that’s where you get the beautiful contrast.

I was surprised to hear Damon Lindelof say he sees Prometheus as hopeful, considering how cynical you could say Ridley Scott’s sci-fi films are and how the film looks. Do you see the film as hopeful?

That’s an interesting question, and I would separate two elements: the story from the universe. If you watch the film 28 Days Later, the story of the zombie apocalypse where horrible, horrible things happen, and yet, if you follow the thread of the story, all of the major sequences are about people who love each other and are fighting and dying to save each other. The story of 28 Days Later is the story of horrible things happening in a universe where love is true and people are good. If you watch the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, you’ll find a very different story. It’s the same zombie apocalypse, but it’s the story of people failing one another, betraying love, and there’s much more emotional violence to the film than physical violence. I think 28 Weeks Later is the story of terrible things happening in a terrible universe, where love is unreliable and everything falls apart.

I loved 28 Days Later and I struggled to like 28 Weeks Later, because, in the end, I suppose I am an optimist and a romantic. I want to believe that love is found, people are good, and that this is potentially a benevolent universe. I think Prometheus is more 28 Days Later than 28 Weeks Later: chilling things happening, but I do believe there is a fundamental hope at the core of this story.

Does Mr. Scott share that opinion?

Interesting question. I haven’t asked him yet.

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Prometheus opens in theaters on June 8th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.