Of his directorial debut, acclaimed director David Fincher summarised to The Digital Bits: “[Alien 3] was flawed from its inception and it was certainly flawed -actually, pretty fucked up- well before we started shooting. So there you go.” The following article is from an 1992 issue of Premiere magazine (vol 5, no 9, May 1992) and is interspersed with Fincher’s reminiscences from other interviews over the years following the film’s release.
David Fincher, a 27-year-old first time director, was determined to fulfil his creative vision on Alien 3 despite intense efforts to hold him back.
“Push some smoke up,” says David Fincher, “Push it up!” “Stand by!” says the first assistant director through a megaphone. The crew train hoses and funnels on a silvery monster that looks like the offspring of a giant praying mantis and the Antichrist. It takes a few minutes for the crew to get the steam and smoke up to full inferno. “Here we go! More fog!” cries Fincher.
The camera dollies in. The camera operator, lying on his belly, ducks under a flat pipe and curves around to shoot the alien through a scrim of chain link. The Alien whips its head from side to side and starts to howl. In the movie, this moment will come a few minutes before the climax, when the indomitable Lt. Ellen Ripley and a team of religious-fanatic convicts dump a vat of molten lead on its head.
Yesterday they shot the scene ten times, using black paint for lead – 10,000 gallons of it over and over on the head of some poor guy in a rubber suit. “Cut!” says Fincher, drawing a finger across his throat. The crew immediately starts to wet down the set for another shot.
It’s December 1991, and they are shooting Alien 3 on a soundstage on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. Principle photography began almost a year ago in London, but when shooting went 23 days over schedule and untold millions over budget, Fox pulled the plug and ordered the filmmakers home. Originally scheduled to debut in the summer of 1991, then put off till Christmas, the movie is now aimed at Memorial Day 1992.
“[Alien] just seemed so real to me. I was aware of being told things about people and story through the art direction rather than exposition. I always thought Ridley was brilliant and I never appreciated how brilliant he was until I tried to make this movie. Actually he came down to the set once when we were setting fire to something. In he walked with his silk suit and one of his big Cuban cigars, looking fabulous. Ridley asked how it was going and I said, ‘Really bad.’ And he said, ‘It never goes well … this is not the way to make movies, make sure you make a little film where you have some control whilst they’re beating you up.”
~ David Fincher, The Independent, 1992.
For months Hollywood has been rife with Alien 3 rumours: that it’s a disaster, that it cost upwards of $60 million, that preview screenings were horrible, that Fox chairman Joe Roth hated it, that it really needed 6 weeks of reshoots and another $15 million and then maybe it would work. There is another side too – that it’s visually brilliant, daring, a work of art from an extraordinary young director.
If nothing else, the movie is certainly extraordinary for the choice of its director. David Fincher is probably the only 27-year-old first-time filmmaker ever hired to direct a $50 million movie (Fox’s official number, give or take a few million.) Add to that the first director was let go while sets were being built, that the line producer was fired just before the start date, that the script wasn’t finished until two weeks into shooting, and you have a young man with his hands extremely full. As one of his friends puts it, “He was right out of Naval Academy School, and he got put at the helm of the Titanic”.
Today is the seventh day of reshoots –“Not reshoots,” Fincher corrects, a bit sharply, “stuff we didn’t get before”– and they have been working on this one five-second shot since 7:30AM. It’s now 4:30 in the afternoon, and they are two hours behind. Fincher is dressed in jeans and sneakers, with a grey baseball cap and a trim beard. He is calm, ironic, and exceptionally self-possessed, with some sly humour of Bill Murray. When a crew member makes an adjustment and tells Fincher he thinks it’s good enough. Fincher calmly demurs: “This movie isn’t made for people who see a movie one time, it’s a movie for people who’re going to see it five times.”
Fox executive Michael London whispers, “That’s where a lot of the friction comes. David wants it to be perfect every second.” He quickly adds, “Which is what he’s paid to do.” It comes out only a tiny bit grudging.
