'Alien: Covenant' Set Visit: Making The Xenomorph Scary (And Bloody) Again

Alien: Covenant is a horror movie. Everyone wants us to know this.

It's a sentiment that comes entirely from an honest place. The audience reaction to 2012's Prometheus was mixed, so when Fox assembled a group of journalists in Sydney, Australia to visit the set of the latest entry in the Alien series, they seemingly sent out a memo, suggesting that everyone make sure we understood this. And by the time the day was over, we understood it – Alien: Covenant isn't just an Alien sequel, but a gnarly, blood-soaked horror movie filled with practical monsters. It's Ridley Scott's return to the horror genre, everyone insisted.

And it turns out that making a Ridley Scott horror movie means lots of puppets and silicon. And gallons of blood. And spaghetti.

Making Alien Scary Again

"I have to get a cushion and hide behind it," producer Mark Huffam says of watching footage from Alien: Covenant. "I've seen it being filmed and I go ohhhh....don't look at it!" He's our first interview of the day. We've yet to see the creature workshop and we've yet to see the Xenomorph puppets (excuse me, Neomorph puppets), so we have to take him at his word.

"It is going to be more of a horror movie than Prometheus was," Huffam says. That's the other trend of the day: everyone not-quite-apologizing for Prometheus, a movie that divided movie fans along passionate lines. Covenant, Huffam promises us, is scary:

It kind of inhabits both parts very well. It's got the scale of Prometheus, but also it brings in the suspense and the corridors get smaller, darker, and you're just wondering what's down there, and they're still not turning the lights on before they go in.

Special visual effects supervisor Neil Corbould provided a similar sentiment:

[Alien] was probably the old haunted house and this is like the new haunted house. It's very much a modern day version of that. It's definitely going to be scary. [...] After Prometheus, everyone said they wanted more aliens, they wanted more horror. [Ridley's] certainly taken that on board and I think you're going to get that.

While fans of that first Alien prequel will surely appreciate the scope and general weirdness of the some of the stuff we saw on set, we're also being promised a movie that embraces its R-rating, a movie that "[orders] blood in the 40 gallon drums rather than the 5 gallon drums," Huffam says.

And Scott is right in the muck, getting his hands dirty with the crew. Yesterday's gore effects involved pasta and tapioca. "[Ridley] loves practical effects," Huffam explains. "He just loves to try and do as much as possible in-camera."

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Making Alien Bloody Again

You could listen to Corbould talk about fake blood all day. It doesn't get boring:

At the beginning of the movie we looked at all types of different blood. Then we put a few tests on to film just to see what color we liked. We got it from all over the world. We made some of our own as well, and we ended up using our own stuff that we manufactured here, which was quite ironic, because we spent quite a few thousand dollars shipping it in from everywhere else. But, in the long run, screen blood's quite expensive anyways. Everyone has their own little recipe and they won't tell anyone else, and ours is just basically corn starch and food coloring and that's it.

But wait! There's more:

It's just about getting the color right, because each camera picks up different colors, you know? They're very subtle, but sometimes it can look silly. It can look too red or too dark, so it's just about getting the right color pattern. We just tested it on...we've got this stand-in that came in for the day, had no idea that she going to be covered in blood. She nearly fainted once. We said, 'It's not real. It's just corn syrup.' But yeah, that quite funny.

But how do you go about spraying someone with this fake movie blood? Let's just let Mr. Corbould do the talking again:

We've got these blood chuckers, which are different sizes with compressed air and then on the top...they're like a long tube, and at the end of the tube we put a cap on it with different patterns so it gives you like a spray or splurge. We're quite artistic.

So...a blood-spraying shower head? Sort of. Different caps provide different looks. Sometimes you want a "sheet" of blood or a "spray" of blood or "big globules" of blood." Corbould calls it a science and we'll trust him – the man knows his blood.

Beyond the blood, Corbould handled numerous other effects vital to the film. Mechanical effects, gimbals, crashes and explosions. But really, we keep coming back to the gore:

We're trying to make it as realistic as possible, because that's what Ridley wants. He wants the shock factor. We're going all out for that. From the stuff I've seen, it looks fantastic. I think it's going to have a similar impact to what the original Alien did, because that was quite shocking when everyone saw that. You know, it's a true, true horror movie. I think that's what this is going to be like.

And soon enough, we got a good look at the creatures causing all of this gruesome violence.

alien covenant trailer breakdown

Meeting the Monsters

If you strolled through the Alien: Covenant creature shop without looking up, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was just a messy workshop of some kind. Tools and materials are piled high on tables. Every piece of real estate is occupied by paint and plastic and wires. The people at work look like they could be building a house – paint-stained t-shirts and jeans, hands full of brushes and sculpting tools.

