Alien Day is tomorrow, a day dedicate to the love and celebration of the Alien franchise for fans. Something 20th Century Fox did was partner with Tongal to put together a bunch of Alien short films to celebrate both Alien Day and Alien’s 40th Anniversary.
HN Entertainment’s Nicholas Whitcomb previously spoke with The Spear Sisters about their short Alien: Ore and we were lucky enough to also ask some questions to another filmmaker from the group who made these lovely Alien shorts.
Kesley Taylor the director of Alien: Specimen was nice enough to spare some of her time to answer some of Nick’s questions about the short film along with the process of how it all came together. Feel free to watch her short film below before jumping into our interview with Kelsey.
HN: Before we get into Alien: Specimen, can you talk about your background with the Alien franchise? Which is your personal favorite film of the series?
TAYLOR: “I knew it would eventually come out and I’ve been avoiding it— of the Alien franchise I first saw Prometheus… Some friends took me to see it without me knowing anything about it. You can imagine my excitement in realizing I had just seen the tip of the Alien franchise iceberg. Watching the original for the first time was truly a treat and so obviously an instant classic. I don’t know how I missed seeing it for so long! While the original is my favorite I really enjoy the third for the big risks it takes. It’s a fascinating setting and I think not having watched the films as they were released changes the context in which I view the third.”
HN: How did you get involved with this project and what was the submission process like on your end?
TAYLOR: “I had done one little project previously with Tongal and would occasionally check in on their website to see what was going on. You can imagine my excitement seeing this project come up. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it until there were only a few days to submit a pitch and I was on another job. In a panic, I went through the Tongal forum looking for other people who might have ideas and want to collaborate. There were a number of international people on the forum who were unable to apply without a U.S. filmmaker. I reached out to four writers and each of them sent back awesome concepts! I submitted all of them, including one I wrote and this is the idea Tongal/Fox chose to move forward with. After we were selected to develop a full pitch Federico (writer) and I worked together on the script as we were chosen to pitch solely by our initial concept summary.”
HN: You were able to collaborate with another writer on Alien: Specimen, before tackling this particular story, what other ideas were floating around for the short?
TAYLOR: “It was really amazing how diverse the concepts were from the writers I contacted. I don’t want to share their concepts just in case they choose to pursue them on their own! I would love to see more shorts made by fans. One that I submitted was an Alien 3 kind of concept— a slaughterhouse in a dustbowl setting where a farmer tries to save a stranger who is incubating a xenomorph. That one has a twist that wreaks all kind of havoc with the Alien universe. And then for fun, I thought it’d be entertaining to make Alien the stoner comedy that’s set in a different type of greenhouse. Don’t steal that idea, I still might make that one! I really love the concept Fox and Tongal chose. It’s a really unique setting and I love our girl-punk loving heroine.”
HN: I believe the shorts are meant to celebrate the original film mostly, what elements did you want to get across from Ridley Scott’s film, and did you take any inspiration from the others for Specimen? I think most people will think of Alien 3 when they see Maggie the Doberman.
TAYLOR: “The project was indeed intended to pay homage to the original film and I was really excited about trying to make ours feel as though it was made in the same era as the original. We wanted everything to feel, sound, and look analog. We drew inspiration with our practical effects— the lighting changes and smoke gags. I love how much texture there is in the original and we tried to echo those textures in our short as much as possible. We had fun in the little details, making custom patches, Julie’s belt which is just like the ones in the original! Even our choice of instrumentation for the music was inspired by the original film. Our location however not being on a ship meant that we did a lot of looking to Alien 3 which you’re right, I’m sure comes to mind Maggie being a part of the film!”
HN: I thought Jolene Andersen was excellent as Julie, and I’d watch an Alien feature with her tomorrow. Can you talk about casting the role of Julie for the short?
TAYLOR: “Jolene is an awesome kick-ass lady! I posted casting calls on Breakdown Express and LA Casting with a call for self-tapes and she is one of many people who submitted for the role. I fell in love with her attitude and look immediately. She so clearly could rock the botanist/girl punk enthusiast and we cast her just off that one self-tape. She was a great sport on set, always ready to go and incredibly easy to work with.”
HN: One thing I also loved was the surprise reveal that Maggie is a synthetic dog, when did that idea come about?
TAYLOR: “The robot dog idea was added very late in the game believe it or not… It was not in our original pitch, nor did it make an appearance in the draft that was greenlit to move forward in the competition. It used to be that Julie was attacked by the Facehugger the end. The synthetic dog was one of those ideas that just materializes out of thin air and seems so right you wonder how it could ever have been different. I felt that the twist gave us a way to have a bittersweet ending and give Julie a chance to learn from this experience. The dog being a synthetic, of course, helped with the believability of it fighting off a Facehugger and I also think it added so much heart to the story knowing that Julie, alone in the greenhouse, cared for this creature even knowing it’s just a synthetic. There was a lot of back and forth on this because it was a big risk to take and I was so worried fans might hate it. Ultimately I think the risk paid off! And I had always wondered about Jonesy and having pets in space… It makes sense to me that they wouldn’t be simple flesh and blood any more.”
HN: The location in the short was incredibly effective, even though it was essentially just a greenhouse. What were some of the challenges in filming on location, and what kind of stuff on set did you use to capture the atmosphere of the Alien universe?