Now Fincher is trying to fix a new problem – the Alien is shaking its head so much that the steam doesn’t seem to be coming off its body. “You know what it is,” he says, “As long as it’s straight up and down, it’s all right, but when he picks up that left knee….” And he wants to make a lighting change. When someone asks what the change is, London shrugs: “I’m sure it’s infinitesimal.” We seem to be heading straight to the door marked CREATIVE DIFFERENCES.
It takes another hour before they’re ready to shoot again. “Bring up the steam,” says the AD through his megaphone, “here we go. Everybody man their stations. On your marks.” They shoot it. “Let’s do it again, right away,” says Fincher. “Steam up,” says the AD. “Get the lead on … and … ACTION!” “Cut.”
Fincher orders more changes and dashes over to the editing room. As he walks, he talks about how tough the shoot has been and how he’s fighting to keep the film bleak. Although he’s often described as arrogant, he seems merely direct. But he occasionally drops a remark that would make a studio executive with millions of dollars on the line a tad nervous: “I’m not making this movie for 50 million people,” he says, “I’m making it for 8 people, my friends, people who know the cameras and lighting.” That works out to a budget of just over $6 million per friend.
“Oh it was just hellish. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It would be stupid for me to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It has taken me five years to decide on a first film and I always held out for something like this. The lesson to be learned is that you can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. Because when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood over the money, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing movie of all time, sit down, shut up and feel lucky that you’ve got him.’ It’s another thing when you are there and you’re going, ‘Trust me, this is really what I believe in,’ and they turn round and say, ‘Well, who the hell is this guy?’
There are people, who shall remain nameless, that I was bumping into as I was trying to put [Alien 3] together who put the whole experience into a really interesting perspective. They would say, “Look, you could have somebody piss against the wall for two hours and call it Alien 3 and it would still do 30 million dollars worth of business.” That’s the impetus to make these movies, you can’t keep the people away.”
~ David Fincher, The Independent, 1992.
Back on the set, Fincher has another go at the scene. “This shot is about five times more complicated than when we started out,” London says. The studio was expecting just 2 simple shots of the writhing Alien, but Fincher has added dripping water, foreground pipes, and extra steam. Fox executive vice president Tom Jacobson and senior vice president Jon Landau have joined London and all three executives are looking over Fincher’s shoulder. “Action, action, action!” cries the AD. The steam guys blast the Alien with thunderclap bursts of smoke. “Let’s go again while we’ve got steam!” the AD calls. “Save the steam,” Fincher says calmly. “Play it back for me.” He watches the playback intently. Finally he nods, satisfied. It’s 6:30, eleven hours after first call. He’s got his five seconds of film, his way, and it looks great.
Fincher: So what do you want to know about my movie?
Q: How you got involved, the production process, what happened in London. All that staff.
Fincher: Well, it’s weird, because when I got involved, it was, we have a movie to make. How do we solve these problems? How do we get this movie made? I’d love to just take the 50 million bucks and just fuckin’ start over again.
Q: That’s worth talking about. Maybe we can save some young director …
Fincher: What would you say? There’s no way a first-time director can make a $50 million movie in this town with the fuckin’ recession on the eve of the millennium, you know, with the panic that exists in this business right now. There’s no way. You can’t do it, because in the end, if you can’t say, “I made Jaws, trust me,” why should they trust you? One time, [producer] David Giler, incredibly aggressive and pissed off on a conference call with Fox, said, “Why are you listening to him for, he’s a shoe salesman!”
Q: Meaning your Nike commercial.
Fincher: Exactly. And it’s perfectly valid. What do I know? I’m a shoe salesman.
The son of a Life magazine reporter, Fincher produced a local TV news show while still in high school. As a nineteen-year-old Industrial Light & Magic employee, he shot some of Return of the Jedi. He was a founding member of the ultrahip Propaganda video house, which four years later was bringing in a $50 million annual gross. And he had moxie to spare – he tells of meeting Sid Ganis when Ganis was the president of Paramount and pitching him a complicated idea. “He said to me, ‘Fincher, nobody is going to give you $40 million for a first picture.’ And I said, ‘Sid, I know that. What would I do with a 40-minute movie?’”
