Ronald Shusett’s ‘Alien nation’: Looking back on a fantastic career

by Mark Burger

(This is the second in a two-part interview with noted screenwriter and producer Ronald Shusett, whose credits include Alien, Total Recall, Minority Report, Dead & Buried and Freejack.)

Like the title character, Ronald Shusett burst into prominence with Alien in 1979. Shusett and Dan O’Bannon conceived the story. O’Bannon is credited as screenwriter and Shusett as executive producer. It was only director Ridley Scott’s second feature but, says Shusett, “Little did I know I’d end up with a genius.”

The film became one of Twentieth Century Fox’s most profitable franchises and launched newcomer Sigourney Weaver to stardom in the role of the heroic Ripley. “Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen turned it down,” he reveals. Only later did he see Weaver’s audition tape, “and it was clear that she was the best by far. No matter how amazing the special effects are, you’ve got to have good actors.”

Alien, he says, “was 110 percent of what I wanted. Some things come together better than you anticipated. Sometimes it takes luck but also perseverance.”

Shusett has no hesitation in sharing credit for his past successes. That both Alien and Total Recall won Oscars for visual effects is, he says, testament to the directors and artists who brought those visions to the screen.

He dreamed it, they made it happen.

Shusett and O’Bannon’s next endeavor was Dead & Buried (1981), a ghoulish small-town chiller in which the dead won’t stay that way. James Farentino played the local police chief and Jack Albertson the town’s mortician. Shusett envisioned Jason Robards for the role, and although Albertson was coming off the NBC sitcom “Chico and the Man,” he too was an Oscar winner (for The Subject Was Roses in 1968) and had played dramatic roles throughout his career.

In an ironic twist, Dead & Buried would be the actor’s final feature, as he was ill with cancer. Shusett recalls the scene where Albertson embalms himself as among the most uncomfortable he’s ever witnessed. “Jack Albertson was a real pro and never complained, but it’s still hard for me to watch.”

Dead & Buried underwent reshoots and re-editing (described in detail on the specialedition DVD from Blue Underground), yet Shusett thinks the original intent comes through. “It’s certainly the most weird third act of any of my films,” he says.

A lesser credit was Phobia (1980), a littleseen psychological thriller directed by John Huston. Five writers are credited, including Shusett and Dead & Buried director Gary Sherman, but the end result seems to have pleased no one, including its studio (Paramount), which barely released the film. “It’s nice to have a credit on a John Huston film, although I gather it’s one of his worst,” says Shusett, who’s never seen it. “A director can use a pseudonym, but writers can’t.”

The success of Alien led to Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997).

As a writer and producer of the original, Shusett has received screen credit even for those he had no direct involvement in. “I liked the first two very much, not so much the next two.” For Alien vs. Predator (2004), Shusett and O’Bannon returned to the fold. The task was daunting, he says, because the studio wanted a PG-13 rating and he and O’Bannon weren’t involved with the original Predator films. But he was won over by the enthusiasm of director Paul WS Anderson, who also worked on the final screenplay.

“Everybody was pleasantly surprised and so was I,” he says. “I was happy with the reviews.”

The film’s success led, not surprisingly, to Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007), which Shusett calls “the worst of the bunch. Once you’ve had the two monsters fight, where can you go with it?” The answer, of course, is nowhere — which is pretty much where Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem ended up, both critically and financially.

As for Scott’s recent Alien prequel, Prometheus, Shusett ruefully admits he didn’t much care for it. “I’m sorry I didn’t, because Ridley Scott is definitely the best visual stylist since Kubrick… [and] I have the utmost respect for him.”

After Total Recall, Shusett tackled another Philip K. Dick adaptation, Minority Report. After some false starts, the project seemed moribund. Then Steven Spielberg called. He and Tom Cruise wanted to work together, and they wanted to do Minority Report. “That one phone call made it a ‘go’ picture,” Shusett says, and although he felt that the third act went on too long (he felt likewise about Total Recall), he was pleased. “If Alien is 110 percent, I’d say that Total Recall is 95 percent and Minority Report pretty close to that.”

Shusett has enjoyed “extremely good” relationships with directors and is content to remain a writer and producer. He has no interest in directing. “I know I do those [writing and producing] extremely well. I don’t have a feeling to be a director. I don’t seem to have the patience.”

And, he laughs, “I don’t know where to put the camera.” Working with the likes of Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Paul Verhoeven reinforced that assessment. “They know where to put the camera!” Shusett isn’t one to rest on his laurels, no matter how illustrious. At present he’s working on two projects, both of a fantastic nature. One is a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — “it’s Jekyll and Hyde like you’ve never seen it before,” he says — and the other a slam-bang, futuristic adventure involving wildcatters drilling and mining on asteroids between Jupiter and Mars 800 years in the future. He likens it to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but rife with special effects and blazing action. “I don’t want to give too much away,” he says, “because then somebody might try to steal it!” There are those who might say that Shusett has tended to limit himself to fantasy and science-fiction, sometimes exploring similar thematic ground. But he makes no excuses and has no regrets for revisiting a genre that has been very good to him and he to it. After all, he says, “When you copy someone else, it’s plagiarism. When you copy yourself, it’s style.”