Script Apart: How 'Prometheus' Writer Jon Spaiths Unlocked 'Alien' Mythology
Is there anything scarier than being stuck on a spaceship with a blood-thirsty Xenomorph hunting you? Jon Spaiths can think of one thing perhaps more daunting – writing a prequel to one of the most beloved sci-fi horrors of all time, for one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. In 2012, the New York-born screenwriter, who’s since worked on everything from Doctor Strange to Dune, was tasked with inventing a new film in the Alien mythology for director Ridley Scott. Prometheus was a daring space opera set decades before the events of Alien. Today it’s regarded as one of the boldest blockbusters of its decade. But what lessons are there to be learned from its creation?
Here are a few golden pieces of advice from Jon that I learned while interviewing him for my podcast Script Apart, in which, each week, an acclaimed screenwriter revisits their first draft of a beloved movie. Check out a few pearls of wisdom from the episode below, or listen to the hour-long spoiler special deep-dive in full above…
Identify the Demands of Your Genre
The first task for Jon while working on Prometheus was thinking about what was “fundamental to the premise” of an Alien movie. “Going back to the well in the Alien universe, there is some furniture in that universe. First of all, you want to feel some malevolent corporate presence and the pressure of corrupted human morality seeking power and wealth.” He also recognized that it was in the lifeblood of the Alien series to have a Ripley-esque heroine battling a “very male alien trying to impregnate it,” he adds. “It felt like a female protagonist was strongly built into the furniture of that universe.” Jon recognized those were requirements of his genre, and expected by the audience, so built them into his screenplay. The same principle applies to any type of screenwriting. Making a road trip buddy comedy or a haunted house horror? Work out what people come to those movies for and start with those elements. Then, once that’s done…
Work Out What the Genre Hasn’t Seen Before
How are you going to differentiate your script by adding fresh elements not seen in that genre before? That was the question Jon asked himself as he worked on Prometheus. “There was one thing I felt we'd never seen in an Alien film – a couple, an active romance. People who loved each other. In these films, you often get military configurations of people, shoved together by circumstance without strong emotional bonds. so I thought it'd be interesting to put them in the way of this menace,” he says. Finding new terrain, Jon explains, is crucial – otherwise what reason does your film have to exist?
For more tips and secrets from the making of Prometheus, listen to the episode in full above, supported by ScreenCraft.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.