The Risk Always Lives: Words to Live by On the Set of James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’

‘Aliens’ movie poster illustration by Rory Kurtz

 
By Tim Pelan

“My mommy always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are,” Carrie Henn’s hardened child Newt chides Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens. There may not be piston jawed xenomorphs around the corner in real life, but for director/writer James Cameron, a monster success was brewing in his febrile mind. With the guerrilla success of The Terminator under his belt, the Canadian wunderkind, a former protégé of Roger Corman, was first tasked with scripting a sequel to Ridley Scott’s “haunted house in space” smash hit. He hungered to direct it as well, and famously made a bold, simple pitch to the Brandywine Production triumvirate who held the keys to the kingdom—David Giler, Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll. Cameron walked into the room and simply wrote “Alien” on a chalkboard. The puzzled trio were allowed to ponder this briefly, before he added an “S”. Another pause, then he converted the “S” into a “$” symbol, turned and grinned. The deal with him to direct his own script was greenlit that day for $18 million. Cameron had wrestled with a title for “Alien 2” for a long time before the simplicity of it hit him like lightning bolt. “I was writing away and it was Aliens this and Aliens that, and it was just right,” he recalled. “It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat.” Fight or flight—Cameron’s Aliens would be an adrenalized thrill ride of a combat sequel that built on Scott’s world and delivered both elements in spades. So much so that when Cameron and his then wife and producer Gale Anne Hurd snuck into the first “civilian” screening of this “express elevator to hell,” Hurd was delighted to notice a young woman furiously gripping the armrest of her seat so hard it snapped off. Without noticing, she transferred her nervous energy to her poor boyfriend’s leg, smacking it with the armrest, her eyes never leaving the screen. There was no, “Close your eyes, baby” for her—she, and millions like her, was hooked. (Matt Zoller Seitz has a wonderful article on the thrill of watching Aliens through the lens of a bunch of 11-year-old first-timers at a slumber party.)

For Cameron, the key to the script was Sigourney Weaver’s return as Ripley, last surviving crew member of the Nostromo, who faced off against the titular threat before, and was to accompanying a cocky squad of colonial marines back to the site of the previous horror, planet designation LV426. There, amidst the warren of an overrun terraforming colony, “Hadley’s Hope”, she would face down her demons. “The story was about someone who has to regroup,” Weaver said, “who goes back because if she stays inside her room, she knows she will slowly unravel.”

 
Ripley was originally conceived as a male character—a one size fits all standard action hero. Cameron gave her a first name (in the director’s cut)—Ellen. And a daughter who outlived her to old age while she drifted for 57 years in hypersleep. But the daughter was not necessary to the bond she makes with Newt (“Nobody calls me Rebecca.”). When we first meet Ripley in Alien, she has no first name and is third in command of commercial towing vessel Nostromo: young, cautious, by the book. Just think, if Dallas had listened to her and not brought Kane back aboard with the alien embryo, or let Ash open the airlock, they would have lived.

Weaver told Empire magazine: “She was right. But for a young person to say that over people like Dallas she couldn’t be sure. That is what makes Ripley human. The reason I always loved playing her is that to me she is like all of us. She takes her job seriously because lives are at risk. She wants to believe there is an order to things. The series is about her coming to terms with the fact that there is no integrity, that it’s all about greed and people are expendable. Everything she thought about the world is turned upside down.”

Disbelieved by the company, Ripley is suspended in Aliens for destroying her ship and reduced to working Powerloaders, a skill that will come in handy in her epic confrontation with the alien queen later. Tortured by nightmares, she has one question for the slippery Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), the duplicitous company man who offers her a way to face down her demons. “You’re going there to destroy them right? To wipe them out?” She’s in.

 
Ripley is still unsure of herself, hesitant, deferring to the cocky marines. Until that is, they find Newt, and proceed to get their asses kicked by the alien horde. She seems to emerge from a waking dream and takes charge. Ripley sees a kindred spirit in Newt, and will move heaven and earth to protect her. It is Ripley who first says: “I say we take off, nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure,” to the appreciation of quiet-spoken but self-assured Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). “I think Hicks is one of the smarter characters,” Biehn considered, “because he’ll take a step backward before he takes a step forward. He realizes early on that he’s going to need—they’re all going to need– [Ripley’s] experience and expertise. It’s just a situation where you have a woman who’s very strong and dependable. Hicks realizes that and respects her for it.”

Again, hardship and trauma draw out her inner steel, while Hudson (Bill Paxton’s “Howling Commando”) has to be told to get his shit together. After being reminded that Newt survived quite well on her own, he whines “Why don’t we put her in charge?” Ripley snaps him out of his hysteria. “Just deal with it, Hudson, because we need you, and I’m sick of your bullshit.” She sets him a task and he gets on it. Ripley is a born leader.

