Alien$

13882465_10154302704881605_7842431600164392598_n

One rather pervasive story concerning Aliens is how writer/director James Cameron convinced Brandywine Productions to green light the sequel. One version that has become popular lately is better known as ‘Alien$’, and the story—allegedly related by series producer Gordon Carroll—often goes this way:

“Cameron was young. He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his “next project.” Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch because Alien was not a massive financial success. Alien 2 was not on the table. We expected a professional pitch from Cameron, an outline and a treatment of what he had in mind with a cursory budget; perhaps a couple assistants to run a slide show.

Instead Cameron walked in the room without so much as a piece of paper. He went to the chalk board in the room and simply wrote the word ALIEN. Then he added an ‘S’ to make ALIENS. Dramatically, he drew two vertical lines through the ‘S’, ALIEN$. He turned around and grinned. We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.”

Several sites have run with this quote in the last couple of years, including Film School Rejects, Movie Pilot, Cinema Blend and more. The problem with the tale is that it’s, as far as I can tell, very untrue.

I originally heard the story back in 2009, with the release of Rebecca Keegan’s biography of Cameron, ‘The Futurist’. However, Keegan is not the source of the anecdote, with its earliest example appearing online in 2008, a year before ‘The Futurist’ was published. The earliest source that I can find: a series of movie trivia sites specialising in scandalous and titillating Hollywood scuttlebutt.

First, let’s go through the story and see where it trips up.

First of all is the apparent storyteller, Gordon Carroll. At the time of Aliens’ writing and pre-production, Carroll was no longer associated with Brandywine, having left the company after the release of the original Alien to join Rastar Productions (where he helped produce Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby’s Blue Thunder). Carroll was credited for the rest of the Alien sequels, but was largely uninvolved with their production (similarly, Walter Hill and David Giler are credited on Alien: Resurrection, AvP, Prometheus and Covenant, despite having minimal to no involvment with their production.)

This in mind, it doesn’t make sense for me that Carroll was present at Cameron’s pitch with Brandywine when he was no longer involved with Hill and Giler. Carroll is not mentioned by Cameron, Giler or Hill in any of their recollections of the pitch. According to O’Bannon and The Los Angeles Times, the relationship between Carroll and his former company became rather fraught in the battle for royalties and fees following Alien‘s release.

When the ‘Alien$’ story first appeared online in 2008, Carroll, unlike Giler and Hill, was not around to refute it. He passed away in 2005.

Next…

“He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his ‘next project’. Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch ”

Cameron first met Brandywine Productions in 1983. At the time, he had been planning to shoot The Terminator in Canada throughout ’83, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was scooped up by Dino de Laurentiis for Conan the Destroyer. Cameron, with a year to burn, took on several writing assignments to fill the gap. After a meeting with David Giler and Walter Hill that went nowehere, Cameron was about to walk out the door when Giler pipped up, “Well, we do have this other thing.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Cameron replied. “And he said, ‘Alien II.'”

Cameron wrote Alien II for Giler and Hill throughout the remainder of ’83, and continued to write throughout production and post-production for The Terminator.

You can read the whole account of how Cameron met Brandywine and wrote Aliens here, at Writing Aliens.

Alien was not a massive financial success.

Twentieth Century Fox released fourteen films in 1979. The most lucrative, boasted that year’s internal annual report, was Alien. On a production budget of around $9 million dollars and an advertising budget of $6 million, the movie made over $100 million at the box office.

Here are a few headlines from the summer and autumn of ’79 and extending into 1980:

1

Other headlines include ‘Alien becomes big hit at the box office’, ‘Alien snaps records in first week of road’, ‘Invasion of a box office smash’, and ‘Sci-fi film sends profits into outer space.’

At the time of the film’s release, Fox had also cashed in on its hype and success by selling TV airing rights to ABC (four airings of Alien at $14 million dollars) with a 10% downpayment. To quote executive producer Ron Shusett: “If this isn’t a successful film, what is?”

Curiously enough, Fox did try to argue in 1979 that Alien made very little in profit; an assertion that saw them litigated by the producers, director and other partners.

We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.

This is one of the more confusing and frankly ludicrous parts of the tale: nobody wanted to touch Alien 2… until they saw a graphical pun?

Finally, in some of the earliest and latest reproductions of this story, the source is often given as Lynda Obst’s 1996 book Hello, He Lied: Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. Reckoning that many of the sites promulgating the story and citing Obst as their source were probably unable to read it for themselves, I tracked down and bought a copy:

IMG_2779

However, there is no account of the story in Obst’s book. Gordon Carroll is never mentioned, and neither is James Cameron (nor even Aliens.) I took a picture of the index for clarity:

IMG_2776

The situation brings to mind an old joke from the Alien Experience boards, where one member concocted a humorous story from the POV of James Remar witnessing Cameron, in a London nightclub in 1985, declaring that he was ‘King of the World’ as he displayed his disco moves. While clearly a piss take, some people, perhaps tempted by its visual hilarity, thought it quite credible.

Similarly, I’m chalking this one up to playful imaginations and the myth-making processes so often rooted in fandoms.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under Aliens

Casting Ripley

snapshot-2016-07-13-at-06_50_40-pm-12502

May 1978, and production, with all its attendant problems, was well underway at Shepperton Studios.

Though sets were being mapped out and constructed, some were being hotly debated; the Alien had been committed to canvas, if not rubber (Giger had not, for now, been tasked with the actual construction of his monster); the script was in a constant state of flux, and tensions between the producers and the film’s writers were beginning to break out with Ridley, trying to compromise between the O’Bannon script and the Giler/Hill rewrites, being stuck in the middle of a writers feud that had opened, and would probably close, the film’s inception and completion.

There was another, arguably more pertinent problem: in a month the cameras would finally roll, but the part of Ripley had yet to be cast. Auditions for the part had seemingly wrung Los Angeles and New York dry. British-American actress Veronica Cartwright had read for the role twice, and Ridley reckoned that he wanted her for the film, but her ability to convey catatonia and fear—a talent that Scott and casting director Mary Goldberg especially admired— wasn’t a fit for Ripley. “Laddie was going crazy,” Ridley remembered, “saying, ‘You’ve gotta make your mind up.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I can’t find it yet.’”[1]

Several other actresses had been prospected. Twentieth Century Fox had initially pushed for an established actress to give the film heft: Katherine Ross or Genevieve Bujold, but stars of that calibre were not keen to be involved with a grubby science fiction movie. The success of Star Wars however convinced Fox that unknown actors could carry a successful film if buttressed by an established face or two, as Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing had done for Lucas’ unfamiliar cast.

One better known star who read for Alien was English actress Helen Mirren, who admired the refreshing ambiguity of the characters’ sexes. “I read the original script for that,” she said, “and when you read it, you had no idea which character was male and which was female. They were just people engaging with each other in this situation. They all had these sort of asexual names, so when Ripley said or did things, you had no idea whether Ripley was a man or a woman. You could have interchanged all the characters —they could have been all male or all female— any one of them could have been anything.”[2]

“There was no, ‘a lean 32 year old woman who doesn’t realise how attractive she is’ – there was absolutely none of that!” Mirren continued. “You had no idea who was a man and who was a woman. That was the revelation.”[3]

It wasn’t until the USA casting department put forth two choices for the role that the production started encircling potential Ripleys. The first suggestion was Meryl Streep, an up-and-coming theatre actress who briefly appeared in Julia (1977) and had recently wrapped on Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) with her partner John Cazale. Unfortunately, Cazale, in the end stages of lung cancer throughout The Deer Hunter’s shoot, died March 12, 1978, and Gordon Carroll did not think it appropriate to ask Streep to consider the role.

“The other woman,” Carroll remembered, “was of course, Sigourney Weaver.”[4]

Susan ‘Sigourney’ Weaver was, of a sort, American aristocracy. Her grandfather Sylvester Laflin Weaver left St. Louis for Los Angeles in 1893 and placed an ad in the Times to find work, with salary “no object”. For years he eked his way as a janitor, book-keeper, shipping clerk and salesman. “I finally became sales manager,” he explained, “making stops at San Luis Obispo, El Paso and the City of Mexico, during which I accumulated a wife, four children and a fair modicum of this world’s goods.”[5] In 1905 he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, overseeing the development of Los Angeles Harbour, and in 1910 founded his own roofing company, Weaver Roofing; it was said that most, if not all, of L.A.’s emerging suburbs at the time had been roofed by Weaver.

weavergrandfather

His ambitions did not end there: he was president of the Los Angeles Rotary Club and then, in 1917, was elected a director of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. In 1919, Weaver, now a beloved and influential figure, ran for Mayor. His candidacy was received with enthusiasm: he was the centrepiece of a parade that rolled down Broadway “while bands played, horns blared, guns popped, red-fire flared and flashlights streamed their beams.”[6] But his mayoral candidature was not to be; he came in third place.

Yet this disappointment, coupled with the 1921 destruction of his roofing plant by fire, dampened neither his fortunes nor popularity. The family’s frequent partying and holidaying was a regular subject of the local papers and gossip circles. His wife wrote operas, books and was a patroness for charitable events. His four children —two sons, two daughters— lived accordingly. “My father was one of the young men about town,” remembered Sigourney. “He used to go out with Loretta Young and her sisters, and he went to high school with Carole Lombard, whose name was Jane Peters then. He used to date all the stars.”[7]

Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver Jnr, like his father, was never still. Starting out as a writer for KHJ radio, he quickly became program manager, switched to managerial positions in advertising, served in WWII, and then joined NBC in ’49. By ’53, he had been vice president of television and radio, then vice chairman of the board, and finally president of NBC. In ’43 he married English actress Elizabeth Inglis, who had appeared in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and opposite Bette Davis in The Letter (1940), with their children Trajan and Susan Weaver coming along after the war.

By the time Susan Weaver was born in 1949, the Weaver family was still firmly on the ascendancy. Her uncle Winstead ‘Doodles’ Weaver was a celebrated television and film comedian, “Manhattan’s favourite clown”[8] according to the press; her aunt a noted New York Times fashion critic, and her father the president of NBC, where he heralded both Today and The Tonight Show. “I was brought up in a show business environment,” she said. “Actors and famous people were there when I was a kid. The unusual was usual for me.”[9] She remembered stars like Art Linkletter visiting her father at their home on Long Island, and being “miserable because I was quarantined with the chicken pox.”[10]

weavers

Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver with his daughter Susan Weaver. June 1955.

It was at the Ethel Walker School for girls in Connecticut where Susan adopted the name ‘Sigourney’, lifting it from a one-off character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The name, she thought, would stop her classmates from calling her ‘Weaver’, and she was from a family of odd names anyway. Her father once suggested naming her Flavia —his interests, obviously, firmly Roman— but her mother relented, choosing instead to name their daughter after family friend Susan Pretzlik. “A very interesting woman,” said Sigourney. “She was quite an explorer. And if I had met Susan before I switched over to Sigourney when I was 13, I probably would have kept it.”[11] But, for the adolescent Weaver at the time, “To be named Susan in a family like that seemed inappropriate.”[12]

Her family took to Sigourney easily enough. “They called me ‘S’ for a while in case I changed it to something else. And then actually they wanted me to keep the Roman part of my name, which was Alexandra—Susan Alexandra Weaver—so my father and I tried to think of a way of calling me Alexandra.”[13]

But her father quickly abandoned this when his daughter’s headmistress pulled them up about the change in name. “Do you permit your daughter to use that ridiculous name?” Weaver remembered her headmistresses asking her parents.

“And my father said, ‘Are you talking about our daughter, Sigourney?’ I thought that was wonderful of him.”[14]

At school she played a greaser in an update of Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’, and found she had a taste for performance. “I flipped my hair back and wore a big leather jacket and some girls chased me out. I guess I did a good job as an Elvis Presley type.”[15] Tall for her age, gangly and a little awkward, Sigourney discovered that acting could be liberating. “I figured it was like being an explorer. There were so many interesting things to be —a lawyer, a doctor, a biophysicist— and only one life. Acting was a way to get around it.”[16]

prz8d

Sigourney Weaver at 13.

Her budding acting career was off to a bad start when, while rehearsing for a play at the Red Barn Playhouse, she was quickly replaced when the producer realised her romantic interest was only half her height. She had been a lanky 5’10 at 13, and even now many of her peers had yet to catch up. She stuck out. She looked odd. “I called my parents and described this situation to my mother and she said, ‘Well, welcome to the business.’ She said, ‘Your heart will be broken a hundred times.’”[17]

She found some acting work in weekend productions and summer stock, and even toured San Francisco with a comedy troupe, but these, she felt, were relegations: she wanted to do more, could do more, but no one else was willing to look beyond her height. “I was very much a loner,” she said, “and a self-conscious loner at that.”[18]

It was after gaining her English degree and while preparing for a PhD at Stanford that she decided to tackle acting head on, despite any misgivings about her physicality. Academia, she decided, wasn’t for her. “The course started getting really boring. Finally, I went to my adviser and said, ‘This is a desert, this part of it, right here in the middle. I hope it’s not going to be like this for three years.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be quite like this.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can stand it.’ I was studying criticism of criticism. It was all this twice-removed stuff—deadly dry. So I just applied to Yale Drama School and got in.”[19]

Her family, who had so often occupied show business echelons, always warned her that the business was unfair, rarely a meritocracy, and even cruel—but she did not expect the disillusion to set in before she had even graduated from drama school. “My acceptance to Yale was addressed to Mr. Sigourney Weaver, so I really wasn’t sure when I got there what they thought they’d taken. My second day there I got violently ill from food poisoning and had to go to the hospital. I’d eaten liver at the Elm City Diner—I was trying to be healthy by eating liver. I remember sitting next to this window on Chapel Street that had a big bullet hole in it. I should have known then….”[20]

At Yale she was rarely cast. Her tutors asserted that she had no future as an actress. The best roles, she remembered, went to classmate Meryl Streep. “I still think they probably had this Platonic ideal of a leading lady that I have never been able to live up to,” Sigourney reflected. “And would never want to.”[21]

If she reckoned that, after graduation, her father’s show business contacts would give her a lift she was to find that she had to rely solely on herself. “When I got out of Yale Drama School I called up a friend of my father to see if he could find me some stage work. He said: ‘Look kid, why don’t you get a job at Bloomingdales?’ Ever since then I’ve been on my own.”[22]

She teamed up with Yale friend Chris Durang, a budding playwright who had been one of the few at Yale to cast her in his productions. “I sensed that the audience had a special rapport with Sigourney,” Durang recalled. “Actors need skill and intelligence—which Sigourney has in abundance—but stars need charisma, which hard work can’t give you.”[23] Sigourney, he knew, had charisma in spades; she just needed exposure. He remembered how, after graduating, casting agents tended to complain about her height and “kept trying to type her as a patrician girlfriend who poured cocktails and nodded politely while the leading man talked.”[24] Stepping in, Durang teamed up with Weaver, casting her in his off-Broadway plays ‘Titanic’, ‘Beyond Therapy’, and ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’.

dasposter

Weaver and Durang on a poster for Das Lusitania Songspiel’s 1980 revival.

For Weaver, her adventures off-Broadway with Durang were more than affirming favours from a good friend: they were a life line. “After I left Yale,” said Sigourney, “we were all doing these mad plays off-off Broadway. And I got back to that feeling I had from college, of everyone making up in front of one cracked mirror, which is what I loved—the scrappy theatre idea. I think off-off Broadway healed me, made me an actor again, and I was in so many different crazy shows. I played a woman who kept a hedgehog in her vagina in one play; I was schizophrenic in another. It was just so much fun.”[25]

It was at this time that her name had started to circle around, and she came to the attention of the desperate Alien production. “She came recommended the long way around,” said Ridley, “where somebody had said to somebody, ‘There’s this girl who’s doing theatre on Broadway who’s very interesting, is a giant, I think she’s 6’1 in her stockinged feet. She’s very interesting. Smart performer, very physical.”[26]

To get an idea of how she came across on film, Walter Hill screened Madman (1978), an independent Israeli film that featured Weaver opposite Michael Beck. Liking both actors, he tapped Weaver for Alien, and Beck for his forthcoming film The Warriors (1979). Sigourney was sent the Alien script and invited to audition in New York before Ridley Scott, David Giler and Gordon Carroll.

She did not, at the time, prioritise film roles, having turned down the part of Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) when her commitments to Chris Durang’s ‘Das Lusitania Songspiel’ clashed with the filming schedule – Christine Jones took the Dorrie role, though Weaver was afforded a non-speaking cameo in the closing moments of the film as Allen’s date as recompense. It had been the theatre that reinvigorated her, and that was where her loyalties lay; there, she had rediscovered a joy in performing that she thought had been irreparably lost at acting school. When the Alien script came through she was busying herself with the play The Conquering Event as well as various acting and charitable seminars, and didn’t see herself as a science-fiction actor, let alone lead.

