Dan O'Bannon - a reluctant goodbye to the Nerd That Roared
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This is my tribute to a man I barely knew, but who was very kind to me...
Back when I was working on Den Of Geek in February of this year, I once again asked Dan O'Bannon if he would contribute to an article that I was writing. As he had done before for our very long interview in Winter of 2007, he said 'yes', even though he was suffering again from his health issues.
When I phoned Dan late in the Winter evening, it became clear that he was answering my questions through a veil of tremendous pain. Though I had known that he had ongoing severe health issues even back when I first interviewed him, I had no idea that he was in such a bad way now, and I suggested that we skip the chat until he felt better.
Typical of Dan, he insisted on forging on. Well, he always said 'yes' to me - so even though I felt uncomfortable about it, I continued for a short while until it became clear that he was in such discomfort that he could barely speak. At that point I myself insisted that we leave it there until he was a little better. Only a few days later, Dan insisted to me that he was fine and that we could finish our chat for my article. And we did.
I don't know how Dan O'Bannon was with his many other fans, but he was open and frank with me, as well as generous with his time. And even with his scripts! During our hour of interview in 2007 he offered to send me the latest draft of They Bite, the screenplay that had led on to Alien but had never in itself been filmed, and which he was in talks to finally direct. I wasn't surprised when his lovely wife Diane came on after our conversation to tell me that maybe Dan was being a bit too open in this case. That's just how he was - if he felt you were on his side, you were one of the family straight away.
Diane was quite right to be cautious, having known me only 45 minutes, but I really was on his side. O'Bannon had been my hero since I was a pre-teen film-maker, knee-deep in Super-8 cartridges and trying to get the Craven Backwinder to work for the special effects shots...
If you were trying to make sci-fi movies on pocket-money in the 1970s, O'Bannon just had to be your hero. Not only does he give the only half-decent performance in Dark Star, the student film he made with fellow film-student John Carpenter (an effort that was finally destined for extended theatrical release and cult status), but he did all the ingenious special effects for the film too, labouring over the Ron Cobb-designed models and over a rostrum animation rig night after night.
His efforts weren't unnoticed - O'Bannon went on to create the wonderful tactical displays for Star Wars (something he told me all about earlier this year), and was invited to Paris to continue a burgeoning visual effects career with Alexander Jodorowsky for the ill-fated Dune project, there to meet and collaborate for the first time with illustrators Chris Foss and H.R. Giger, whom he would later invite to create the extraordinary and chilling worlds of Alien.
Looking at O'Bannon's career, an 8mm hack could see how it was possible to go from no-budget to blockbuster status. But then not everyone was O'Bannon, or shared his legendary tenacity and stubbornness. Dan felt passionately about what he did, and he made enemies along the way; one need only check out his extensive interview contribution to Charles de Lauzirika's Alien Quadrilogy extras to realise that he could hold a grudge, most particularly during the disputed script rewrites of Alien with producers David Giler and Walter Hill.
But even during those de Lauzirika interviews, O'Bannon was as quick to admit his own mercurial and eccentric nature as to lambast those he felt had treated him badly. His ideas issued from a rich internal creative chaos of imagination. He was subject to great darkness as well as brilliance, a configuration of nature that took a toll on him throughout his life. He was himself loyal, and appreciated loyalty.
Dan wore his eccentricity about as literally as anyone could, evincing a fondness for bow ties and braces. And if he occasionally came across as a kind of American Doctor Who, I can hardly love him less for that. He was a 'geek' way before that appellation was fashionable. Time proved him right.
I kept in touch with Dan and Diane over the last two years, always hoping that he would turn the corner on his health problems and come back to the director's chair, or pen a new script. Only a week back I heard from Diane that he would be in hospital over Christmas. Dwelling momentarily on what had proved to be a hard year for me, he and Diane were quick as ever to respond with hope and encouragement, even in the midst of yet another medical ordeal - and one that I did not imagine would have the sad end that has been announced today.
Dan O'Bannon was my hero. And he should be the hero for anyone who is currently struggling to make motion pictures, whether on a borrowed hi-def camera or on a low-budget horror movie. He loved vampires, monsters, zombies and scares. He loved to 'get' the audience, either with a nasty jolt or a stunning visual effect. He loved movies in general and sci-fi and horror movies in particular. Not only was he one of us geeks, he was amongst the first -and the best-Â of us.