Weaver tested Cameron, throwing out her own ideas which he politely listened to and negated, although he admitted she got him to think differently, seeing that she knew Ripley better than anyone. For her part, she realized he knew what he was talking about, and she was in good hands. “I always felt he trusted my instincts.”

 
She negotiated hard for a bigger paycheque, knowing the script was better with Ripley in it. 20th Century Fox dug their heels in. Cameron told them if Weaver wasn’t signed on for what she wanted, he was out. Still no give. So he called friend Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agent, who worked at the same firm as Weaver’s agent, and told him he was going with an older version of Newt as his lead. Later that day, Weaver was signed on for $1 million. A-ffirmitive. Weaver felt that only Cameron truly believed in the film at first. “I think it took someone as confident as Jim to attempt it.”

“This time it’s war” was the tagline. Cameron was writing the script for Rambo First Blood Pt II whilst both redrafting The Terminator and working Aliens into shape. Seemingly inevitably, elements from the Vietnam war began to bleed into the Aliens concept. Syd Mead, self-proclaimed “Visual Futurist”, and Ron Cobb, who had worked on Alien, developed a multitude of concept art for the film. Mead’s idea for the Marine dropship streamlined into a “cross between an Apache gunship and a Phantom jet.” The APC that it discharges was a former jumbo jet towing vehicle from Heathrow airport. Judicious camera angles hid the fact only a couple of people could fit through the door to the limited interior. “There was a definite parallel to Vietnam,” Cameron said, “a technologically superior military force defeated by a determined, asymmetric enemy” But getting through the production was almost a war in itself: on one side the unknown Canadian auteur, and on the other, the tea-loving Brits from Pinewood Studio.

 
Jim Cameron was an unknown element to the faithful Ridley Scott crew at Pinewood, who viewed him at first as a brash upstart, piggybacking on the success of Alien. He had only been in the movie business for less than ten years after being blown away by Star Wars (as was Ridley Scott, who was then inspired to make Alien). He learnt the hard way, grafting from the shop floor in Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and other films, working on models and matte paintings, amongst other things. His experience and success with The Terminator counted for naught with the Pinewood crew. Apart from their loyalty to Scott, the in-house, unionized crew were just used to doing things their own way, in their own time. Their craftsmanship and professionalism were second to none, but Cameron was on a tight budget and schedule. He later said:

“The interesting thing about shooting in England wasn’t just the culture clash. For me, it was also a transition from a non-union guerrilla-filmmaking mentality… to an actual union picture. They (the local crew) had permanent employment. A lot of people on the crew were, to use a charitable term, comfortable. If you did Pinewood, you had to use their people.”

The first casualty of war was director of photography Dick Bush. He didn’t see eye to eye with the headstrong director. As he saw it, it was up to him how the set was lit, not Cameron. The crunch came when Cameron wanted the marines approach through the devastated corridors of the repurposed decommissioned Acton Lane power plant to be eerily lit by only their shoulder-rigged lamps. Bush instead had multiple lighting rigs everywhere, showing off too much set detail. He also said there was no way he could meet the tough schedule, and he had no intention of trying. Hurd told her husband Bush had to go, and they parted by mutual consent. Adrian Biddle, Ridley Scott’s D.P., was able to take over, and he fortunately clicked with Cameron’s vision immediately.

 
To get the local crew’s trust and understanding of his vision Cameron would arrange screenings of The Terminator, which hadn’t been released in the U.K yet, but few bothered to turn up at first. Then when he and 1st Assistant Director Derek Cracknell clashed and he was also let go, it almost provoked a walkout. Lance Henriksen (android Bishop) didn’t get the local culture either. He recalled Cracknell saying “Bring on the artistes.” This after a previous minor confrontation. He told Cracknell “Man, you really are being a wise guy,” because he thought it was a put down, rather than typical “luvvie” speak so prevalent on English sets.

Speaking of “artistes”, actor James Remar was originally cast as Corporal Hicks, but Cameron felt he wasn’t right. He quickly replaced him shortly after filming began with Michael Biehn, who memorably played Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Remar can still be seen in several shots where the squad enter the alien den, although his face cannot be identified. In one of these shots, the camera pans seamlessly from a miniature “Alien-ified” roof down to the actors.

Possibly the biggest clash, although it may have been exaggerated over time, was over the infamous tea trolley. In the words of that late, great Englishman Noel Coward, “Everything stops for tea.” Frustratingly for the director, at 10 a.m. the huge studio doors would part, releasing painstakingly created atmospheric smoke, and in would trundle a “little old lady” as young Carrie Henn put it, with the tea and snack trolley. Henn would often help her, as the crew dropped whatever they were doing and rushed for refreshments. Somewhat understandable, as they had an early start with no breakfast. Cameron simply wasn’t used to this, but he was probably running on pure adrenalin. Apparently one day, the tea caddy was sabotaged, but it was swiftly replaced.

