Dan O’Bannon, one of cinema’s great behind-the-scenes names, passed away after a long battle with his health. I and his many fans will never forget his contributions to film and so I write this tribute to the great man who continues to inspire me everyday.
By Andrew Gilchrist, 2009.
Dan O'Bannon was a man with a special gift, a vision, and a need to express his visions and ideas. He looked beyond today to a future that took us away from our planet, but not away from the way that we humans are, and will probably always be. He also understood the fears that we all share. He was also thinking about “what if...?” when it came to more down-to-Earth but exciting concepts.
My first understanding of who Dan O’Bannon was came to me when I noticed that his name kept popping up on the credits for a weird little science fiction film called Dark Star that I couldn’t stop watching during the early 1990s. He did a lot on this film and I became curious.
I discovered that Dan was also behind Alien and Blue Thunder and had also written Total Recall. He had also written the screenplay for the remake of Invaders From Mars, which brings this classic sci-fi conspiracy film into a cheesy 1980s update.
I fell in love with Blue Thunder at the early age of about 8. I didn’t care about the swearing, the nudity and the violence. I just loved the helicopters and the action. For a long time, I was led to believe that the film I loved so much was the sole product of Dan and co-writer Don Jakoby.
It was, to an extent. I didn’t quite understand the Hollywood writing process at this time and it was Blue Thunder that really opened up my understanding of the whole screenwriting process. So when I returned to Dark Star with a much more knowledgeable understanding of how films are developed and produced, I came to the conclusion that Dark Star is one of the greatest films ever created.
I am aware that Dark Star was co-made with John Carpenter, but it was Dan who held the magic for me. Perhaps it was because he never fully reached the same level of exposure as John Carpenter. Dan remained a special person for those who took the time to care about the little details of film making.
Dan started his entry into serious movie making with Dark Star, a student film he made with John Carpenter back in their student days at university. For $60,000, initially, they managed to produce, over a few years of start-stop production due to lack of continued funds, one of the most enjoyable, impressive and hilarious films set in space that has ever been made. For those who get it, it’s a masterpiece of cinema.
With every viewing, I see something new and interesting in the film. It grows on me more and more, gets funnier and funnier. I sincerely hope that the new DVD will be released in some form only so I can see the new transfer in detail that our generation has never seen before.
Dark Star impressed a film distributor who later gave John and Dan funding to film extra scenes for a sub-plot that brought it up to a duration for general cinema release. The problem was that Dark Star was as much a comedy as it was a sci-fi film, and the humour wasn’t conventional. As a result, conventional movie-going audiences didn’t understand the film and it didn’t do so well at the box office. It did, however, gather a cult following thanks to home video.
After Dark Star, Dan and John went separate ways. John found some success with Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and The Thing, amongst other films, while Dan struggled to find his next success. He was involved with the first attempt to make a film version of Dune but it was shut down.
One of the elements of Dark Star, where an alien causes problems for one of the men onboard the space ship, caught his attention again. He took this idea and turned it into much scarier film, and so Alien was born, with the help of co-writer Ron Shusett. Together, they crafted a story with high imagination, deep terror and uni-sex characters so that the film could be cleverly cast easily.
With Alien, Dan would experience the highs and lows of working with Hollywood. He saw his beautiful script taken and re-written by other people to suit the needs of the studio and director. Although the basic plot and ideas of Dan and Ron’s ideas remained, many aspects surrounding them were changed. In the end, Dan secretly sat in the cinema in 1979 and was moved to tears, both from sadness and happiness, as he saw his new, albeit changed, creation up on the big screen for the first time.
After Alien, he worked with co-writer Don Jakoby on a technological horror of another kind: Taxi Driver in a police helicopter. Again, the script was sold to a studio and was re-written to resemble almost something entirely different.
Their original 1979 script was much more of a darker and uncertain film. You’re not sure what you got out of it by the end, you’d perhaps have to watch the film to get it (try reading the Taxi Driver script without picturing Robert De Niro or the directing styles of Martin Scorsese).
This script was picked up and re-written by others to fit a more conventional action-thriller mould and I honestly felt a little awkward when I discovered just how different the finished film was to Dan and Don’s original script. At the end of the day, I am very thankful to Dan and Don for taking the time to kick-start the development of what became a wonderful 1983 film.
The late 1970s success of Alien and the 1980s could be considered Dan’s best period where he wrote films that were made, including even a turn at directing. Dan adapted a Phillip K. Dick short story into Total Recall and wrote a space-vampire horror film called Lifeforce. His past writing partners, Don Jakoby and Ron Shusett, also had some success in various films and his old one-time partner John Carpenter went on to much bigger things.
The combination of Paul Verhoven directing a Dan O’Bannon script seemed to be a perfect combination for Total Recall. The result was futuristic ideas, violence, humour, sexy action ladies and how can you go past Arnie?
After Total Recall, Dan never seemed to reach the same level of success that he once attained. There were constant rumours about his current plans and his name would constantly pop up in royalty credits for the ongoing Alien and AVP series, ignored by most of the younger audience targeted by today’s mindless action sci-fi films.
I ask you to take a few moments after you finish reading this tribute to load up the Alien special edition DVD and read Dan O’Bannon’s personally-written essay into the development of Alien that is on the second disc of the release. This gives a wonderful insight into the mind of a genius who created so many great ideas.
Dan also contributed to animation and graphics, having worked on an animated film, computer graphics for Star Wars and also being published.
In addition to this work, Dan also supervised and personally did many of the special effects for Dark Star. He also built most of the sets and props. On top of this, Dan also did the editing and of course starred as the great Sergeant Pinback.
Do yourself a favour and check out this cult science fiction film from 1974 if you haven’t already seen it.
Up until the last six months, Dan’s wife and I shared irregular correspondence through email and I had hoped to meet them both one day because they wished to visit Australia.
Dan will continue to inspire me every day as I write, doing what he loved to do.
Goodbye, Dan O’Bannon. May you rest in peace.