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An interview with Alexandre Phillipe director of 'Memory: The Origins of Alien'
Titan Books

31 Days of Halloween

An interview with Alexandre Phillipe director of ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’

A talk about chestbursters, myths, and modern society.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and share and recommend various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

It is the eternal debate. Is Alien science fiction, horror, or a combination of both? Memory: The Origins Of Alien from director Alexandre O. Philippe does not quite answer the question. Instead, it takes a deep dive into an iconic moment from the film. The chestburster scene is one of the most well known scenes in cinema history. Philippe found some time during Fantastic Fest to talk about his interesting documentary.

AiPT!: How do you choose the movies you are going to make documentaries about?

Alexandre Phillipe: You know, it’s a very organic process. There really isn’t much of a conscious thought process in terms of let’s try to strategize what the next movie is going to be, it seems to come organically. This one obviously came out of in my previous films, 7852 which was about the Psycho shower scene. I wanted to kind of initially see if you can look at the chestbuster in, the same way and, very quickly realize, realizing that you can’t, they’re very different scenes.

They resonate with us for completely different reasons. And, so it became this exploration of Alien through mythology. I mean, I think, Alien connects with us, resonates with us deeply, culturally because of its connections to our ancient past. But, of course, I think Dan O’Bannon had to be central to this film. I think he, is the unsung hero of Alien. I mean, everybody talks about Ridley Scott rightfully, he’s obviously…, He carried that vision beautifully. And Giger of course, and his extraordinary, artistry and the universe he created, but it all really started with them.

AiPT!: The chestburster scene is very gory but you also had a shot from Scanners in Memory. Is it fair to say that you like body horror?

Phillipe: Well, I’m certainly very interested in it, and it’s funny because actually Scanners was one of the movies that I remember very clearly as a kid, just watching on VHS and going through that head explosion scene frame by frame and sort of wondering, my gosh, how did they do that? And so as a kid, I really had the curiosity about movies, and I was really compelled to deconstruct movies, to analyze movies, to obsessively, go over a movie, just watch them over and over and over again to see what kind of new things I could find and see. So, little did I know then, that I would be doing this, for a living, as a career, so but now in retrospect it makes perfect sense that I’m doing this.

AiPT!: You present tension and lots of teases before actually showing the scene. Was this done on purpose or did it just kind of happen?

Phillipe: No, no, completely. I mean, again, once I found the, the angle of the film and therefore the structure and then I realized that this was not just a film about the chestbuster, but it was really a film about, like I said, about the resonance of Alien as a myth and the way that it interacts with our collective unconscious. Then it became obvious to me that, the film needed to be a deep dive into these ancient origins in order to then build up to the chestburster so that by the time you get there, you know everything you’ve ingested before, sort of, you can experience the chestburster scene in all of its glory at that point. So it had to be exactly what you said, which is a slow build, with a bunch of teases knowing that inevitably you’re going to get to the chestburster scene.

AiPT!: How much research did you put into this?

Phillipe: That’s what I do. It’s almost obsessive research, but it’s constant, for me it’s not work because it’s what I love to do. I’m just curious by nature, so when there’s something that I want to investigate. I start doing the research and I just go down the rabbit holes that seem most appropriate for the story that I’m trying to tell. There were a lot of rabbit holes in this particular case. I think Memory is, it’s a bigger story in a way, than 7852. It’s richer in what it tries to communicate about, about movies and why we watch movies and why the theatrical experience is so important to us as a ritual, so it was a fun process for sure.

An interview with Alexandre Phillipe director of 'Memory: The Origins of Alien'
AiPT!: We’ve talked about mythology and in Memory it talks about what it was like in the 1970s. How important was it for you to reflect the times?

Phillipe: I mean, I think it’s always essential, I think, to have a reflection on the times because that’s the way to really profoundly understand why certain movies, had more impact than others, and I think what’s really kind of singular about Alien is that it is at once a movie that was completely of its time in reflecting fears and anxieties of its time. But it’s also a movie that was decades ahead of its time in what it was really expressing. And this is kind of a major thesis I think of Memory, is that it’s a movie that expressed to a certain extent, specifically through the chestburster scene and an unconscious patriarchal guilt.

And this is not something that I think Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon or Geiger we’re thinking about. It’s certainly not something that the studio heads were thinking about. And I don’t think this is anything that, I think this was far from the minds of the audiences when they experienced the movie and resonated with it so viscerally. I don’t think there were thinking about why it was having that effect because Alien was not the movie that people in 1979 wanted to see. But it was the movie that they needed to see.

And I think, if you just look factually at Alien versus all the movies at the time, the science fiction movies that were successful at the time, Alien was not supposed to be a success. It should not have been a success. And yet it was. And it was a success because it resonated with us on a level that we weren’t quite ready, I think, to comprehend. And I think that’s what also makes it such a contemporary film.

You know, I mean now, we’re finally having a cultural conversation about the way women are treated in society and the workplace and I think it’s a conversation that, let’s be honest, that goes off the rails on both ends. We go a little bit too far, but it’s a conversation that is so extraordinarily important to have when we’re actually truly having it. And I think that there’s no question that there continues to be a picture of calling balance in our society. And so you look at Alien and what it does and the effect that it had very specifically on men. And it’s remarkable to me that movie coming out of 1979 was essentially having a dialogue with us on a nonverbal level that we didn’t even have in the open, but that now 40 years later we’re actually having this cultural conversation.

AiPT!: As a child, what was your impression of that scene?

Phillipe: It actually took me a while to watch it because I… The poster freaked me out. Yeah completely, like especially the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream”. I was dreading the idea of facing Alien and I actually waited a few years to watch it, and it still blew me away. It very quickly became a movie that I just revisited it, you know, again and again and again and… And I mean even on VHS, I think that movie is so powerful and so good. The first time I watched it on the big screen was a, when they re-released it.

When that new version came out, that was the actually the first time that I watched it on the big screen and Whoa! It blows you away. Yeah. And really, you can tell just that it’s not a contemporary film, but it was not made today, or in very recent years. But, it has not lost an iota, or an ounce of its, of its power and just beauty. I mean, it’s a stunning movie experience. And, and sonically as well. It’s incredible film. Yeah.

AiPT!: So the final question, what’s the next picture you would like to examine or what are you thinking of?

Phillipe: Well, I mean we, we actually, there’s another film that we just saw two weeks ago called, Leap of Faith, about The Exorcist and yeah, and it’s a deep dive into The Exorcist, exclusively from William Friedkin’s perspective. So I, you know, got to interview him for six days on The Exorcist and, and it’s a very unique thing, surprising take both on William Friedkin as an artist and a thinker and, and on The Exorcist. It’s a very intimate kind of portrait. So that one is going to be starting its festival run pretty soon. As Memory starts coming out we still have a lot of international festivals to go to, but, then Leap of Faith will take over. And then we’re working on a film on Monument Valley.

I think this one is going to be a film about framing and, and sort of looking at the way that John Ford’s framing evolved over the course of all the films that he showed and Monument Valley. The way that he changed our perception of American history through the iconography, of the monuments. And its use of that iconography visually in his films.

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