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Book excerpt: Satyajit Ray’s doomed tryst with Hollywood on The Alien

On the great filmmaker’s 26th death anniversary, we revisit his failed attempts to make a Hollywood film with The Alien.

Satyajit Ray in Paris. Photographed by Mike Wilson (Courtesy: HarperCollins India)

Our Correspondent

During the late 1960s, filmmaker Satyajit Ray embarked on a journey to develop the script for a science fiction story written by him and make it into a Hollywood film. If it sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

A new book, Travails with The Alien: The Film That Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction, details the difficult time Ray faced trying to peddle his script to studios in Los Angeles. Eventually he gave up on the idea and returned to more familiar turf back home.

Years later, in 1982, when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. came out in theatres, Ray felt the film echoed certain elements of his own script from The Alien. In the excerpts below, Ray himself notes the arduous time he had trying to negotiate the complicated world of Hollywood with a co-producer in Mike Wilson and finding mimeographed copies of The Alien being circulated everywhere.

…I had met Arthur C Clarke in London the year before and described to him the germ of an idea I had for a sci-fi film. Clarke had found it promising. Back home in Colombo, he had talked about it to his friend Mike Wilson…

…I had to write and tell Mr Wilson that there was nothing on paper yet beyond a few jottings. Undaunted, he flew down to Calcutta, checked into a Sudder Street hotel and announced that he would stick around until I produced a treatment. I thought it prudent to tell him that writing being an intensely private pursuit with me, I discouraged company while working on a script. Mike ignored my stricture, ‘I shall sit by and make coffee for you when you need it, Maestro.’ By the end of a fortnight I had a treatment. Meanwhile word had come that Sellers was interested. Mike and I turned up in Paris in the April of 1967 and met Peter Sellers in his hotel…

Peter Sellers, photographed by Satyajit Ray
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

…It was a joyous carillon of a cable: Columbia will back ‘The Alien’; I was to be given free hand; both Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen were keen to play the American engineer; Saul Bass will mastermind the special effects etc, etc. Sellers was in Hollywood too, playing an Indian in a comedy, and anxious to have a second session with me…

…With the hum of the machinery in my ears, I arrived in Hollywood on June 1. Mike drove me into town from the airport in a hired Lincoln convertible and I found myself checking into the Chateau Marmont, an elegant, self-contained two-storied cottage with all mod cons, one of several which dotted the lawns of the Hotel Marmont where, as I learned later, Maurice Chevalier had once maintained a permanent suite.  ‘Don’t worry, Maestro,’ said Mike, reading the signs of solicitude which I must have betrayed. ‘Columbia has made an advance against expenses. You can’t afford anything but the best, you know, you made the Apu Trilogy!’…

Satyajit Ray in Los Angeles, photographed by Mike Wilson
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

…Outwardly, at least, Sellers's enthusiasm for The Alien didn't wane during my stay in Hollywood, although the project didn't get off the ground. Columbia were truly keen, but why — I was asked by the young executive who was looking after this particular 'property' — did I need Mike Wilson? Who was he? How did I come to team up with him? I had been asking myself the same questions. I had found, upon arriving in Hollywood, mimeographed copies of my script piled up on a table in the room marked 'Office' in the cottage where he stayed. They bore the surprising legend: 'Copyright: Mike Wilson & Satyajit Ray'. I had questioned Mike and he had explained it was to make doubly sure that my interests were protected. 'Two heads are better than one, Maestro.' Beyond suggesting that I use the term 'broad' instead of 'chick' in the American's dialogue, Mike had made no contribution to the screenplay I could think of…

…I left Hollywood firmly convinced that The Alien was doomed. In fact, the snuffing out took longer than I expected…

Soon after this, The Alien took me on another trip, this time to London. The project had been transferred from Columbia USA to Columbia UK, whatever that meant, and the bosses in London were anxious to have a talk with me. I had only one meeting with Columbia where Mike was not present. 'Have you got the 10,000 dollar advance which Mr Wilson received on your behalf for your screenplay?' they asked me. I said I wasn't even aware such an advance had been made. By now I had begun to feel like a full-fledged Kafka hero. Mike was supposed to be associate producer, but there was as yet no agreement between us. He was anxious to make good the lacuna. On my way to the airport — Mike had commissioned a Rolls with a built-in cocktail cabinet for the journey — a sheaf of papers was slapped down on my knee — 'if you would just sign here, Maestro.'

I said: 'I'm sorry. I can't even read what I'm supposed to sign.'

Mike zipped out a pocket torch and flashed it on the top page of the bunch.

'It's just to say you and I are partners.'

'I can't sign anything in a car, Mike,' I said. 'Not even in a Rolls-Royce. Send the papers over to me in Calcutta.'

Mike Wilson in Paris. Photographed by Satyajit Ray
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

...I waited, but the papers didn't come. A production man from Columbia UK came down to Calcutta a few months later. He said Columbia would back the film if Mike could be persuaded to pull out. 'Only you can do it, Mr Ray,' said Nick Macdonald. 'Write to him. Who knows, he may yet be persuaded to see reason.' I wrote to Mike asking him to forgo his copyright on the screenplay so I could proceed on my own. Mike sent a sizzling reply calling me a thief and a slanderer. And no question of parting with the rights naturally...

...For over a year there was no communication from anybody on The Alien and the project for me receded into the realms of the unattainable. Then unexpectedly came a brief note from Arthur C Clarke. Mike had shaved his head and gone off to the jungles of South India to meditate.

This was followed by a letter from the shaven-headed monk himself. He was relinquishing his rights to the screenplay, although obviously too close to sainthood to spell it out in mundane terms. This is the way he chose to put it.

Dear Ravana:

You may keep Seetha. She's yours. Keep her, and make her and the world happy.

Excerpted from Travails with The Alien by Satyajit Ray, with permission from the publisher HarperCollins India. The book is available in India on Amazon and Flipkart.