Appearing in local indie movies including Cate Shortland’s Somersault and Neil Armfield’s Candy could not prepare Melbourne-based Nathaniel Dean for the scale of shooting Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.
Their first port of call was the striking surrounds of Milford Sound, a waterfall-strewn, rugged rainforest beauty spot in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Standing in for an unfortunate, unintended stopover of damaged colony ship Covenant, the previously hidden planet is emitting a strangely Earth-like signal. It’s also hiding the evolutionary progress of a certain slithering xenomorph we all love to hate and another Promethean surprise for good measure.
Dean plays Hallett, one of the Covenant’s security detail alongside husband and direct report Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir). “It was the first shot and I remember standing there on the lander, looking across at Billy Crudup [Chief Science Officer Oram], turn to my left, look at Demián, then Michael Fassbender [synthetic Walter] walks in front of me, pushes the button, the lander door goes down and we look out to Milford Sound, this most majestic of places and I was just like, ‘I’m shooting a fucking Alien film’.”
The thrill was surreal. Dean, a confirmed sci-fi nut, recalls renting the original Alien from Blockbuster when he was around 12 years old. Getting lost in this unforgettable world was all the easier for Scott being adamant they would film as much as humanly possible without green screen. That resulted in a heroic effort by the Australian crew, both on location and at Sydney’s Fox Studios, recreating the look of this H.R. Geiger-influenced realm of ancient alien architecture and slithering biological monstrosity.
“We didn’t feel like we needed to explain that relationship just because they’re a gay couple in space”
“There was another moment where we went out to Potts Hill and the art department had made, there must have been about ten shipping containers in a huge semi-circle with an at-least fifteen feet high waterfall with giant trees that had been cut down,” Dean says. “You know, it’s Ridley. The detail of his visual work is all on show and the Aussies who built these sets and the artists, they’re just as much stars as everybody else. I was so thrilled with their fantastic work and it’s great for our local industry that they get to show their enormous skill.”
The depth of detail on-set made it easy for the cast, including Katherine Waterston as Daniels, a terraforming expert and basically the new Ripley, as well as fellow Aussies Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby and Tess Haubrich to really get into the spirit. Sometimes that bordered on harrowing.
“You have to sit in mortal terror for 10 hours a day and it does weird things to your psyche,” Dean chuckles. “The amazing realness of these sets and the spaces that were created, you could quite easily just trip out and be like, ‘something’s coming…’”
Scott encouraged his cast to run riot with unbound terror as the gory deaths (and there are many, including arguably the franchise’s most-brutal) ensue. “He gives you full rein of a real world in which you are reacting as your character would,” Dean says. “In terms of the sheer gore of this, you know, it sounds sadistic, but when you are shooting it, there is a sense of fun.”
Describing those first few days down at Milford Sound, an ethereal location aided by its remoteness - accessible only by a long, narrow tunnel - as an extreme bonding experience that helped the crew come together, including Dean with his on-screen husband Bichir. “We didn’t feel like we needed to explain that relationship just because they’re a gay couple in space,” he says. “We all came to the mindset that we hope that in the future of this planet of ours that that doesn’t need to be spoken about. I’m proud to play that character and put that out to the world. They love each other and they’re on this journey to another world.”
Dean flew down to New Zealand directly after completing his encore turn as William Thornhill in the STC production of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. “The way Ridley sets up shots, you jump into a scene and he almost has it in the first take,” he notes. “I had just walked off stage and it felt very similar. Curtain goes up and game on.”
Speaking over the phone from London, complete with oddly appropriate beeps that sound disconcertingly like a life-support machine, Dean attended the Alien: Covenant premiere in Leicester Square. The experience brought back that sense of awe he experienced while shooting. “I thought I had my head around it, but I don’t think anything really prepares you for that stuff, the sheer noise,” he says “But it was great for all of us to get together to see it together again. I’ve been at this for 20 years and it’s a big bumpy ride, this job of ours. This is definitely something that I’ll always cherish.”
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