Category Archives: Aliens

Writing Aliens

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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:

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

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  • 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.

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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.”

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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.”

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 “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.”

 

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Alien Seed: Outland

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Any biography of Alien that fails to mention its antecedents It! The Terror Beyond Space and Forbidden Planet would fail as a genealogy. Likewise, Alien has its place in film’s tree of life, having spawned many imitations itself, with eminent titles like Contamination (1980), Inseminoid (1981), The Beast Within (1982), Forbidden World (1982), Creature (1985) and a completely unrelated Alien 2 (1980) among them.

These movies tended to feature biomechanical knock-offs stalking young women through darkened corridors and were, naturally, far more exploitive than the art-house predilections of Alien. While the latter subversively had a man become the focus of an extraterrestrial rape and birth, titles like Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror (1981) opted to show Taaffe O’Connell nude, lubed, and assaulted by a gigantic insect on camera. Corman’s film is interesting not because it is exemplary but because it helped James Cameron break into movie making (Robert Englund, Sid Haig and Grace Zabriskie notably starred.) The film was touted by the studio as “a spellbinding tale in the Alien tradition”, but was described perhaps more modestly by Cameron himself as “Roger’s paean, to be charitable, to Alien.”

Though Galaxy of Terror is often discussed at length regarding Alien, another film that is arguably even more interesting is Peter Hyam’s Outland (also 1981), specifically because, firstly, it is not low-fi schlock like much of Alien’s ‘progeny’, and also because its foundations lie not in the sci-fi/horror genre but in the Western, most especially Frank Zinneman’s classic, High Noon (1952). It swaps the sand and wood of High Noon however for a very Alien-esque mining facility on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Sean Connery plays the station’s sheriff, Marshal William O’Niel, who discovers a plot concerning drug running and bouts of psychosis amongst the facility’s workers. Investigating, he is drawn into a battle against the facility’s management company, Conglomerates Amalgamated. As O’Niel closes in on the conspiracy he finds himself abandoned by the station’s inhabitants and left to the mercy of incoming Company hitmen. There is not, unlike the endless concatenation of Alien knockoffs, a monster.

The High Noon influence is quite obvious from any cursory plot synopsis, but the film’s similarity to Alien strikes as soon as we’re granted a look at the film’s environments. Actress Frances Sternhagen, who played O’Niel’s only ally, Dr. Lazarus, recalled that the sets were dank and dingy, with Hyams’ explanation being that the mining facility needed to look lived in, an aesthetic that George Lucas had referred to as the ‘used universe’. It can be seen in the grubby interiors of the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars before it was rendered again in Ron Cobb’s designs for the Nostromo a few short years later, but this look  not did originate with either of those films, instead being preceded by Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, where it was intended to be a jokey counterpoint to Kubrick’s glossy 2001: A Space Odyssey. “[The future is] not lucite domes where people glide back and forth wearing jump suits, and everybody is perma-pressed,” Hymans explained. “The only consideration was the performing of a task, and that’s true of all the designs for Outland. Function is the only criterion.” Compare these comments with Ron Cobb’s design philosophy: “My design approach has always been that of a frustrated engineer. I tend to subscribe to the idea that form follows function. If I’m to arrive at a cinematic spacecraft design that seamlessly preserves, as in this case, the drama of the script, the audience has to experience it as something impressive and believable.”

However, though it’s easy to get the impression that Hyams saw Alien and deliberately replicated it, Hyams himself denied that he was influenced by Ridley Scott’s film. “No,” he told Starlog magazine in 1981, “I was not influenced by Alien at all. This is a very dissimilar movie. Alien did not really focus on the characters. This movie is about a bunch of people that I think you get to see sides of that you don’t ordinarily get to see in films.”

His statement seems undercut by various factors: for one, there was considerable talent shared between both films: Martin Bower, Nick Allder, Bill Pearson, John Mollo, and Jerry Goldsmith all helped manufacture the look and sound of both, though Goldsmith was hired primarily because he had worked with Hyams previously on Capricorn One. Most telling is the allegation that Outland’s design office was adorned with a notice that read, ‘Make this film look like Alien.’

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There are other, perhaps serendipitous similarities between them: Outland’s Dr. Lazarus was originally written as a man, just as Ripley was. “I decided it was absurd for a picture set in the future to be unpopulated by women,” commented Hyams. Frances Sternhagen addressed her character’s likeness to Ripley in an issue of Starlog, saying, “There is some similarity between the two roles. Both characters were independent thinkers doing a job, and both were more concerned with doing the job than anything else. There is also the fact that both at one point had to decide to do something we hadn’t planned on doing that is very dangerous. I think those are the main things. Characterwise, we are different.”

There are perhaps many other similarities between the two films. Some, like the malignant Company, the grubby interiors, and the blue-collar, oily-fingered workers with their propensity for casually-worn flight suits and corporate emblems, are egregious. It’s worth watching simply to recognise pieces of the Nostromo being replicated sometimes wholesale throughout the colony, though it is different enough to be more interesting than a mere Nostromo clone; instead it feels like the craftsmen behind Alien applying that film’s aesthetic to a wider universe. Outland can easily be watched as a spin-off, a short story within the Alien universe about more smoky conference rooms and weary, exasperated spacefarers being beset by corporate malfeasance.