 
Carrie Henn was a US Army brat, her father stationed in England at the time. Together with her brother Christopher (who only appears in the extended cut as Timmy, with scenes of the pre-overrun colony) this was her only acting experience. Although a total natural, she had an impish sense of humor. During the scene where she slides down the chute as Ripley tries to grab her, she kept blowing the scene so she could slide again, until Cameron said if she did it right, she could slide later all she wanted.

Another practice that irked Cameron was recalled by Bill Paxton. “Jim was simmering—he’d got two shots done and it had been one delay after another. It happened to be a Friday night, when they go around with a jar and everyone throws in a pound for a raffle. And God, I remember this poor old geezer from Costume goes up to Jim. he says ‘For the whip, Guv’nor?’ There’s a long pause as Jim looks at the little jar. Then he slowly says ‘Does that have anything to do with what we are trying to accomplish here? Get the fuck out of my face!’”

From Starlog #126, January 1987—Bill Paxton recalls the intense atmosphere when the flamethrowers during the alien attack nearly sucked all the air out of the actors’ lungs:

 
“We were doing the sequence,” says Paxton, “where Drake has just been hit and his flamethrower shoots an arc of butane right into the ship and it’s total anarchy. Well, part of the set caught on fire, and it was this plastic stuff. Now, sometimes, we would improvise. There would be certain dialogue that we would have to say, and then the cameras would still be rolling and they would want us to keep playing the moment. So, I heard Jenette [Goldstein, who plays Vasquez] next to me go, ‘I can’t breathe!’ and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really going into the whole smoke thinking. That’s good!’ But the very next second, I took a breath and was like something had just—whoosh!—taken my breath away. We didn’t pass out or anything, but they pulled us out of there and gave us oxygen. They let us go to lunch, and when we came back, it was supposed to be all fixed. On the very next take, the same exact thing happened. This time I really did need a little oxygen. I was hacking hard.” The crew eventually cut some ventilation into the ceiling.

“Vasquez is younger than the rest,” reads the Aliens screenplay, “and her combat primer was the street in a Los Angeles barrio. She is tough even by the standards of this group. Hard-muscled. Eyes cunning and mean.” She is the antithesis of Ripley, but comes to respect the civilian. Jenette Goldstein, like the other Marine actors, was encouraged to personalize her armor and weapon. On her Smartgun is the word, “Adios”, and on her breastplate she chose a quote from a book of poetry, “el riesgo siempre vive”—the risk always lives. Words to live by on any James Cameron set.

For the scene where Vasquez and Lt. Gorman (William Hope) are attacked by aliens in the air duct and she jams an alien’s head against the wall and shoots it, that is not Goldstein doing the shooting. Cameron knew Gale Anne Hurd was familiar with firearms (one of their first dates was on a firing range), and had her do it exactly the way he wanted, further reinforcing her tough as nails reputation among the grumbling crew. Goldstein felt, “I think Vasquez is just so angry that it has finally got to her. Rather than being scared, she’s pissed off she’s about to die.”

 
The most iconic moment in the film is probably when Ripley, previously hidden behind a huge locked door and thinking fast, stomps out in a previously viewed innocuous-looking “future fork-lift” to smackdown the looming Alien Queen chasing a scuttling Newt (Carrie Henn) around the Sulaco hold. Just how did writer/director James Cameron come up with the idea? A featurette on the Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray elaborates to a degree. He wanted a human operator to be invisible behind Weaver, physically operating the thing. “The practical effects guys in England, they just thought I was nuts,” he says in the featurette.

The idea actually originated in a short uncompleted film Cameron did when he was younger, called Xenogenesis. According to Alien Series:

The two protagonists, a man and woman, are hounded by a gigantic robot. The woman manages to flee, but the other is forced over a precipice and hangs perilously over a chasm. The robot leans in to finish him, but a far-off wall panel is forced open, revealing the woman—now encased in a robotic vehicle and ready to do battle for her partner’s life.

 
That vehicle was known as “The Spider”, an exo-suit used for outer hull space repairs. “It was a four-legged walking machine that used a tele-presence-type amplification: you put your feet in things, you grabbed onto these controls, and however you moved and walked, it duplicated your actions,” Cameron recalled. He later refashioned and refined the idea for Aliens, changing it to a two-legged suit after seeing the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back.

Cameron did not want Ripley to become a gung-ho warrior like the Colonial Marines—the climactic fight was to be a primal duel between two mothers, fighting, on the one hand in blind fury about its brood being incinerated, and the human opponent, protecting her own adopted child.

