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December 18, 2009

In Memoriam: Dan O'Bannon

Influential Horror/Sci-Fi Filmmaker

By Mel Cowan

Alien screenwriter and USC alumnus Dan O’Bannon passed away on December 17 in Los Angeles. He was 63.

While at USC, O’Bannon collaborated with classmate John Carpenter on the 45-minute student short, Dark Star, which was later expanded into a feature in 1974, with O’Bannon serving in several capacities on the film, including scripting, editing and acting in a lead role. In 1975, the feature version of the film won the Golden Scroll Award (as the Saturn Awards were known at the time) for Best Special Effects.

O’Bannon, who worked as a computer animator on Star Wars, and was attached to supervise special effects on a failed adaptation of Dune, left technical work behind to focus on screenwriting. With Ronald Shusett, he wrote the story and screenplay for Alien, which garnered critical acclaim and box-office success, receiving an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and multiple Saturn Awards.

After collaborating with Don Jakoby on the screenplays for Blue Thunder, Lifeforce, and Invaders from Mars, O’Bannon moved into the director’s chair for the successful 1985 film, Return of the Living Dead, which spawned several sequels.

Following the success of Total Recall, another collaboration with Shusett, O’Bannon continued to multi-task, directing The Resurrected in 1992, and scripting Screamers in 1995. His Alien characters have spawned a host of sequels and crossovers, including a recently announced Ridley Scott-directed prequel, scheduled for 2011.

O’Bannon, in an interview published in John Scott Lewinski’s Screenwriting Secrets, spoke about his philosophy of creating an engaging narrative.

“You can't just write the story dry. You need to enjoy it along with the audience,” said O’Bannon. “It's been said over and over gain by writers of scary stories that a writer can't scare a reader unless that writer scares himself or herself first. So, you can't excite anyone in the audience unless you're excited writing the script! You're taking yourself for a ride before you take the audience for a ride!”