Curiously enough, Outland seems to have rubbed off, perhaps serendipitously, perhaps simply due to archetypical similarities, on the Alien sequel. “A mining operation like Con-Am #27 represents a frontier,” Hyams said, “and frontiers strike me as sinister, dangerous places of enormous hardship.” These comments concerning the mining facility and its occupants mirrors Aliens’ storm-harried colonists, who are described in James Cameron’s script as being “pioneers in a very unforgiving climate” who must “work very hard to get a toehold” but are fortunately imbued with “a stubborn optimism characteristic of hardy frontier types throughout history.” Hyams also describes the motivation of his miners as being “willing to put up with Hell for the chance to make some big quick money,” just as we hear Newt’s father, a prospector, proclaim in Cameron’s movie upon discovering the derelict: “Folks, we have scored big this time!”

But if Outland had any definitively tangible bearing on Aliens, it was the repurposing of the Con-Am spacesuits for the salvage team who find Ripley:

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There was also, finally, a Heavy Metal adaptation:

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Outland, though competently made and certainly entertaining, is not a seminal film and is usually remembered for its likeness to Alien and High Noon rather than its own merits; it is still fondly recommended and watched by those who appreciate the look of the movie, which did better to emulate Alien than the multitude of imitators that followed throughout the 1980’s.

The film barely recouped its costs at the box office and critical response was lukewarm. Harlan Ellison for his part called it “a bastardisation of someone else’s original idea” and explained that it was the “nasty reality” of allowing “dabblers, fools, and perverters” to have charge of a film that dared to mime greats like High Noon and Alien, the latter of which he called a “classic of terror” – Ellison was also unimpressed with John Carpenter’s The Thing for much the same reasons. Ellison, who at the time of the film’s release also rebuked Sean Connery in the pages of Starlog for his recent harrying of a journalist, recalled a conversation with Ridley Scott where Scott mentioned the time was ripe for a ‘John Ford of science fiction’ to emerge onto the film scene. Hyams, invariably, was not it.

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Interview with Walter Hill, 2004

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From Film International #12

Film International: Can you clarify your contribution to the Alien series?
Walter Hill:
I generally duck answering questions on Alien in interviews – so much of it ended up acrimoniously, and when you give your side it usually sounds self-serving.

FI: Alien was the first time you functioned as a producer.
WH:
Yes. This is complicated – mainly I’ll try not to talk as a producer, but as a writer – however in this case it’s difficult to separate…

David and I had formed a production company with Gordon Carroll. This was about 1975. About six months after we started, I was given a script called Alien by a fellow I know (Mark Haggard, interesting guy, real John Ford expert) who was fronting the script for the two writers (Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett). I read it, didn’t think much of it, but it did have this one sensational scene, which later we all called “the chestburster.” I should also probably say The Thing (1951) was a favourite from when I was a kid; and this script reminded me of it, but in an extremely crude form.

I gave it to David with one of those ‘I may be crazy but a good version of this might work’ speeches. The next night, I remember I was watching Jimmy Carter give his acceptance speech to the Democratic Convention [July 15th 1976], and was quite happy to answer when the phone rang. It was David – he told me I was crazy, but he had just got as far as the big scene (the chest burster) and it was really something. So basically off the strength of that, we acquired the rights and kicked it around for a few weeks, trying to figure out what to do with it. Remember, neither of us was a real sci-fi writer or a horror writer, but we were arrogant enough to think we understood how the genres worked.

First, we gave the original screenplay to the studio (Fox); they read it and passed (actually it had been previously submitted to them, so technically they passed twice), but we just didn’t want to let it go. We believed if you got rid of a lot of the junk -they had pyramids and hieroglyphics on the planetoid, a lot of von Daniken crap, and a lot of bad dialogue- that what you would have left might be a very good, very primal space story.

Finally I said I’d give the fucker a run-through (it was now around Christmas holidays). David was going off to Hong Kong with his girlfriend, but before he left we thrashed it out pretty good.

FI: How did the rewrite differ from the original script?
WH: For starters, in the original material, it was an all-man crew, and the creature was some kind of space octopus – the main idea David and I had was to do a slicked up, high class ‘B’ movie that as best we could avoided the usual cheesball characters and dialogue. This doesn’t seem like much now, but the notion that you’d write a ‘B’ movie idea -make it to be played with the same intentions and style as high drama- that was out of the box, then. And, pretty obviously we were thinking like producers before we began to deal with it as screen writers.

One other thing – I resist science fiction that suggests the universe is something other than dark, cold, harsh, dangerous. I said before how much I like Hawks’ The Thing, and one of the ideas in the finished script I liked best was the way it dramatised and valourised instinctive wariness and practicality when dealing with the unknown, over the needs of science. And I think that quality is what made that movie so American, even though it was shot in England, had an English director, English technicians, and several English cast members.

