Alien: Covenant: Milford Sound's big moment in the Hollywood spotlight

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The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

After years of watching other New Zealand locations being showcased, "moody" Milford Sound finally has its moment in the Hollywood spotlight.

Fiordland's World Heritage Site makes its big screen bow, standing in for a remote, previously hidden planet in Sir Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi epic – Alien: Covenant – which opened in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday. It provides the backdrop for plenty of "xenomorph" action, as a group of colonists set down in hope of establishing a new civilisation, only to discover that something has already beaten them there.

Filming took place at Milford for two weeks at the start of the movie's 74-day shoot in April 2016.  While most of the production was based at Fox Studios Australia, the Fiordland shoot was only possible because of the determination of Scott's production crew to film in the location and their willingness to co-operate with the strict requirements from groups like Environment Southland and the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Alien: Covenant director SIr Ridley Scott says he was struck by Milford Sounds' beauty.
Fox Movies

Alien: Covenant director SIr Ridley Scott says he was struck by Milford Sounds' beauty.

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Scott, who had previously shot a commercial at Castle Point in the 1990s, recently told Britain's Empire magazine that he was struck by the area's beauty and wonder. "When it rains, hundreds of waterfalls appear."  

Cinematographer Dariuz Wolski was also taken by the area's "cloudy, soft light".  "Sometimes the sun comes through, but basically, it's dramatic clouds, mountains that appear and disappear in the clouds."

Sir Ridley Scott and the Alien: Covenant cast on location at Milford Sound.
Fox Movies

Sir Ridley Scott and the Alien: Covenant cast on location at Milford Sound.

For New Zealand Film Commission's (NZFC) head of international attractions Philippa Mossman, the shoot represented a significant payoff from a trip Scott made to the country in May 2014. She hosted Scott, as well as one of his producers and production designers, on a tour of various New Zealand locations. "At that stage, it was a general scout, but I think he also had The Martian in mind."

Jordan might have proved to boast more Mars-like scenery, but Mossman says she got the sense the 79-year-old was looking at New Zealand as part of his "big picture".

"He's a charismatic guy and he said to me 'I've got 10 more movies in me at least'. You could tell he was taking a general look around. He's known for his atmospheric visual style and he certainly didn't seem to be drawn to pretty locations – personality and atmosphere were definitely his thing."

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So Mossman wasn't completely surprised when she got a phone call in late 2015 from an Australian-based location scout asking if Scott could return for another look at Fiordland.  

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"However, it's one thing for a very special location to appeal to a top-shelf director. It definitely takes the local community and key organizations to embrace the idea of the filming for it to happen. "

Freelance locations scout Simon Riley was initially dispatched to the area for a two-week scout and Film Otago Southland executive Kevin "KJ" Jennings informed on a Friday that "Sir Ridley" and producer Mark Huffam were coming for breakfast the next morning.

Alien: Covenant star Katherine Waterston is dwarfed by the Fiordland landscape.
Fox Movies

Alien: Covenant star Katherine Waterston is dwarfed by the Fiordland landscape.

"When Ridley calls, you come," Jennings laughs. Within hours, he'd organised a helicopter to Milford and ground transport and a local expert guide.

The film's producer Huffam says Jennings and his team were instrumental in helping them make their decision to shoot there. "They provided detailed information and on-the-ground support and also helped us with advice and introductions to the local authorities and residents, which enabled us to successfully film in a UNESCO World Heritage Area."

As for Riley, his fortnight away turned into four-months, as Scott and his team confirmed their intentions to shoot there within three. "Eyebrows were certainly raised at the short lead-in time, especially given that they wanted to shoot a major Hollywood production in an area only accessible through a fairly narrow, long tunnel. The initial concerns were: 'Can we get permission? Is it possible in that time?' Fortunately, we had a very good coming together of Environment Southland, DOC and local Runanga. We all worked really hard and decided we could make it work. But without their say so. it wouldn't have happened."

Alien: Covenant was partly filmed at Milford Sound.
Fox Movies

Alien: Covenant was partly filmed at Milford Sound.

For her part, Department of Conservation Otago & Southland community relations ranger Sinead Mulhern says it was the production team's organisation and willingness to engage with them that allowed them to gain DOC's approval for the shoot.

"Our plan is quite restrictive, but the location people did their background research really well and found where they could and couldn't do their filming. They had done their homework and because they were based here before shooting, it was really easy to sort out logistics. Usually we've had to deal with companies overseas but, in this case, we were able to nut through the nitty gritty as it went. Certainly there were a few obstacles to overcome, since they wanted to film in a National Park, but it all went really smoothly and I think this has been a really good experience for DOC. It showed how filming can happen without any drastic consequences and during a busy period."

But while she says, Fiordland is always "open" to business of this kind and it is lovely to see "our" scenery and landscape on the big screen, Milford's existing infrastructure was a factor in the decision to greenlight this project.

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"If somebody was to come in with a similar proposal for a more remote area, the result might have been different."

Environment Southland consents officer Matt Hoffman says their role was to make sure none of the area's unique flora and fauna and high-quality environment was affected in a permanent way by the production.

He says the tight timeframe meant his team had to work quite closely with the crew and potentially affected parties to get it "over the line".

Alien: Covenant sees a group of colonists battling some terrifying beasts.
Fox Movies

Alien: Covenant sees a group of colonists battling some terrifying beasts.

"We had a lot more contact with them than we normally would, but the producer was confident they could meet our requirements and they demonstrated that to us."

Location scout Riley says they were also lucky to get buy in from everyone at Milford Sound. "We might have been a Hollywood production, but we were small fry compared to the tourism industry there. I remember seeing on Chinese New Year, more than 5000 people pass through these on a single day. Having 400 film crew didn't seem on quite the same scale, but of course it compounds any issues you have. The last thing we wanted to do was disrupt what is a solid business for a lot of people there."

In all, more than 450 crew were accommodated at Milford Lodge, with the production office at Te Anau's Top Ten Holiday Park and production base at Matai Lodge. Around 300 locals were recruited, as everything from drivers to labours and production assistants,

Katherine Waterston stars as Daniels in the new film Alien: Covenant

Riley says some of the biggest logistical challenges were providing suitable communications in the remote location and physically walking equipment the 400m from the crew base to the edge of the tidal zone where they were shooting each day.

None of those spoken to have seen the film yet, however all are excited about the prospect, whether fans of the long-running Alien series or not. 

"It's just another feather in the cap for the New Zealand industry," says Film Otago Southland's Jennings. "I've seen the trailer and can't wait to see more." 

The crew of the Covenant explore their new surrounds.
Fox Movies

The crew of the Covenant explore their new surrounds.

That's a sentiment echoed by NZFC's Mossman, who expects Scott's "trademark visual splendour will become a postcard for the moodier side of New Zealand".

Alien: Covenant (R16) is now screening in cinemas nationwide.

 - Stuff

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