Studio Yutani presents our interview with Valaquen, the creator and author of Strange Shapes – a blog all about the Alien franchise. Strange Shapes is a hub for well researched, informative articles about nearly every aspect of Alien – the creative forces behind the films, different iterations of creatures, and behind the scenes details you never knew. Before you check out our interview, have a look at Strange Shapes here.
Mike Andrews/@officerjoek9: Your blog originated in 2010, and has since amassed a large following and presents much information not touched on by other sources. Why did you want to start Strange Shapes?
Valaquen: Honestly, at first–boredom and frustration. At the time I had left full-time work to become a college student. I was sick of wage-labour and thought I could do more for myself than mindlessly scanning other peoples’ shopping. So I took a plunge, quit my job, and applied for college. Got myself through college and summer school and then entered university. What I found (through a combination of luck and privilege) was that I had a lot more spare time than I did previously, time I (wisely) spent perusing the internet, specifically forums like AVPG where I’d been a long time lurker.
After some time, I found myself questioning the assertions of some fans. For example, it seemed ‘common knowledge’ that Ridley Scott loathed Aliens, that James Cameron had squeezed an insect influence into the Alien that wasn’t present or intended by those who created the original, etc. I would read that and think, ‘Oh! Interesting! What’s the source?’ Then I would discover that these things weren’t true, and that other pieces of ‘common knowledge’ weren’t true, and that there was a lot of myth-making going on within the fandom. Eventually, I got really bored of replying to the same assertions with the same stock responses. I began to think, ‘It would be easier if I wrote my argument down, and then just copied and pasted it whenever I needed to.’ I did that, briefly, before having the idea to simply start a website, someplace I could direct people to whenever I had to make a certain point. So I scoured around for blogs.
There were two major Alien blogs in existence at the time: Weyland-Yutani Archives, and Alien Explorations. I was a little despondent at first, because those sites were so excellent, and I really knew nothing about the intricacies of the series (you may find old comments by me on those sites to the effect of, ‘Wow! I never knew this!’) But I had time to kill and a desire to research and read something that, simply said, wasn’t my studies. And I knew that if I found a particular angle, played to certain strengths, then I could make my blog unique and worthwhile, rather than copying and pasting the work of other bloggers and fans.
So, sometime in 2010 (I can’t recall the exact date) I started Strange Shapes over at Blogger. Shortly after, Adam from Weyland Yutani Archives posted on his blog saying, ‘Maybe you should all keep an eye on this Strange Shapes thing’–the earliest encouragement I remember. After that, it was like a snowball. The blog kept accumulating mass and followers, and I was happy to be writing about something that wasn’t academic. Nine years later, and I’m a little shocked that almost a decade has passed.
MA: You clearly have a passion for all things Alien – how did that come about, and how has it evolved over time?
V: I came into Alien through another franchise which probably needs no introduction. When I was a kid I used to visit my dad, and he was very latch-key: he’d drop me in front of a movie, and then sit in another room and do his own thing. Quite negligent, but I was enamoured by the films: a host of violent 80’s and early 90’s action movies like Robocop, Commando, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall… not long after, I saw Dark Horse’s Alien vs. Predator in a book store and, already a massive Judge Dredd and 2000 A.D. fanatic, I snapped it up and read it there in the shop. That’s how I met the Alien, but I wasn’t a fan until I was a few years older and found a copy of the Aliens Special Edition VHS. I watched it alone one rainy afternoon and was spellbound. The other movies followed, whenever I could find them on VHS (no streaming or downloading way back when.)
How it’s evolved… I used to have time for the spin-offs, toys, comics, but less so nowadays. At the same time, I used to be bothered by bad installments in the series, as though their existence somehow marred the older, better works. I no longer feel that way. I can separate things in my mind and no longer seek to divide films, TV, etc. into ‘canon’ and ‘apocryphal’ works. I simply either enjoy them or I don’t. Some of my favourite movies are bad, or even trash. If other people want to enjoy films I find inferior, then all the power to them. We all like different things. So, I am more intolerant towards accepting ‘bad’ works myself (a good deal of Alien movies simply never cross my mind) but more tolerant and understanding when it comes to others enjoying those works. In the past I would argue, ‘How can you like something I don’t?! Are you stupid?’ You get over that as you age. Or should.
MA: What has been/continues to be challenging about maintaining Strange Shapes?
V:It’s a one-man show. I research, write, edit everything alone. This means when life takes over, the blog sits and stagnates. On the other hand, that’s what makes it so easy and enjoyable: I never feel like I’m letting a collaborator down, never sinking a team effort with my tardiness. People have offered to ‘buy out’ the blog, put it on a professional looking site and offered me something of a salary, but that would mean having a boss or overseer, someone relying on me to make deadlines so they can eat, and I won’t have that. I’d rather (continue to) be poor and suffering. It also gets harder as you get older: the days of staying up until 4am watching movies and reading articles/forums and then waltzing through my studies the next day are gone. Now I have a family, a daughter with disabilities, and responsibilities.
