Saturday, December 19, 2009



Imagine that you’re a screenwriter who has just written the biggest blockbuster hit of the summer. Across the country, there are line-ups at every theatre it plays for every showing. Critics are saying you have completely re-invented your genre and every studio in town is offering you rich contracts to fix or rewrite their next big thing as well as wanting to know how much you want for your next idea.

Where are you? On a beach somewhere mulling your options? Picking out a new Ferrari? Neck deep in starlets?

How many of you would choose to be sitting in a room with no air conditioning over the Hollywood Wax Museum trying to help a half dozen wannabees figure out their script issues?

In the summer of 1979, with “Alien” breaking box office records everywhere, the screenwriter doing just that was Dan O’Bannon. And I was one of the wannabees he was teaching.

Dan O’Bannon died last week after a long and storied career in which he’d impacted both the sci-fi and horror genres like few of his peers.

His list of credits wasn’t long but it’s more than impressive. In addition to “Alien” there is “Total Recall” and “Blue Thunder” and “Lifeforce” as well as “Return of the Living Dead” which didn’t invent the Zombie genre, but gave it the rules by which that endless parade of films now abide.

And before them all was perhaps the greatest student film ever made, “Dark Star”, a movie barely seen before the invention of the VCR but which to many was more influential than “Star Wars”, on which Dan also worked --- in the FX department.

He was one of those guys with endless enthusiasm for his craft who was simply everywhere. While studying film at USC, he met John Carpenter and got involved in both scripting and editing the film as well as playing one of the lead roles, “Sgt. Pinback”.

“Dark Star” inspired film nerds around the world. George Lucas’ “THX-1138” might have been more polished. But “Dark Star” was fun and yet filled with inspiring moments and huge ideas that still made it clear that even you too could do this.

According to Dan, it was the “feeding the Alien” sequence in “Dark Star” that gave him the idea for Alien. And, of course, nobody seeing that scene now can help but see the similarities.

Sometime after graduating USC and bailing on “Star Wars” because what he really wanted to do was write scripts, Dan met Ronald Shusset. They compared their current projects, Dan had “Alien” and Shusset had just purchased the rights to Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” which would become “Total Recall”. They decided to work on “Alien” first because it would be cheaper to produce and was therefore more likely to sell.

What I remember most about the three weeks I spent learning to write Sci-fi with him was that broken air-conditioning and how much we all laughed. Dan’s approach to work followed a philosophy I’ve tried to bring to every project of my own since -- “If you’re not having fun, you must be doing something wrong”.


But he was also a great teacher, never letting you leave the room without carrying away an image or an anecdote that he was aware would ultimately gnaw at you until it informed your work and made it better.

For example, at that time, he still had the original face-hugger stage of the Alien character and kept it in his fridge. Go for a beer, decide to see what was in the crisper – and there it was!

And while Dan always found that funny, it was also in his refrigerator as a handy reminder of the power of primal fears. In his Missouri childhood, Dan had been terrified by warnings about a local spider that buried its eggs inside a victim, eggs which hatched and were provided food as the baby spiders ate their way out. Years later that gave birth to one of the most terrifying moments ever captured on film.

In addition to those insights, his classes were peppered with references to H.P. Lovecraft, an author he loved and felt was the only true master of horror.

And it was in those moments that you understood why Dan was in that room at that time in his life and career. Yeah, the fame and the money and the career options were great. But it was the work that was important and in providing others with his touchstones, Dan was reminding himself of them, of where he came from and what values had gotten him where he was.

It was all about the writing, knowing where it came from and what power it could have.

Not long after our summer writing class, our paths crossed again when I did some of the voices for “Heavy Metal”. Dan had written two of the films animated segments, “Soft Landing” and “B-17”. I gave him a call and while he was happy to hear that I was busy, all he really wanted to know was “What are you writing?”

Being part of something iconic that he had written didn’t matter to Dan. It was all about the work it took to get there.


wcdixon said...

That's very cool.

Here's to having some fun.

Anonymous said...

He's one of the few people in the business you never heard a bad word about - not because folks kept their mouths shut, but rather because this was just an ace guy. It's a shame he had to go so soon - condolences to his family and friends.

The White Wolf said...

Return of the Living Dead has always been a holiday film for me. The comedy and pacing is so tight the film feels like a half-hour sitcom. Just brilliant.