At one point he had considered the Marines having powered “battle suits” but felt this would be a tip of the wink too soon as to what’s to come. “Anyway, how would Ripley know how to operate a battle suit? They wouldn’t be teaching her. It was really critical to the story that she appears under pressure as the person who really takes control. They discredit her at the beginning; the last thing they’d do is hand her a gun and teach her how to use a battle suit.”

 
She had to be shown to at least know how to operate this thing, so the script made reference to her job post—Nostromo at the inquiry, and shows her loading missiles in the Sulaco’s hold to help out.

Special Effects Supervisor John Richardson was tasked with building the thing, under Cameron’s exacting gaze and hands-on approach. The full-scale power loader (there was a miniature as well, along with a miniature Alien Queen) was built out of aluminum, fiberglass and PVC plastic. The wrists were radio-controlled, the pincers operated by cables. A counterweight and rig alternately supported the weight. Stuntman John Lees operated the 600 lb exo-suit from behind the “operator’s seat”. Cameron: “I remember the English visual effects guys thinking we were crazy, the way we wanted to do it. And I said, ‘No, it’s the gag where the dad lets the daughter walk on his feet.’”

“There are two things missing when I watch a lot of action these days,” Cameron told Total Film. One is that I don’t care about the characters, and there isn’t a lucidity to what’s happening—what is the goal, what are these people trying to accomplish? It’s Narrative 101. The other thing that gets ignored is the length of time it takes a virgin pair of eyeballs and visual cortex to take in an image, assimilate it, relate it to images that have gone before. Lots of action films these days have many small cuts in a sequence. It’s just chopped salad.

 
I’ve found there’s a process by which the eye is already moving, ready for the thing that is going to happen next after the cut. So what I do is—and I’m giving away a little trick here—is I just flop the workprint in the projector and watch the film in mirror image. You really see where your eyeballs have been conditioned to look in a place, but now it’s happening over there, it’s like, ‘Whoa!’”

Cameron’s vision and hands-on oversight of every aspect of film production was also his curse. He knew exactly what he wanted, and expected others to deliver it. The film was being completed with edits, effects and music cues right up to the wire. James Horner had just two weeks to complete his score, for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. The first time many of the crew saw the completed film (there was no time for previews) was at the premiere. Grudgingly, many of the talented people who worked long hours would agree that the aggravation was worth it to create such a landmark film.

The identity of the tea caddy vandal remains unknown to this day.

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 
What we did was we tried to deflect any possible criticism by making the film in our style, making it more thematically consistent with ‘Terminator’ than with ‘Alien.’ I think there’s an emphasis on action and character. Fast cutting. Good storytelling. Hopefully, trying to stay away from visual pretension as much as possible. Just go for fun and exhilaration andpeoplethat you can relate to as human beings, which I think is very important… because science fiction has a tendency to be interested in visual things and special-effects and be noninvolving, be sort of a passive entertainment. Whereas what Gale and I like to do is make a film that sort of pulls you in.
James Cameron

Screenwriter must-read: James Cameron’s screenplay for Aliens [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Whilst waiting on his first full feature film, The Terminator, to enter principal photography, writer/director James Cameron took on several writing assignments. Among them was the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

When Levy left his post in 1984, Giler and Hill finally managed to make some headway. Giler attributes the revival of the project to a Fox executive who stopped him in the car park. “I told him the story that was a cross between Southern Comfort and The Magnificent Seven,” said Giler. “He said, ‘Great! That sounds fine.’ And we all had a meeting and we were on.” The producers then proceeded to band ideas about. “David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be,” Walter Hill told Film International in 2004. “We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller—the military takes over—a patrol movie.” But though ideas had begun to materialise, Giler and Hill, who both confessed to sci-fi not being their area of expertise, made no headway on a screenplay for the film. The breakthrough came when Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler’s production company), came across a script called The Terminator. “It was electrifying,” he recalled. “I put the script on David’s (Giler) desk and said, ‘This is the guy.’” Giler and Hill, after perusing the script, had to agree that Cameron had talents worth investigating, and they arranged a meeting with the budding filmmaker to discuss ideas for a film, though not specifically an Alien sequel.

At this point in time Cameron was in a rut—his first directorial project The Terminator had been picked up by Hemdale and Orion Pictures, but shooting was put on an 8 month long hiatus due to Dino De Laurentiis pulling Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the movie to fulfill contractual obligations with a Conan sequel. Suddenly, despite having the entirety of The Terminator scripted, designed, cast, and ready to film, Cameron found himself with a lot of spare time to whittle away. So, not the type to sit on his hands, he sought new writing projects, taking on the sequel to First Blood as well as attending the meeting with Giler and Hill to discuss further projects. At first, the two offered him a take on Spartacus set in space which Cameron listened to with some bemusement. “It quickly became clear that David Giler wanted a swords and sandals-type film set in outer space,” Cameron said, “with literal swords and sandals.”

