According to legend John Hurt's fellow cast members did not know what to expect in the famous "chestburster scene" in Alien.

That seems hard to believe, considering this scene must have been in the scenario; moreover there would need to have been some considerable preparation.

  • 5
    Consider - this movie is now 37 years old, and its still being referenced-mostly for this scene. So the director did something right to establish such longevity.
    – Criggie
    Jan 30 '17 at 22:58
  • 4
    There is an assumption in the question that all actors involved in the making of a movie are privy to the complete script and know what's going on in every scene. This is hardly the case; directors have many techniques at their disposal to ensure they get the right reactions from actors in a given scene. Keeping portions of the script secret from actors is hardly a new concept. Jan 31 '17 at 16:29

It does appear to be true. UK newspaper The Independent looked at this legend shortly after Hurt's death and cites an old issue of Empire magazine.

It all started with Scott's desire for genuine reactions of terror. "[They] were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor is just acting terrified, you can't get the genuine look of raw, animal fear," he mused.

Cartwright, who famously passed out when cameras stopped rolling, said: "We read the script. They showed us a mock-up, but they didn't show how it was going to work. They just said, 'Its head will move and it's going to have teeth'.

Ron Shusett (executive producer/ screenwriter): Ridley didn't tell the cast. He said, "They're just going to see it."

The cast was kept away from Hurt and from the set until the last minute:

Cartwright: They take John down in the morning to prep him and we're upstairs for four hours. We're sitting upstairs and nobody knows what the hell is going on. Harry Dean [Stanton] is sitting in the hall playing his guitar.

Weaver: All it said in the script was, "This thing emerges."

Offal and discarded fish were used:

Scott: Prosthetics in those days weren't that good. I figured the best thing to do was to get stuff from a butcher's shop and a fishmonger. On the morning we had them examining the Facehugger; that was clams, oysters, seafood. You had to be ready to shoot because it started to smell pretty quickly. You can't make better stuff than that - it's organic.

Dan O'Bannon (executive producer/screenwriter): Once the creature was rigged up, they stuffed the chest cavity full of organs from the butcher's. Then they ran a couple of big hoses to pump the stage blood. During all this Ridley moved about, tending to the finest detail. I remember easily half an hour was spent with him draping this little piece of beef organ so it would hang out of the creature's mouth.

This added to the cast's experience:

Cartwright: When they finally take us down, the whole set is in a big plastic bag and everybody is wearing raingear and there are huge buckets around. The formaldehyde smell automatically made you queasy. And John is lying there.

Weaver: Everyone was wearing raincoats - we should have been a little suspicious. And, oh God, the smell. It was just awful.

Then they started filming the scene:

Cartwright: They have four cameras going. You see this thing start to come out, so we all get sucked in, we lean forward to check it out. They shout, "Cut!" They cut John's T-shirt a little more because it wasn't going to burst through. Then they said, "Let's start again." We all start leaning forward again and all of a sudden it comes out. I tell you, none of us expected it. It came out and twisted round.

And Ridley Scott got the reactions he wanted:

Weaver: All I could think of was John, frankly. I wasn't even thinking that we were making a movie.

Ivor Powell (associate producer): I hadn't expected it to be quite that intense.

Weaver: Look, I worked with Roman Polanski on Death and the Maiden - he would shoot a gun off. You can act, sure, but when you're surprised, that's gold.

Shusett: Veronica Cartwright - when the blood hit her, she passed out. I heard from Yaphet Kotto's wife that after that scene he went to his room and wouldn't talk to anybody.

Kotto: Oh man! It was real, man. We didn't see that coming. We were freaked. The actors were all frightened. And Veronica nutted out.

A well-researched 2020 article offers some more details about how the scene was filmed:

Four cameras were ready to roll for optimum footage. Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) could see the screenwriters huddled in the corner, gleefully awaiting the mayhem to come.

A thin cut was made in the cavity T-shirt so that it would rip easily when the puppeteer below thrust the creature upwards. At first it didn’t come through, so when they tried again the actors were already leaning in, and the amount of blood that burst forth really shocked them. Veronica Cartwright got a face full and actually flipped right over in surprise on the now slippy floor. She realised the cameras were still rolling and had to scramble back in shot.

To have the creature then shoot off across the table, a slit was cut through it, and someone yanked the puppeteer, who was lying on a small camera dolly. The tail whipping back and forth was achieved by inserting a thin tube through it and pumping it with compressed air. It is telling that there are no outtakes of actors or crew bursting into laughter. The atmosphere was highly charged: nothing like this had ever been seen before.


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