Jul 19, 2011

ANNIVERSARY: Aliens, 25 years on

"During post-production on The Terminator, James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd started dating. According to Cameron: “We’d gone from spending 24 hours a day together making a movie to spending 24 hours a day together because we wanted to.” During week-days they would leave home and race to the office down the freeway — he in his Corvette, she in her Porsche, both bought with Terminator money — the perfect eighties uber-couple, caught in the slipstream of their own success. The weekends were more romantic. “We went off-road on a four wheel drive, took the hot-air balloon out, and a huge wind came up, and we ended up crash landing” said Hurd. “We went horseback- riding, ice-skating, we shot AK 47s out in the desert, and that was just one weekend.”

“The women that he’s been associated with in his personal life have been very strong characters,” says Scott Ross, a friend of the director and co-founder of their effects house, Digital Domain. “He’s like a moth to a light. He’s attracted to these strong burning women but when he gets there he can’t deal with it. And he will always win. Its almost like he needs this ongoing angst in his life between himself and a woman. I think its an issue between him and his mother. His mother is very intimidating and incredibly intelligent and his father is quiet and stands in the background but his mother clearly seems to wear the pants in the family, and I think that’s made a big impact on his work.” In fact, not since the hey-day of Hawks, would a body of films so ostensibly bent on singing the praises of arms and the man, prove so hospitable to the sight of women packing heat. Cameron’s machismo, like Hawks’, is unisex.

All of his friends tried to talk him out of doing Aliens. They thought it a losing proposition; if it was good it would be because Ridley Scott had made such a good film; if it was bad it would be his fault. “Yeah, but I really like it,” he would reply. “I think it’ll be cool. Can’t I just do it?” His script unfurled from a single, simple question that had nagged at Cameron throughout Scott’s original film: where had the alien eggs come from? “They’ve seen the eggs, they’ve seen the parasite that emerges from the eggs, they’ve seen the embryo laid by the parasite emerge from a host person, and they’ve seen the embryo grow up into a supposedly adult form. But the adult form — one of them anyway — couldn’t possibly have laid the thousand or so eggs that filled the inside of the derelict ship.” In the first film there had been a scene which showed the alien cocooning the captain, Dallas, and Harry Dean Stanton, in order to turn them into eggs, but it had ended up on the cutting room floor. “In my story,” said Cameron, “the eggs come from somewhere else. At least that was my theory. So working from that theory — acres and acres of these quite large eggs, two-and-a-half to three-feet tall — I began to focus on the idea of a hierarchical hive structure where the central figure is a giant queen whose role it is to further the species...”

Cameron wrote through the Christmas of 1984, before finally delivering his first draft in January of 85. “If you think of the first Alien movie as a fun house, Aliens is a roller coaster ride” he told producers Walter Hill and David Giler. 20th-century Fox, however, refused to believe that the film could be done for $15.5 million, as Gale Ann Hurd said it could; a budget estimator at Fox put it at nearer $35 million, and refused to finance the film. Cameron and Hurd both quit.

“We walked out and said ‘thanks we’ll do something else,” said Cameron. Fox’s bluff was called and by March, the project was back on track again, only to hit another problem in the form of the film’s star, Sigourney Weaver. Cameron had written the whole thing around Weaver’s character without contacting the actress, so phoned her up to talk her into it. She was in France at the time, shooting Une femme ou deux, and at first she was a little nonplussed, thinking: I can’t believe why no one even mentioned it to me. “I didn’t really want to do a sequel, I was pretty sceptical of what I thought was an attempt to cash in on the success of the original.... I thought why do something that has already been done?” She and producer David Giler had joked about it, on and off, for years. “Well if we ever do the sequel and you co-operate, you can be in the picture,” Giler told her on one occasion. “If you don’t then your hyper-sleep capsule lid and you will dissolve into dust.”

She was suspicious that Cameron was doing it just to cash in, but the director pointed the seven year gap since the first film: didn’t that indicate the film was being done for love not money? He told her that the story was focused dead-centre on Ripley, and that he couldn't do the film without her participation. Weaver thought it showed “a loyalty that is quite unusual in this business” and agreed, but having got only $35,000 for first movie, upped her pay check to a million. Fox put their foot down and told Cameron and Hurd: do it without her. “It was the amount Sigourney was asking,” says Hurd. “They were considering writing a sequel that didn't include her, and Jim and I couldn’t imagine what that movie would be. It all happened over a rather short period of time. We couldn’t simply rewrite the script for someone else. It’s not that easy, when the entire theme of the movie is all about facing your deepest fears, how do you do that when no-one else survives?”