“I was doing a seminar called the Hunger Project,” she said, “which was simply about making a difference in the world. Within the context of that seminar a movie part was so unimportant. I went up for Alien and didn’t want to be bothered, because I thought I had not suffered through the Yale School of Drama to do a science-fiction movie. I read the script and didn’t really care that much for it.”[27]

Though she was averse to science-fiction and couldn’t imagine the Alien looking anything other than silly, she still admired how “They had broken the rule and written two of the parts, originally designed for men, for women to play.”[28] One of those parts intrigued her in particular. “Actually, the part I wanted was Lambert. In the first script I read, she just cracked jokes the whole time. What was wonderful about it was that here was a woman who was wise-assing, telling stupid jokes just when everyone was getting hysterical. And she didn’t crack up until the end. That’s a character I could identify with because that’s how I assume I would act. If the elevator gets stuck that’s what I do.”[29]

The audition, held at the Loews Regency hotel on Park Avenue, was almost botched from the start, with Weaver turning up to the wrong hotel. She called her agent and suggested blowing it off, but he recommended that she go ahead anyway. Without much else to do, she rushed for the Regency. Ridley, Giler, Carroll and casting director Mary Goldberg waited, and waited, until finally, thirty moments after she had been due, Weaver turned up. “And then we hear,” said Carroll, “l can’t say running feet in the corridor, but we hear fast-paced feet coming toward the door, and then slowing down, composing itself… The bell rings, Mary opens the door, and Ripley was standing there.”

Weaver was quite the sight – standing over six feet tall in long boots, the panel found themselves looking up at what Carroll called “This extraordinary-looking woman; tall, commanding presence.”[30]

They talked about the script, beginning by asking Weaver what she thought of it.

“It’s a very bleak picture where people don’t relate to each other at all,”[31] she answered.

Mary Goldberg signalled that Weaver was sabotaging her own audition, but Weaver was undeterred from speaking her mind. “I happen to have worked on many new plays with new playwrights,” she said, “so I have been encouraged to speak up — I didn’t know if people in movies were used to that.”[32]

To her surprise (and relief), her interviewers acknowledged the shallowness of the characters, explaining that they were relying on interesting actors to bring them to life. “I thought it was best to put all my cards on the table,” said Sigourney, “because if they really wanted a ‘Charlie’s Angel’ I knew it wouldn’t be right for me. But they were the first to admit that it was going to take a lot of development and close working together.”[33]

Then Ridley, remembering how effective Giger’s Necronomicon had been on himself, propped up a display of images by Giger and Rambaldi. Weaver was suddenly piqued. This would be the monster. She had never seen anything like it. They broke for lunch, with Scott and the producers taking Weaver for Japanese food on Fifty Fifth Street, where they met Walter Hill, before returning to the Regency to read through the script.

She did not know it yet, but Carroll, Scott and Giler all felt that she was perfect for Ripley the moment they laid eyes on her. “Somehow,” said Ridley, “I knew this was her.”[34] Hill was similarly enthused, but Weaver herself did not feel like a shoo-in. In fact, she was somewhat mystified by the attention. “I didn’t really know what was expected of me as I’d only made one film,” she said, “and an eight-part television series about aristocratic women called The Best of Families.”[35]

But it was her naivety and inexperience that the producers and Ridley knew would be perfect for Ripley. The character was thinly-sketched in the script, the only real characterful moments being her adamancy that quarantine rules be stringently obeyed, and her swift assumption of command after the death of Dallas. Looking at Weaver— her intelligence, twinkling humour and soft-spoken assertiveness as obvious as her strong jaw, high cheekbones and broad shoulders— they could see the blanks being filled already.

Scott had been enamoured the moment she stepped through the door, and continued to marvel at her throughout the day. “Jesus Christ, I was always looking up at her!” he remembered. “I walked into a restaurant with her and she held my hand. I felt like, ‘Mummy, Daddy!’”[36]

“She clearly has the authority that she needs to have,” he continued, “and can give any guy as good as he can give back.” Gordon saw how Weaver could project composure, and yet, “You knew that just an eighth of an inch behind that composure was a very nervous actress, a very tense actress, and that was exactly right.”[37] Giler noted her “American aristocratic” bearing, how she embodied perfectly the officer class.

With the producers and director keen, Weaver was flown out to Hollywood to meet Alan Ladd Jr., and Gareth Wiggin. “I lost my bags on the plane and went in my rotten clothes,” Sigourney recalled. “We had a typical chatty Hollywood meeting where you’re all supposed to pretend you’re there for social reasons and no one mentions the film.”[38]

Ladd, ever cautious, agreed to hire Weaver provided that she complete a screen test first. Scott protested that he was mere weeks from filming, but acquiesced: Fox placed a lot of trust in him due to his self-made success with RSA, but there were still plenty of executives, like Peter Beale, who still viewed him as untested. It irritated Scott, who had left a promising career at the BBC in favour of his independence, to suddenly have his creative decisions become the purview of a committee… but he trusted and respected Ladd, who had allowed head scratchers like Star Wars and Alien to be made at all.

“So,” said Sigourney, “the next week I flew to London. I hadn’t yet been hired but I was the only actress they were screentesting. They hoped I would do well. And we did a run-through of the entire script.”[39]

Weaver filmed her screentest on May 12th. She was apprehensive, imagining that she would have to duck and weave in an empty space or react to a potted plant, but when she arrived she found that Ridley had constructed a piece of set especially for her test. “This test corridor we built was the first look at the interior of the corridors of the Nostromo,” revealed art director Roger Christian. “It established the look of Alien for the very first time.”[40] In effect, not only was Sigourney being tested, but Ridley’s vision for the film was about to be captured—and scrutinised—for the first time.

Ladd watched the test in silence and, once done, picked up a nearby phone. He asked that some of the women upstairs come down to view the rushes with him. “So we ran the test again,” said Ridley, “and Laddy simply then said, ‘What did you think?’ and there were, I don’t know, maybe eight, twelve women who immediately jumped in. One said, ‘I think she’s like Jane Fonda.’”[41]

“Alan Ladd watched the screen test,” explained David Giler, “and had all the secretaries in the building come down and watch it. And they got into a big argument that she looked more like Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway, and he just said, ‘You can have her. She’s in.’”[42]

Weaver, already on her way home to New York, was not entirely confident. She reckoned she had played her scenes wrong, that she had been too stereotypically tough. “If I hadn’t been in an unambitious place philosophically, I think I would have tried harder,” she said. “In fact, it wasn’t until the day before the screen test that I sat down and thought, well, Sigourney, you’d really better make up your mind if you want to do this or not. They’ve already flown you out here. If you don’t, you’d better think about ending it. I finally decided I really liked the character of Ripley as well as the designs and Ridley Scott. Besides, I didn’t want anyone else to do it.”[43]

Luckily, she was to find that, barely home after her long plane flight, that she had gotten the part. “I had sort of written it off every step of the way.”[44]

But there was a snag when the actors convened for wardrobe fitting. Veronica Cartwright, who was eventually cast in the film after auditioning for Ripley three times, had assumed, naturally, that that was the role she was to play in the film. “I get a call,” she remembered, “and they said, ‘Okay, you need to come in for your wardrobe for Lambert’. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not playing Lambert, I’m playing Ripley.’ ‘No no… you’re Lambert.’”[45]

“I called my agent back in LA and said, ‘Aren’t I doing Ripley?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think so.’ I mean, that’s what he thought too. I even auditioned again when I was in England, and the part that I read for was Ripley. They didn’t bother to tell me. And I’d never even looked at the script from the point of view of Lambert. So I had to re-read the script.”

“I heard [about] that,” remarked David Giler. “Ridley had met Veronica on his own somehow and he really wanted her and we said fine, you know. Very good actress. So she was certainly fine with us.”

For her part, Cartwright suspected that internal politics played a part in the confusion. “There was a lot of politics going on during the making of that movie,” she remembered. “It was Sigourney’s first job. But her dad was a bigwig. There were a lot of favours going on. It just got a bit bigger than anybody had planned. And studio pressure and egos and everything got involved.”[46]

There might be some basis for Cartwright’s suggestion, with Alien 3 actor Ralph Brown detailing a 1991 meeting between himself and Walter Hill to discuss rewrites concerning Brown’s character Aaron ‘85’: “I am now paranoid about being cut from the film” he said, “like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter gently reminded me earlier – ‘I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you. Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright.’”[47]

However, it’s also likely Hill may be referring to the abundance of deleted scenes, many of which, Cartwright had complained after the film’s release, overwhelmingly featured her character Lambert.

snapshot-2016-07-13-at-07_30_54-pm-2315

Sigourney on the Nostromo bridge with her father Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver and mother Elizabeth Weaver.

Sigourney understood that her background would prejudice some against her, especially in an industry that was rife with competitive and suspicious attitudes. “When you are the lead in a film that costs a few million dollars,” she said, “you do get the best hair and make-up people, and you don’t have to worry about things in rehearsal you might not get if you were making an independent film or if you had a supporting role.”

“On Alien,” she continues, “there was some resentment towards me because I came from New York and got such a good part, the one character alive at the end. That was very difficult for me to deal with.”[48]


[1] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[2] Helen Mirren, ‘Helen Mirren on The Tempest and Stealing All Her Best Roles From Men’ by Kyle Buchanan, vulture.com (13th December 2010).

[3] Helen Mirren, Empire (April 2016).

[4] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[5] Sylvester L. Weaver, ‘Sketches of Big Men in Industrial Life: Sylvester L. Weaver Devotes Energies to Civic Upbuilding’, The Los Angeles Sunday Times (Sunday 2nd December, 1923).

[6] ‘Weaver is Parade Center’, The Los Angeles Times (May 4th 1919) p. 6.

[7] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[8] ‘Doodles Weaver, Manhattan’s Favourite Clown, Is a University Graduate Who Earns a Living Imitating Lions, Worms,  and Baby Kangaroos’ by Virginia Irwin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (24th March 1941).

[9] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver: Alien Creature’ by Joe Baltake, Philadelphia Daily News (Friday June 8th, 1979) p. 37.

[10] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[11] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[12] Sigourney Weaver, interview with Bobbie Wygant (1979).

[13] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[14] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver rolls with punches’ by Dick Kleiner, The Index-Journal (9th July 1979) p. 5.

[15] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[16] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Independence isn’t an alien concept to Sigourney Weaver,’ Chicago Tribune (Friday 8th June 1979).

[17] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[18] Sigourney Weaver, ‘An Eyewitness Report on Actress Sigourney Weaver’ by Patricia Bosworth, The Santa Fe New Mexican/Family Weekly (August 9th 1981) p. 22.

[19] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver Tough Cookie in Alien’ by Richard Freedman, The Indianapolis Star (Sunday June 10th 1979).

[23] Chris Durang, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver’ by Jamie Lee Curtis, interviewmagazine.com (23rd February 2015).

[26] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[27] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[28] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[29] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[30] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[31] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 158.

[32] Ibid, p. 158 – 159.

[33] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Alien Interviews: Sigourney Weaver’ by Jim Sulski, Fantastic Films vo. 2 no. 6 (1979).p. 33.

[34] Ridley Scott, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[35] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Sigourney Weaver defends her semi-strip in Alien’, Photoplay vol. 30 no. 12 (December 1979) p. 42.

[36] Ridley Scott, Q&A with Geoff Boucher, Hero Complex Festival (2010).

[37] Gordon Carroll, ‘Truckers in Space: Casting’ by Charles de Lauzirika, Alien Quadrilogy (2003).

[38] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Roger Christian, ‘Exclusive Preview: Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist’ by Roger Christian, shadowlocked.com (27th October 2010).

[41] Ridley Scott, The Alien Legacy (1999)

[42] David Giler, The Alien Saga (2002).

[43] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Dream Weaver’ by Chris Durang, Interview (July 1988).

[44] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 159.

[45] Veronica Cartwright, Texas Frightmare Weekend Q&A (2013).

[46] Veronica Cartwright, ‘Veronica Cartwright Interview’ by David Hughes, Cinefantastique vol. 31 no. 8 (October 1999) p. 36.

[47] Ralph Brown, ‘Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood’ by Ralph Brown, https://magicmenagerie.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/my-pop-life-171-praying-for-time-george-michael/ (12th October 2016).

[48] Sigourney Weaver, ‘Playing Ripley in Alien: An Interview with Sigourney Weaver’ by Danny Peary, Omni’s Screen Flights/Fantasies (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1984) p. 160.

15 Comments

Filed under Alien

Alien Reviews From Yesteryear

democrat_and_chronicle_thu__may_24__1979_-1-copy

As we pointed out in the snippets provided throughout Bad Alien Reviews and the letters from Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979, the critical reception that Alien received upon release in 1979 was somewhat mixed: though some prophesied, somewhat understatingly, that the film could perhaps become a cult favourite in time, many reviewers were simply unimpressed with the film’s unapologetic B-movie roots and its sheer single-mindedness. A few others wrung their hands, fretting that the film was indicative of the sickness of both society and its creators (you know, the old “the cinema is our modern-day Coliseum/Grand Guignol” sort of tracts).

The following are selections from a range of American newspapers that reviewed Alien in the summer of ’79…

Great Galaxy! Won’t these space explorers ever learn?

~ by Dick Shippy
The Akron Beacon Journal
Thursday June 28th 1979.

Ancient mariners could have told ‘em: You don’t mess around with another guy’s spooky space, even if it looks deserted, because you might find what you don’t want to find, and… phht!… there you are, stuck with an albatross, or the plague, or some other scourge of mankind.

But the future voyagers of Ridley Scott’s Alien exist solely for the purpose of locating the horrifying unknown in the deserted mansion of outer space. It means they’re a lot less smarter than ancient mariners, and a lot more commercial.

For if Alien is punctuated by blood-curdling shrieks and screams, there’s at least one other noise it engenders: The clanging of a cash register. Every time The Alien gobbles up one of God’s living creatures, another $8 to $10 million changes hands.

This is not creative filmmaking, but you might make a case for Alien representing a slick mixing of movie metaphors through movie technology.

What is Alien, after all, but a primeval terror (Jaws) expressed in gory special effects, surrounded by the mock-technological gadgetry of outer space hokum (Star Wars) and aimed at reducing, under fearful circumstances, the population of a floating, zero-gravity charnel house (which is only a substitute for any movie house of horrors you could care to mention!)

Maybe director Scott and his colleagues, including scenarist Dan O’Bannon and the special effects folks with their marvellous techniques with flesh and spewing blood (Linda Blair’s vomit in Exorcist being almost tame by comparison), have created the definitive scare-0the-pants-off-‘em, science-fiction monster to date.

But as The Alien had its antecedents —The Thing, the Blob, and let’s never forget the popular Whatchamacallit Which Made Mincemeat of Walla-Walla— so will it have progeny even more petrifying. Isn’t that the true test of American technology!

Before then, though, we’ll have to settle for the hideous business aboard SS Nostromo, sailing from Out There to Back Here. It is a space tug towing an oil refinery through galactic seas — which at least gives us hope they’ll have found a substitute for Iranian oil 200 years hence.

There are seven crewmen aboard SS Nostromo, including the black gang which works the engine room and complains about long hours and low pay (one of them literally black, Yaphet Kotto having integrated space.)

The ship’s captain (Tom Skerritt) and the scientific guru of SS Nostromo insist on poking into a mysterious signal emanating from a seemingly deserted planetoid. If only they would listen to the ship’s resourceful, no-nonsense executive officer (the winsome Sigourney Weaver) who thinks they should not mess around with the unknown. She heeds ancient mariners!

What is found on that planetoid is the wreck of a space vehicle from another galaxy, and what is found in the eerie interior of the wreckage is an egg-like substance (it’s as ominous as Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack can manage) and —PHHT!— the fat is in the fire. The Alien has struck some poor sap!

Now, what form does The Alien take? Let’s say that, initially, it looks like a big chicken liver with tentacles, and the poor sap is wearing this thing like a helmet.

So, back to SS Nostromo where the chicken liver can be lugged inside, in violation of quarantine. It is learned the whateveritis does not bleed; it emits an acid substance. One tough turkey!

Suddenly, The Alien is gone; just as suddenly, it is back again — this time bursting through a crewman’s chest in a bloody froth. And this time it looks like either a small dinosaur or small snake, and it had a voice like Johnny Ray and it’s definitely a challenge for an up-and-coming mongoose.