TAYLOR: “Our location was really stellar— I had worked there before on one occasion so it was on my radar from the get-go. We looked at a number of real greenhouses but ended up decided it would be easier to bring plants into a bigger space then try to work around an operational greenhouse. It would have been fun to get more elaborate with our production design in making it feel more futuristic but budget limitations kept it pretty minimal. Plants are shockingly expensive to work with!!! A good lesson learned. The biggest challenges imposed by the location were the limitations on our crew size— we could only have 15 people on set or you needed another monitor— essentially doubling our budget per day of shooting. So we had to keep the crew REALLY small— every person was essential and many wore different hats. The other location issue was that you need to bring in your own power and there were no elevators to the basement level we were shooting in. We spent a fair amount of time running cable and carrying everything downstairs by hand.”
HN: Something I hope viewers will appreciate is the sound mixing in this short. I loved the cut from the music to the alarms, it blended well. Can you talk about the element of sound in the short?
TAYLOR: “Our sound designer Eric Wegener and composer Robert Evan Hunt did an incredible job handling the auditory side of our short. The sound design really helps make the greenhouse immersive with the dripping noises, the fans— you can practically taste the humidity. Eric also paid so much attention to detail in designing the fight sequences between Maggie and the face hugger which take place almost completely off-screen. I love that I can trust Eric to sculpt the narrative and really make the story a priority in his work. And he’s very inventive! In doing foley he made special gloves to simulate Maggie’s claws on the ground. We were recording the shovel effects as Julie runs through the dark and decided we needed an extra scrap of metal rigged to the shovel so it sounded janky running around with it. He and Robert are also responsible for all those fun jump scares. Many people have asked about the song playing on Julie’s headphones— it’s BOOM BOOM BOOM by Grace Mesa.”
HN: When did you decide on creating on the Facehugger digitally, and what was that process like?
TAYLOR: “I had always hoped to do all of our effects practically. I felt that it would be appropriate based on the world of the original and because frankly, I always think it looks better. But after calling around hoping to get an articulating model made, we accepted it was not in our budget and had to start figuring out plan B. The Facehugger appears in three forms throughout the short— as a latex model (from Moldy Productions), a plush chew toy when Maggie attacks it, and as CGI for the pounce and final destruction sequence. We had hoped to be able to use the latex model and green sticks to make it twitch for the final shots but we just ran out of time to spend messing with it on set. Thankfully one of my good friends Luc Delamare (also our gaffer!) agreed to do the CGI VFX for the entire short even though he’s not an animator. He’s a very talented compositor and he actually spent many many hours learning how to animate for this project. We’re lucky to have had him because he was able to do those final stab shots in addition to the pouncing sequencing. As grateful as I am I would have loved to do it practically, but in this strange world, it was just more cost effective to do it this way.”
HN: I personally felt that both of the shorts with female directors, both yours and the Spear Sisters Ore, were the strongest of the group. Do you feel it’s overdue that the franchise has a female voice behind the camera?
TAYLOR: “I’m honored you felt that way! I think each short has something unique they bring to the table. Ore and Specimen do share a similarity in that they spend more time setting up their characters and reaching for character development which is a hard thing to do in a short film and sets them apart. I absolutely think we need more women given opportunities to spearhead franchises like Alien and would love to see that happen. It’s a tough line because I know I certainly don’t want to be hired for my gender, I want to be hired because I’m good at what I do. But I think there could be more talented women given chances to work with bigger budgets and IP. Alien has notoriously had some of the most amazing male directors at the helm— let’s tap a talented lady!”
HN: If given the chance again, would you be willing to return to the Alien franchise?
TAYLOR: “I would love to be given a chance to return to the Alien Universe again. This was one of the greatest opportunities of my life thus far and it was a pleasure to play in the sandbox of the Alien universe. In developing the short I spent a lot of time thinking about the back story of Julie and Dev and their relationship. In my mind, this short is just an early scene from that greater story and the beginning of an adventure that takes them outside the greenhouse and leads them to a dark truth about their mission. It’s been really fun to see how each of the filmmakers explored the universe and I’m excited to see what’s next for this franchise!”
HN: There’s been a lot of talk about where the franchise might go next, whether Ridley Scott continues his prequel saga or something else entirely. Where would you personally like to see it go next?
TAYLOR: “There are so many rumors circulating regarding the future of the Alien franchise. Ridley Scott is such an integral part of the Alien universe— I want to know what he’s got up his sleeve. I think as people we intuitively want to know the origins of things that fascinate us and that’s what he’s exploring. That being said, maybe there are other ways of exploring the universe and drawing from its roots which is part of the reason I think Fox and Tongal saw these shorts as a great opportunity to figure out what it is that fans love about the Alien universe. I really loved the early films because of the different colonies they took us to but it also rides a dangerous line of becoming formulaic. I think what the franchise needs more than anything are characters with development that you can root for.”
HN: Lastly, is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?
TAYLOR: “I am currently working on my first feature that will be shooting in November and a horror feature hopefully coming in 2020. I’m very excited to be breaking into the feature world at last. I love world building be it sci-fi, period or fantasy— my tastes are really eclectic. And as someone who wants a long career directing, I’m always looking for strong, unique scripts! I’d love to build a franchise of my own someday.”
We’d like to thank Kesley for her time speaking with HN Entertainment and hope everyone will take the time to watch the other Alien short films the filmmakers put together to celebrate Alien’s 40th Anniversary ahead of tomorrow’s Alien Day.