David had suggested making the captain a woman. I tried that, but I thought the money was on making the ultimate survivor a woman – I named her Ripley (after Believe It or Not); later, when she had to have a first name for ID cards, I added Ellen (my mother’s middle name). I called the ship Nostromo (from Conrad, no particular metaphoric idea, I just thought it sounded good.) Some of the characters are named after athletes. Brett was for George Brett, Parker was Dave Parker of The Pirates, and Lambert was Jack Lambert of The Steelers.

[David has] a marvellous capacity for coming up with the unexpected – a u-turn that’s novel but at the same time underlines what you’re trying to do. A lot of the time he’ll present it as a joke, and it’ll turn out to be a great idea. Like when the Ian Holm character was revealed to be a droid – that was David.

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In a sense, what was different from the O’Bannon/Shusett script is difficult to answer. There were certainly a lot of finite things: the protagonist as a woman, mixed gender crew, the Weyland-Yutani company, the conspiracy theory undertones to the Weyland-Yutani conspiracy, the possibility of using the Alien as a biological weapon, Ash as a droid, the idea of class lines based on job descriptions – what we called ‘truckers in space’ (this became an instant cliche; you couldn’t make a sci-fi movie after this without baseball hats); but the significant difference in the two scripts was setting the mood, the environment, and what became the stance of the film.

That said, we added a rough contemporary quality to the characters that broke it out of the genre mold – the ‘kiss my rosy red ass’ and ‘kill the motherfucker’ kind of dialogue that you historically didn’t find in science fiction movies. Remember, we were at the same studio that had made Star Wars. The on-lot joke at the time was that we were doing The Rolling Stones to their Beatles.

FI: The film is often criticised for having weakly defined characters.
WH: That’s bullshit. You clearly know who each of them are, and what their attitudes are – they have immediacy. And of course, our best character was the Alien.

FI: Can you elaborate?
WH: For example, David and I joked about calling him/her Nietzsche, you know, Beyond Good and Evil. Seriously, that was one of the things in making the thing fly – we articulated that notion in a way that got to the audience.

FI: I love the Ash death speech, ‘A perfect organism. Its structual perfection matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. An organism unclouded by remorse, conscience, or delusions of morality…’
WH: Ian Holm. Wonderful actor. I remember I met Tommy Lee Jones in New York; we were interested in him playing Dallas – he told me he had read the script twice, and the only character that really grabbed him was the monster, and he’d sign up tomorrow if he could play it.

FI: It sounds like you and David Giler had a good time writing the script.
WH: Too much probably. And to tell the truth, we were kind of lefthanding the whole thing. I don’t mean we thought we were above the material; that’s the worst sin, and sends you straight to the inner circle of hell. But, we were busy on a lot of other projects and, again, neither of us felt sci-fi was our natural métier. Although I had been a big sci-fi reader when I was a kid, David not at all. Oddly enough, in the long run, I think that distance helped the script – the feeling we had standing somewhere outside the genre helped get it off center and made it different in tone. And it gave us the courage to be irreverent. I mean, when it’s 2 A.M. and you’re writing about a monster with acid for blood, some irreverence is called for; we were always taking an impossible situation and trying to make it sound real, and most of the time we pulled it off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we may have lefthanded the script, but we did work very hard: the Ash death speech we probably wrote about twenty times before we got it right. Anyway, David went off to Hong Kong, and I sat down and did a spec rewrite of the O’Bannon/Shusett script. It took maybe a week. After the holidays, David got back, and then he and I rewrote it several times. We gave it to the studio, and they got on board. Gareth Wigan was the executive on the piece; he’s one of the very few executives I’ve ever worked with who’s actually very good with script.

David and I then did what seemed like an endless series of polishes. The last couple we did in New York in my room at the Navarro (now the Ritz Carlton) while I was prepping The Warriors.

FI: But in the end, you two weren’t credited.
WH: Correct. The [Writers] Guild decided we didn’t deserve any writing credit for our efforts.

FI: It sounds like you’re still unhappy about this.
WH: It’s a long time ago, and there are a lot more important things in the world; however, I certainly believe it was an injustice in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the truth. Partially as a result of all that, after the first Alien, I have to admit I never felt as involvedor committed to those that followed, though obviously I was quite happy at their success.

FI: Is it true you sued Fox over the profits?
WH: Yes. Twice. Both times settled in our favour.

FI: Any backlash to this?
WH: I am told that David and I are currently blackballed at Fox. So be it.

FI: Why was Alien so successful?
WH: First, but not necessarily foremost, it was a good script – suggestive of deeper issues, deeper terrors, nightmares. It’s not quite a sci-fi movie, not quite an action movie, not quite a horror movie, but some odd kind of synthesis that came together via agood, old fashioned story move. The objective problem in the first half becomes subjective in the second half by getting into Ripley’s head and experiencing the terror through her. The final draft was very tight, only about eighty pages, lean and mean.