Hill & Giler had discovered Ridley Scott and James Cameron when they were virtual unknowns, so they were well disposed to hiring beginners. They asked Pruss, who had worked on a screenplay for Fincher, for a reference. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know him,’” Pruss recalls. “He wouldn’t direct the movie in a million fucking years.”
Fincher, it turned out, considers the first Alien one of “the ten perfect movies of all time.” Pruss tried to tell Fincher he was making a mistake. “I said, ‘David, you’re fucking nuts. Why are you doing this? Why don’t you direct your own movie?’ ” he recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t know, there’s just something about it. It could be cool. Don’t you think it could be cool?’
Q: So you’ve been depressed?
Fincher: I don’t know. It’s just … I don’t get any sleep any more. At a certain point, I just start waking up. Wake up at two, three, four on the hour.
Q: Thinking of things you could have done differently?
Fincher: Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that, how do I fucking leave the country without you knowing.
Q: I can’t imagine what it’s like, having spent a year of your life-
Fincher: Two years, my friend, two years.
With Fincher signed, Fox hired Larry Ferguson to do a four-week emergency rewrite on the script. The plot Fincher came up with on his own, prior to the hiring of Ferguson, left the suits aghast. “They said, ‘My God, this is four fucking hours, it’s $150 million.’ And they were absolutely right.” He laughs. “I was just so taken with the legacy that it had to be Apocalypse Now.”
Fincher: In the draft Larry was writing, she was going to be this women who had fallen from the stars. In the end she dies, and there are seven monks left – seven dwarfs.
Q: You’re kidding.
Fincher: Seriously. I swear to God. She was like … what’s her name in Peter Pan? She was like Wendy. And she would make up all these stories. And in the end, there were these seven dwarfs left, and there was this fucking tube they put her in, and they were waiting for Prince Charming to come wake her up. So that was one of the endings we had for this movie. You can imagine what Joe Roth said when he heard this. “What?! What are they doing over there?! What the fuck is going on?!”
When Ferguson turned in his draft, the movie almost fell apart. Fox coughed up $600,000 or so for Hill & Giler to do an emergency rewrite. The producers scraped Ward’s wooden planet and moved the action back to Twohy’s prison setting. Since both Fincher and Weaver were taken with the religious element of Ward’s story, they made the prisoners what Giler terms as “your basic militant Christian fundamentalist millenarian apocalyptic” types. In just three weeks they had a first draft. The studio liked it, Weaver liked it. But alas, Fincher had a few reservations.
The start date was pushed back to January 14 1991, and for the next 2 months, Hill, Giler, Fincher and the studio fought over the script, budget, the sets – even as more sets were being constructed. Hill calls the period “brutal, a real battle royale.”
In a tense meeting between Fincher, Michael London, Tom Jacobson and line producer, Ezra Swerdlow, Fox cut the shooting schedule down from 93 days to just 70. Fincher would only get 25 SFX shots (less than half what Aliens had.) The filmmakers ended up working eighteen-hour days and six-day weeks, just to try and met the stop date. At one point, when an explosion effect backfired, five crewmembers got burned, one badly enough to go to hospital.
“Every day we’d shoot all day and, at midnight, David would have to get on the phone and defend shooting the next day’s work. You shouldn’t hire someone like Fincher unless you’re going to let them go. So I think it was very difficult for him. Really, it was difficult for everybody. I think the film is really good, though, what he did. It was a very specific vision that Fox wanted him to do. It was not his take on it, which I think made it more complicated for him. It made a difficult film that much more difficult. I thought Fincher was amazing.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, ShockTilYouDrop interview, 2010.
Once more last minute fight cost Fincher the goodwill of his producer-writers. Over the Christmas holidays, Hill & Giler were going to take a ten-day vacation, and a writer named Rex Pickett was hired for one more bit of rewriting. Fincher took Pickett out to dinner and told him all the problems he was having with the script. “I said, ‘Am I crazy? Am I totally insane?’ ” Fincher recalls. “And he said ‘No, this makes sense. Maybe you’re just not communicating it well.’”