After some to’ing and fro’ing, the meeting stalled. “And I was sort of getting up and sort of making my way towards the door,” Cameron continued, “and David Giler said, ‘Well, we do have this other thing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘Alien II.’ And all the kind of pinball machines lights and bells went off inside my head.” The original movie had left an indelible impression on Cameron. “I saw Alien on its opening night in 1979 and it had a great effect on me… It created such a benchmark for visual design in science-fiction, as well as photography, acting, sound, and editing—all things that one did not necessarily associate with science-fiction.”

To aid him with the story, Giler and Hill pointed Cameron in the direction they thought it should take. “All they said was, ‘Ripley and soldiers,’” Cameron explained. “They didn’t give me anything specific, just this idea of her getting together with some military types and having them all go back to the planet.” The producers also imparted Cameron with their notes and story ideas. “I’ll never forget this,” commented Cameron, “The outline concluded with this sentence: ‘and then some other bullshit happens.’ Which I thought trivialised the entire process of figuring out what the story should be.” Cameron, a science-fiction fan since his childhood, had already made attempts at sci-fi scripts in the vein of Alien and Star Wars before, none of which he had developed, but could now mine for his Alien sequel just as Dan O’Bannon had amalgamated his own Dark Star with a myriad of other ideas and influences. One of Cameron’s unproduced screenplays, titled ‘Mother’, was extensively reworked and would come to form the many throughlines of Alien II.

“In 1980 or 1981,” he explained, “I wrote notes and an initial treatment for a science fiction story that I initially called E.T., meaning extraterrestrial, a commonly used term in science fiction literature. As I was writing it, I found out that Steven Spielberg was making a film called E.T. The Extraterrestrial, so I promptly changed the title of my story. I used Protein as an interim working title, but then switched the title to Mother, because the story concerned a female genetically engineered creature attempting to ensure the survival of its young.” “It featured a character very much like Ripley,” he continued, “had its own type of Alien Queen, and ended with a final battle between the protagonist and Mother while the main character was encased in what I’d later call a ‘power-loader’”. The ‘Mother’ screenplay also originated many other Aliens tropes, including a company (Triworld Development Corporation, generally referred to as ‘the Company’) that funds inhabitation and resource-mining of other worlds, the term ‘xenomorph’, as well as a strong maternal theme. “I’d felt that that fit like a glove in the development of [Ripley]. I just grabbed all the stuff that I’d already been thinking about and slammed it together. It felt very mercenary, at the time.”

Cameron stayed up for three nights drinking coffee and working on First Blood II and the Alien II treatment, deconstructing his ‘Mother’ script for the latter and injecting it with Giler and Hill’s mandate that the military be involved. Luckily, his research for First Blood II offered an insight into the Vietnam War that he figured would meld very well with the story of an elite fighting force confronting “a less technologically advanced but more determined enemy” which, in his case, would happen to be not Viet Cong guerillas but a horde of murderous biomechanoids. “I was kind of fascinated by Vietnam at that point and what a weird and surreal kind of war that was. So my approach to [First Blood II] was a lot heavier, a lot more character.” Frustratingly for Cameron, Sylvester Stallone’s rewrites obliterated much of the depth that he had tried to instil in the film. “They kept a lot of the action,” he said of the film. “They just kind of made it a Mission Impossible thing—for me it took on kind of a superhero-type quality. I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character.”

Not wanting to let a good theme go to waste, Cameron realised that Ripley’s encounter with the Alien would undoubtedly have traumatised her in a way that would be powerful and lingering. “One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam,” he told Time magazine in ’86, “who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised […] I used a bit of it in Aliens, having them come back from something they were traumatized by. There was a bit of that delayed stress syndrome stuff in Aliens they didn’t use in Rambo II.”

Another theme of Alien II would be one that James Cameron was fascinated with for some time: “Would you be willing to go into hell for someone, and if so, who would it be, and what would your relationship to them be?” Though the original Alien ended with what David Giler termed a “Sleeping Beauty… lyrical ending,” Cameron geared the sequel to encompass more than lyricism, but a sense of healing and catharsis for both Ripley and the audience. “The first thing I did was give Ripley a past,” explained Cameron, “a life back on Earth—it’s just barely sketched, but there are resonances throughout the story: she was married, she got divorced because her career took her into space, and she had a daughter who, in the time that Ripley was on the Nostromo, grew up and died of old age. So there’s a sense that Ripley survived what happened, but there is still tremendous loss—all this was taken from her.”