But whatever the quality of the script, films have to be realised. And in this case, it just all worked. Ridley Scott did a wonderful job, the best film he’s done, I think. Sigourney Weaver was iconographically perfect, and had the chops to pull it off. She was a very young womanthen: inexperienced, but it made the movie so much better that she wasn’t a known actress. Needless to say, that was a tough one for the studio to swallow. I mean, we were insisting on a female lead in a sci-fi action film, and then on top of that, an unknown female lead. With a director whose previous film had a worldwide gross of, I think, less than half a million dollars. That’s why maybe the ultimate good guy was Laddie – and he said yes.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that warm films are commerical, and cold ones are not. As usual, the conventional wisdom isn’t true, and it isn’t true by the bagsful with Alien. It’s a very cold film. Hospital cold. I’m-here-to-die-ion-this-sterile-room-and-nobody-gives-a-shit-cold. But at the same time, that’s only a half-truth; it’s also fun – a good example of the old show biz rouser.

FI: What about Aliens?
WH: This was a few years later. David and I sat down and had a discussion about what the sequel should be. We figured the next one should be a straight action thriller -the military takes over- a patrol movie. David wrote it down on a couple of pages. Jim Cameron wrote a treatment. David and I rewrote it a bit (this must be about fall of ’83); we gave it to the studio and they said ‘Go to script.’ Jim went off and directed The Terminator then came back and wrote the first draft. It never changed much.

FI: Did you like the film?
WH: Obviously, Jim has a big talent for connecting with big audiences. I thought he shot the shit out of it. Tremendous physicality. I wasn’t too crazy about the stuff with the kid.

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FI: What about Alien 3?
WH: Another complete fucking mess. The studio wanted to crank out another one. There were a number of false starts. David and I were a bit sick of it, and wanted to end the whole thing. But we wanted to do it with some class and thematic cohesion. We thought that killing Ripley -or to be precise, having her sacrifice herself while ridding the universe of the Alien- would be a bold move and round out the trilogy. That was our only stipulation: beyond that we tried to stay out of it as writers. As usual, David and I were busy on other films.

There were a number of writers and directors, then David Fincher was hired. There was a start date, the script was announced to be a mess (it was) – it had been run through about five writers up to then; sets were being built, actors being hired – the usual circus of expensive incompetence. The studio and Sigourney asked us to put on our firemen suits, so David and I went to London and started writing. Fifteen years later, and we’re still in hotel rooms rewriting Alien.

We felt we were working in handcuffs – writing to sets that were already built, plot moves that had been committed to that we didn’t agree with. Then there were differences of opinion with Fincher, Sigourney, and the studio. We did our best and went home.

FI: On this one, you and David got the credit.
WH: Or the blame. I think a lot of the ideas in the third one are actually the most interesting in the series, but the whole thing didn’t quite come off. And certainly some of that is our fault. Speaking for myself, I don’t think our script was nearly as good as the one we did for the first Alien.

FI: What about the fourth, Alien Resurrection?
WH: We had nothing to do with that one -didn’t even think it was a good idea for starters- we thought we had ended the series. And our relationship with the studio had deteriorated even more, probably due to the lawsuits. Our only real function was telling them that the script they developed without our input wasn’t any good and wouldn’t work. We then suffered the traditional fate of the messenger – personally, I think it’s a lousy movie. And they just wasted Winona Ryder. That’s inexcusable.

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The Drone Distinction

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One common misconception among fans is that the creatures in the first and second movies are from different classes of the Alien social hierarchy, ‘drones’ and ‘warriors’ respectively. This in fact has no bearing in the sequel nor in its script or design intentions. Instead, it is largely a legacy of the expanded universe that arose from the comic books and games as well as fan speculation.

James Cameron explained in an 1987 issue of Starlog magazine that the expression ‘warrior’ was simply “my term for the single adult seen in Alien.” He goes on to explain that his creatures possess “the same physical powers and capabilities” as Kane’s Son. This statement came in response to the claim that the Aliens at Hadley’s Hope were weaker than their forebearer, and Cameron’s retort is to say that they are in fact the same and any behavioural differences were due to the creatures merely being trapped in different circumstances.

As for why his Aliens looked different from Giger’s he detailed in The Winston Effect how the major alteration, the heads, came to be. “We planned to [have a domed head] with ours,” he said, “and to that end Stan Winston had Tom Woodruff sculpt up a ribbed, bone-like understructure that would fit underneath and be slightly visible through the cowl. When it was finished, they gave it a real nice paint job, and then I took a look at it and I said, ‘Hey, this looks much more interesting the way it is.’”

The difference then was purely aesthetic, and was not even planned in advance. John Rosengrant explained to JamesCameronOnline that “the Warriors were basically similar to the Alien from the first movie,” with the only real difference being not in capabilities or function, but merely in physical appearance: heads, hands, and other minute differences.

As for the in-universe explanation for the differences in design The Winston Effect quotes Cameron saying, “We ditched the cowl and decided that this was just another generation of Aliens – slightly mutated.” Years earlier he had told Starlog magazine that “Yes, the design of the ‘warrior’ adult was altered slightly,” again conflating the two different Alien strains with one another (ie. Kane’s Son is of the same caste as the colony Aliens). Cameron added that one reader’s theory for the ridged and domed heads (“that the individual in Alien never reached maturity”) is essentially “as good as mine.”