It all blew up when Pickett wrote a memo savaging Hill & Giler’s script. Giler read the memo and exploded. “I was pissed, absolutely furious,” says Giler. Hill said the thrust of the memo was “that we were fools not to recognise the merit of the ideas the director had.” Although Pickett’s rewrite was thrown out [he wouldn’t comment], the irate producers left London and never came back. Says Hill, “they hired another writer behind our backs, they were being in our opinion very unrealistic about certain economic realities, and our conception of what a producer is had already been nullified. If they weren’t going to do anything we were telling them to do then what was the point in being there?” The blow-up rocked the London set. “It was electrifying news,” says one of the crew. “It basically stopped the production.” Then shooting began, and things got worse.
Q: I heard Landau and you were at each other’s throats.
Fincher: We have had amazing, amazing bouts, with screaming and spitting, cat-scratching, the whole thing. It’s his job to control costs and my job to get the shots. It was a bloodbath – a constructive bloodbath.
Q: So did he pound you?
Fincher: It’s all a random and bloody blur. Ask Muhammad Ali, “How much do you remember?” I can’t really form the words because I’m so brain-damaged.
Q: So did he actually try and call “cut”?
Fincher: No, he tried to fucking wrap before we’d shoot stuff.
Q: Like at the end of the day, call “Wrap”?
Fincher: Yeah, like, “Okay, it’s 6pm and we need to get out of here.”
Q: So what would you say?
Fincher: “There’s no point in trying to force it before it’s done. It’s a guy in a rubber suit. If it looks like a guy in a rubber suit, we’re fucked.”
Q: And you’d say it in that calm tone of voice?
Fincher: Absolutely. Constantly. That’s one of my most irritating qualities.
On the first day of shooting, Weaver was lying naked on a table, covered only by a sheet. She was wearing a contact lens to make her eye look bloody, leaving her almost blind. Fincher called over the production’s bug wrangler, who was carrying a cup full of … lice. “David said, ‘just sprinkle a few bugs on her forehead,’” says Weaver. “And my eyes are open and I’m talking, and all these bugs drop down on my face. They went into my ears and my eyes, and I –who pride myself on having worked with gorillas and everything and being a good trooper– I went nuts. You realise what it’s like to be naked and blind and have bugs thrown in your face? It was the worst beginning with a director I could imagine.”
But the lice turned out to be cute baby crickets, and from there things went relatively smoothly. As the script had not be finished, they began with the dialogue sequences, saving the action scenes for later. Fincher won Weaver back completely a few weeks later when they shot the autopsy scene. “To me it’s the most emotionally charged scene because you are doing something absolutely despicable to the person that you love more than anybody in the world, and I was terrified because that scene was so important to me,” says Weaver. “If David had been insensitive, it would have been a nightmare. But he was great, incredibly sweet and supportive. You do find out what people are like when you shoot. He’s not only brilliant but also a very good guy.”
Line producer Swerdlow, was also impressed with Fincher. “A lot of directors just tell you what they want the end product to look like, but not how to get there,” he says, adding that “David is a world-class visual-effects expert and seems to understand lighting very scientifically.”
Fincher was particularly happy to be working with Jordan Cronenweth, the cinematographer of Blade Runner and one of his all time heroes. “When Cronenweth works, it’s like he’s playing 3-D chess and the rest of us are playing Chinese checkers,” says Fincher. “The tonal range is amazing. It’s like Ansel Adams.” But Cronenweth worked slowly (in part because of the language barrier, according to Fincher) and Fox began pressurising Fincher to let him go. “I think they felt the two of us were in cahoots,” says Fincher. Finally, after yet another transatlantic phone call, Fincher reluctantly fired his hero.
With a new cinematographer, things picked up. They even had some fun – Weaver says that as far as laughs on the set go, this was her favourite Alien. But when they started to shoot the big action scenes late in February, things started slowing down again. The pace was brutal – days typically started at 7AM and continued until 1AM the following day. Fincher was supervising four units and spending his nights and Sundays working on script changes. “Thank God he’s young,” says Weaver.
