“The Tourist has always had incredible supporters and incredible detractors. Right from the beginning it aroused strong feelings one way or another. People were either taken by it or felt it was the Antichrist.
I still don’t, to this day, really comprehend what all the fuss was about.” — Clair Noto
by Bryn Tilly
Clair Noto’s The Tourist
There is a screenwriter’s nightmare known as “development hell”. Clair Noto experienced the Dante’s Inferno version of it with her script The Tourist. It was written thirty years ago and came tantalisingly close to getting the green light for production, but despite its imaginative concepts and provocative ideas, and several attempts by respectable filmmakers, the screenplay has never made it to principal photography, instead remaining stalled in a ravenous snake pit where most of its original material has since been devoured by other movies.
At any given time there are more unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood than hot lunch dates, but none have had a history as notorious and frustrating as The Tourist. It seemed like the perfect adult science fiction tale of morality and corruption, humanity and xenophobia, of human vs. alien struggling to co-exist on Earth.
Clair Noto’s script was wholly original, but her approach was unconventional, and she was fiercely protective of her baby. Ultimately it was Noto’s refusal in allowing her original work to be compromised that lead to The Tourist’s undoing.
It seemed like the perfect adult science fiction tale
of morality and corruption, humanity and xenophobia,
of human vs. alien struggling to co-exist on Earth.
Noto began drafting in 1980, and Universal – whom she was contracted to – immediately demanded re-writes. She was delivering the studio head, Sean Daniels, fifty pages at a time and he would edit them. A first draft was completed this way, but Daniels was too busy to work on it further, so the revision job was handed to a woman named Renee Missell.
Noto and Missell had little contact, and when they did their personalities clashed making the progress difficult. Missell stepped up as producer and Englishman Brian Gibson (Breaking Glass) was attached as director. Suddenly Noto found herself ejected from the project, much to her exasperation and chagrin.
The Tourist was fast becoming a curse. Missell and Gibson struggled with it, yet maintained harsh treatment of Noto, keeping her at arm’s length from the project and belittling the screenplay. This hypocritical attitude wasn’t serving them well, and the project was proving unwieldy. Dan O’Bannon, still enjoying the success of his Star Beast (which had become the critical and box office hit Alien), was brought on board to do a re-write.
The Tourist was fast becoming a curse.
Missell refused to go back to the original draft because she didn’t want Noto receiving a screenwriter’s credit. Characters’ names were changed and the city location was changed from New York to San Francisco. They were attempting to bastardise the screenplay so significantly that Noto would simply curl up and die in horror.
Noto had various influences for The Tourist; a deep admiration of the classic sf movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Noto loved how the alien pilot abandoned his space suit and walked around Washington in a suit and tie and wasn’t recognised as an alien. “The idea of a human being who wasn’t a human being had been in my mind for a long time,” explains Noto.
Another key inspiration was a 1973 photograph by Helmut Newton which depicted a model, Lisa Taylor, running across a lawn wearing a semi-transparent chiffon dress, apparently frightened by something, with a motel-like building behind her, lit up by neon. “What is she running from?” Noto mused.
“I wanted to create a science fiction movie for adults,” Noto further explains, “I wanted to combine what I considered a serious dramatic story with the fantastic effects of science fiction – especially in terms of sex, romance and love. I wanted to portray sexual agony and ecstasy in a way I’d never seen before, and science fiction seemed like the arena.”
I wanted to create a science fiction movie for adults
Noto’s The Tourist takes place in Manhattan, circa 1980, during a sweltering summer. An executive, Grace Ripley, works at Seaman & Seamans, a successful building firm. She is strong-minded, very attractive, and 30-something. She is also an alien from another planet, one of thousands of exiled aliens living incognito on Earth, having adopted human form in order to assimilate into human society. But Grace is desperate to escape Earth and return to her home world. The alien prisoners view Earth as a cesspool, “one hell of an exile planet.”
The alien prisoners view Earth as a cesspool,
“one hell of an exile planet.”
On her home world Grace was a huge worm-like creature. “I come from a planet of information and erotica,” she explains to a human she has befriended, “I was a healer. I was sent away in an execution ship. It was supposed to explode, but it didn’t.”
In human form Grace is still able to demonstrate extraordinary otherworldly powers, most notably in the act of sexual foreplay and intercourse, which she can use to her advantage, but her active libido also places her at risk.
On Earth in human form she is weakened by tactile sensuality and so avoids touching people or being touched. When she is aroused a perilous cocoon-like process begins to envelope her body.
When she is aroused
a perilous cocoon-like process
begins to envelope her body.
Grace lives in a perpetual state of curiosity and frustration. She is on a mission, determined to find a man called John Taiga, whom she believes may have constructed a spacecraft that can successfully leave Earth and travel across the cosmos. But she must find him first. Much of The Tourist’s narrative has Grace pursuing information she has gleaned from human and fellow alien.
She descends into the New York underground beneath an establishment that calls itself The Manhattan Grief Clinic, but in reality is a front for a kind of concentration camp hideaway full of cubicles known as The Corridor, housing “the unwanted of several galaxies.”
a kind of concentration camp hideaway
full of cubicles known as The Corridor,
housing “the unwanted of several galaxies.
Grace eventually makes contact with John Taiga, but not without collateral damage to human and alien alike. It turns out John Taiga is the extra-terrestrial adversary Grace battled with in a prologue scene set on Grace and John’s home planet. They are different species, each other’s nemesis it seems; needing to feed off each other to survive, but at the other’s peril.
John reveals to Grace his flying saucer, but he’s not giving her a passport so easily. The hustle and bustle survival amidst the sleazy grime of New York City leads to an intense final struggle – in primordial form – between Taiga and Ripley at an abandoned gas station under a turnpike in New Jersey.
Director Gibson described Noto’s original screenplay as a rather gloomy, existentialist film noir with a resonant, but depressing view of the human condition. However it’s art-house aesthetic appealed to him, and he saw a challenge to make a movie that would work for a wider audience.
Universal wanted a big budget movie, whereas Gibson saw it essentially as a lo-fi production. However it quickly became apparent that The Tourist as either a high concept mainstream science fiction adventure or a darkly comic adult fantasy thriller was as likely as hell freezing over.
(Next week: Final nail in the coffin; my version of The Tourist)
Bryn Tilly Bryn Tilly is a cinephile, freelance writer, and pro DJ who spends his daytime hosting Horrorphile and Cult Projections. He also provides a monthly movie list for lifestyle website FreshMag. At night, as Brynstar, he spins deep funk for jazzed souls at some of Sydney’s bar hotspots.