Alien$

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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:

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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:

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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.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Alien$

  1. Pingback: Strange Shapes explores the Cameron mythos. – The Nostromo Files

  2. I hadn’t heard that story before. Nothing about it seems to be remotely true as you’ve outlined. When you extensive details about Aliens came to be via books and De Lauzrika’s documentaries, it’s hard to believe it still perpetuates. But then again… internet.

  3. It’s ridiculous, so easy to refute and yet here we are.

    As a slight digression, of all the things Sega’s Colonial Marines ought to answer for, the most predominant is the current voguish dismissal of Cameron’s contributions to the Alien mythos. He made a wonderful film, if people are going to be snide about it, they could at least base it on fact.

  4. John Stevens

    Well this is the internet.

    Nothing of this sounds even remotely true.
    Would be interesting to see if Cameron will comment on this tidbit.
    Not that he has too.

  5. I’m glad this has been put to bed, Val style. It’s one of the more egregiously terrible stories that you hear time and time again when it is patently and obviously a load of old rot. Nice one, V

  6. Jovan Ristic

    Gordon Carroll was on the set of Alien 3 and he went to Switzerland with David Fincher to hire Giger. After Giler and Hill had left the production, angry at Fox and Fincher, Carroll stayed at Pinewood.

  7. Gaius

    I don’t care if this story is true or not, nor would I mind if it was.

    Hollywood exists to make money. When I was studying film, one of my professors would often say, “Butts in seats.” If Hollywood was about making good films, it would be non-profit and government-subsidized, like PBS.

    Where we, as audiences, generally run into problems is basically when the studio executives who are responsible for funding films enforce conservative decisions to maximize profits (and protect their investments, though I can’t honestly blame them for the latter). A classic example occurred in The Matrix: originally, the idea was that the machines were using humans-as-processors, but studio executives thought that audiences wouldn’t get it, so they made it humans-as-batteries instead.

    The problem is, this produces predictable films and insults the intelligence of the audience. It also results in the lack of original content plaguing Hollywood recently.

    In a perfect world, a filmmaker would simply “build a better mousetrap.” The filmmaker would pitch the film, studio executives would fund it, and the result would be so bleeding-edge awesome that audiences would line up around the block to see it. One recent example is Mad Max: Fury Road. By all accounts, the film should never have been made — Furiosa was arguably the main character in Max’s movie; Max was a narrator who hardly spoke, with mental issues that weren’t resolved by the end of the film; the majority of the cast was woman, and the film was about rescuing women from hypermasculine men; and many of the actresses who played the Vuvalini were old (one was in her seventies, if I recall).

    Fury Road was simply a better mousetrap, and people loved it.

    But the problem is, there’s no way to guarantee success. A film can be amazing but have poor marketing, so no one sees it (as happened with Pacific Rim). A film can be amazing but untimely, so people hate it for years (at which point it becomes a cult classic). And an idea that sounds amazing on paper can translate into a piss-poor film.

    The trick is to avoid executive meddling that seeks to dilute creativity in favor of profits. Granted: it’s their money, and I can understand not wanting to risk millions of dollars on a poor film.

    But I tire of the same thing, over and over. The same tropes. The same narrative. And though I recognize that creativity is hard (I’ve been working on a narrative for over ten years now), I also feel that the problem is obvious.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know how to fix it. It’s not enough to say to studio executives, “Take some risks.” If someone handed me $180 million and told me to use it to make a film that provided an 8x return-on-investment, I’d probably pucker up tighter than a snare drum. Moreover, there’s no way to enforce creativity or risk-taking, and the use of force generally causes people to hide the truth and be afraid of reporting mistakes. Real boats rock; even the best films can be flops.

    Getting back to the original point: I wouldn’t mind if James Cameron pitched Aliens with a dollar sign. I wouldn’t mind if he promised the executives an 8x return-on-investment. Because he had a vision, and when implemented exactingly, that vision was amazing, and resulted in one of my favorite films of all time.

    But there’s no way to guarantee that, and Hollywood runs on money.

    C’est la vie.

  8. Yeah, first thing I thought was “nobody is that lucky” and “film execs aren’t that gullible”. A quick little ‘quip’ like that wouldn’t get their attention. They would have a laugh before throwing you out. No, that is not visually attention-getting. Power point presentations depicting a clear vision and atmosphere of the type of film and story you want to tell are attention-getting.

  9. I don´t find difficult to believe in this history.Cameron is a clever man and he’s in a room full of greedy executives trying to sell his project.He will appeal to what matters most to them…money.
    The history makes all sense of the world.

  10. Pingback: Making of ALIENS, miniatures work. | mattkprovideo

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