By this time, Swerdlow was becoming convinced that the original proposed 93 day shoot was correct. “Fox wasn’t thrilled to hear it,” he says. The exchange rate had shifted against the dollar, and shooting in London was getting more expensive by the day. Often, Swerdlow and Fincher would get on the phone together to argue with the home office.
But the biggest and longest running fight was over the ending. Hill & Giler (who continued to consult long-distance on the movie after Fox threw in another hundred grand or so) wanted a clear-cut, good guys/bad guys ending. The argument reached a climax in early February during the “shoe salesman” conference call. Hill and Giler left Birnbaum’s office with Fox on their side – or so they thought. But the next day, Giler says, “we had a kind of extraordinary meeting, where Roger basically said, ‘You guys are sophisticated writers, you’ve conned us to your point of view with the force of you ideas and logic, but basically we want to go with Fincher’s idea.’”
Birnbaum says he doesn’t remember the incident quite that way, “David [Giler] and Walter [Hill] wanted the scene to go one way, and they made all the sense in the world. But when Fincher came up with his point of view, it made sense to us too. So I said, ‘If both arguments hold water, I’m going to go with the guy who’s shooting.’” That was the last straw for Hill & Giler, who then severed all contact with the production.
“What was ironic was that Fox chose David Fincher, who was so talented, and from the second he got the job they undermined him by not giving him what he was asking for. For me it was a real education in how not to make a movie.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Total Film, 2006.
“I mean again there were about six months on that movie where things were really exciting and we were going to do all of this different stuff and then the studio took over and that is sort of where things took a nose dive. It was like things were mandated, like blueprints for sets were cut in half and they just said, ‘this is the half of the set you get.’ It all comes down to the script. That’s the thing you fight over the hardest and the longest and fight for first … I mean we had a lot of really great stuff. Jake Scott [the son of Ridley Scott] did some amazing designs for a bunch of stuff that I brought to London and flipped everybody out with. They were like, ‘This guy’s bringing in his own set design.’ But there was a lot of really interesting stuff and we just never got to explore it, because we were chasing a start date.”
~ David Fincher, AICN Interview, 2007
As shooting continued into May, Fincher passed the targeted stop date. When production went about 10 days over, Jon Landau showed up and took over from Swerdlow. “I wasn’t totally unhappy with it, because the stakes were getting very high,” says Swerdlow. But Weaver was incensed. “Jon came over with instructions to cut this, slash that, and there was an inference that David was this enfant terrible going mad. It was very contemptuous of the effort we were putting in to come in and say this isn’t necessary and that’s not necessary,” Weaver says.
By now they were shooting the climatic scenes – the same scenes they would partly reshoot a year later. The work was enormously complicated. “You’re talking about a creature that is ten effects guys, and the fucking steam effects is, like, twenty guys,” says Fincher, “and to just turn the steam on took ten minutes, and we’ve got five or six cameras rolling, and you rehearse the whole thing, and a Louma crane is up on a fucking 25-foot platform, and it got to go through these chains, and the chains have to be in the right place. That kind of choreography takes time.”
And Fincher was meticulous about getting the effects he wanted. “Jon couldn’t push David as a director,” says Swerdlow. “He could push crews, but the shot itself had to be the shot David wanted. If something was wrong in the art direction or the mechanical effects, Fincher would wait, and that was something you couldn’t push him on. You just couldn’t.” After watching for two weeks, with the film still unfinished, Landau pulled the Alien 3 plug. The sets were put in storage and the filmmakers ordered home. Weaver tried to use her clout and called Joe Roth directly, but it was too late. “In the end,” she says, “it came to a showdown between the director’s vision and a dwindling amount of cold, hard cash.”
Roth says he couldn’t be sure that Fincher wasn’t wasting film on unnecessary effects. “Its really hard to tell on Science Fiction,” he says. “Fincher had shot a long time before he came back, and I felt it was important to see the movie at that point and reconstruct what needed to be finished.” Besides, Birnbaum adds, Fincher’s background was in commercials, and commercial directors tend to shoot and shoot. Fox had already spent upwards of $40 million. “The artists want to make a piece of art, and I have to take every piece of art and put a price tag on it,” he says. Ironically, Fincher had shot 93 days – just as was originally predicted.