Dan O’Bannon himself referred to his Alien as being “a juvenile”, so the ‘aging theory’ does not disrupt any cohesion between the two films in any major way. Anyone watching the first film can conclude that the Alien is relatively young compared to the sequel’s creatures, considering it only lives for several days at most compared to the weeks allotted to the colony Aliens.

Cameron wasn’t relegating Giger’s Alien to a lower position in the social hierarchy, but elevating them to be the prime hunters and lifeblood of the species, even capable, if necessary, of transforming into Alien Queens should a Matriarch not be present or even destroyed.

But why bother with the ‘warrior’ tag anyway if his Aliens were of the same variety as the original? The answer is that a drone class was originally intended to appear in the sequel. In the 1983 story treatment Ripley is imprisoned in the hive and observes this new breed slinking around the chamber:

INT. EGG CHAMBER

Ripley awakens, struggles to move.

A drone is excreting cocoon material over her, anchoring her body to the wall of death.

The drone is a small albino version of the Alien creature.
Where the warrior has a set of striking teeth within its head, the drone has an excreting probe, like an organic stucco-gun.

The air is thick with steam.
Figures move back and forth, carrying eggs one way, returning empty.
Evacuation.

The taller silhouettes of warriors can be seen, moving with nightmarish grace.

The purpose of the drones is to construct the hive and attend to the cocoons and eggs. In the first draft of the full screenplay dated May 1985, Bishop muses on how the Alien society functions, and speculates that a Queen-like figure is the centre of the hive, “fed and tended by drone workers, defended by the warriors.” The drones are again described as “tiny scuttling albino versions of the ‘warrior’ Aliens we have already seen.”

Remember that at this point in the film’s development process (1983-85) the ribbed cranium was a serendiptious development that was either a matter of years or months away, and yet Cameron still speaks of the Aliens (which he intended to be domed) as being from a warrior caste. The shape of the heads, then, is not an indication of which social class any particular Alien belongs to. Kane’s Son is retroactively a warrior, not a drone.

Of course, the albinoid drones were not included in the film. When JamesCameronOnline asked John Rosengrant if any sketches or designs had been made for them he replied, “Not really, as far as I remember.”

Cameron himself, to my knowledge, has not discussed the drones or why they were cut. I can only speculate that limitations of time and budget did not allow for them to be designed and built. Perhaps he concluded they would have been redundant considering that it is no great leap to imagine that their functions could be easily fulfilled by the ‘warrior’ class Aliens. Extrapolating from Rosengrant’s brief answer, it seems that the drones were barely discussed, or that nobody felt particularly enthused about them.

Dark Horse Presents: Aliens, published in November 1988, with plot and art by Mark. A. Nelson and text from Mark Verheiden, is the earliest source that I can trace that calls the Aliens ‘drones’.

This comic offers speculation on the Alien homeworld and the various trials and tribulations that an Alien hive must face and pass. One early scene depicts small albinoid creatures who are used as hosts for a young hive. In this panel, the Aliens are referred to as drones.

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The comic’s entire story is speculative, being excerpts from “the confidential paper, ‘Theory of Alien Propagation’ by Dr. Waidslaw Orona, civilian advisor to the Colonial Marine Corps.”

While Dark Horse Presents may have started the trend of designating the domed Aliens as drones and the ridge heads as warriors, later comics and games picked up on and expounded the habit, muddying the waters further and causing many fans to blame Aliens itself for a distinction it never made.

Amendments made 10/11/2014. Thanks and thumbs up to David James Ellison and robbritton.

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Redesigning the Facehugger & Chestburster

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In some respects a lot of Aliens’ hard work had already been done for it. The various stages of the creature’s life-cycle had been worked 0ut, designed, and immortalised in the first film. All that remained for James Cameron and Stan Winston to do was, first, design the Alien Queen, and second, adapt Giger’s Alien to the rough n’ tumble approach of their high-octane action movie. With the Queen’s towering, spindly-limbed form committed to canvas by Cameron, and with Winston’s team piecing together the numerous Alien suits in their workshop,  the duo then turned to refitting the other stages of the Alien’s life-cycle: the facehugger and chestburster.

Stan Winston’s team acquired the original facehugger prop around which they modelled their own. They lengthed the tail and made some small adjustments to the fingers, adding nails to make them more akin to strange, spidery hands. The changes made to the designs wouldn’t too dramatic but, just like the Alien’s ribbed carapace, the revisions would reflect the artistic sensibilities of the original film’s artists. “We tried to be as true to the original film as we could,” Stan Winston said in The Official Aliens Movie Book, “without disallowing ourselves a little bit of artistic freedom to do things that we considered -if not improvements- something to keep your head above water so you’re not just doing what was done before.”

For example, when it came to redesigning the facehugger’s ‘belly’ and proboscis, Cameron elected to to do as Giger would do and aim for a sexual aesthetic, and so the facehugger’s underside was molded into the shape of a vagina. In the first film, the creature’s belly was an open segment of innards and muscle tissue and the proboscis only appeared in several frames.

“The bits of oysters and stuff inside [the original facehugger] looked great,” Cameron said on the 2003 commentary track, “but I did wanna see the disgusting thing that had been down the inside of Kane’s throat … You never see it in the movie, so I figured we’d gross everybody out.”

