December 18th, 2009

My time with Dan O'Bannon

I'm sorry to hear about the passing of the very gifted Dan O'Bannon, who I knew briefly in the early '80s. Here's why...

When I was 20, this movie called Alien exploded onto movie screens, and changed the semiotics of science fiction movies forever. No longer did the future have to be clean and sterile-looking and full of spiffy stuff like lasers and benign robots; nope, Alien gave us a dirty, lived-in future that (astonishingly) put women in positions of authority, no longer relegated to the status of white-gowned princesses or scantily-clad lust objects (not that there's anything wrong with that from time to time, mind you...). 1979 was a huge transition year for me - I left college behind and started working in the film industry. Even though I started as a modelmaker in the special effects field (I had friends, you see), I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. The only problem was...I'd never written a script.

So I did that stupid thing that a lot of newbie writers do: I took a ride on somebody else's creation, and I wrote my own sequel to Alien.

I was just barely smart enough to know it could never be much more than a practice run, at least, but I let friends read it, and some of those friends worked in the effects shop. I remember Douglas Trumbull walking by one day, asking what the script was, glancing at it and telling me to get it submitted. That kind of blew me away. Unfortunately I had no agent, and no one to submit it to. I was already working on my first original feature, a (surprise!) science fiction/horror screenplay called Spaces (which I never finished, and more's the pity - it wasn't at all a bad concept).

Flash forward a few years. I was dating an actor who was somewhat popular at the time. One day he met a lovely lady who was a fan...and who happened to be married to Ron Shusett, one of the producers of Alien (Ron went on to produce the O'Bannon-scripted films Dead and Buried and Total Recall). We went out a few times with Ron and his wife. Of course my screenplay came up. Ron actually agreed to read it.

And what's more is...he really liked it.

At the time, Dan was basically living on Ron's couch, so he read it, too. And liked it a lot. I didn't get to see Dan much, but there was talk of letting him take a pass on my script. For about five minutes, there was serious talk about optioning it.

Well, of course, you know what happened. There was a big rights fight over the first film; it went on for years, and - unfortunately for me - Ron came out on the losing side. The other guys got the rights to make the sequel, and some dude named Cameron wrote and directed it.

I stopped dating the actor, and fell out of touch with Ron and Dan. I ran into Dan a few times over the years, and he was always kind, but also seemed perpetually frail to me. I'm not hugely surprised by his early passing, although that makes it no less sad.

I'll always be grateful for the kind words and encouragement that he and Ron gave to a fledgling writer. I've had friends suggest that I discretely sneak a copy of my script online, but I'm not even sure I've still got one, frankly.

And that, my friends, is the story of Dan O'Bannon and the Alien sequel that never was.