Q: What did you do when they pulled the plug?
Fincher: As upset as I was, I was so exhausted, I was glad to get back on the plane. We were told they were going to hold the sets until Joe Roth could take a look at the picture, but they decided it was more cost effective to cut the film and see exactly what was needed – what’s laughingly known as the surgical strike. So we assembled it –and it was like two hours and seventeen minutes– and we showed it to them. It was quite a sobering experience.
Q: I saw a list of your reshoots that was seven pages long.
Fincher: No, no. You must have seen the wish list …
Q: So to this day there’s still a dispute over how to handle the ending?
Fincher: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. In my most depressed moments, people say, “You know, they didn’t know how they wanted to end Casablanca.” Hopefully this is Casablanca.
A few weeks after returning to LA, Fincher showed his rough assemblage to Hill & Giler, who came back to the project in post-production. “Everybody could see there were problems,” says Hill. Roth says his notes were basis first-screening notes – “too long, could be better paced, needs to be more like a traditional horror film.”
For the next year, Fincher laboured in the editing room. He made about $250,000 for Alien 3, not much more than a DGA minimum. Fox ultimately decided to keep him in LA and to cut down his “wish list” from almost six weeks to a mere eight days (at a cost of about $2.5 million extra.) Weaver remembers his response when the studio started pressuring him to bolster the horror side of the film. “He said to them, ‘We all sat there and decided to make a china cup, a beautiful, delicate china cup. You can’t tell me we should have made a beer mug.’”
But as the film approached final cut, people’s spirits started to pick up. Weaver and Fox and even Hill & Giler started praising the film. “It really stands on its own as a brilliant Alien picture, very unusual and very provocative,” says Weaver, who is not given to hype. And it’s clear just from the script that what Hill & Giler wrote and what Fox agreed to do is a very ambitious movie with a stark brooding quality that smells of art – brilliant or failed, it will certainly not be your average monster movie. Fox was even happy enough to kick in more money for Fincher to shoot one of his pet scenes – the birth of a baby Alien. “There’s no question we’ve had our dark hours,” says London, “but in the end, Fincher’s vision and his talent are all up there on the screen. David doesn’t see it this way, but I think all the battling actually helped it get there.” None of this seemed to make Fincher much happier, though. He just saw the things he could have done, the things he could still do.
“Here we go!” cries the AD. “Steam! Steam!” A raging orange fog sweeps through the set, a tangle of chains and pipes that looks like the intestines of some martial god. The floor is gleaming wet, the puddle contained by an artificial lake bed of plastic edged by one-by-twos. This is the last day of reshoots – at least that’s what they’re saying now – and they’re shooting the climax of the movie.
“I walked naively into this spinning propeller of Hollywood [with Alien 3] … There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? I thought that movie sucked,’ and you have to agree with them, you know?”
~ David Fincher, AICN interview, 2007.
“Faster with the smoke,” Fincher calls out. He’s happy with his shots and tells the AD to order all of them printed. “Get that fucking tail out of there,” he tells the Alien effects guy, Alec Gillis. “it looks like a fucking coat hanger.” He’s in a good mood today. He’s wearing the Spielberg uniform again. When the take is over, he ribs Gillis. “I’ll take out one of your thumbs next time that happens.” Gillis ribs back: “Yeah? I’ll have to take it out of my ass.”
The suits are still around in force. Later, Fincher starts setting up an odd shot – on the other side of the soundstage, he’s placed pipes on the floor. The Alien is “climbing” the horizontal pipes while a camera shoots it’s reflection in a huge mirror propped up at the end of them, making it appear that the alien is climbing vertically. “David wanted to build a whole set,” says London, “We said no; then he got creative.” Tom Jacobson comes to take a look over Fincher’s shoulder. He tells him it’s a great shot. “It’s all done with mirrors,” Fincher says dryly.
Jacobson asks another question. Maybe he’s just making conversation. “The planet,” he says, “is that being done in camera?” Fincher shrugs, “we didn’t plan it that way. We haven’t found the right planet. We have location scouts out.”
By John H. Richardson, 1991.