Well, there’s a cat aboard, but no Rikki Tikki Tavi!

Thereafter, The Alien continues to change shapes, looming larger and larger in the blackness and eventually getting to a size which makes it eligible for the National Basketball Association draft.

And thereafter, amid screams and howls attendant to butchery, Alien plays down-you-go with its cast of seven.

It is gross foolishness and grievous horror-mongering, the grisly nonsense done expertly, maybe, but will the last man out please turn off the projector? We’ve had enough.

ad

If gore is your cup of tea, see Alien

~ by Randy Hall
The Anniston Star Sun
June 24th 1979.

Well, summer is here, and it’s silly season at the movies.

Last summer it was Grease and Jaws II. This summer, it’s Alien, hands-down the monster movie with the most revolting monster you ever saw in your life.

Even though it borrows spiffy special effects technology from Star Wars and Close Encounters, the film is put together with all the wit and taste and subtlety of an ax murderer. Still, if it’s screams you want, Alien has got ‘em.

The film is set aboard the Nostromo (name for the Joseph Conrad novel), an outer-space freighter about the size of Manhattan returning to Earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore. The ship is a bit clunky and used-looking, borrowing the ‘used future’ concept from Star Wars.

Awaking from deep sleep is a grousing, non-heroic crew (Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver) who are more concerned about their shares in the voyage than investigating a radio signal from what appears to be the surface of Saturn.

But investigate they must, and in one of the film’s more spectacular visual sequences, borrowing from the fantasies of Frank Frazetta’s outer space landscapes, discover an abandoned space ship. There they find the Horror which they bring back aboard the Nostromo, nuch against the intelligent objections of warrant officer Sigourney Weaver.

Alien is the kind of film that can’t be described without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it that when the monster actually does appear, it sends the audience into gales of laughter — the monster is just so gruesomely, disgustingly AWFUL, especially when it shrieks and goes running off. The rest of the film is spent watching the monster munch down members of the crew like Pop Tarts while they try to kill it.

Is it worth pointing out the improbabilities?

Alien is the kind of film in which people go wandering off alone into dark rooms, disobey rather elementary rules of quarantine, and stop and worry about the safety of pussycats while the monster is chasing them.

Fully conscious of how the filmmaker is manipulating the viewer, one sits in the dark theatre thinking, ‘Oh, get up and run, dummy!’ but glued to the long, slow panning shots of the camera. You never know what is going to turn up at the end of one of them.

Director Ridley Scott, previously known for his art film, The Duellists, has learned his lessons in suspense-making from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but hasn’t bothered taking notes on Spielberg’s carefully constructed storyline.

But who cares? It’s summer silly season at the movies.

Faint praise: Alien succeeds in the scare department.

~ by Gene Siskel
The Chicago Tribune
Friday 25th May 1979.

A veteran filmgoer friend has been slightly amused at all of the hoopla surrounding the new outer space horror movie Alien. He had head the reports of an usher fainting during a sneak preview in Dallas. He had heard about women at the same screening running up the aisles and out of the theatre in order to throw up in the john.

“I’m amazed,” he said, “that people can get that worked up about a movie, especially when they know it’s supposed to be scary.” That remark may explain it all. Knowing that a film is supposed to be scary may put people in such a frenzied state of mind that if you showed them Bambi they still might blow lunch. That was certainly the case with the hyped-up crowds waiting to see The Exorcist a few years ago. People were hyperventilating in line, all in an attempt to stay cool.

Which is not to say that Alien —or The Exorcist, for that matter— is some kind of cheap, vulgar movie that is trying to out-gross every other film ever made. On the contrary, Alien in its many quiet moments is an extremely cool, even droll, commentary on the banality of space travel. The point of the picture: Just as there is random evil on Earth, so will there be random, indifferent evil in space.

The story is set a decade from now. Seven Americans (five men, two women) are travelling through space on a commercial tug, hauling a huge refinery being them. Their mission is to find intergalactic sources of fuel, and they go about their business in a lacklustre, routine office staff manner. In fact, as the picture opens, a couple of the guys are complaining about their wages (this is refreshing to see. Frankly, I’ve always been peeved at science-fiction movies that suggest the future will be radically different from today. My guess is that life in the next hundred years will be disturbingly similar to life today.)

Anyway, all is routine aboard the ship until its computer, a micro chip off the old HAL, suddenly receives a signal that eventually turns out to be a warning. The computer is receiving a signal from somewhere other than Earth, and it is a primary mission of the crew to investigate all such extraterrestrial transmissions.

What follows is that the crew touches down on a planetoid in order to investigate the transmission and winds up encountering a space monster.

The monster cannot be reasoned with. It’s not Darth Vader from Star Wars. It’s not Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon. It’s not even HAL the Computer from 2001. This monster, the alien of the film’s title, is an organic mass that grows and grows. It cannot be talked to, charmed, persuaded, or even hit over the head. It can only be destroyed. In a way, I suppose, this monster is like a number of space monsters from sci-fi films of the ‘50s. It’s a Blob of sorts, only the people who made Alien are much more accomplished filmmakers.

Ultimately it is film technology, as much as anything, that makes Alien something more than a routine shock show. Its monster is first a horrifying blob, then a vicious snakelike critter with teeth, and ultimately… oh, why spoil it? But regardless of what shape the monster takes, Alien basically is a standard thriller about a bunch of people trapped in a haunted house (in this case a haunted spaceship) with a monster on the loose. You will spend much of the film guessing where the Alien is hiding, when it will strike, and who in the crew it will kill first — and last. There are some surprises.

There are some disappointments, too. For me, the final shape of the Alien was the least scary of its forms. I also wanted to learn more about the organisation, known as The Company, that apparently is running the world back home away from the spaceship. And on a technical level, I was disappointed that the film didn’t convey the enormous size of its spacecraft very well. Once we’re inside the tug, everything seems cramped.

But Alien is mostly in the business of thrillers, and on that score it did provide more than a few. I looked away from the screen during its most gory scenes. Even more enjoyable, though, was watching the film debut of an actress who should become a major star, Sigourney Weaver (she probably changed her name from Alice) makes an auspicious debut as one of the sturdiest crew members. A number of people who had seen Alien claim that Weaver, in looks and voice, is a dead ringer for Jane Fonda. I don’t share that opinion but clearly, her appeal is that of a strong but seductive woman, and that, I suppose, is Fonda-like.

In sum, Alien is not worth getting oneself into a vomiting dither about, but it is an accomplished piece of scary entertainment.

Heart-pounding terror: Alien

~ by Pete Lewis
The Des Moines Register Sun
June 3rd 1979.

Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Alien was released by 20th Century Fox two years to the day after the same studio release the phenomenally successful sci-fi epic Star Wars. The two films share a few production workers, but otherwise are galaxies apart.

Where Star Wars was a light-hearted romp of space fantasy that had its roots in the swashbuckling adventures of yore, Alien is a gory thriller that recalls Jaws, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and nameless dozens of 1950s space monster movies.

Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent soundtrack sets the eerie tone as the movie opens, and if there’s any doubt as to the intent of the film, it is dispelled by the first view of the space tug ‘Nostromo’ (shades of Joseph Conrad) as it tows 200 million tons of ore back to Earth. In the gloom of deep space, the ore refineries resemble the ominous, gothic mansions that have been home to countless terrestrial horror stories. The interior views of the Nostromo lend to the mounting apprehension as the camera snakes though its vast, yet claustrophobic corridors.

The ship’s computer, ‘Mother’, intercepts a patterned broadcast signal that indicates intelligent life, reroutes the Nostromo and awakens the crew that has been in deep space hibernation.

It is our first view of the Nostromo crew: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt); warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); science officer Ash (Ian Holm); executive officer Kane (John Hurt); navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his monosyllabic assistant, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). And of course, the ubiquitous mascot, Jones the Cat.

It is a refreshing blend of fine actors in brief parts, with especially noteworthy performances from Cartwright and Kotto. Weaver, who brings to mind the young Jane Fonda, is in fine form for her screen debut. Jones the Cat brings to mind the young Morris.

Even Shakespearean veteran Ian Holm manages well despite being shackled with an incredibly asinine character. Why screenwriter Dan O’Bannon included Holm’s character in a script already riddled with holes (black holes?) is one of the mysteries of the universe.

Anyway, whether it’s because their own conversation is so boring, or because they’ve been ordered to do so by a vaguely sinister organisation called ‘The Company’, the crew members are compelled to seek out intelligent life forms. They arrive on a bleak, howling, frozen planetoid and discover two things: the remains of a giant space ship, and director Scott’s obsession with sexual images.

In the womb of the ship they discover the fossilised remains of a giant alien (not the title character, however.) The giant, it soon becomes apparent, is but the first of many victims of the real alien (the title role.)

The message intercepted by Mother, it turns out, was not an S.O.S. but rather a warning sent by the dying giant.

Thus begins Alien. What follows is a terrifying film filled with psychological and jack-in-the-box horrors that will curdle your blood and dialogue and plot twists that will curdle your brain.

Take these examples (please):

“Let’s get out of here,” says Lambert to Dallas. As things get really spooky, she offers, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Parker concurs: “This place gives me the creeps,” he mutters.

Dallas catches on: “I just wanna get the hell outa here, awright?” he tells Ridley. Later, he announces, “I want to get the hell out of here.”

Their eagerness to get out of there is attributed to the alien, which assumes many equally repugnant forms, and is, in the words of science office Ash, “one tough [expletive deleted].”

Ash elaborates: “… A perfect organism; its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… It’s a survivor — no conscience, no remorse, no delusions of morality.”

So, the crackerjack crew that in minutes can whip up sophisticated electronic tracking devices —“It works on micro-changes in air density”—sets out to slay the monster with torches, much as did the 18th century townsfolk in Frankenstein.

Ah well. Despite director Scott’s penchant for ramming the camera lens up under the actors’ noses, the film is beautifully photographed. The suspense is maintained (except for a temporary breakdown when the Ash character short-circuits into absurdity) and is ushered along quite nicely right up to the denouement. And the special effects are very special and very effective.

Weaver does unload one good line (in frustration at the computer ‘Mother’) but otherwise the dialogue is unrelentingly tepid, and in the case of closing lines, downright corny.

But short of screaming ‘BOO!’ probably no dialogue could do anything to enhance the heart-pounding terrors of Alien. The movie is advertised with the slogan, ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ In the theatre you can hear everybody scream.

Alien is rated R, restricted. It contains considerable violence and gore, and some profanity. Definitely not suited for children.

the_philadelphia_inquirer_fri__jun_1__1979

Alien is frightening; killing gets boring.

By Paul Koval
The Decatur Daily Review
Tuesday June 26th 1979.

Alien starts out superbly. Director Ridley Scott manoeuvres his camera through the empty corridors of the commercial spaceship ‘Nostromo’. The camera’s movement is restless as it searches the spaceship for signs of life. We in the audience are vaguely tense, waiting for something to happen.

Right away it is obvious that we are being manipulated by a talented director. Scott knows how to pull the strings of his audience’s emotions. Seemingly at will he can jolt us into shock or keep us breathless in suspense. Oddly enough, this mastery of the audience by Scott turns out to be both the primary strength and crucial weakness of Alien.

The film’s story line is fairly simple. The space vessel ‘Nostromo’ encounters signs of intelligent life. The crew members of the ship are then sent off to investigate.

Through a frightening turn of events, the alien life form they discover manages to get himself aboard ship. Once there, the alien methodically begins killing the crew members.

Exactly why the alien finds it necessary to kill every moving thing in sight is never made clear. The audience simply has to accept this side of his personality without question.

This lack of motivation for the alien’s rampage is symbolic of the manipulative tendencies of the entire movie. Scott wants the people on board to be hunted down, so he invents an outer being to do the dirty work. The monster just as easily could have been the shark from Jaws or the 15-foot mutant in Prophecy.

All Scott is interested in is frightening us. No attempts at thematic development are made. For that matter, there are not even any attempts made to develop the characters beyond cardboard depth.

Probably every member of the cast, excluding screen newcomer Sigourney Weaver, will be recognisable to you by face if not by name. Yet none of these talented actors (including Yaphet Kotto, Tom Sherrit [sic], and Veronica Cartwright) are ever given a chance to do anything. They are all used merely as pawns to be killed off at the director and Alien’s whim.

For the record, Alien did succeed in frequently frightening me. Unfortunately, as time passed the scares decreased with the repetitive violence of the movie. By film’s end I had been subjected to the pointless aggression of the alien for so long I was bored.

And I was also irritated with Ridley Scott for setting his sights for mere thrills when a director of his obvious talent is certainly capable of much more.

Alien attempts to wed genres of science fiction and terror

~ by Joseph Gelmis
The Clarion Ledger Sun
Sunday June 17th 1979.

Alien entertains by punishing. Alien looks to be the season’s biggest hit. The implications are disturbing.

There is a mass audience for sick entertainment, and Alien is the slickest of them all and therefore, the most realistically repulsive movie to be offered by a major U.S. company in the thrall of this latest trend.

Set aboard a spaceship a hundred years from now, Alien offers several gruesome episodes. The first —and most harrowing— graphically depicts a man’s stomach exploding. Gore splatters on his fellow crew members. Out pops the alien, on his way through a series of shape changes, getting bigger and uglier and more powerful each time.

Alien is merely an atmospheric monster movie featuring the savage demolition of human and humanoid bodies. It is a movie about five men and two women trapped aboard an interplanetary ship with a remorseless killer—who just happens to have, in his service, a $9 million dollar budget and an army of makeup and special effects workers to make him ferocious.

What distinguishes Alien from another movie in the atrocity trend, Dawn of the Dead, is the money and skill lavished upon it. Dawn of the Dead is lower budget, lower grade shock “entertainment”. (That film highlighted cannibal zombies having their brains blown away by bullets in scores of close-ups.)

The only meaningful difference between the two movies is production values. Each film had its share of outraged and offended viewers who walked out of preview screenings. Each film is, ultimately, an oppressive, calculated nightmare violation of the human body. Each film is, in a word, obscene. But Alien is technically effective moviemaking while Dawn of the Dead is crude on nearly every level.

Money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistically terrifying horror movie. Cut-rate crudity has proved to be a virtue in such shoe-string budget, it’s-so-bad-it-looks-real movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. Thus, money isn’t the only criterion for making a realistic slaughterhouse thriller. The significant thing about Alien is that 20th Century Fox spent about as much on it as on Star Wars and that Alien is not an independent exploitation film but a corporately-funded freak show. Fox is counting heavily on Alien to be its summer blockbuster.

Alien has some value, aside from the purely esthetic use of sounds and images, as a sign of our times. A predominantly young mass audience eagerly endures the most terrible and excruciatingly painful assaults on the human body that the mind of any shockmeister can invent. The era of the simple ‘disaster’ movie has passed. Each advance in screen realism automatically leads to the next. Jaws did not end a cycle. It began one. It is ironic that, unable or unwilling to top themselves in straight terror, the producers of the two Jaws movies plan to collaborate with the National Lampoon people to emphasize sick humour when next the man-eating shark eats.

What makes morbid and sick subjects and treatment so fascinating in our time? Future historians will have to sort out the causes. What we can observe right now is the vicious cycle that produces the films we see. Alien is an attempt to wed the two most successful genres —sci-fi (Star Wars) and terror (Jaws)— of the 70’s. The major companies are caught in a jackpot fever to keep up the conglomerate-mandated annual growth rate. They will exploit a nerve that shows, go as far as the public will allow.

Ridley Scott, the British director of Alien, obviously wanted his film to do one thing: Shake up the audience. Scott had gotten good notices for his first film, The Duellists, based on a Joseph Conrad story, but the movie didn’t do well at the box office. Scott claimed recently that he was not paid for his work on that film, since he deferred his salary and The Duellists didn’t earn a profit.

Scott spent eight years “knocking at the door” to get a film made, supporting himself by shooting TV commercials. “Then I analysed my problem with The Duellists and I realised that I had not entertained,” he said. “When I was offered the script for Alien,” said Scott,” it never occurred to me to question the morality or value of the material. I saw it as a chance to scare an audience.”

detroit_free_press_sun__may_27__1979_-copy

Fear is game amoral Alien plays — but it wins.

~ by Jacqi Tully
The Arizona Daily Star
Sunday June 24th 1979.

Science fiction and horror join hands in Alien to produce a chilling, calculated, effective and infinitely repulsive cinematic adventure.

It’s a movie without a soul, replete with glittering hardware, several monsters and director Ridley Scott’s supreme indifference toward humankind.