But if you pause, you'll notice the large pile of mangled and burnt corpses by the entrance. Stop by one of those tables, and you'll find yourself face-to-face with a bizarre alien/human hybrid that looks like an experiment gone horribly wrong. One of those artisans in the middle of the room is painting a massive sculpture of an "Engineer," the alien race introduced in Prometheus that may have created the Xenomorph (and almost certainly created human life).

Movie fans will even recognize some pretty familiar movie iconography...like the rubber "facehugger" that creatures supervisor Conor O'Sullivan and second creatures supervisor Adam Johansen are loading into a bungee-cord-powered launcher. With a loud snap, the device sends the monster flying into the air. It's impressive. And simple. It's an old-school effect, but if you put this launcher inside a slimy alien egg and film the launch in slow-motion, you've got a recreation of one of the most infamous scares in movie history.

And according to O'Sullivan, the rumors of gruesome violence are not exaggerated. "I used more blood on this than Saving Private Ryan," he cracks. Johansen agrees: it's the bloodiest set he's ever been on. As Huffam implied, much of the viscera came to be via food products – spaghetti and couscous are mentioned.

While the facehugger (the creature that "impregnates" a host with the monster that will eventually grow into a full-sized alien) looks familiar, the Xenomorph seen in the film has some significant changes. At a quick glance, it looks a lot like the iconic creature originally introduced terrorizing the crew of the Nostromo back in 1979, but the devil is in the details.

alien covenant neomorph

O'Sullivan and Johansen only use the name "Neomorph" once, but it's an effective enough label to distinguish the chief beastie in Alien: Covenant from the original flavor. "The approach Ridley wanted was more of a naturalistic [design]," O'Sullivan explains. A close examination of the alien model on hand reveals key details. This creature is more muscular, its physical form more animalistic than the biomechanical, almost machine-like design seen in the original Alien.

"It's still based on the [H.R.] Giger original design," O'Sullivan explains. "We wanted that flavor, that sort of art nouveau-y, unusual, erotic design."

The Neomorph is the result of seven months of work from the creatures team and there are two main versions of the monster. There is an animatronic version, built with extreme detail. This is the one with the "bells and whistles," the one with the retractable tongue and the pipes that pump saliva into its gaping maw. This one is for the close-ups. A less detailed version, a full-body costume for an actor, was designed for wider shots.

Naturally, certain shots (and possibly even future evolutions) of the Neomorph require digital assistance. O'Sullivan insists that CGI is only being used for shots that would be impossible to create practically and that his team was closely involved in creating the computer-generated versions. When pushed for details about the life cycle of the Neomorph, and whether or not we're witnessing the slow evolution of this creature as it gradually becomes that iconic original design, both creature designers decline to comment.

They do say this much: the Neomoroph begins its life as a practical puppet and then it starts to grow up. Quickly.

alien covenant trailer breakdown

Acting With the Monsters

"The first thing you think is 'Whose idea was it to explore this fucking planet?'" says actor Demián Bichir, who plays Covenant head of security Sergeant Lope, of coming face-to-face with an alien. "Please let's go back in time and skip it."

Katherine Waterston, who plays the scientist Daniels, explained the process of interacting with a practical alien creature on set:

Lots of different fellas in suits. Extraordinary movers and amazing stunt guys that Ridley uses just so we can have the feel for it when we're not on camera at all. [It] can be weirdly amazing, even if it's a fellow with a beard and a grey sweatsuit or something, but he's running at me. I've worked with lots of different Alien things. One really scary thing was I was being chased by one and was in a really cumbersome outfit and it wasn't easy, the area I was running through. It really felt like I wasn't going to get away fast enough and it's just always better when it feels real. I hustled that day, for sure.

There's more to acting afraid than just running and screaming. Waterston speaks of needing to save energy, of just how exhausting it is to "amp yourself up" when necessary. Especially since the weird and the grotesque become pretty commonplace on an Alien set. "There's these amazing moments where you're sitting in your trailer and a dude from creatures walks by with your friend's head," she says. "And they're so casual about it because they do it all day..."

alien covenant trailer breakdown

But Does Ridley Scott Think He's Making a Horror Film?

After a long day of being told that Alien: Covenant was a horror movie by every single person granted permission to speak with an increasingly weary group of bloggers and journalists, we were finally able to speak with Ridley Scott himself.

We met up with the iconic director in the middle of a bustling set and asked him to confirm the rumors...was the great Ridley Scott making another horror movie? The short version: yes. The long version: Maybe? Sort of? Here's what he had to say:

"Alien was kind of a posh horror film. I never think of it as a horror film. It just scared the shit out of people. I think it had too much class to be classified as a horror film. Nothing wrong with horror, but I think horror is real tension, real fear. It's very hard to scare people. In the bloody films you see, which ironically are not even frightening, they're just like, "Yikes!" So I thought I'd try to come back and do one."

If Alien, one of the most terrifying movies ever made, isn't a horror movie by Scott's standards, then I'm even more intrigued by what Alien: Covenant could bring to the table...especially since we know how much blood they made.


Alien: Covenant opens on May 19, 2017.