When things reached deadlock, Hurd and Cameron quit for a second time — “We thought it was a dead issue at that point,” said Hurd, “We thought the movie was off” — and flew to Hawaii in April, for their honeymoon, which turned out to be as romantic as their dates. “We spent half of our honeymoon making calls to England and LA to set up the Aliens deal,” said Cameron. “Jim had to do this logical, cost-benefit analysis of why getting married would be a good idea,” reported back Hurd. “We came out in the black.”

When they returned in May, Aliens was on again, with Weaver onboard, a budget of $18 million, and a start date of September at Shepperton studios in London, and a decommissioned electrical engineering station in Acton. Alien had been a hot, groggy shoot, taking is cue from the suppressed tension that hovered around Ridley Scott, but Aliens was shot during a dark, freezing British winter, warmed only by the blaze of Cameron’s temper. It was the by-now characteristic firework display, with the director firing first actor James Remar, who played Hicks, and then cinematographer, Dick Bush. An old Shepperton stalwart, Bush was old school: the director would shoot things the way he decided to light them, and he lit up the dark cavernous aliens’ lair just a few amps short of a car-sales room. Cameron was not happy.

“This is Jim's movie, Jim’s vision,” protested Hurd, thinking: oh no, this is not going to work.

”Well if that's the case,” replied Bush, “and I can’t do my job which is to light it the way I want it, you'd better find someone else”

Giler told Hurd, “You've got to fire him” and so they brought in a replacement, Adrian Biddle. It was beginning of long and gruelling war of attrition between the American producers and the largely British crew, who were all fond of Ridley Scott, and suspicious of this young American hotshot couple flying in to make a sequel to their beloved movie. They nick-named Cameron “grizzly Adams” and were openly contemptuous of Hurd, this dainty woman stepping across the power cables in her immaculate shoes. “It was very upfront, their discomfort with women,” says Hurd. “People would come in and sit down and would say ‘who is really producing this film?’ and I would say ‘I am really producing this film,’ and they would laugh and say ‘no, no, no, you’re the director’s wife, lovely to meet you but who will I really be reporting to?’ and I would say ‘actually me’.

“Well if that’s the truth, I want to be completely upfront with you, I won’t take orders from a woman” said one, according to Hurd. “’Well you clearly won’t be working on this film.’ I thought it might be an isolated occurrence, but it happened quite a few times.”

Things finally reached a head over the endless breaks that the crew insisted on taking — for tea, to go to the pub for lunch, for lottery raffles. “It was Union regulated, whether you wanted it or not,” said Giler. “If you murdered the tea lady, there’d be someone there the next day at the same time.” When one crew-member took the opportunity to go around giving out tickets for a raffle, Cameron finally exploded. “No man, we’re working here. Fuck the draw! There's a last shot we've got to get” He destroyed the tea-trolley — mashed it into a cube — and called in the entire crew and told them, “If you guys don't shape up, we’re going to go someplace else, we’ll fire the whole crew.”

“They were having a party,” said Hendrikson, “and Jim was at war to finish this movie.” It was a gruelling shoot for Weaver — freezing cold in a t-shirt for most of it, weighed down with her co-star, Carrie Anne Moss, whom she had to carry in many scenes, and further loaded down with guns and ammo when she was a staunch opponent of firearms. She would stand there in daily handgun practise, loaded up to here eyeballs with ammunition, thinking, ‘here I am a member of the gun control lobby in a picture where I do nothing but shoot guns....’ When she first read the script, she’d done the usual thing and sniffed out her dialogue, skipping the stage directions — never a wise move with a Cameron script, which bristles with all the usual chunky toys, like a one-movie answer to the arms-race: “She checks her weapon. Attaches a BANDOLIER OF GRENADES to her harness. Primes the flame-thrower. Checks the rifle’s magazine. Racks the bolt, chambering the first round. She checks the marking flares in the high pocket of her jump pants. She drops an unprimed grenade...”