Scott’s given us a new breed of movie, one that combines two highly successful genres with a vast sum of money. That money —$10 million— gives the horror movie unique status. The 1950s spook shows exuded a tackiness that let us achieve distance from the screen image.

But the supreme polish of Alien serves to heighten the fright factor. All Scott wants is to scare the hell out of his audiences. He succeeds. But he also gives new thought to the notion of amorality.

No doubt it’s an innovative, spectacular achievement in the field of special effects and clean, precise execution of visual disgust. But it’s also a predictable plot that begins beautifully and quickly succumbs to a perfunctory series of “who’s gonna be next” killings.

The story is simple: Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay tells of seven astronauts, five men and two women, working on a rather rusty commercial spacecraft deep in the womb of outer space. They encounter a strange, octopus-like creature. It cements itself to the face of one of the astronauts and finally disappears, only to explode through his chest. As the monster grows, so too does the horror.

The rest of the crew desperately tries to confront and kill the creature, which continually changes shape and colour. But this mysterious force only strengthens with battle, systematically terminating the humans.

A curious and rather appealing quality surfaces at the film’s beginning, with the fellow space travellers wear and light hearted. Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto want to get home. They’re rumpled and dishevelled and cynically put off when they’re ordered to investigate the strange object.

The eerie, haunting quality that so often gives horror movies an odd sense of grace and style gives Alien an initial lift.

But Scott isn’t interested in building suspense. He wants terror to chart the course of each second of the film. So there’s not a moment of rest, reflection or pause. It’s all exploding guts, severed heads, drooling saliva, slimy innards and cold violence.

As the crew members scream to their deaths, panic intensifies, and in the midst of this domino death game, an odd scene occurs. The scientist on board (Holm) wants to keep the creature alive. But the commander, Ripley, played marvellously by Weaver, is now in charge. Her boss has been killed. She tells Holm they will not save the creature but rather will try to save themselves. He beats her to a pulp, and then we discover that he’s a robot. His head is severed and insides exposed.

It’s a shocking moment to watch because Scott chooses to have his audience watch a woman, and the hero of the film, bloodied unmercifully. And it’s precisely that sort of manipulation and coldness that gives Alien its empty, heartless and amoral tone.

Scott is talented. So, too, are the actors, though they never have a chance to exhibit their deftness. They exist only as objects of elimination. Production designer Michael Seymour and all the special-effects people have produced a superb design for the ship and the monster’s various evolutions.

Alien is supremely sophisticated, then, but it’s a freak show with each gesture calculated to evoke both fear and loathing. So it is meaningless, finally, because once the shock wears off, nothing is left.

Alien will make an enormous sum of money; it has already broken Star Wars’ box-office records for the first two weeks. It will be seen because it is different and because many moviegoers thrill to the chills of monsters and madness.

But it’s an empty film proceeding on repulsion. It glitters with expertise and gloss. Alien isn’t fun, though. Nor is it funny. And it isn’t concerned with substance. Fear’s the game, and Alien will break box-office records on that single, and in this case, shallow emotion.

5 Comments

Filed under Alien

Alien 3: I Was There!

tmyf5qq

From Empire magazine, September 1992.

Among the many British crew members working on Alien 3 was a highly experienced special effects technician from London. Understandably wishing to remain anonymous, here he gives an exclusive behind-the-scenes report on the complex, challenging and at times entirely rudderless production that was Alien 3

Alien 3 was a very silly movie to work on. It had already been going for four months by the time I started, and they hadn’t even begun thinking about making the Alien. The script wasn’t even finished by that point, and I don’t think there was a director either. All there was was a bunch of models of the characters that were going to die – the Alien didn’t get made until five or six months later. In fact, the Alien was the last thing to be considered out of all the effects.

On my first day, they weren’t even sure what the Alien was going to look like – there were all kinds of different drafts of the script, and at one point it was a glass planet so they were talking about having a glass Alien, and then it was going to be all wood and they were talking about having a wooden Alien because it was supposed to adapt to its surroundings.

They had done the facehugger which you see at the beginning of the film, because that was the thing they were least worried about. There was another super-facehugger, a clear one, that took us about three months to make, on and off; that was kicked out just after we’d finished it. We also built a huge ox that the Alien burst out of, but David Fincher didn’t like that. Eventually they went back to America and reshot it anyway; now it’s a dog. It was a colossal waste of money.

The original Alien had these kind of pipes sticking out the back that took it away from just being a man in a rubber suit, but creature designers Alec (Gillis) and Tom (Woodruff) hated them, so we left them off. The very first day we took our Alien on set, Fincher said, ‘Where are the stove pipe things on the back?’ so he had us make some foam ones and glue them on. We made them overnight and they were strapped on with string –this is on a multi-million dollar movie– and when we got on set with them he just said, ‘Take them off’. It was extraordinary.

We were a bit worried about him, to be honest, because nobody knew who he was. We knew he’d directed Madonna videos but none of us were particularly impressed by that, funnily enough. He was just allowed to film and film and film, no one was ever there to tell him to stop, but surely once you’ve done 20 takes, you must have something? I guess maybe Sigourney Weaver had something to do with it because she also wanted everything to be perfect.

ushcw1l

The way it worked was that we’d start making something for the film and it would be written out, so we’d stop making it. Then it would be back in again, so we’d start making it again – the same thing happened with the sets. (Special effects supervisor) George Gibbs reportedly built this huge set for the ending of the film on the 007 stage at Pinewood, and they changed one aspect of the script so he had to tear it down and start again.

We also spent a huge amount of time and money making an Alien suit and some other guys did the same, making an alien puppet, and the two things just don’t match up, they don’t look like the same Alien. Again, that was because it got to the stage where it just had to be done, so consequently they don’t look like each other in the final movie.

The return of Bishop (the android played by Lance Henriksen) –or Bosh-up as he was called on the set– was a disaster. The one in the final film was redone later in America, but we produced one for our very first day on set with Fincher. He’d already got a reputation for being very short-tempered, and we’d stayed up for two nights trying to get this thing to work. We knew it wasn’t going to, we knew it was a temporary thing, and we went on set in front of Sigourney Weaver and did six takes – with each take it did less, with each take something else would break.

Sigourney thought it was great because she thought it was meant to be malfunctioning anyway, but Fincher went through the roof. We knew that was going to be the first effect shot and we knew it was a pile of shit and Fincher was very, very worried that everything else wasn’t going to work either. He balled us out quite often; when we took something on set for the first time, he’d say, ‘What the hell is this? It looks like a joke.’

I suppose you can’t really blame him, you’ve got to blame the people who want to make a film without having a script to start with. You’ve got to blame Sigourney Weaver to a certain extent, too, for having too many fingers in the pie. From what I was told she had a lot to do with the script; she was the one who didn’t want there to be any guns in the film, she was the one who decided to have the love scene. There was no reason for it other than she decided Ripley had to get into bed with someone.

At the end of the film, there were still lots of shots that hadn’t been done, with all the things that had been left out being vitally important to the story. In fact, from where I was standing, at one point it looked as though they were seriously thinking about writing the whole thing off.

Perhaps that would have been for the best…

For another peek behind Alien 3’s curtain, I highly suggest reading Ralph Brown’s account of his time filming the role of Aaron ’85’ at his blog here.

12 Comments

Filed under Alien 3

Fan Reaction to Alien, 1979.

alien ad scan

In sharp contrast to the reviews and retrospectives of today, the critical reaction towards Alien upon its release in 1979 was somewhat mixed. “Alien is a very annoying film,” is how Starburst writer John Brosnan began his review in issue #14. “On one level it is a masterpiece and on another it’s a botched job.”

Brosnan’s points of contention were the plot’s similarity to manifold B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s; the complete overshadowing of the cast by the sets and effects; and its lack of scientific rigour. The difference between this and It! The Terror from Beyond Space was, in his estimation, merely “ten million dollars.” Despite the sheen, it was simply “a 1950’s B film” with “all the faults of that specific genre.”

“You could put the world’s worst actors in Alien and the result would be much the same.”

Brosnan, who had read an early version of the script that described the Alien as a bioweapon manufactured by the Company, was left confused by the changes and omissions the plot had undergone throughout production. All in all, this left the impression of a plot “so full of holes it completely collapses once you start thinking about it.” The deletion of the cocoon scene and the obfuscation of the Company and Alien’s purposes left him confused. The lack of scientific accuracy also irked him, leaving him to comment, “It seems that all the pioneering work done by Stanley Kubrick in making a space film, 2001, that was scientifically accurate, has been forgotten by today’s new filmmakers.” It was, to him, “the equivalent of someone making a Western, set in 1850, which shows all the cowboys driving around on motor bikes.”

He had praise, of course, but strictly for the film’s visual design, Alien creature, and horror elements – suspense, scares, etc. Still, sci-fi fans responded in droves – Starburst issue #17’s letter pages were full of readers’ thoughts, repudiations, corrections, concerns, and even in some cases, agreement.

So, here are the transcribed reckonings of some British viewers on Alien shortly after its release in 1979:

“Having just returned from seeing Alien I read your review in Starburst #14 and I would like to make a few comments myself.

The impression I got was that the Alien was a natural, rather than a company-created, creature. I believe the crashed alien ship was a victim of the Alien. The skeleton in this ship had a hole in the chest, suggesting it died in the same way as Kane. The distress call was later decoded by Mother, Nostromo’s computer, and found to be a warning, presumably left by the dead creature. How the Company knew of these events and what they wanted The Alien for is beyond me.

I agree with your comments about the omission of the scene where Ripley destroys the cocooned Brett and Dallas. Indeed I am grateful to learn, through your review, what The Alien was doing with the bodies.

In regard to the scientific inaccuracies mentioned, there has to be some sort of sound when space action is taking place, to hold the audience’s attention. It might as well be the sound of a rocket engine as Thus Spake Zarathustra in 2001. The presence of gravity, like the presence of sound is a piece of necessary artistic license. By the way there was a reference to the ship’s artificial gravity being switched on just after the Nostromo has left the planet’s surface.”

Gordon Steele, Slyne, Lancs.

“While I broadly agree with John Brosnan’s remarks on Alien, and am grateful for the information about the original concept of the Alien as a genetic experiment by the company (a good sf premise), I must take issue on a couple of points.

Firstly, he remarks about sounds being heard, and shock waves being felt, in space. Yes, I know sound and explosions are silent and wave-less in the vacuum of space, but consider the cinematic effect of a silent soundtrack as the ‘Nostromo’ flies over your head. Much of the impact of the ship’s size as it thunders above you derives from the loud Dolby soundtrack which almost literally shakes you in your seat (Some of this impact is going to be lost in smaller theatres, I know.)

All the sounds you hear, ship’s engines firing, Kane’s body being ejected, etc come under the (valid) excuse of cinematic licence. It’s all very well for sf buffs (and I count myself in that category) to point out such scientific accuracies, but science fiction has got to make some compromises for cinematic success, at least in the popular cinema. (Face facts again, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have put up the vast amounts of money for the film if they didn’t think it was going to be a popular success, would they? And without that money, we wouldn’t have had effects that are largely successful, highly atmospheric sets, good acting, excellent directing, etc…)

Secondly, and this is a minor point, Mr Brosnan remarks that there is no mention of artificial gravity to account for the ‘normalcy’ of life aboard the ship in space… well there is! If he cares to cast his mind back to the point where the ‘Nostromo’ re-enters orbit after taking off from the planet, one of the crew (I think it’s Ripley, but I could be wrong) mentions something to the effect that ‘artificial gravity has been engaged’.

By and large, I agree with Mr Brosnan’s points that the missing ‘cocoon’ scene is a major plot flaw, and I think that any advantage that is gained in pacing the film is lost in the gap in the reasoning. Similarly, a lot of the scientific detail that Alan Dean Foster has provided in his novelisation would have slowed the film, but would have been welcome in terms of giving the film a more scientific credibility and ‘feel’.

However, unlike the novelisation, I think the editing style improves the story. The film has gaps, (like that in which Kane is hauled back out of the egg chamber and back to the ‘Nostromo’) which improves the effect on the audience. The scene in the film where Brett is captured by the adult form, is played out to greater effect than in the novel — even knowing myself what was to come, I found myself becoming increasingly nervous as this scene elapsed in the movie, and shocked (as well as fascinated) by the creature’s first appearance.

Another incident which voices the film as an improvement on the novel, is the Alien’s capture of Dallas in the ventilation system, which is one of the most brilliant moments of suspenseful cinema I have ever seen. The fact of seeing the creature in its entirety looming over the captain for a single split second is an unexpectedly shocking moment.

One final moment I must make in praise of the film is the point when Ripley backs into the shuttle craft and, through the strobe-lighting, sees the creature. Perhaps this is one of the points where (and here I agree with Brosnan again) we see rather too much of the creature, but in this instance at least, I feel the atmosphere carries it through.

Finally, I would like to say that, overall, the film is a big success. It is the closest I have yet seen sf translated to the big screen, and the most atmospheric production certainly. Its horrific elements work very well indeed (even though they’re not novel in any sense).”

Rob Frampton, Canterbury, Kent.

Some viewers saw the film’s contents as somewhat questionable in the larger scheme of things; namely, the prevalence of violence at the cinema:

“Good ole Alien is here at last! And it isn’t all bad! Everyone loves John Hurt’s death! And Ash’s last gasp! By Jove, yes!

And I confess, Ridley Scott has knocked together a fair dinkum hunk of celluloid. So let us pause…

Some would call it a return to the Middle Ages: this new wave of viscera meets a demand for ‘stronger stuff’ from a hardened audience; blood n’ guts is making a come-back. American tv audiences have seen an execution – by firing squad; most of us saw the horrifying murder of the American newsman in South America. But what really followed? We see a man shot in cold blood, and no one reacts; we say, ‘That’s awful!’ and try to ignore it. Yet faked death is ever-popular: and the more vicious and bloodier it is, the better we like it. Are we really immune to the suffering of our fellow man?

I think so. The Romans had The Amphitheatre; we have the cinema. The hideous contests which the Romans watched are now said to be decadent; but have you ever heard a Romero fan rave on? Phantasm’s silver ball, with its skull driller, is also popular; yet the effect is revolting. Cronenberg’s Shivers, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Grau’s Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue contain scenes which could be called pornographic, if violence were as unpopular as sex in the cinema. Anyway, Lenny Bruce said all this before, in plain language, so I’ll call it a day.

My point (at last) is that something must be wrong with us if all we want to see is intestines hurtling all over the place. Will ‘bread and circuses’ be our last words?

No: but I don’t care that much either; otherwise, this would be a rational, intelligent, sophisticated letter.”

Simon Cunnington, London W6.

nostromo

“John Brosnan’s review of Alien in issue 14 was up to his usual high standard, although I must disagree with him about the ‘scientific inaccuracies’ which the film contains. Mr Brosnan complains about hearing sounds in space, and about the lifeboat being buffeted by the shock-wave caused by the destruction of the ‘Nostromo’. While being scientifically inaccurate, I maintain that these are cinematically correct, as they are designed to heighten the audio-visual impact taking place on the screen.

Mr Brosnan also complains about the makers of the film ignoring the problem of lack of gravity in space, and comments, ‘there’s not even a mention of that old gimmick, artificial gravity’. In fact it is mentioned. When the Nostromo is lifting from the planetoid to rejoin the refinery, Captain Dallas instructs Ripley to engage artificial gravity – so there!

While on the subject of Alien – which I enjoyed very much, I would like to ask readers if I am the only one who felt in retrospect that I was missing something? By this I mean that I had the impression that though cleverly edited, I got the feeling that a lot of footage was excised at the final cut, and that some scenes, especially the ‘chestburster’, were toned down radically. Perhaps a case of the film’s backers getting cold feet at the last minute?

Scott McSkimming, East Kilbride, Scotland.

9 Comments

Filed under Alien

Alien: the 1978 Scripts

memoweylanyutani

Alien’s script, much like the creature itself, was an ever-evolving beast. That Dan O’Bannon’s original screenplay was rewritten by Walter Hill and David Giler is pub trivia; but what shapes the script took between its first incarnation in 1976 and the final draft of the film issued December 1978 is something of a mystery. I have spent some time trying to find different variations of the script from throughout 1978, the year that Alien finally went into production and, it seems, underwent some of its more drastic changes from O’Bannon’s: Ripley being changed into a woman (occurring sometime in early ’78 when Ridley first came aboard), the near excision of the Space Jockey, and various permutations of the Nostromo crew’s fates. There was also a larger battle waging between O’Bannon, Ron Shusett, and the producers at this time concerning whether the film should feature alien civilisations and pyramids or a government conspiracy that depicted the Alien as a bioweapon encountered in an installation known only as the Cylinder.