Actually, if I had to correct myself somewhat, I don’t do everything on the blog. There are a series of images and banners on the site that were photoshopped by friends. I don’t have the patience for that myself.
MA: What goes into creating a Strange Shapes article? What is your creative process like?
V: First and foremost, I write about whatever interests me. I was never enamoured by, say, what materials are used to build a prop or monster. Those details don’t excite me. My eyes just glaze over. But I am interested in creative personalities, and how these personalities collaborate or combat one another to bring something into being. And Alien is wonderful for that, especially the first movie which, when you look at it, could’ve been a complete mess: you have a studio chasing the success of Star Wars, two groups of writers with polar personalities and influences, a director known for advertisements and some art-house financial flop, a script that changed every month through shooting… essentially, the recipe for disaster. And yet, the film came together. And still holds together. That’s what interests me. And I think it interests others, too.
As for process, typically I take notes, clumsily arrange them in a Word file, and then beat it into shape (recalling Hemingway here: “there’s nothing to writing, all you do is sit down and bleed”.) Some articles can be written without notes and there’s a few I’ve done in an afternoon. Some take years. My article on the life of Bolaji Badejo took three years of research, bothering people, starting and stopping, giving up, resuming…
MA: A must-ask: which Alien film is your favorite? Which is your least favorite?
V: I finally understand the ‘cowardly’ answer where you say, ‘There isn’t one favourite, they’re like my children!’ But… I have a deep love and loyalty for the first two. The third is very remarkable aesthetically, and might be all the more interesting to study for its failures (again, watching creative personalities clash with one another is fascinating). Watching it though, it’s something of a slog. I distinctly remember finding Alien: Resurrection on tape sometime in the late 90’s and thinking, ‘Wow, an Alien movie!’ and then feeling bored barely an hour into it. I’ve see it once or twice since. The AVP movies were a bust. I also remember my brother seeing AVP: Requiem and insisting it was worse than the first movie. My response was, ‘Impossible!’ I quickly learned.
As for the latter-day movies, Prometheus had exciting ideas that were better expressed and explored in a lot of literature I’d already read as an undergraduate. Same for Covenant, so I wasn’t getting my particular itches scratched. Thinking back, I wrote quite a few articles on Prometheus and mythology, because it’s such an interesting topic, but I grew all the more disappointed with the films at the end of it, because I was thinking, ‘Great germ of an idea–where’s the rest?’
But worse than seeing these movies and disliking them is, I think, disliking them and never being able to let go and move on. So I rarely talk about the movies I don’t like unless I’m asked. I’d rather dedicate my time to the things I am positively interested in.
MA: What are your thoughts on the state of the Alien Franchise so far in 2019, considering the announcement of Alien Blackout and no new film in the works?
V: In terms of fandom, the series is in good health. People still love the franchise, even if they’ve been nothing but burned by it since the 80’s or 90’s. There’s a lot of younger fans who weren’t even born when Alien: Resurrection or even AVP came out. And every April the fans celebrate the series and empty their wallets, so the series still draws money (not my metric of success, but still.)
The fact that there’s no new film announced doesn’t bother me at all. If a new film never appeared, the old ones are still there (I know this won’t console those already invested in the story that Ridley has begun to tell with his new movies). We, in the age of digital communication, mass media etc., tend to get antsy if a franchise isn’t pumping out offspring every other year, because we then think of it as a failure. That’s our logic: good things get sequels, bad things don’t (not to mention, again, that many of our notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ revolve around the box office and money). Given the choice, I’d rather have one great Alien movie every few decades, than a spate of uninspiring sequels and spin-offs all relying on the Alien brand but not bothering to match the quality established by the first two. I would rather have a great Alien movie that was critically and commercially successful but didn’t necessitate a sequel simply because it satisfied shareholders. But that would mean taking money out of filmmaking and putting the artistry first, but our society at large doesn’t see the value in that, and can’t even operate without it. Yet.
MA: Is there anything you would like to say to Alien fans/your audience?
V: Getting it around my head that I have an audience is pretty wild. I suppose I’m really happy that people out there find my writing interesting enough–though I suspect the subject matter does most of the hard work.
More than anything I would probably apologise: there’s a score of articles I should’ve written by now that I never completed thanks to life. And there’s been a two year gap in output, too. All I can do is assure readers that I’ve not been taking it easy at all, having spent the last two years researching (from scratch) and writing a book on the making of Alien that will encompass everything the blog is and more.
A very big thank you to Valaquen for setting time aside for this interview, and for their contribution to the Alien universe.
If you would like to support Valaquen’s creation of new material, please support him on Patreon here.