Cameron’s hopes for the cathartic experience were best put by Stanley Kubrick, who said, though he was talking in regards to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent—but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” But a snag came when Cameron, finally entering production of The Terminator in late ’83 and early ’84, had yet to finish the full Alien II screenplay. “Giler lost it,” Cameron recalled. “He actually said something I never thought I’d hear anyone say in Hollywood—‘You’ll never work in this town again!’”

Luckily, Walter Hill was of a cooler disposition and advised Cameron to send in whatever he’d written, and the resulting 60 page treatment, submitted on September 21st, 1983, pleased Brandywine enough to keep him on the project. In fact, Giler & Hill liked Cameron’s treatment so much, they added their name to it, placing Cameron third in the credits and earning themselves a pay cheque from Fox. “Walter and David got a cheque for my treatment, and I got nothing,” he said. “I was pretty pissed off about that one.”

Twentieth Century Fox, however, were not so impressed. “An executive told me he didn’t like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development,” Cameron told the LA Times. As The Terminator went into production in March 1984, Fox made an attempt to sell the rights to the Alien franchise to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, but the deal ultimately fell through. When producer Larry Gordon replaced Fox studio production head Joe Wizan in the summer of ’84 he came across the Alien II treatment. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been done,” Gordon said. “In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer.” Gordon, who had worked with Hill on the 1982 hit 48 HRS, kept the Alien II project alive and rolling. Though Cameron was busy directing his first feature, Gordon allowed him to continue to refine and complete the first Alien II screenplay draft throughout The Terminator’s production, even throughout the editing phase. There was even another promise: that if The Terminator was successful, then Cameron could also direct the Alien sequel. “I agreed to write Alien II on the basis—and on the sole basis—that I direct it,” Cameron said. “I created the characters, I created the scenario, and I got emotionally involved. I had a large creative investment in what I’d done up to that point.”

The first public announcement that Cameron had written the sequel came in December 1984, when he told Starlog magazine: “I have written the screenplay for Alien II. It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can’t really say anything more about Alien II than that it exists.” While drafting the screenplay Cameron, who had never intended for his sequel to imitate the original film, concocted a title that shed the roman numerals and allowed it to immediately air its own identity. “I don’t know Dan O’Bannon,” he explained, “but I read an interview with him that said he was typing away one night at four o’clock in the morning, and he was writing, ‘the Alien did this, the Alien did that,’ and he realised that the word ‘alien’ stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was ‘Aliens this and Aliens that’ and it was just right. It was succinct. It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel, without having to say Alien II.” The first draft was handed into Fox in early 1984, and was received with enthusiasm by the studio. There was some sweat shed over the cost: Cameron’s partner and producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted the film could be made for around $15.5 million; Fox estimated it would total an unacceptable $35 million.

A bigger snag came when Cameron insisted that only Sigourney Weaver could play the lead. Fox protested that taking such a stance would allow Weaver a great deal of leverage over her pay, and that they would make Aliens without her if possible. In return, Cameron and Hurd left the project and, recently married, honeymooned to Hawaii. “We assumed it was a dead issue,” said Hurd, “and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.” But when they returned they found that the movie was still on, and that Weaver had been approached to resume her role of Ripley. Weaver, having found the script suddenly dropped in her lap, was impressed enough with Ripley’s characterisation to sign on. “The emotional content is much greater in Aliens,” she said. “I tried to imagine and comprehend something like that […] Coming back to a whole different world and haunted by the other one. Ripley’s personal situation is so bleak. I know I’m playing the same character, but I feel she has changed so utterly by what happens to her early in the film. I don’t think she’s the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time.”

“To begin with, Alien happened in space,” Cameron told Prevue magazine in ’86. “The characters literally existed in a vacuum—they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare—and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.” Weaver affirmed Cameron’s concern that a Ripley without catharsis would ultimately end up as a self-destructive person: “I play a character who, probably, if she stayed at home and the nightmares continued, she might end up with a loaded gun next to her bed.”