The aforementioned concept appears in a script in my possession that is, unfortunately, undated, so I cannot tell if it is from 1977 or 1978 (I suspect early ’78) and I cannot compare its contents to other scripts from early 1978 because I’ve yet to peruse any scripts prior to June 1978.

So, I am putting forth all the different variations of the script that I know of from 1978. Perhaps someone who is luckily enough to possess one of these drafts will be able to let me know of any substantial or notable differences that occur within or between them.

The first script I can find for the year is dated February. This is the month where pre-production was really kicking into gear, with Ridley being hired, the cast and production crew being assembled, and the visual design of the film being ironed out. It’s possible this is the first draft to feature Ripley as a woman.

Alien February 1978

The next picture here is cut off, but the script date is intelligible as March:

Alien March 1978

Another Revised Draft appeared in May:

Alien May 1978

Next up is the Revised Final Draft, dated June. Apparently this is the last draft that Walter Hill and David Giler worked on together. “The last couple we did in New York in my room at the Navarro (now the Ritz Carlton) while I was prepping The Warriors,” said Hill, but his involvement with that film apparently caused consternation between him and the Alien production in England, who were attempting to reconcile disparate visions for the film. “And finally at the last minute,” said Dan, “I saw that everyone, including Ridley, was so fed up with Giler and Hill’s failure to make any of the promised revisions that they said they were gonna make, that a little sliver of opportunity was created. I was standing there, I said, ‘You know, I’ll fix it if you’ll let me.’”

Alien June 1978

Rewrites carried out by O’Bannon (apparently aided by Shusett, Scott, and Gordon Carroll) were dizzying: Revisions came on July 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 17th, August 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th, 11th, 24th… essentially culminating in a new draft dated October. “It’s amazing,” said Cobb at the time. “The whole film is in a constant state of flux. Script revisions are going on every day. Things that haven’t been shot are still being rewritten and that’s why Dan is feeling better, because he and Ron Shusett are having substantial input into these last minute script changes. They’re fixing it quite well, strengthening it considerably.”

Alien October 1978

A final draft was pieced together in December, some two months after principal photograph had concluded. The first inner page notes: “This script reflects dialogue changes added in post production for story clarification. Changes also reflected are: all computer readout information, miniature effects shots, scene composition and scene omissions, all as written and edited after completing principal photography on October 21st, 1978.”

Alien December 1978
If anyone has these scripts in their possession, most certainly the pre-June drafts, then please give me a shout, either in the comments or via e-mail. Much appreciated!

9 Comments

Filed under Alien

Alien Resurrection: Hybrid Theory

alienressideoo

“It was important to me to restore the Aliens’ superiority, their elegance and ability to sense what people are going to do even before they did. I really wanted to bring back what the Aliens were about in the first movie.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Starlog #247, 1997.

One complaint regarding the third movie’s Alien was the abandonment of its modus operandi. The creature, fans complained, made no effort to secure hosts for its Queen, nor were there scenes to parallel the Alien’s mysterious appearances in the first movie. Originally, the creature was to cocoon its victims just as its forebearers did, but, according to Tom Woodruff, “the plug was pulled because Fincher’s idea was that the creature simply kills to eat.” And so instead, it gored and chewed on its victims, tugging at their carcasses like a rabid dog. “What I loved about the first one,” said Sigourney Weaver, “was that there was just one Alien and it was so incredibly smart. And we’ve tried with the Alien Resurrection script to get it back to the idea of that the Aliens are not just eating machines, which they never were. Why would they want to eat us? They would use us for purposes much more horrible. If you’re just afraid of them eating you, then they’re like tigers.”

Alien Resurrection screenwriter Joss Whedon had the same concerns and criticisms. “I think the fans were robbed in the third one,” he stated. “They actually had a scene where people we didn’t know were killed by the Alien. That’s Jason, that’s bullshit, because nothing is more boring than people you don’t know being killed.” His script, from its earliest incarnations, always stressed the inevitability of the Aliens breaking from the confines imposed upon them by the Auriga’s scientists. No amount of behavioural conditioning can break their will; no amount of steel and glass can keep them from eventually finding escape — but there was more to their ‘character’ than mere rampage and slaughter. The inclusion of a Queen, around which the Aliens can construct their society, would allow audiences some insight into the Aliens’ motivation (even if, technically, said motivation was nothing new.) “They’re breeding,” Ripley 8 states in the first draft. “They’ve got new bodies to work on.”

Since Resurrection was the first movie to show the Aliens in captivity, there are some attempts in the various scripts to elaborate on their abilities. Brad Dourif’s Dr. Gediman explains (in one of Ripley’s dream sequences) that the Aliens communicate “through ultrasonic soundwaves. Sort of like bats.” Though this information is imparted through one of Ripley’s nightmares, she later tells Call that she can feel the Alien presence “In my head. Behind my eyes” much in the same way. We learn more about the Aliens’ sensory abilities throughout the drafts, such as their ability to “smell fear” and to adapt situationally to threats. In one scene, we find that some caged Aliens have been observing Dr. Gedimen as much as he has been observing them: once his attention slips they launch an attack on one of their own, spilling its intestines upon the steel flooring, melting it and providing an escape. The Aliens swiftly incapacitate the scientists and elimate the military personel so effectively that commanding officer General Perez can only liken it to a “military strike”.

“I don’t quite know how to express it. The Alien, to me, is a symbol of evil.”
~ Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Starlog magazine, 1997.

The various Aliens in the film were conceptualised by a dearth of artists including Sylvain Despretz, Jordu Schell, and Chris Cunningham. The costumes and props were again built by Amalgamated Dynamics, with Tom Woodruff returning to portray the Alien as he had in the third movie. The creatures would be more angular and spindlier in design, rendered in ochre and blacks, stripped of their metal piping and bones, with the animal design elements magnified. “What we were trying to do was give a little more character to these Aliens, and also do something that was more threatening,” Alec Gillis told Fangoria in 1997. “We were given a little more leeway to do some redesigning than perhaps we had been able to do on the last film.”

alien warrior sketch by Sylvain Despretz

“The biggest change that we did to the Alien was to make him seem more cunning or more vicious,” Woodruff explained on the Quadrilogy’s special features. “In terms of the way to do that, design-wise, was to look for more directional lines, sharper angles, and a lot of art elements that went into it. We had the dome, for example, [which] is more pointed this time around; the chin is more pointed and brought forward. We’ve exaggerated the shoulders; elements of the ribcage appear to stand out more and help reduce the forms around it. It’s like a process of honing, refining something each time you go through it.”

A multitude of animals were studied for the Alien’s various movements and actions, including sea iguanas and sharks for the underwater scenes which showcased the Aliens’ maneuverability, and design elements from some animals were incorporated into the design. A fin was added to the tail to aid with swimming, and the elongated head of the Alien even resembles a cockroach shell. For rendering the CG Aliens VFX co-ordinator Kerry Shea told VFX HQ that Blue Sky Studios were contracted due to their rendering of cockroaches for 1996’s Joe’s Apartment. “We were looking for Alien effects that were sort of insect-like,” she said, “and they had done such a terrific job on the cockroaches.” Tom Woodruff told Strange Shapes that, “It was never a pointed intention to duplicate a cockroach, but yes, the design element of the insect world is always prevalent in each design iteration.”

The most notable design change was the fleshier aspect of the Aliens’ bodies, a result of the imperfect human-Alien DNA mixing process. In one undated draft, it is noted that there is “some genetic mix” between the Aliens and Ripley that may lead to “further mutation” (an early hint at the Newborn creature) but other drafts and the film focus more on Ripley’s altered mental and physical state than that of the Aliens, with the Newborn appearing rather unnanounced at the end. “The cloning process would naturally be contaminated,” Gillis explained, “so the Aliens would have slightly messed-up DNA and be somewhat different. We thought this was the perfect opportunity for us to do something like give them longer arms and other subtle things. Our belief was that the design from the first movie was very successful, and you don’t want to fix something that ain’t broke. So all our effort went into improving it and making it look more organic, having more of a bio-mechanical exoskeleton feel, instead of going for the easier route of combining car parts into the clay before we cast it.”

The slime was also revised to look heavier and more viscous: “Rather than just putting a glazing coat of slime on the Alien, we mixed up a viscous slime that made the creature look like it was under half an inch of mucus — much wetter and sleeker than in the past.” Compounding this new look was cinematographer Darius Khondji’s careful lighting. “He at times built almost a ‘cage of fluorescence’ around the Alien,” explained Alec Gillis, “so that you get a million of little [reflections on] the slime. He kept going back to us, asking for thicker slime, because the stuff we had used in the other movies was too runny for him — he wanted a quarter of an inch build up, so we started going for a slime that was almost like gel; and it really had a different look.”

11866409_10153477346171605_664521494611648354_n

By the end of the film we discover that the genetic gambling that the Auriga’s scientists partake in results in an entirely new creature altogether, an amalgamation of human and Alien DNA that takes the form of a spindle-limbed albinoid called the ‘Newborn’. Born in the murky bowels of Waste Tank No. 5 and ripping itself from the Alien Queen’s egg sac, the Newborn quickly rejects and murders the Queen before seemingly imprinting itself on Ripley, whose scent it recognises as being neither entirely Alien nor human, much like itself.

In the first draft the Newborn is described as being almost as big as the Queen itself, with four forelegs and two thick haunches, pincers on its head and a webwork of red veins that cover its long eyeless head, like hair. In this draft, the Newborn drains the blood from its victims through its tongue, tries to attack Ripley, and is staunchly defended by the hive. Aided by ‘drones’, the Newborn chases Ripley throughout the ship, rides the Betty down to Earth, is bombarded with rocket-fire from Call, immolated in the Betty’s thrusters, and goes on the run across Earth’s landscape where, after being fought by Ripley, it unfurls a pair of “batlike, leathern” wings that drip with slime. After another battle between the Newborn and a futuristic combine harvester (piloted by Call), the creature is shoved into the propelling blades by Ripley herself.

The second draft also features a battle on Earth between the Newborn and the Betty crew, and though it is less bombastic and outrageous than the first draft, it does come with further embellishments to the Newborn as a character: it now laughs after using DiStephano as a human shield, it “sighs in quiet ecstasy” as it surveys the Earthly city before it (Paris), it licks its lips as it hones in a band of children, and expresses outrage when it mistakenly devours some of Call’s android blood, which is revealed to be, somehow, magnetic. The Newborn, with Call’s blood in its belly, finds itself stuck to an electromagnetic crane, dropped into a compactor, and finally crushed and impaled.

The Newborn’s death in the film resembles one planned demise for Lambert in the original Alien, but there was another hull breach in the Resurrection screenplays that has one of General Perez’s soldiers being “sucked through a hole no bigger than his fist” after he ill-advisedly shoots an Alien onboard the Auriga. This simple but gruesome gag replaced the high-octane chases and battles that Whedon had originally planned, and the finale is probably the better for it: as ill-received as the Newborn was, its death throes were horrifying and touching: it is hard to not pity it, as revolting as it is.

Ultimately, the creature was not well received. “The Newborn, I think, is an interesting idea,” said conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz.”Chris Cunningham […] was asked to draw the Newborn that appears at the end of Alien Resurrection and did some gorgeously spooky paintings of semi baby-like Aliens with human skin, bones and ribcages, that bizarre black head, you know. And it’s very subtle stuff that works if interpreted as on the painting […] Unfortunately by the time you saw the final Alien, you just kinda got a Creature from the black lagoon with a terrifying skull, and you have to have a skull in there otherwise people won’t be scared. You sort of go, what did go wrong, you know, you’ve got these beautiful paintings. How hard can it be to just make a model of that?”

mumlove

Before the film’s release producer Bill Badalato opined that “The Aliens are truly characters in the story and not just background. The characters interact with the Aliens in a way that we haven’t seen before in an Alien film. It’s extremely effective.” But Weaver, whose mission statement had been to portray the Aliens in a more eldritch and frightening manner, expressed some disappointment at the results. “I was surprised by how much monster movie there was in Resurrection,” she admitted to Starlog. She was, however, happy with ADI’s animatronic Newborn. “For me, playing opposite the Newborn was like playing opposite Lon Chaney Sr.,” she said. “This creature could do everything. It was immensely moving and all of my interaction with it came out of improvisation, not from the script. The Newborn was a creature operated by 14 puppeteers. They gave it energy. It was very eerie.” Conversely, many fans disliked the new creature, and complained that the Aliens themselves largey vanish in the third act.

Controversy about the film’s Alien designs arose when HR Giger discovered that he was not credited at all for the fourth film’s design elements. A campaign called ‘Alien Insurrection‘ lobbied Fox to restore Giger’s credit, with Giger himself writing in his first campaign letter that “The creatures in Alien: Resurrection are even closer to my original Alien designs than the ones which appear in Aliens and Alien 3.” This was a sentiment that he also expressed to journalist Javier Martinez de Pisón in an 1999 interview where he saw fit to add, “The Aliens themselves were not well sculpted or sharply defined. It seemed as if no molds had been made and as if the creatures were roughly shaped with mud.” In his second letter he further asserted his rights over the Alien and that the Newborn had been pilfered from one of his own designs. “In regards to the new Alien development called the Newborn,” he wrote, “it is just another Giger design, which you will realize when you look beneath the shell of the adult Alien head, as seen in the photos on page 60 of my book. The human skull under the face has been exposed and the creature’s sinewy body has been contaminated by deformed features. Fox, however, tries to deny HR Giger’s influence.” 

Giger continued that “Woodruff, an excellent effect specialist, said about his ‘Alien Viper’s Nest’: ‘It is like an HR Giger’s painting come to life.’ Yes, it is. It has been newly stolen from my book Necronomicon. As photographed from above, you will see that it is a section of my painting Passagen-Tempel/Eingangspartie (Passage Temple/entrance section) Work #262. This painting existed three years before the first Alien movie had even started to be filmed.” Fox, in the end, restored Giger’s credit for Resurrection‘s home release, but this did not spare them from the artist’s pointed thoughts on what the studio had done with his Alien after taking it out of his hands.

“I always wanted my Alien to be a very beautiful thing, not just something disgusting, not just a monster, but something aesthetic. Throughout the creature’s evolution what they’ve done is change it from something aesthetic to something that looks like shit – I mean literally, it looks like a turd.”
~ HR Giger, Alien Evolution, 2001.

 

25 Comments

Filed under Alien Series

Writing Aliens

2167-29 - Copy

In 1983 Dan O’Bannon sat with Starlog magazine to talk about his career, including a customary overview of the Alien production and a poke at the possibilities of a sequel. “Also extraordinary,” the article read, “in this age of sequelmania, is the impossibility of Alien 2Return of AlienRevenge of the Alien, or anything else smacking of a second curtain call for the grisly astronaut-eater.” The problem, O’Bannon revealed, was that “The rights were altogether too divided among a number of us who can’t get along.” As far as he knew, he added, “There has never been any intention of doing a sequel.”

Contrary to his claims, producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll had mused on the prospects of a second film during the promotional run for the original film. “We’re involved in preliminary discussion right now,” Giler told Cinefantastique in 1979. “It’s still too early to say how it will unfold. Hill and I are working on it. I know a lot of people who think we intended the close-ups of the cat in the shuttle as a hook for the sequel. Not so. It probably won’t have anything to do with the cat.”

When Fantastic Films magazine pressed them on plans for any further sci-fi movies, Giler mentioned a sequel, on which Carroll elaborated, “We don’t have any one idea we like better than the rest. But I think it’s a very realistic idea.”

Fantastic Films: Will it feature the same Alien?
Giler: Probably not.
Fantastic Films: The company the crew works for seems to be very sinister. Will they be elaborated on more?
Carroll: That’s a possibility. I would think that’s one of the things we might do. We also have, for example, the planet and all that. I think that the sequel would have more. I’m not saying necessary of that planet, but of the fantasy of science fiction in terms of design.

The producers weren’t the only ones musing on Alien II, with director Ridley Scott admitting to Fantastic Films magazine that, concerning the first film, “What I missed most of all was the absence of a prognosis scene. There were no speculative scenes or discussions about what the Alien was and all that sort of thing either. I believe that audiences love those, especially if they’re well done. They give the threat much more weight. If they make Alien II, and if I have anything to do with it, the film will certainly have those elements in it. From a certain point of view, Alien II could be more interesting than Alien I.”