“Part of the attraction of doing the film was that it was a design fest, an opportunity to do all sorts of wonderful hardware,” said Cameron, “I like hardware a lot.” He and production designer Peter Lamont lined his sets with the dismantled parts of old 747s, Canberra and Vulcan bombers, just being phased out of the Royal Airforce. “I invented a Pulse gun by combining a Thompson submachine gun with a Franchi SPAS 12 pump action shot gun, and there’s a smart gun, based on the Spandau MG42 with thermal imagery sights. And our artillery and aircraft are so advanced that we had to have help from the Aerospace industries, they were just terrific.” He liked hardware a lot.

“I knew we were playing into something trendy with Aliens,” said Weaver, “the Rambo commando complex where the hero single-handedly mows down his opponents. If I see my role as a Chinese warrior, or as Henry V, then I’m interested in it. It’s a chance to do a classic part. If I see it as gunplay, I’m not interested. The use of weapons is always the least important aspect to me, even if its the most effective with the audience. I tried to see Rambo but I couldn’t sit through it. I think I underestimated the degree to which Cameron would pay so much attention to guns.” Still, he was suitably deferential to his star, who had as great a claim on being the auteur of the Alien movies as anyone. “I was the throttle, she was the brakes” said Cameron, who duly made note of every one of her detailed queries about the character of Ripley.

“Her script must have had 5,000 notations in it,” says Hurd. “It was all about ‘Ripley would not do this, she is working on a loading dock, she would be making every decision from a functional point of view, working on a loading dock you are not going to have long hair that gets caught...’ every intonation, every line, every motion came from a deep character place.” In particular, Weaver found the idea of a character waking from a 57-year sleep fascinating. She believed that Ripley’s mind didn’t stop working in that period — that she hadn’t skipped those years, but had racked them up internally, in hyper-sleep. “Ripley isn’t the eager young ensign anymore. Her own daughter has grown old and died before the film even begins,” she said. “In Aliens she got to go back and fight the monsters because she has no choice. Nothing is left for her here.”'

— excerpted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Summer


  1. "Cameron wrote through the Christmas of 1985, before finally delivering his first draft in January of 86"

    "When they returned in May, Aliens was on again, with Weaver onboard, a budget of $18 million, and a start date of September at Shepperton studios in London,"

    Better double check your dates. ALIENS came out in Summer 1986.

    Otherwise, excellent article.

  2. I am no apologist for Carrie-Anne Moss's horrendous acting but she wasn't in this movie.

  3. Well, when someone screws up something so basic as the timeline of a film production, I have to start questioning the other facts I am not already privy to.

    And it was Carrie Henn. Fact check much?

  4. Yea, you need to correct a few things here but it's a decent piece. Cameron v. the Brit crew is epic and hilarious, really. His biography The Futurist is a puff-piece but it covers that thoroughly.

  5. Thank you — dates corrected

  6. Tom, you should correct Carrie-Anne Moss in the above to Carrie Henn http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001343/. That is provided that you want to keep that line at all given that Carrie Henn was a child in this film (her one and only feature film job). Though in fairness Sigourney Weaver did in fact have to physically carry her during one scene. Is this how this chapter actually reads in your book? That's not good. I do love In the Rooms and your blog though.

  7. Carrie Henn grew up and changed her name to Casey Anthony and had plastic surgery to make her look like Carrie-Anne Moss. Tom is being au courant.

  8. Great post! I wrote a bit on Ripley as Gaia here, and linked to you as well:


  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. As someone who once wrote a nice little post touching on "Gail Russell" in My Man Godfrey, called Kevin Brownlow "Kenneth" (although not, thank god, to his face) and received a polite, diffident email from a longtime reader pointing out that Christine O'Donnell was a misbegotten political candidate and not Harold Russell's love object in The Best Years of Our Lives, I sure hope I continue to get merciful treatment from my readers. Note to self: make all the transcription errors you want, but for god's sake, not on ALIENS.

  11. It may be the thought of Carrie-Anne Moss being carried by Sigourney Weaver (or, hell, by anyone) that's sullying the iconic image of the majestic Ripley squaring off against the Alien Queen. Much harder to reach for one's firearm with those long scissor legs wrapped around your waist, I would imagine, much less to hold that determined stare, though perhaps a creative Photoshopper could put my hypothesis to the test.

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