Ripley is very different [in ‘Aliens’]. The horrific experience she endured on the Nostromo changed her irrevocably from the eager young ensign to a really haunted person. And we must remember that she drifted in space for fifty-seven years… I firmly believe that Ripley’s mind never stopped working while she slept… she’s probably been over that experience in various nightmare forms through the years. Ripley has to start life over again and finds it very difficult to do so. There are so many ghosts in her life. And yet she agrees to face the horror once again… She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts and sadness of the past or there will be no future for her. But once on the planet and faced with the nightmarish situation, she finds a purpose… she finds she can identify with the little girl, Newt, who is the only other person to experience what Ripley experienced, and survive… She is a fellow creature who shares the same nightmare. When Ripley finds her, her life means something again. —Sigourney Weaver, StarBurst, 1987

Ripley’s actions on LV-426 were intended to serve as atonement for her (self-perceived) failure to protect her Nostromo crewmates. “Ripley still feels responsible for what happened on the Nostromo,” explained Weaver. “She has a feeling that she could have done more to help the crew to survive. It’s nonsense of course; but she can’t help thinking that she could have done a better job […] To me, it is the story of a woman who loses her whole life, and has to start over again,” she surmised. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same again. I mean, she’ll never be that eager young ensign, but who’d want to be anyway? You’ve got to move on […] It’s been very satisfying to see how Ripley coped with what turned out to be a real tragedy in her life.”

Though the writing process was generally smooth, Cameron noted that “[Sigourney] tried to have an influence on Aliens, but it didn’t work! She said, ‘I don’t want to shoot a gun,’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot a gun.’ ‘Oh, well, can I get killed?’ ‘No.’ When I saw the third film I cracked up, because it was all the things she’d asked for on the second film.” This isn’t to suggest that Cameron wasn’t accommodating to Weaver’s suggestions, as the latter praised his ability to interpret the character of Ripley correctly: “Jim is incredibly open to things. I always felt that he trusted my instincts and that he had his own very clear idea of Ripley. Whatever decisions I made about her mental and emotional attitude, he has tried to incorporate into scene changes, how we play them, and things like that. For the most part it has gone very well.”

Aliens finally went into production in September 1985, and would wrap in April 1986 on a budget of $18 million—half of what Fox had frightfully predicted. “If Jim Cameron hadn’t fallen in love with something about Alien,” stated Sigourney, “then a sequel wouldn’t have been made. No one really wanted to touch it… Luckily, Jim wanted to make his own movie.” —Writing Aliens

 
Aliens: An Out of This World Communication with Director James Cameron, by Victor Wells. From Prevue Magazine, August 1986.

“There are three kinds of pictures: high-budget movies, low-budget flicks, and no-waste films. I’m a no-waste filmmaker,” says James Cameron, underscoring the fact that, in a business where the average product costs more than $10 million, a careful, imaginative artist can generate maximum box office with minimal expenditure. The triple-threat entrepreneur began his career with Roger Corman, working in various capacities, art directed Battle Beyond the Stars, co-supervised special fx for John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, acted as production designer and second unit director for Planet of Horrors, and directed Pirahna II. Additionally, Cameron is an accomplished illustrator whose efforts have ranged from creating movie ad campaigns to storyboarding the films he directs. In 1984, besides co-scripting Rambo: First Blood II, he wrote and directed The Terminator, a breathtaking SF thriller that scored internationally with critics and audiences, catapulting the thirty-three-year-old powerhouse into the forefront of contemporary filmmaking. His latest project, Aliens, is the much-awaited follow-up to the 1979 smash hit, Alien. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Warrant Officer Ripley, the sole survivor of the spaceship Nostromo’s encounter with a deadly extraterrestrial. After more than a half-century in suspended animation, she returns to Earth where her story of the ordeal is not believed. The alien planet has since been colonized, and, with contact mysteriously lost, she undertakes a mission back, accompanied by a team of super-Marines armed with high-tech weapons. Realizing her greatest nightmare, she discovers the hostile world overrun with the terrifying creatures—including variations of the Face-hugger, Chest-burster, and a giant Queen alien, thirteen feet high and twenty feet long. Cameron discussed the genesis of the new film, his approach to creating a sequel to one of the cinema’s biggest blockbusters, and Ripley’s chances of surviving a second clash with science fiction’s most fearsome juggernauts.

Sequel-making is a dangerous undertaking, especially when the original is as effective as Alien. Obviously, you found a direction that will break new ground.
That was the idea; Aliens had to be completely different, while still being an extension of the first film—or the prequel, as I call it. The writer, Dan O’Bannon, and the director, Ridley Scott, established a set of elements which can’t be violated. But, they only created part of a universe, which primarily dealt with life and death within the confines of a spaceship.

What was your focus in opening up the concept?
To begin with, Alien happened in space. The characters literally existed in a vacuum—they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course, was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare—and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.

You were asked to make the film in October 1983, before pre-production had even started on The Terminator. A year later, you wrote a treatment, then submitted a finished script in February 1985. But, Sigourney Weaver didn’t get involved until a few months before filming began. Didn’t she modify some of the graphic violence you planned?
Let’s say she was helpful in recreating Ripley by advising me about what the character would or wouldn’t do. By the time she came to it, the screenplay was a fait accompli, but she didn’t rampage through it, saying this or that won’t work. She thought it was consistent with the character she had created.