Ridley further mused with Cinefantastique that “In many respects it’ll be more interesting [than the first movie], from a pure science-fiction stand point. We’d get into speculative areas, deal with two civilisations.” He told Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies in 1984 that “It certainly should explain what the Alien is and where it comes from. That will be tough because it will require dealing with other planets, worlds, civilisations. Because obviously the Alien did come from some sort of civilisation. The Alien was presented, really, as one of the last survivors of Mars – a planet named after the god of war. The Alien may be one of the last descendants of some long-lost self-destructed group of beings.”

Then, not long after Alien’s theatrical run, rumours of a TV sequel, made in the vein of ‘Salem’s Lot, hit the trades:

untitled

Not long afterwards, details for a movie sequel emerged in the press:

a1page

  • The Alien, merely stunned by its close encounter with the shuttle engines, manages to survive outside the craft and reaches civilisation along with Ripley.
  • A second expedition to the planetoid is stranded there and, weathering a storm within the derelict and their own ship, its members deal with a group of Aliens, climaxed by the appearance to whose race the Space Jockey belongs.
  • A prequel, rather than a sequel, telling the tale of the Space Jockey and ending where Alien begins, with the arrival of the Nostromo crew.
  • The planetoid of the Alien explodes, sending Alien eggs to Earth where -shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers– a whole flock of the monsters run rampant.

But despite all of Ridley’s theorising and the commercial and cultural success of the original, the sequel did not appear. The reason for this is perplexing but simple: Twentieth Century Fox did not want it. Alan Ladd Jnr., the head of Fox who had heralded both Star Wars and Alien (and affectionately called ‘Laddy’ by Ridley Scott and co.) left the company in 1979 to found his own production firm, The Ladd Company, whom most will recognise as the producers of another science-fiction classic, Blade Runner. Ladd’s replacement was Norman Levy, who, according to Giler, opposed the very notion of an Alien II.

“Norman Levy wouldn’t even hear about it,” Giler told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “He thought it would be a disaster … I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, ‘When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?’ He said, ‘Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.'”

In an interview with Blade Runner fansite BladeZone, journalist Paul M. Sammon, responsible for the excellent Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, said of the sci-fi/horror genre at the time: ”You have to keep in mind that even though Alien was a smash, it was still a science-fiction/horror film. And back in the late Seventies/early Eighties, those two genres, at least in the opinion of many Hollywood executives, were barely a step above pornography, even if horror and science fiction films were suddenly becoming these huge cash cows.”

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.

battle-beyond-the-stars-cameron

Cameron cut his teeth on films like Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) before branching out to write and direct his own features.

 “When I went over to visit the Corman facility, where the special effects were done, he was the genius, the resonant genius – everyone was talking about how great he was. I remember meeting him on the set [of Escape From New York], actually it was over in the San Fernando Valley, he was doing a glass painting for us. He was sitting on a hillside with some glass setup painting a New York skyline to be able to shoot the next shot. It was just beautiful – he was really technically great.”
~ John Carpenter, Sci-fi-online, 2008.

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.”

Alien II

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 Vanja, 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.”

Aliens_66_gal

 “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, Starbust, 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.”

10 Comments

Filed under Aliens

1992 Fan Response to Alien³

tumblr_memklxMKFL1qkcj94o1_1280

Alien 3 may as well have been dead on arrival. Despite encouraging box office results outside of the US, the film received a lashing not only from professional critics but from fans as well, precipitating a particularly nasty brand of bad feeling that continues to this day. The subsequent articles and documentaries covering its troubled production often feel like an autopsy, as the film’s crew and cast try to deduce which of the film’s various wounds finally killed it.

Starlog issues #182-184 were deluged with letters from fans who felt let down and outright insulted by the film. The magazine had maintained secrecy over the film’s plot and many readers went into the theater not knowing what they were in for.

Passionate letters ensued, pretty much all of which appeared under the telling header: ‘Alienated’.

Issue 182 (September 1992)

Untitled

There was only one letter of complaint in this issue, though the fanpage comic strips were already beginning to mock the decision-making processes of Fox executives.

…Watching sequels is an experience that constantly changes – there are sequels that work (Aliens), the sequels that don’t (Robocop 2), and the ones that fall somewhere in the middle, ambitious attempts at improving on the concepts of their predecessors but lacking a certain something that makes them ultimately unsatisfying. Such is the case with Alien 3, a misconceived and often choppy third installment. Director David Fincher starts off the movie well, using unusual camera angles and stunning production design to establish the set-up of the picture, with Ripley crashlanding on a prison planet filled with rapists, murderers and other assorted stock characters who have become involved in their own religious cult. This leads to numerous undeveloped subplots (one needless scene of ‘sexual tension’, ties with religion never fully established) most likely attributed to the film’s well-reported script rewrites.

After 30 minutes of sequences that both provide plot for this film and a funeral for the dead characters left over from Aliens, Alien 3 goes very wrong very quickly. Fincher goes from a lengthy introduction to the prison and one particular character (Charles Dance) to Dance’s demise to lots of running around in the dark with flashlights attempting to destroy the Alien in the prison’s furnace. In the middle of all of this is a laughable subplot with Ripley becoming ‘pregnant’ with the next Queen Alien, leading to one unforgettable, unintentionally funny sequence with Sigourney Weaver going down into the prison’s basement to get killed by the Alien, spouting out lines like ‘Come on!!… after all, I’m one of the family.’ This brings up numerous logistical problems inconsistent with the other Alien films. How can Ripley get infected  by the Alien and still be able to live for such a long period of time, especially when the dog in the movie gets infected and dies from its Alien in a matter of hours?

There’s no need to go on, for the movie has other problems that have nothing to do with the previous picture. Fincher seems to have gone from point A to point B to point D — there’s no pacing in this picture at all, and no character development of any of the prisoners, which is a big problem in that the final chase scene depends on the audience’s knowledge of who all these convicts are. The audience that I saw the movie with thought the final climatic scene, with the prisoners running from the Alien trying to cut it off, was much more enjoyable for unintended laughs rather than suspense. And those well-reported six seconds of added FX at the end really improved the picture overall — couldn’t the producers have used that money for the script, which is a muddled mess of a hundred ideas from countless writers who worked on this picture?

One interesting problem is the editing — an early NY Times piece running time for the movie was 135 minutes, yet the final cut was under two hours. There was scenes talked about (Weaver’s sex scene, the bugs running through her hair) and scenes from the trailer (a prisoner walking outside the colony during daylight) that weren’t in the movie — all of which adds up to pre-release cutting. But whatever material was cut couldn’t save one factor in Alien 3, which is suspense, or in this case, lack of it. Fincher’s music-video style (complete with occasionally rock-synthesised music by Elliot Goldenthal) sure is flashy, but it doesn’t deliver the scares. The whole project seems to have been misguided and tired, for the Alien in this picture seems to have been inspired by the rip-offs of the Alien movies and not by its actual predecessors. And that’s the bottom line of Alien 3. Another sequel that not only doesn’t measure up to its predecessors, but fails in its own right to deliver the kind of surprise that a film like this so desperately needs.
Andy Dursin,
Glocester, RI.

Issue 183 (October 1992)

Untitled

The next issue saw a deluge of reader mail, with Alien 3 occupying the entirety of the letters pages – all four of them.

Common complaints included the swift killing of Aliens’ surviving characters, the bleak tone, the splatterhouse approach to gore, plot holes and retcons -some perceived, some legitimate-, the underdeveloped characters, and even David Fincher’s direction.

…I just saw Alien 3, and I would like to say that I was deeply saddened and very disappointed. I love SF because it is an escape from everyday troubles. There is enough pain and misery in this world. Why put it on film? Movies should be entertaining and at least leave you with the hope that the characters you have grown to love through the years don’t end up dead in a horrible fashion.

The scenes that troubled me the most in the film were Newt’s autopsy, Hicks’ death and Bishop’s sad remains joking with Ripley and then begging her to unplug him. And finally, Ripley’s death. I wish I could say that it didn’t bother me, but it did,  and I think it will affect many people. As a true SF fan, I was saddened by such a hard and sobering view of life in the last of the Alien trilogy.
Mark A. Kaufman,
Address Withheld.

…I could not believe my eyes! After watching the first two minutes, I was so mad I almost stood up and walked out of the theater. How could they take the amazing story of Aliens and destroy it? Right now, I’m just pretending I never saw the movie, and Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop are still in hypersleep on their way to Earth, instead of all dead!!!

It is so infuriating that the surviving cast from Aliens, who fought against unstoppable creatures and won, who escaped death in their darkest hour, who, by the exceptional direction of James Cameron, were living, breathing characters, are just plain dead! What a useless excuse for a plotline! Kill off Newt, Hicks and Bishop, just like that. And impregnate Ripley with a Queen Alien. Perfect. How much worse could the movie’s plot be? Not much. I’m sure James Cameron is laughing right now, laughing at the fact his movie is a thousand times better than Alien 3. The only thing I kind of liked about Alien 3 was the Alien P.O.V. shots. But even that has a plot hole right through it, as Aliens don’t have eyes! They use a type of radar sense!

And what a horrible way for Ripley to die. An Alien Queen bursts from her chest before she hits molten steel; hey, do I hear T2 bells chiming? What a complete rip-off of Terminator 2′s end sequence: Main character dies in orange-glowing molten steel. Give me a break!
Godfrey C. Pflugbeil
Toronto, Canada.

Alien 3 was a good movie, but at the same time, disappointing.  It just didn’t measure up to the lofty standards set by its predecessors. In Alien and Aliens, the Aliens attacked and killed their victims (when not using them as hosts) with lethal speed, inner jaw parts swiftly ending the doomed humans’ suffering. In Alien 3 however, the Alien often ‘chews’ on its prey while they’re still alive and screaming, rather than striking and ending their lives quickly. This is not because it is not strong enough to do so, because it kills Clemens and a few of the prisoners quickly, as in the previous films. But overall, most of Alien 3′s characters die kicking and hollering as the Alien eats them alive. Dillon was killed near the movie’s end, yelling at the creature to fight harder and asking it if that was ‘as hard as you can bite’. I suspect this was a cheap ploy thrown in by the filmmakers to add to the film’s horror. Actually, it detracts from the slick, deadly charisma surrounding the Alien.

Finally, the idea of the prisoners outrunning the Alien (when they use themselves as bait to lure the creature into the piston tunnel near the movie’s end) is ridiculous. As fast as that Alien moved, the convicts wouldn’t have a chance.

There were other minor problems, such as the Alien surviving the barrage of molten lead, and the evident fakery of the Alien Queen bursting from Ripley’s chest, but overall I enjoyed the movie the second time I watched it, my initial disappointment out of the way. There were some fantastic scenes as well, most notably the Alien chestburster’s birth from the dog, the prisoner falling into the gigantic fan and Clemens’ death. I also found Dillon, Charles S. Dutton’s character, to be intriguing and extremely well done. Sigourney Weaver, as usual, turns in a formidable performance as Ripley and first-time director David Fincher does a good job, creating a very dark and at times, genuinely scary feature debut.

Unfortunately, these good points do not prevent Alien 3 from joining the likes of Predator 2 and Robocop 2 as sequels unworthy of following their predecessors.
Matt Nunan,
Myrtle Point, OR.

Never have I seen a more thoroughly offensive motion picture than Alien 3. Not only is it fraught with glaring inconsistencies with the first two films, but we are deluged with endless scenes of screamed profanity and relentless gore that completely redefine ‘gratuitous’. While its predecessors left its audience with a creepy fascination that stayed with you long after leaving the theater, Alien 3 merely lingers like a bad virus.

Utterly missing is any of Ridley Scott’s meticulous craftmanship. Nor are we treated to anything resembling James Cameron’s  carefully orchestrated rollercoaster rides. What is dumped on us though are annoying confusing intercuts with inaudibly soft dialogue juxtaposed against a cacophony of yelling prisoners, thundering sound effects and loud music. We are carelessly thrown around this sludge-infested planet by David Fincher’s dizzying, awkward camera work, and splattered with bottomless buckets of blood. The close-ups of hypodermic needles puncturing skin, the ridiculously drawn-out autopsy scene, the sickening throes of an inmate’s beloved dog and the relentless series of gruesome murders overwhelmed even the teenage gore freaks which populated our audience.

Bad direction, however, might have been overlooked, since Fincher is completely inexperienced in filmmaking; but what is utterly inexcusable is the script! Character development was so badly lacking that only a pitiful few of the 20-odd people were given any individual personalities of their own (the rest were just a crowd of bald Brits); but just when a bit of insight was revealed about someone, he would be ripped to shreds and lose his meager importance anyway. Clever dialogue was jettisoned in favor of shouted vulgarities (and these guys were supposed to comprise a fundamental Christian cult?) And lest we forget Ripley herself…

She knew (or strongly suspected) her old nemesis was roaming about  the prison, but how did she react? By simply parking her bottom in the doctor’s office, afraid to tell him for fear of being labelled crazy? Come on, now! Is this the gal who ran through the Nostromo’s corridors and blew the monster out of an airlock? The same feisty lady who charged an armoured personel carrier through walls of metal to rescue Marines from an onslaught of creatures? The same beloved heroine who became a walking armoury to save one little girl from the clutches of a beast? No. This ‘new’ Ripley is a stranger.

No new insights on teh Aliens themselves were revealed to us, either. Instead, our scriptwriters convieneintly ignored what had been established in the earlier stories and went their own way. Since when did facehuggers leave marks on their victims?  And while there was seemingly one aboard the Sulaco, two impregnations resulted: Ripley’s and the dog’s; yet it had been concluded before that there could only be one per creature.

Also, Ripley apparently hosted an Alien for days on end while in other victims, this incubation period was considerably  shorter. Perhaps this was attributed to her infestation’s being a larval queen, but once more, no explanation was offered.

And how dare they kill off the gutsiest heroine in film history! They’ve earned the wrath of legions of loyal fans everywhere,. Ripley deserved much beter than to die an agonising death, and we don’t want to have to remember her this way. She is a survivor.

I have yet to meet anyone who liked this film, and I’ve already spoken with dozens of people. We are all thoroughly disgusted with it. Since the 20th Century Fox executives had a guranteed hit with another Alien movie, it seems they just didn’t bother with a good script or a capable director.

But the news is quickly getting around. Word of mouth is one of the most effective means of advertising a good film: conversely, it can send the box-office receipts plummeting on a bad flick such as this one. I nly hope word gets out fast enough.
B. F. Simon,
Address Withheld.

Issue 184 (November 1992)

Untitled

People were still not ready to move on: this issue’s front page header read ‘Why Readers Despised Alien 3’, which was, again, the main focus of the letters pages, and the letters themselves appeared under the rather exhausted tag ‘Still Alienated, Alas’.

…I have been a fan of Starlog since issue #1. Since Starlog covers my type of movie, I thought that this would be a good place to express an opinion. Since Alien, Ripley has been a survivor and a heroine. In Alien 3, they at least let her keep her heroine part of her persona. This is not true of Newt.

In Aliens, Newt is definitely a survivor, since she was able to stay alive for weeks against the bad guys. To just kill her off in the new movie makes it B quality. It reminded me of Friday the 13th movies where the heroine would survive the whole movie just to be killed off in the first few minutes of the next. I realise that the actress who played Newt, Carrie Henn, has probably grown up quite a bit, but this could have been dealt with by just placing the timeline up a few years. If Alien 3 had followed Alien, I could have accepted it as a fair sequel. Newt, in my opinion, made Aliens what it was – a fantastic movie with a great story.

Alien 3 is just one of those bad dreams Ripley had in hypersleep. Newt and Hicks are still alive and having a wonderful life. I think we all could have lived just fine without Alien 3.
Gregory Young,
Las Vegas.

Alien 3 is one of the worst pieces of trash I have ever seen. As a fan of the previous two Alien outings, I was downright offended by this insult to Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s visions and the blatant attempt on behalf of the film’s producers to capitalise on the success of the Alien series without any decent attempt to make a decent third chapter. There are so many things wrong with Alien 3 (what’s the deal with the raised 3 anyway? Is it supposed to be Alien Three or Alien Cubed?) that it could be shown in filmmaking 101 classes across the world as an example of how not to make a movie.

The screenplay is a garbled mess. However, this is no surprise, considering it went through 27 writers. I also didn’t like how Hicks and Newt were cheaply killed off at the film’s beginning. In Aliens, people grew to care about these two characters, and Ripley’s reaction to their deaths was dramatically unsatisfying. The rest of the movie’s plot is simply a weak repeat of the first movie. One by one, the characters are systematically stalked with surprisingly little suspense and only one extended action sequence.

