❉ From LV-426 to Dorset… A saga of edgy rehearsals, uncomfortably tech-heavy dialogue and DIY Xenomorphs.
“Preview screenings of the Alien on Stage documentary have been wowing audiences at FrightFest, and we’d recommend that you catch it as soon as you can… As a whole it’s affectionate and charming, and if the sight of a theatre full of performers and audience members having an absolute hoot doesn’t cheer your heart right now, you’re clinically dead.”
Back in 2013, Paranoid Dramatics, an amateur theatre group made up of staff from a Dorset bus company, decided to divert from their usual annual panto productions and attempt instead to bring Alien (1979) to the stage. ‘Ambitious’ doesn’t cover it.
Local audiences were nonplussed, but a couple of would-be film-makers, Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummar, got wind of the project and brought it to the Leicester Square Theatre in London’s West End. There it became a sell-out hit with punters, though admittedly they were chortling along rather than shrieking in terror.
Recently, preview screenings of the resulting Alien on Stage documentary have been wowing audiences at FrightFest, and we’d recommend that you catch it as soon as you can. It never sneers at the amateur creative team, instead shining a light on their enthusiasm and resourcefulness – and yes, sometimes their mistakes and shortcomings. As a whole it’s affectionate and charming, and if the sight of a theatre full of performers and audience members having an absolute hoot doesn’t cheer your heart right now, you’re clinically dead.
Here We are Cult speaks to the documentary’s directors about this saga of edgy rehearsals, uncomfortably tech-heavy dialogue and DIY Xenomorphs.
“I think the film highlights the value of the theatre and group experiences and how as human beings we really crave them. I’ve had people telling me how wonderful the experience of watching the film was because they were on their own in lockdown, and that it brought back those feelings of collectivism and community that they’re missing.” – Director Danielle Kummer.
How and when did you first become aware of the original Alien show?
Lucy Harvey: Our friend Andy Button introduced us to the Paranoid Dramatics blog page. He’d seen their poster when he was visiting his girlfriend in Dorset. We all became obsessed watching their rehearsal footage. Curiosity got the better of us and we had to drive from London to Wimborne to see it. We were so glad we did. It was the best thing we had ever seen, for many wonderful reasons.
Danielle Kummar: I was first aware of the show when Lucy and her friend Joe Auckland decided to drive the three hours down to Dorset from London to watch it. I must admit I thought it was a little crazy to go all that way, that it might not be worth it. Then they came back with such grins on their faces, telling all of our friends that we just had to go down and see it the next weekend. So we did, with ten of us in a minibus that Lucy had organised.
As directors, how did the two of you divide up the job of making the film between yourselves?
DK: For the filming, it was such a quick thing to happen, that we didn’t really have much time to think about it. I’d been working as a videographer and video editor, making online content. We had no budget and not really any time to do any fundraising. We just borrowed all of the equipment where we could and went down to film. I did all the filming with Lucy recording the sound and conducting the interviews.
As we had never done a feature documentary before, it was a lot of just figuring things out as we went along. Dave [director of the Alien stage show] was amazing in helping us organise all the interviews and making a filming schedule for the times we spent down in Dorset.
Some things were really fortuitous, like the opening sequence which was inspired by our filming location at the garage where they repair buses. During filming there happened to be a bus on the garage lift being repaired, and it looked surprisingly like the Nostromo ship. Dave got us an office chair, which then became our DIY camera dolly for the tracking shot you see at the beginning. Lucy is pushing me and the camera under this massive bus engine.
Some of the Paranoid Dramatics folks aren’t perhaps the world’s greatest actors, but nevertheless they make a real mark in the documentary as characters in themselves.
LH: Absolutely! They’re all naturally funny people and totally genuine on camera. Each one of them has a distinct personality that shines through. I know I’m biased but I think everything each of them says is gold. If I had to choose one person as the unexpected star, it’s Penny. She’s on the sidelines, as the voice of Mother. I love all the Penny moments. The film is punctuated with her brilliant humour and glamour.
Was everyone in the cast happy about the stage show becoming a bit of a laugh-along send-up in London? Did any of them want to be taken more seriously?
LH: To this day, they are very clear that their show is a serious adaptation. They spent a year working on all the details with the intention of it being a terrifying horror. That’s why the production standards are so high, that’s what makes it so brilliant. It wasn’t until we first saw it that they realised it was being received as funny.
To their credit, the cast adapted very quickly to the idea and embraced it. The crew may have taken slightly longer to adjust to the idea, as they had put so much effort into recreating all the details as faithfully as possible. Very quickly they all realised that playing it straight as best as they could, within their wide range of abilities, made it uniquely joyous.
What do they all make of the finished film?
DK: I think they were really happy with the film, and pleasantly surprised. There was a bit of a time gap from when we filmed the show to finishing the documentary – about seven years! I think they just thought that we’d forgotten about them. We hadn’t, but it took us a while to get things in order and raise the money to complete post-production. We were really lucky in that we had a private screening of the pre-mixed and ungraded film for them in Dorset back in February, just before all the pandemic restrictions happened. We had the screening at The Allendale Centre where they performed the original shows. Lucy even organised a red carpet for the event, which was a brilliant touch. It was lovely to see them all together again.
LH: They gave us their blessing at the rough-cut private screening and said they wouldn’t change anything. After the premiere reviews, they were really moved by everyone’s response. They say we’ve made them look amazing. They know we love them and now the film’s audience loves them too. We’re really proud of that.
The film feels like a celebration of untutored, home-spun creativity, something not a million miles away from the stories of Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau – and it’s particularly poignant to see the Leicester Square audience revelling in the show with so many theatres being closed at present.
DK: Yeah, we’ve had people mentioning Tommy Wiseau before. When we first saw the show and how underwhelmed the audiences in Dorset were with it, we really knew that with the right audiences it would be adored for its home-made genius and the amount of effort that had been put in. Lucy especially felt that, and she was intrinsic in organising bringing the show to London.
This seems to resonate now more than ever because we can’t gather in groups or go to the theatre. I think the film highlights the value of these experiences and how as human beings we really crave them. I’ve had people telling me how wonderful the experience of watching the film was because they were on their own in lockdown, and that it brought back those feelings of collectivism and community that they’re missing.
Is it fair to say that as a project this documentary has exceeded your expectations?
DK: Yes, totally! The response to the film has been truly wonderful so far. We always knew this story was special, but hearing people really connect to it and seeing that it brings joy to people is a really lovely feeling, especially in these really strange and uncertain times.
LH: The plan was to make a film with the best possible intentions with a mission to spread joy. In that sense it’s fulfilling my expectations. I wasn’t expecting the quality of the response and the level of positivity. The reviews we received after FrightFest have made all the effort worthwhile. I used to say with certainty that, when this film is out in the world, it will have a life of its own, I wasn’t quite sure what that would look like, so in that sense I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure enough, we’re having conversations with interested people that might possibly give this film a life far beyond our expectations.
What are your future plans and hopes for the film?
DK: We would love for the film to get the biggest audience possible. We’re currently entering it to film festivals, and having discussions with various people about the future of the film, so watch this space. If anyone wants to find out when it will be released, they can subscribe to the mailing list on our website.
❉ ‘Alien On Stage’ (2020) received its special preview online screening at Arrow Video FrightFest October 2020 Digital Edition. Runtime: 86 minutes. Cert TBC. For more information visit alienonstagedoc.com
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.