You have Ripley lead a combat team against the aliens on their planet.
Yes, it was very physically demanding for Sigourney. At first, her character knows nothing about weaponry or fighting, but learns from the soldiers, ultimately becoming the center of the battle to survive. Now she’s faced with not only saving her own life, but others’ lives, too; people she cares about very much. At the end, she’s completely on her own, and must use what she’s been taught to stay alive.

Your fascination with weaponry really shows through in Aliens. They have a familiar look about them, but are modified with futuristic touches. The “Pulse” gun, for example, is a combination Thompson submachine gun and Franchi SPAS 12-pump action shotgun mechanism that can shoot both kinds of ammunition. The “Smart” guns, with the helmet-mounted sights like those designed for helicopter pilots, look like MG-42 Spandau-type machine guns. Could Aliens qualify as a science fiction combat film?
Among other things! I see it as a dark, action piece with a very human center. I like the idea of a futuristic military movie, but not with Star Wars’ Imperial Storm Troopers running around in fantastic costumes, just “ground pounders,” dog soldiers who’ve been around from the time of the Roman legions to Vietnam.

You’ve also managed to extract some humor from your warriors.
Actually, I had a hard time making it less funny, so it didn’t play like a comedy. There’s the constant wisecracking, defying authority, complaining about the job with military characters. But, hopefully, audiences will respond, because if they’re not sympathetic with the characters, they can’t be scared. And the quickest way to make them sympathetic is by being funny. Then, there’s the camaraderie between the people who put their lives on the line every day, which also interests me. Couple that with near-super weaponry, and you’ve got science fiction in the grand tradition—future war.

The conflict takes place on Acheron, a name Dante used in his description of the Ninth Circle of Hell. What’s your vision of the alien planet?
A raw, primal world, constantly windswept with freezing rain—unlike anything on Earth, except for certain familiarities, like clouds and mountains. The colors, the light, the contours, everything so harsh and hostile that even the rock formations have been eroded into tortured shapes, all dark and shadowy so that things sometimes appear to be there—even when they’re not. Ron Cobb, who worked on Alien and Syd Mead of Blade Runner both contributed conceptual designs, along with production designer Peter Lamont of Octopussy. All of us looked for logical reasons why things should be like they are, and the more real they are, the more the audiences will be involved.

And frightened, too.
Yes. Real fear has to touch a primal spot deep in the brain. Several scenes play on the fear of being trapped in a very tight space with a lethal presence nearby, but unseen—the intense, claustrophobic environment where characters build tension between themselves.

But enhanced by the same kind of cinematic velocity that made Terminator so explosive.
Well, there’s nothing quite as exciting as trip-hammer editing and the incredible forward momentum from an action sequence that’s really well-orchestrated—A follows B in a kind of domino principle where, once something starts, nothing can stop it. Of course, I underline the action aspect of the story, and the film’s last half is a real pressure cooker: the planet, the characters, the bio-mechanoid visuals, the new creatures plus the textural reality of the first film. It’s a two-hour roller coaster ride that begins with an electric shock—and never lets up!

 
James Cameron speaks to Film4 about the challenges of taking on the Alien franchise after Ridley Scott’s influential 1979 horror, and developing the action-packed sequel, Aliens.

 
Aliens: The Official Movie Magazine is a 1986 promotional magazine containing articles about the film, published by Starlog Press. The magazine includes an adaptation of the film in text form, along with articles on several of the principle actors and crew and their roles in the film. Alongside the written information, the magazine contains a wealth of exclusive behind the scenes images. Originally published in 1986, it is now available to read in its entirety for free via the Internet Archive.

 
The man behind The Terminator takes up the chiller challenge of the Alien sequell.

 
Lance Henriksen takes on a planet efface huggers and chest bursters in James Cameron’s explosive sequel.

 
For creature FX pro Stan Winston, putting Aliens on screen didn’t prove to be the easiest of tasks. First, there was his respect for the movie’s 1979 predecessor, Alien. “The original was a brilliant film—everything about it was memorable,’’ Winston observes. “For me, it was the horror film of the decade. I’m a big fan, and I have a great deal of respect for all the work that went into it, so it makes it that much more difficult for us.’’

From Empire, September 2016.

 
Superior Firepower: The Making of ‘Aliens’ is a 2003 making-of documentary directed by Charles de Lauzirika that details the production of the 1986 film Aliens. Created for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD release, it uses extensive interviews with the film’s cast and crew, as well as a wealth of behind the scenes footage, to detail the development, filming and release of the movie.

 
James Cameron interview on directing (1999).

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of James Cameron’s Aliens. Photographed by Bob Penn © Twentieth Century Fox, Brandywine Productions, SLM Production Group. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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