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“All of Giger’s designs have a really sexual undercurrent to them,” he continued, “and that’s what horrified people about the Alien as much as anything; it worked on a kind of Freudian subconscious level, and Ridley and Giger knew that and went for that. This film was never intended to be as much of a horror film as the first one, it was working on a different thematic level, but I still wanted to be true to some of those ideas, some of those design concepts.”

There were other aesthetic changes, like the skin tone – a sickly yellow in the first film, a flushed pink the second. A mechanical facehugger was constructed by Rick Lazzarini for the scenes within the MedBay. Here, two facehuggers attack Newt and Ripley, scurrying across the floor and springing through the air to attack their victims. The scurrying facehugger was, essentially, a wind-up toy with a mechanism designed by Cameron and further refined by Winston and his team. “It was a very clever mechanism,” said Alec Gillis in 2003, “it was like a pull-toy.” Other tricks, like shooting the facehugger and then playing the footage backwards, created the illusion of a leaping creature.

“In order to create the illusion of these two facehuggers that are now loose in this room,” said Winston, “we created a half-dozen forms of this particular creature so it could have a performance and become a character. We didn’t change the design, we extended the design [and] changed what it could do as an actor … it could crawl and it could reach and try to get at Newt, try to get at Ripley… it was running at you, running across the room, and it was virtually a pull-toy.”

Another facehugger was created for the dissection scene, which sees Bishop poring over the creature in a darkly studious manner. Shane Mahon built the facehugger prop, taking a leaf from the original film’s book and dressing it with chicken skins and other meats.

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“The chestburster in the original Alien was one of the most shocking and wonderful effects in film history,” Winston says in the 2003 making of documentary supplementing the Alien Quadrilogy. “We had to repeat it, but we had to do something a little different.”

The creature in the first movie was essentially a puppet fixed to the end of a rod, and was thrust from the body of John Hurt by Roger Dicken. That chestburster had been initially designed with arms attached, but they were cut out before the design was finalised. Still, you can see two little nubs protruding from its body, signifying where the arms would be.

“We had a copy of the original chestburster from the first film,” explained Tom Woodruff, “and the thing we were noticing  in the original sculpture was there was an indication there were to be little arms on the thing, and I wasn’t really aware of them in the film.”

Cameron asked that Winston’s team restore the arms to create the impression that once the creature had penetrated the chest cavity it could swiftly tear and drag itself out of the host’s body – as it memorably does in the first hive sequence, pulling itself from the “Cocooned Woman” portrayed by Barbara Coles.

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Two puppets were created for the scene. One was required to pop through the colonist’s foam latex chest and was given three mechanisms in its body which allowed it to twist and turn. The other was to flail and schreech and was given a greater range of limb, body and mouth movement. For its final shot the creature was loaded into a model of Coles before both were incinerated by the Marines, destroying the chestburster prop on camera.

Cameron also intended for his chestbursting sequence to be less gory than the first. “I figured, ‘Okay, the first film told you what could happen, we don’t have to revel in it.'” Since the original film had made history with its chestbuursting scene, Cameron felt no need to try and top it by being bloodier or by lingering on the host’s agony. “You don’t create fear with gore,” he explained, “you create disgust, a whole different emotion.” As such, the film rolls on from the chestbursting sequence directly into the awakening of the hive…

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James Cameron Responds to Aliens Critics

Prophetic...

Prophetic…

Before the advent of the internet film fans, returning from the cinema, were quick to pick up their quills pens and send off their exclamations to their favourite dedicated sci-fi magazines. James Cameron’s Aliens, being no exception, was equally lauded and criticised in the letters pages, which were published in Starlog #116 in March 1987.

Strangely enough, amused readers later found Cameron responding to their praise and queries, but largely their criticisms and a few assumptions. His responses were published as a feature in #125.

Cameron’s essay is widely available online, but I’ve decided to add it to Strange Shapes for completions sake. I have also included the letters to which Cameron is replying.

Starlog #116: Fan Responses
(click to enlarge)

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 Starlog #125: James Cameron’s Answers

On another battlefront, not so long ago, Starlog received a fascinating letter from James Cameron , the filmmaker behind Aliens. He was, in fact, responding to reader letters from the previous Starlogs. We’re publishing his remarks in full with spiffy illustrations by that famed Gang of One, Hugo-winning cartoonist Phil Foglio. Spiffy? Sorry, Phil. I’m running out of adjectives.
~ Starlog #125, editorial liner notes.

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Powerloader

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“Ripley steps out, WEARING TWO TONS OF HARDENED STEEL. THE POWER LOADER. Like medieval armour with the power of a bulldozer.
~ Aliens script, by James Cameron, September 1985.

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

The scene was transplanted directly into the climax of Aliens, with the two nameless protagonists replaced by Ripley and Newt. There is no chasm; instead Newt cowers under the Sulaco’s flooring. The Alien Queen takes the place of the robot, the design of which Cameron would recycle for the Hunter-Killer Tank in Terminator. And the woman’s robotic vehicle is replaced by one of the film’s most iconic inventions: a mechanised exo-suit called the ‘powerloader’.

