► This story contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant.
The movie industry is built on wasted time. Actors wait years, decades even, for a single role to come along that propels them from the small time to the big leagues.
And when at last the stars align, when years of dogged persistence and hundreds of audition tapes finally pay off, and you arrive on the set of your first Hollywood blockbuster . . . then what?
More waiting. Hours and hours of waiting.
For the actor Benjamin Rigby, the best industry advice he knows comes from Alien: Covenant co-star Demián Bichir.
“Treat acting like it’s a really popular nightclub that everybody wants to get into,” Bichir once told Rigby’s friend.
“At the start, everybody’s lining up and you’re at the back and it’s really busy, but people will drop off and get tired of waiting. Eventually, people will be let in and then you’ll be at the front of the line, and then they’ll let you in.”
Of course, that’s easy for Bichir to say; he comes from a family of actors.
Rigby, however, has been spending his time between acting gigs working as an usher at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, a job he only gave up a few weeks ago. The tricky thing for him now is working out whether he’s made it to the front of the line or not. At the very least, the bouncers now know who he is.
His role in Alien: Covenant is a brief but important one — “All you have to do is walk on set and convulse and scream. That’s what I was hired to do.” It has also opened doors.
“The step up is exponential,” he says. “I can walk into London and have two meetings a day with casting agents, and they’ll listen to what I have to say. Before, I wouldn’t have got into the room.”
Even so, the waiting continues.
“It’s a very, very weird industry. And Australia’s industry is so small. If you’re one of the 10 people working, then, great, but if not you have to wait until people see your stuff to put you in things.
“You have to learn to accept that if you’re going to get work, you’re going to get work, and if not then it’s not your time.”
Time seems to also preoccupy Covenant’s director. Nearing 80, Ridley Scott is reaching the twilight years of a prolific career, and he shows no sign of slowing down.
The film might be set in deep space, and be concerned with such lofty notions as meeting your maker and the colonisation of other planets, but Alien: Covenant also feels like a deeply personal work. That’s not something you often get from current Hollywood filmmaking.
“It’s a very, very weird industry. And Australia’s industry is so small. If you’re one of the 10 people working, then, great, but if not you have to wait until people see your stuff to put you in things. You have to learn to accept that if you’re going to get work, you’re going to get work, and if not then it’s not your time.” — actor Benjamin Rigby
“I think he’s getting more introspective as he gets older,” Rigby says. “I don’t know what he was like before this but, you know, he’s nearing the end of his life . . . and he wants to keep creating this work that challenges our ideas of what mortality is, where we come from. It’s so interesting.
“Not enough directors keep going. They don’t retain their passion.”
Scott’s passion extended to storyboarding every sequence in the film.
“When we first walked in [to Fox Studios], Ridley was sitting there and the whole cast were there, this room was just floor to ceiling, wall to wall covered in his drawings and ideas and pictures that he’d printed out.
“He storyboards everything himself, which is fucking mental. Directors who I know in their twenties don’t even storyboard themselves.”
Scott is an extraordinarily hands on filmmaker.
“I’d be sitting in make up for three hours waiting for him to do the rounds everywhere,” Rigby says, “and he’d come and go ‘Yep, this has to be more like this, we’ll do another test tomorrow’ and then we’d do another make-up test.
“If he’s not there, it doesn’t get passed. He cares.”
It’s the outrageously improbable nature of a certain kind of Hollywood filmmaking: hundreds of people spend God knows how much time and money sitting around idly waiting for one man to say yes or no.
“There are obviously characters that are underdeveloped,” Rigby says in a matter of fact way about Covenant’s script. “But I don’t think that serves the purpose of the story. The story is Daniels, Walter and David, essentially.”
At the centre of Covenant is a trifecta of characters: Daniels (an intergalactic colonist played by Katharine Waterston) and David and Walter, two androids played by Michael Fassbender.
David might be an android, but he is obsessed with creating life. Unfortunately for the expendable humans of Scott’s film, that life is birthed predominantly by bursting through the flesh of the living.
Rigby’s character is the focus of the film’s kinetic highlight, a rapid escalation of things going increasingly wrong over a very short period of time. Needless to say, his character doesn’t survive the rapid onslaught of violence.
Is it weird seeing yourself die?
“Every time I see it I just start laughing,” Rigby says. “I love watching the reactions of the audience, watching them cringe and have so much empathy towards somebody who’s sitting right next to them, alive.
“It’s super fun to watch yourself die. It’s a horror film, it’s thrilling.”
The horror is captured in some remarkable shots. Scott knows how to film landscapes, and he makes excellent use of New Zealand’s Milford Sound as an uninhabited planet.
The cast filmed there for a few weeks, mostly at night.
“It was pretty excruciating really,” Rigby says of the experience. “But you’re not there to have a light time.”
The actors wore six layers of clothing, 25kg packs, and spent a lot of their time wading through water.
“It does make it easier,” Rigby says of shooting on location. “They yell ‘Act!’ and you go ‘I don’t need to, I’m ‘being’!”
Scott limits his takes to a couple, usually no more than three. He knows exactly what he wants and he goes and gets it. Guiding the process along is the fact that the cast is generally being put through the wringer.
“It just makes it easier when you’re actually feeling these things in your body.”
At about this time in our interview, I overhear two of the restaurant staff talking about seeing Alien: Covenant the night before. It must be pretty odd to hear strangers talk about watching the end result of an improbable process that you were involved in.
For Rigby, the reverse – going from watching films to working with the people who make them and stars like Michael Fassbender – was just as strange.
“You put these people on a pedestal, and you meet them and realise that they’re just ageing mortals like yourself.”
Mortality is the central theme of Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which plays a key role in Alien: Covenant.
At one point, David snarls one of the poem’s key lines, an inscription on a statue: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
It is a poem about the inevitability of decay. The statue of the poem’s title, once a mighty emblem of a powerful empire, has centuries later become nothing more than a crumbling ruin, half buried in some forgotten desert.
Within the film, the poem makes sense: David recites the line while committing alien genocide. But the line is just as applicable outside of the film, just as relevant to the entire movie-making enterprise itself.
This is where Alien: Covenant’s more disturbing aspects can be found. It’s a little confronting to have a filmmaker like Ridley Scott, a man at the peak of his movie-making career, remind us that all art must crumble.
Hollywood may very well be built on time, but it will soon enough be discarded by it too.