Regarding music video director David Fincher, I have to question the intelligence in the decision to hire an unknown, first-time director to helm a $50 million-plus motion picture that is a sequel to two of the most popular films ever made. Fincher doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to direct a feature film. His use of low-angle shots, extreme close-ups, and cross-cutting may work fine in music videos, but these techniques lost their impact very fast on screen. In addition Fincher doesn’t seem to support the theory of starting scenes off with an establishing shot. I was very confused as to what was happening and where things were taking place. Fincher is also ignorant of another basic filmmaking technique: how to build suspense. I knew exactly when the Alien would strike and was never scared or surprised.

The music by Elliot Goldenthal is also no improvement over the scores by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. It is not only dull,  but at times completely innapropriate — namely in the scene where an attempted rape is made on Ripley and rock music is played in the background. Making a third sequel would be a mistake if it opted instead to repeat the formula of of the first two movies without adding anything new, as this one did.
Adam Kargan
Scottsdale, AZ.

Untitled

… Now let’s talk about Alien 3. I liked the story and the FX. The majority of the acting was solid especially Charles Dutton, who stole every scene he was in, including those with the mutant alien. I think that Charles Dance as the doc was killed off way too early. I mean, come on — we just find out about his character’s history, and one half-second later, the Alien breaks his arm, then yanks and rips the man’s head off his shoulders. Ripley discovered the Alien wouldn’t kill her because of her being impregnated, but why doesn’t the Alien kill the guy screaming his head off on the bed? And why didn’t Ripley figure out that the Alien was trying to protect the Queen inside her by offing the good doctor? Count the seconds from when the doctor injects Ripley with that ‘solution’ and how fast the Alien jumps down to the floor. Yes, no, maybe so?

[…]

While I liked the FX, I didn’t care for the endless P.O.V. shots. The old sneak-up gag has been a cliche, and as for the running Alien P.O.V. shots, I almost half-expected Bruce Campbell to come running out with a chainsaw for a hand from Evil Dead II.
Darren J. Seeley,
Address Withheld.

I’m a SF fan and I don’t mind a little dab of horror, but I’ve think I’ve ever seen so much unnecessary gore  in one film. And what the other Alien films left to the imagination, this one didn’t. The audience was even subjected to seeing the gory death of a dog! Was the autopsy scene with Newt really necessary? In a way, this movie is an imitation of the first one: one Alien against a bunch of people in a dark, desolate place. Of course, the prison was much bigger than the Nostromo, but it didn’t seem like it. The ending expressed the futility of the whole series. Everything Ripley tried to avoid happened anyway. She was impregnated thus signalling inevitable death and everybody died. This movie is a virtual opposite of Aliens. Where Aliens was hopeful, Alien 3 is just downright depressing.

I was very excited and open-minded about the film, thinking it would be a true sequel to Aliens, thanks to the false advertising (‘the bitch is back’). They should have had the courage to advertise the movie more for what it really was. The previews made it look a lot like Aliens. They even used the music from Aliens in the trailer. Michael Biehn, who played Hicks, was right when he said that they would never be able to top Aliens.
Eric Wemmer,
Miami, FL.

I would like to direct my comments towards the rotten Alien 3 story. From what I understand, there was a lot of money spent on this flop. My question is, where did it go?

Where James Cameron was meticulous in his sequel, matching every little detail, David Fincher’s effort doesn’t even bother. Anyone notice how different the hypersleep chambers were? They looked more like the original ones on the Nostromo. So, I guess we’re to believe that they just magically changed from Sulaco-type chambers to the Nostromo-type. Also, in Aliens, the lettering of Sulaco was in black. It was white in Alien 3. Who’s going to tell us that the Aliens Queen pulled out her magic paintbrush and repainted it? Fincher must think we’re stupid.

And what about the Alien 3 xenomorph? How did it get so stupid? These are very intelligent creatures. So intelligent that this one knew Ripley had a Queen inside her. But it wasn’t smart enough to trap the prisoners for hosts. Nor did it have sense enough to cocoon Ripley and wait for the queen to emerge. If it was one of Cameron’s Aliens, it would have waited and then attacked. Anyone remember that Ripley said, ‘They don’t kill you’?

They were worried that Alien 3 would be a tired rehash of the previous films, yet they didn’t mind copying dozens of other horror movies. If I wanted to see Jason or Freddy, then I’ll go see their movies. But when I go to an Alien movie, I expect to see something more creative than a monster running around killing anything that moves. I would have preferred a rehash to Aliens than to sit through that ‘slasher in space’ garbage.

To Sigourney Weaver: Your acting was terrific, but why did you accept this role? You had this ‘creative input’, but what did you do with it? Looks like you did (as Private Hudson would say) ‘zippo’. You could have at least relented to get a decent story that would have done justice to Ripley. I guess if you give a person $5.5 million, she’ll do anything, right?
Greg George,
Babson Park, FL.

 

48 Comments

Filed under Alien 3

Crew Logs: Ron Cobb

12596113_1046711018700467_164459340_n

Though Burbank, California, lies only a few miles from the epicentre of the Western film world, it seemed all too far away for the adolescent Ron Cobb. His parents had moved there from Los Angeles in 1940, when Cobb was three years old, in search of a better life promised by the area’s mid-30’s property boom – when the Cobbs relocated in 1940 the city’s population stood at 34,337; by 1950 it would rocket to 78,577. But a middle-class life in a burgeoning Burbank appeared to Cobb to be “bleak and unexciting.”

He saw worse ahead of him, remarking that, “The future held even less promise,” but fortunately he had an escape in his nascent imagination: “I began to notice out of the corner of my eye distant vistas of fantasy, of a world out there glimpsed through the wonderful window of television and E.C. comics. I daydreamed and nurtured my fantasies, and to make them more real I drew. At the same time I became introverted, a terrible student, and waited for something to happen.”

It was science fiction that provided inspiration and spurred Cobb’s enthusiasm for the wondrous. “When I was a little kid I would sit out in the back yard,” Cobb said in 2015, “and I swear I could see people signalling me from the moon. And I knew it was important somehow, but you know, you might say I had a science-fictional childhood, because I always thought about science as adventure, nothing more than adventure, and when it started to appear in movie pictures I was transfixed. I said, ‘I want to do that somehow.'”

Cobb found like-minded friends at Burbank High School with whom he formed C.D. Inc. (the C standing for Cobb, and the D for co-founder Tad Duke), a small club whose members held common interests in pranksterism, atheism and sci-fi — their first official club act was a trip to see War of the Worlds (1953). The group also busied themselves creatively by drawing and conceptualising a fictional history of fictional European country Donovania, along with its fictional prince, Chesley Donavan (apparently named after Cobb’s early influence Chesley Bonestell, whose 1949 speculative sci-fi book The Conquest of Space can be seen  in C.D.’s hangout.) Chesley Donavan retroactively became the namesake of the group, with C.D. reconfigured into the ‘Chesley Donovan Science Fantasy Foundation’, which was, according to Cobb, “a deliberately pompous and satirical name for a group of introverted and eccentric students.”

“Our mutual fascinations with science, astronomy, philosophy and theology kept us together until we were in our early twenties,” he explained. “Our involvement in C.D. drew each of us out of our introversions, while we nurtured and entertained each other.”

Ron Cobb, far right, in 1954.

Ron Cobb, far right, with C.D. in 1954. The group crafted their own uniforms and insignias.

After graduating from Burbank High School in 1955 Cobb, having been a poor student with an aptitude for art and imagination, sought work at Disney, who had opened their lot in Burbank in 1940 on the proceeds from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). “I had always been fascinated by Disney and deeply influenced by Fantasia. The studio was clearly advancing the art of film animation, in those days, and I was very excited about being a part of it.” After spending two years working as an in-betweener and breakdown artist (notably on Sleeping Beauty, released 1959) Cobb realised that many of the animation giants and geniuses that had attracted him to the field had “retired or died off” and, after being let go by Disney, he decided to seek out opportunities in live action film. “I just didn’t feel like waiting 30 years to become an animator,” he told Starlog magazine. But first was a series of odd jobs and a stint in the US Army and a brief posting in Vietnam.

“I was a prime target for the draft,” said Cobb. “I had to decide whether to evade it as most of my friends had done, or become a member of the military, one of the truly evil institutions of the state, according to the tenets of C.D. This became my great confrontation/escape. I allowed myself to be drafted. It confirmed that my basic anti-militarism was correct, but let me recognize some of my prejudices were unfounded. I gained confidence in the army, but I hadn’t reckoned on spending a year in Vietnam.”

It was during the turbulent Sixties and specifically within the American counterculture that Cobb first found himself attracting artistic acclaim. His political cartoons, at first rejected by Playboy but disseminated through the underground newspaper The Los Angeles Free Press, presented future visions of the ultimate law and order state, the destruction of the American landscape and dark lampoons of Cold War-era doctrines like M.A.D.

6719441994

One early fan was a USC film student from Missouri named Dan O’Bannon, who reached out to Cobb after appreciating his work in the underground presses. “[Dan] had been following them and had wanted to meet me,” explained Cobb. “We shared an enthusiasm for film, science fiction and filmmaking.” O’Bannon and Cobb’s lives would not intersect again for several years, and in the meantime the artist kept penning celebrated political cartoons that were widely redistributed.

Ron also dabbled in science-fiction and fantasy illustration, drawing covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine including images of Lon Chaney Jnr. and Bela Lugosi’s Frankenstein and Wolfman, two-headed golems, the hunchback of Notre Dame and bulb-headed alien beings. He also provided the cover art for San Franciscan rock band Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album After Bathing at Baxter’s, (Cobb’s involvement with musical endeavours continued throughout the following decades; he won an MTV music video award in 1986 for his art direction on ZZ Top’s Rough Boy.)

His political work continued to attract acclaim and was showcased in an issue of Cavalier magazine that called him ‘The Toughest Pen in the West’, though Cobb denied being a political cartoonist (“because politics is too superficial”) preferring instead to be called a ‘social commentator’. “But whatever he calls himself,” Cavalier read, “he’s the only artist we’ve seen recently who has the force of conviction, the draughtsmanship, the intelligence and the necessary harsh insight into these harsh times to be a cartoonist in the great tradition.”

Cobb profiled in an 1969 issue of Playboy.

But Cobb was becoming disillusioned. He began to notice clichés and recycled content in his peers, and then recognised it creeping into his own work. An artistic block came over him. “I couldn’t paint or draw or think straight. I couldn’t snap out of it. I couldn’t finish anything. I was taking amphetamines. It was really an awful time. And I didn’t know what it was.” Cobb would later reflect that, “I had truly become sloppy with the content of the cartoons while conversely, growing in my attraction to the film medium. It wasn’t an interest in animation that pulled me. My two years at Disney taught me that animation lacked spontaneity. It was the writing, and possible directing, of live action short films or maybe features that intrigued me now.”

A break came when he received a phone call from Robin Love of the Australian Aquarius Foundation, the ‘cultural wing of the 170,000 strong Australian Union of Students’ that primarily helped organise university festivals and counter-culture events. Cobb recounted that Robin had told him that his “cartoons [were] very well-known here” among the Australian counter-culture, and “would [he] be interested in coming to Australia?” Still in a slump in the States, his answer was enthusiastic: “I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come! I’ll come!'”

Cobb’s political cartooning however earned him the scorn of Australia’s Liberal government, who made attempts to ban him from visiting and touring universities, but thanks to Love and the AUS his Visa was not revoked and the tour commenced with protest singer Phil Ochs in tow (and occasionally supported by The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band). “I discovered a country on a human scale: unpretentious, hardy and social,” Cobb said of his tour. “I began to come out of a non-productive, post-sixties slump which had lasted two years. The exuberant and colourful political scene intrigued me, the air of anticipation of a change in government after over twenty years of conservatism was infectious.” He certainly was not missing the American counterculture. “It should be said,” he clarified in 2005, “I never identified that much with the counter-culture, the new left or ‘The Sixties’. I fully expected flower power to wilt and teach-ins to teach out. Some of what happened was partially effective like the women’s movement, but most of it was too faddish, emotional and self-indulgent (read, American) to really fit the complex mix of world events and thus, change things in all the intended directions.”

At the end of his stay in Australia, Ron and Robin moved in together, married, and moved to Los Angeles in ’73, living on Robin’s dime while Cobb sought involvement in the film industry. “I never expected Ron to make any money,” Love told the LA Times in 1988. “Ron could have been doing everything he wanted to do a lot sooner if he had hustled. But he is not an ambitious person.”

Ron’s first foot into film came way of old acquaintance Dan O’Bannon, who was toiling to assemble his student film Dark Star with director John Carpenter. “I met Dan some years back because of his interest in fantastic films, then didn’t see him again for a number of years,” said Cobb. “He contacted me next when he was in the middle of Dark Star, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in giving him some of my comments on it. When I got there, he had an exterior design for the spaceship, and I started suggesting things.”

“I tried to reach Cobb to get him to design the whole film, but he was unreachable,” said O’Bannon. “For weeks his phone rang without an answer, and then it was disconnected, and then I got his new unlisted number but it was invariably answered by one of the girls who were living with him, who always told me he was out. It was impossible. It took another year and a half to track him down and get him to agree to design us a nice, simple little spaceship for our simple little movie. Finally, one night about ten pm, Carpenter and I drove over to Westwood and roused him out of a sound sleep. He was hung over from an LSD trip and I felt kind of guilty, but I had to have those designs. We took him over to an all-night coffee shop and fed him and got him half-way awake, and then he brought out this pad of yellow graph paper on which he had sketched a 3-view plan of our spaceship. It was wonderful! A little surfboard-shaped starcruiser with a flat bottom for atmospheric landings. Very technological looking. Very high class stuff.”

cobbpic41

The brief collaboration was encouraging enough for O’Bannon that he kept Cobb vigorously in mind for future projects. When he was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to oversee the special effects for Dune, he recommended that Jodorowsky add Cobb to his artistic stable, which already included eminent artists like Chris Foss, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and HR Giger. “I tried to get Cobb on to Dune,” O’Bannon told Fantastic Films in 1979, “but it never worked out.”

“Transatlantic phone calls [to Cobb were] made,” O’Bannon said of the arrangements to get Cobb on board, “and a date is set for Cobb’s transfer to Paris. Cobb and his wife pack their bags, the date arrives, but no plane ticket.” While waiting to officially join the project, Cobb managed to submit designs for the film, but Jodorowsky apparently thought they were too Earth-bound, too realistic, “too NASA.” Still, efforts were being made to fly him out to. “A new date is set,” O’Bannon goes on, “it arrives, and passes. More phone calls. Altogether, Cobb and his wife were packed and ready to get on a plane for about three months. They had terminated the lease on their apartment. This was the position I had gotten Cobb and Robin into when Dune collapsed completely, like a pile of rotten sticks.”

For his part, O’Bannon felt incredible guilt for leaving Cobb in the lurch. When he too ended up back in LA, broke and despondent, he managed to bounce back with a position on George Lucas’ Star Wars and, while there, he put in a word about Cobb. Allegedly, Lucas, visiting his friend John Milius, saw one of Cobb’s paintings on the wall called ‘Man on Lizard Crossing Over‘, depicting a proto-dewback carrying a mysterious traveller over a desert landscape. “Lucas said that he had the idea [for the dewback design] before he saw the painting,” Cobb said in 2015, “and Milius said, ‘No you didn’t. I remember the night you came here and pointed at the wall.'” Cobb laughed, “But that’s Star Wars for you!”

Either way, the image must have tapped into Lucas’ own imaginative ideas for his space opera, and he agreed to a meeting with Cobb on O’Bannon’s recommendation. “It was Dan who was working on this crazy space opera that we had all heard about,” said Ron. “It was costing so much money and George [Lucas] was convinced it was going to be a flop because the budget had blown out so much.”

Ron's designs for Star Wars' Cantina aliens. “George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”

Some of Ron’s designs for Star Wars‘ Cantina aliens.

“George had been unhappy with what they had shot, which was mostly people with bits of foam stuck to their face as the aliens. So he called me in and I sat down across from him with these pages of designs where the aliens were more biological. He looked at each one and went, ‘Okay, okay, okay. These are good.’ When I left the meeting all the production staff were waiting at the door. They asked me what he said, I told them, and they were all flabbergasted. One of them said, ‘That’s the most excited he has been about anything!’”
~ Ron Cobb, ninemsn.com, 2014.

Dan rushed to Cobb again when his long-gestating screenplay for Alien was picked up by Brandywine Productions and then greenlit by Twentieth Century Fox. “The first person I hired on Alien,” said O’Bannon, “the first person to draw money, was Cobb. He started turning out renderings, large full-colour paintings, while Shusett and I were still struggling with the script – the corrosive blood of the Alien was Cobb’s idea. It was an intensely creative period – the economic desperation, the all-night sessions, the rushing over to Cobb’s apartment to see the latest painting-in-progress and give him the latest pages.”