“When I was young,” Cameron told astralgia.com when discussing Xenogenesis’ mechanical ‘outfit’, “my friends and I did this little film with $20,000 from the rich, Mormon dentists out in Orange County … The story we wanted took place on a colony starship bound for another planet with the last remnants of humanity on board frozen. I came up with a device I called ‘the Spider’ that was used to crawl around the outside of the ship to make repairs. It was a four-legged walking machine that used a tele-presence-type amplification: you put your feet in things, you grabbed onto these controls, and however you moved and walked, it duplicated your actions.”

When Cameron wrote Aliens he retooled it from one of his unmade scripts, Mother, and also brought over Xenogenesis’ mechanised vehicle, changing it from a four-legged contraption to a two-legged exo-suit: “A year and a half [after Xenogenesis], The Empire Strikes Back came out with these big walking machines in it. I felt vaguely ripped off, or scooped would be more accurate. So I changed ‘the Spider’ to more of an upright, forklift exoskeleton concept.”

“I don’t remember exactly the origin of the idea. It’s based on a design that I created a few years ago for another story that never got made [Xenogenesis]. That predated the ‘Transformer’ robots, at least as a fad in this country. I think that the exo-skeleton concept has been used in a lot of literary SF.”
~ James Cameron, Lofficier interview, 1986.

Funnily enough, the AT-AT design from Empire was inspired by Syd Mead, who Cameron would later briefly task to design the powerloader. Former ILM employee Joe Johnson told btlnews.com in 2010 that “The snow walkers were from a brochure by Syd Mead for US Steel of these walking trucks going through the snow – we turned them into walking tanks.”

Early design of the powerloader, perhaps imagined as a Marine battlesuit. By Syd Mead. Cameron seems to have revisited the design for Avatar.

Syd Mead’s early design of the powerloader. Cameron seems to have revisited the design for Avatar.

“I started designing it when they went to Pinewood. They constructed the test model with 2x2s and trash bags stuffed with newspapers to get the articulation down. The finished prop was so cumbersome, they had to have guys in black skin suits running it. It was not power operated, it was operated by manipulators out of shot.”
~ Syd Mead, Vulture.com. 2013.

Cameron decided to use the powerloader because he did not want Ripley to have the safe distance that a gun could give her when fighting the Queen. Instead she would have to physically tangle with her enemy in an atavistic display of motherly instinct. “I wanted to have the final confrontation with the Alien be a hand-to-hand fight,” Cameron said about the origin of the scene. “To be a very intense, personal thing, not done with guns, which are a remote way of killing. Also, guns carry a lot of other connotations as well. But to really go one on one with the creature was my goal. It made sense that Ripley could win if she could equalise the odds. So there had to be some way of amplifying her strength, in a way that was not a comic-bookish sort of concept, like taking a pill.”

“At a certain point, I was toying with the idea of having the Marines have battle suits,” he said, taking a page or two out of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. “But then I thought, ‘oh, no, you’re going to see that coming a mile away’. Anyway, how would Ripley know how to operate a battle suit? They wouldn’t be teaching her. It was really critical to the story that she emerge under pressure as the person who really takes control. They discredit her at the beginning; the last thing they’d do is hand her a gun and teach her how to use a battle suit.”

Cameron discarded the idea of using a battlesuit (a weapon) and stuck with the concept of a mechanoid forklift (a tool). But he still wanted to assure the audience that Ripley could operate it. Depicting the powerloader as a rather rudimentary device (at least in the world of Alien) enabled Ripley to use it with relative ease.

“She had had to support herself as a dockworker at Gateway Station [so] it was logical to assume that she might know how to handle a basic piece of cargo handling equipment,” said Cameron. “You had to set it up. You had to see her volunteer to help unload the ship and impress them all that she could do it. Otherwise you’d never believe that she could duke it out with the Alien Queen.”

Cameron's redesign of the powerloader, imagined as a mech-lifter.

Cameron’s redesign of the powerloader, imagined as a mech-lifter.

In Cameron’s original treatment the powerloader is revealed during the climax before it walks into the hanger to fight the Queen. The treatment describes a sequence of shots showing Ripley strap herself into the suit. We are then given a full shot of Ripley in the powerloader. Cameron omitted this in later scripts (but kept the cuts of her strapping in to something) to get the money shot we know from the film. The shots of her strapping in were kept in all of the subsequent drafts, but none of  it was ever shot (though many fans believed that the footage had in fact been filmed – it’s usually recounted in those ‘I saw a different version on TV as a kid’ stories).

“I was particularly proud of being involved in the sequence involving the Alien Queen and the powerloader,” said Special Effects technician Joss Williams, “because right from the  start of my involvement on the movie, we had pictures drawn by Jim -of which today you’d get computer generated images, but this was hand drawn by Jim- of the powerloader fighting the Alien Queen.” Turning Cameron’s painting into a reality would require not only full-scale models but miniatures as well.