“So basically, it’s all been Dan,” said Ron. “He went to work on Star Wars and Dune, and each time he tried to get me on those projects. But since I didn’t have a great deal of film experience, producers were quite reluctant to hire me—except for George Lucas, who’d been familiar with my cartoons … Then Dan finally sold his script, and Alien was underway. He suggested that they use me, and the same problem arose, but I was taken on sort of a trial basis for about seven months in California, before the entire production moved to London.”

“We were put through shed after shed after shed,” said Chris Foss, whom O’Bannon had hired for Alien after having previously met in Paris while working on Dune, “and they were going through director after director after director.” Cobb himself told Den of Geek that “I soon found myself hidden away at Fox Studios in an old rehearsal hall above an even older sound stage with Chris Foss and O’Bannon, trying to visualize Alien. For up to five months Chris and I (with Dan supervising) turned out a large amount of artwork, while the producers, Gordon Carroll, Walter Hill and David Giler, looked for a director.”

“And he was doing some incredible stuff,”O’Bannon continued. “Wow! I was really happy during this period, seeing the movie appear under Cobb’s fingers. Of course, we usually had to go over and sit on his back to get him to do any work -otherwise he would just party on with his friends- but how beautiful were the results.” Cobb accompanied O’Bannon to England when Alien’s production went into full swing, having been personally recommended to director Ridley Scott by O’Bannon. “O’Bannon introduced me to Ron Cobb,” Scott told Fantastic Films in 1979, “a brilliant visualiser of the genre, with whom he’d worked on Dark Star. Cobb seemed to have very realistic visions of both the far and near future, so I quickly decided that he would take a very important part in the making of the film.”

“I made the two-hour round trip [to the studio] with [Cobb] every day in a miniscule red Volkswagen Golf,” said O’Bannon. “I hate to drive, so the first time I got behind the wheel I took off for London at about 70 mph and made it back in record time, through the most horrendous commuter crush and with all the traffic going the wrong way as well. Toward the end there, Cobb actually screamed, and cried out something about how I was going too fast. The next morning when he picked me up in the Golf, he told me firmly that he would be doing all the driving from here on out, so that took care of that.”

Cobb with Giger at the King's Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb with Giger at the King’s Head Pub, Shepperton, England, 1978.

Cobb, along with Foss, was tasked with realising the human elements of the film, but he also took a crack at the Space Jockey, Alien, and the Alien temple from O’Bannon’s version of the screenplay. In Cobb’s conception of the Alien temple, a hieroglyph depicts, in a Mayan-esque fashion, an insect-like creature prone on its back as another being erupts -depicted in glorious fashion- from its midcentre. Above the new lifeform’s head is an image of an Alien egg, deified and ensconced within an aureola. The pyramid was ultimately cut due to budgetary and time constraints, and Giger was tasked with its design when the silo was incorporated with his derelict craft (which Ron also took a shot at). Ron’s concepts for the planetoid, which hewed close to O’Bannon’s Mars-esque description in his screenplay, were also ‘ignored’ by the production when the planetoid was given a grey colour scheme (Dennis Lowe’s early effects work for the planet depicted it as a turbulent orange and red swirl, akin to the surface of Jupiter.)

Though O’Bannon loved Cobb’s other designs for the Alien and derelict ship, they were lacking what only Giger was able to provide: a tangible nightmarish quality. Cobb’s Alien was rejected in favour of Giger’s almost from the get-go. “I’m afraid Ron Cobb’s ego was sorely wounded when he didn’t get to do the monster,” O’Bannon told Cinefex in ’79. “He was endlessly frustrated because he could design aliens without number and they were all convincing and all unique and all startling to look at … His designs just weren’t as bizarre, or as bubbling up from the subconscious as the stuff Giger was doing. Cobb’s monsters all looked like they could come out of a zoo—Giger’s looked like something out of a bad dream.”

But Dan did love his concept for the Space Jockey, which he described as “Just perfect! Very small jawbone – no teeth to speak of. Of course, I expected it to look horrible when you first see it in the film; but if you looked at it a bit closer you’d discover that it didn’t have the large teeth or mandibles or any of the other things that are characteristic of a carnivore – and then maybe you’d begin to imagine it as some totally nonviolent herbivorous creature sailing around in space.”

Ridley however was enamoured with Giger’s Space Jockey, and elected that the other conceptual artists focus on other areas of the film, namely the Nostromo, which had to have all the appearance of a functional and plausible 22nd century ship, but also had to convey the idea of being a haunted house, or castle; its comm towers and satellites would have to evoke a conglomeration of cathedral spires and other Gothic shapes. “I wanted the ship to look like a gothic castle,” Cobb explained, “but resisted that approach—it might have been a bit too much … I grew up with a deep fascination for astronomy, astrophysics, and most of all, aerospace flight. My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer (as well as a frustrated writer when it came to cinema design). I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function.”

Cobb, who was later quoted in the Book of Alien explaining that he preferred to “design a spaceship as though it was absolutely real, right down to the fuel tolerances, the centers of gravity, the way the engines function, radiation shielding, whatever,” found himself struggling to maintain a balance between his aesthetic preferences and Ridley’s more fantastical ideas. “They pressured us a lot to bend the technology to have a somewhat similar look to Star Wars,” said Cobb. “Sort of half-believable, but rather highly stylized—or perhaps a better word would be romanticized. The interior of the ship finally looked like a deco dance hall, or a World War II bomber, and a genuine projection of what a space ship of the future might really look like—or a combination of all of them. The theory was to give Alien more of a horror look, but I never personally agreed with that, and I didn’t have as much influence as I’d like to have had.”

Cobb’s strident rationalism impeded his attempts at the alien technology. “The only problem was that he was a rationalist,” O’Bannon explained. “I noticed this when we first started designing the picture. All these different things he as doing were coming out so well that I decided to have him take a crack at the derelict spaceship. But when I asked him to come up with an irrational shape he got very disturbed. He couldn’t handle that. He kept coming up with convincing technology for a flying saucer or some other kind of UFO.” 

For his part, Ridley also found that his flashes of artistic license caused consternation with Cobb’s more realistic design philosophy. For one, Cobb insisted that every detail on the ship be accounted for: how doors opened, where the screws went and how the pistons pumped, etc. Scott however tended to find himself fighting to retain ‘illogical’ images like the ‘rain’ during Brett’s death in the Nostromo’s leg room, reconciling it to dissenting voices as condensation from within the ship. He found similar resistances when it came to getting across his ideas of the Nostromo’s outer shell. “The concept was to have the hull covered with space barnacles or something,” said Scott. “I was unable to communicate that idea, and I finally had to go down there and fiddle with the experts. We gradually arrived at a solution.” It seemed that removing any ‘space barnacles’ was a concession Scott made to the artists. “I would have liked to see it covered with space barnacles or space seaweed,” he told Fantastic Films, “All clogged and choked up, but that was illogical as well.”

Cobb meanwhile figured that the resistance to exploring the stark reality of space travel came from disinterest or inexperience on the part of the production. “There’s a certain awkwardness in the naturalistic portrayal of the space flight,” he said, “Partly because most of the people involved in this film had never made one before. They didn’t understand what they were getting into, and were put off by concepts like no sound in space, and all the gravitational effects.”

“When I met Ron, he was very adamant that they were very realistic. He wanted a heat shield on the underside of the Nostromo lander. He wanted a contrast between the smooth underside of the heat shield and the detailed upper surface. However this was not to be. Our instruction was to encrust the whole craft. When it came down, we weren’t seeing a craft come through an atmosphere; there was no re-entry. Ron was concerned that it should be there if that type of action was present. Ron is very much into the believability of things. He created wonderful background histories about his designs.”
~ Bill Pearson, Sci-Fi & Fantasy FX magazine, Aliens Collector’s Issue (#48)

“I’ve always done future designs as though they’re real,” Cobb said, “and I’ve found the more realism you put into it, the more original they look, and most of the time you don’t do that you’re just recycling a lot of silly props from every idiotic movie that’s ever been made. We just covered the walls with drawings and, slowly but surely, Alien emerged.” The amalgamation of all these various aesthetics allowed for Alien to present a very believable environment with little bearing on issues like faster than light travel or time dilation: instead, the Company’s armada of commercial ships flit from one side of the galaxy to another in short spans (the film tells us the return journey to Earth from the planetoid would take “Ten months”) and the crew do little to expositise on the ship’s technology.

In the end, the Nostromo’s design was not coalesced from various concepts by its artists, but by frustrated technicians tired of waiting for something to build. Cobb explained that “Brian Johnson, the special effects supervisor under pressure to build the large Nostromo model, went into the deserted art department and, out of frustration, grabbed all the Chris Foss designs off the wall and took them to Bray Studios. There he would choose the design himself in order to have enough time to build the damn thing … Well I soon found out that Brian found and took all of my exterior design sketches as well. About a month later I was told that Brian had used my sketch, ‘Nostromo A’, as the basis for the model, even to the extent that it was painted yellow. Ridley found the colour a bit garish and had it repainted grey.”

Some of Cobb’s interiors were replicated from the page directly onto the screen, so his sketches for a passage on the Nostromo’s A deck–
cobbpic82

–was rendered faithfully as below:

cobbpic83

Cobb’s creative contributions extended beyond the look of the film: he also inspired O’Bannon to give the Alien acidic blood, coined ‘Weylan-Yutani’, and crafted with costume designer John Mollo all manner of fictional corporate insignias and emblems intended to give the film additional depth, even though the majority of their work would not be seen or even referenced on screen.

“One of the things I enjoyed most about Alien was its subtle satirical content,” explained Cobb. “Science Fiction films offer golden opportunities to throw in little scraps of information that suggest enormous changes in the world. There’s a certain potency in those kinds of remarks. Weylan-Yutani for instance is almost a joke, but not quite. I wanted to imply that poor old England is back on its feet and has united with the Japanese, who have taken over the building of spaceships the same way they have now with cars and supertankers. In coming up with a strange company name I thought of British Leyland and Toyota, but we obviously couldn’t use Leyland-Toyota in the film. Changing one letter gave me Weylan, and Yutani was a Japanese neighbor of mine.” The Company would be called Weyland-Yutani in the following movies, with the ‘d’ added sometime during Aliens’ production by Cobb for an unspecified reason – perhaps it was an error, or he was no longer shy about the ‘Weyland/Leyland’ allusion.

For the Company’s logo Ron figured that “It would be fun to develop a logo using the W and Y interlocking. We tried a lot of variations and came up with some very industrial looking symbols, which were to be stenciled all over the ship. By that time though Ridley was already set on using the Egyptian wing motif. We tried some combinations, but they didn’t really work. Weylan-Yutani now only appears on the beer can, underwear and some stationary, so the joke sort of got lost.” Though it’s not obvious at a glance, Cobb’s Egyptian motif logo appears on virtually every piece of equipment on the Nostromo, including dinner bowls and coffee cups. The crew wear blue Weylan-Yutani wing emblems on their chests, except for Kane, who wears a silver patch, and Dallas, whose gold patch is possibly coloured to denote his captaincy.

Cobb and Mollo also conceived a pseudo-historical backdrop over which Alien takes place, creating space corporations like Farside Lunar Mining and Red Star Lines that went virtually unseen and absolutely unmentioned in the film, but which, for its creators, helped flesh out the unseen universe permeating the movie frame. Cobb also designed a flag for the United Americas -the union of South, Central and North America which took place in 2104, at least in the Alien universe- which is essentially the stars and stripes with one unitary star rather than fifty.

G44KhbF

“I think Dan will be pleased. You know, for a while they strayed pretty far from his original concept, but eventually they found their way back into the primary science-fiction/horror framework. By the time the principal photography was finished, everybody was looking forward to seeing how all the pieces fit together. At the very least, Dan won’t have to sleep on anyone’s sofa for a while—I hope.”
~ Ron Cobb, MediaScene, 1979.

“On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the way my ideas were eventually realized,” Cobb told MediaScene on the film’s release. “It was fascinating to watch the process all the way through, even some of the set dressings. I was pleased with things I had a fair amount of control over, but those I didn’t oversee were a little disappointing … Then there was always surprising contributions from draftsmen and other people who would occasionally design a set that would turn out very, very well. It was a mixed bag of many styles and many approaches.”

Alien’s success unlocked doors that had been frustratingly barred to Cobb for more than a decade and the eighties saw a boon for him: he designed Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian age in John Milius’ film of the same name as well as Conan’s weaponry and armour. He was a production artist on Raiders of the Lost Ark, contributing concepts for the Nazi airplanes, designed the interior of the Mothership in the Close Encounters special edition, and he created the initial concepts for the time-travelling DeLorean in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

Cobb in costume for his cameo appearance in Conan the Barbarian.

While working on Conan the Barbarian in Spain Cobb would visit Steven Spielberg, who was down the hall working on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I first met Spielberg when I was working on Alien,”  Cobb told bttf.com. “At one point Spielberg was considered as a possible director for the original Alien. It was just a brief thing, he could never work out his schedule to do it, but he was interested.” With Spielberg Cobb would find himself able to express his directorial ambitions. “I would suggest angles, ideas,” he said, “Verbalize the act of directing — ‘Let’s do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow.’ Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered.” One day, Spielberg told him, “I think you can direct. I want to back a film for you.”

The film, a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind built around a nebulous idea that Spielberg had about the Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO Incident, was quickly nixed when the family at the centre of the event threatened to sue. The desire to make the film remained, but it was in need of a new story and characters around which to frame the tale of a terrifying alien visitation. Cobb then pitched a concept to Spielberg and John Sayles wrote the script, titled Night Skies. However, Spielberg hired screenwriter Melissa Mathison (soon to be Harrison Ford’s wife of nineteen years) to rework the story with a new title: E.T.

“I realized that Steven had changed the script a lot,” said Cobb. “He went back to a story he had told me about years before: An alien is abandoned and protected by a little boy. It wasn’t scary anymore. It was kind of sweet. Finally, [Spielberg producer] Kathleen Kennedy called to say, ‘Steven doesn’t know how to tell you this, but E.T. is very close to his heart, and he wants to make that his picture next year, and he’s decided to direct it himself. So what we would like to do when you get back is work out another picture for you. Because Steven really wants to back your career.'”

In truth, Cobb was relieved: the new script was far too different from his pitch, far more “cutesy”, and the final film itself too saccharine for his tastes. Spielberg did allow him a cameo in the movie as one of E.T.’s doctors (“I got to carry the little tyke out”) as well as a generous take of the resulting profits. The first cheque to drop through the door amounted to $400,000. “Ron spent all those years doing cartoons and not getting paid,” Robin Love told the LA Times, “and then he gets a million for not doing anything. Friends from Australia always ask, ‘What did you do on ‘E.T.‘?’ And Ron says, ‘I didn’t direct it.'”

In 1985 James Cameron enlisted Cobb to design Hadley’s Hope, the Atmosphere Processor, and some of the Colonial Marine gadgetry for Aliens. Though many Alien stalwarts returned for the sequel (including Brian Johnson, Adrian Biddle, and stuntmen like Eddie Powell among others), Cobb was the sole conceptual artist to provide continuity with the first film.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens.

Collating with James Cameron for the dropship in Aliens. Courtesy of Harry Harris.

“Jim always had a strong vision with all his scripts and features,” said Cobb. “However, he was always open to good ideas from just about anyone (but they had to be damn good ideas). If I could submit an idea or design that collaboratively enhanced his vision (something I always endeavored to do on any film project) Cameron was quite receptive.”

Cobb found working with Cameron fruitful and straightforward enough (“his talent spanned smoothly from science to art, a mix I have always aspired to,” he told JamesCameronOnline) that he also drew concepts for The Abyss (1988) and True Lies (1994). He continued to design for film throughout the nineties and the new millenium, with Total Recall, The Rocketeer, Schwarzenegger’s late nineties effort The 6th Day, the animated Titan A.E., Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 being added to his already impressive oeuvre.

Ron Cobb’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy films from the 70’s onwards has been profound, though he remains relatively obscure in comparison to celebrated figures like Ralph McQuarrie or Stan Winston, and even his early cartooning career remains an often unknown element to fans of his film work — probably due to the immense success of his reinvention from an underground social commentator to a visualiser of some of the most evocative and memorable science-fiction environments, creatures and contraptions of the last four decades.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.

Ron Cobb at the Offis eClub Xmas Party, December 2015.

6 Comments

Filed under Alien