Building the large powerloader was left to Special Effects Supervisor John Richardson. Richardson’s tenure on the film see-sawed from having near total control of his workshop, to suddenly working under Cameron’s peregrine-eyed supervision. The director would often check in and make amendments to the design, offering sketches to a bemused Richardson. “A lot of directors would have said, ‘I want it to look like a walking forklift,’ and let it go at that,” Richardson told Cinefex in 1986. “Jim would say, ‘I want it to look like a walking forklift and those little bolts up there have to be this shape.'”

“Jim is a very hands-on director,” Richardson explained further. “We were trying to cut just as many corners as we could just to get it ready in time, but Jim would suddenly get locked in on the shape of the screw head in the back corner of the heel of the boot. And we were just screaming to get the thing ready.”

The two would quarrel over the details, but they unanimously agreed that the outcome was the better for it. Richardson recalled that “I seem to remember once or twice on a Friday night, a bottle of champagne would turn up in the workshop with a little note from Jim saying, ‘Building powerloaders is thirsty work. Have one on me.’ And it sort of smoothed everything out until the Monday … They were good times.”

The delays with the large powerloader meant that delays with the miniature were inevitable, since the miniature was based directly on the larger model. “They were working on the full size one right up until the time they started shooting it,” said miniature designer Phil Notaro, who helped build the Queen and powerloader miniatures with Doug Beswick, “so I actually couldn’t finish the puppet until I got over there [to Pinewood studios] and saw it. ‘Aha! That’s what it looks like!’ … It was pretty tense for a while there, though, because we were halfway into our schedule and we hadn’t even started the powerloader yet.”

Powerloader on the hanger set.

Powerloader on the hanger set. Inset: the miniature model.

The final battle between Ripley and the Alien Queen was among the last scenes to be shot for the film. The full scale powerloader, weighing around 600lbs and fabricated out of aluminium, fibreglass and PVC plastic, was controlled from within by a stuntman (John Lees) who was obscured inside the machine – just like the Alien Queen puppet, which contained two stuntmen. “I remember the English visual effects guys thinking we were crazy,” said Cameron, “the way we wanted to do it. And I said, ‘No, it’s the gag where the dad lets the daughter walk on his feet.’”

The back of the prop was given hidden counterweights disguised as machine components. The mechanics inside the hands were crafted to be light enough so the whole thing wouldn’t fall face first into the ground (Weaver related that this happened many times in rehearsal). The wrists were radio controlled. The ‘pincers’ were operated by cables. Also like the Queen puppet, the powerloader was held up by a rig (expertly hidden by Cameron’s framing) for its entrance into the hanger bay. For other scenes it was supported by a pole up the spine or by a counterweighted crane.

Sigourney Weaver, by all accounts, was very professional when it came to being strapped inside the contraption or placed on the sidelines all day. Cameron had predicted that the effects-heavy scenes would require many takes, re-calibration, and luck to get right. Weaver, he reckoned, would be naturally bored and tired during such a complex process, but the opposite was true. “She was just wonderful about the whole thing,” Cameron said. “She was a complete pro and very tolerant when it came to standing around the set for hours doing the predicted take after take.” Weaver herself felt that the sequence was worth it. “I loved that,” she said. “That’s, I think, one of the favourite moments that people have: that battle, ‘get away from her, you bitch!'”

Cameron getting hands on.

Cameron getting hands on.

But Weaver did have to contend with one uncomfortable element during the shooting: the effects team’s sense of humour – a balloon was inserted into the powerloader, just behind Weaver’s buttocks. Whenever the camera rolled, the crew would pump air into the balloon through a pipe. Weaver ran through several explanations for the bulge at her backside, with some involving the stuntman, John Lees, concealed behind her. “She thought he was getting a boner all the time,” laughed Richardson. “She was going, ‘John, John? What are you doing, John?’ She couldn’t move because she was strapped in, and (John) didn’t know because he was nowhere to be seen [inside the loader].”

“It was very funny,” said Weaver, “because it lasted quite a long time, a couple of hours. I was thinking, ‘Well, this is interesting.'”

The scenes featuring the miniature loader and Queen were filmed after principal photography had ended. The powerloader miniature was moved around a small scale set by rods placed through the floor and the model’s feet. The arms were cable operated. The model was fitted with a small doll in the form of Ripley. For the scene earlier in the film where Ripley demonstrates her prowess with the loader for Hicks and Apone, we can see another powerloader being operated in the background – this was a miniature plate filmed much later; the pilot is in fact the Ripley doll redressed as a Marine.

The miniature powerloader’s final scene, tumbling out of the airlock, was literally its final scene: the model allegedly plummeted through the star field backdrop and smashed to pieces on the concrete. “We did about eight takes on it,” said Notaro, “and each time it crashed into pieces. We’d then have to superglue it back together and do it again.” On the ninth shot the miniature broke beyond repair. “It exploded,” recalled miniatures technical supervisor Pat McClung.

Cameron had worried that the scene with the powerloader would not be taken seriously by the audience if it was anything short of stellar – if the images in his head could be conjured and guided by an expert (and careful) hand, then he figured they would accept it. It would all hinge on the execution. “There are always certain things on every film that you’re nervous about,” he said. “You like the challenge. The challenge is, can I make the audience believe this? Then you’re nervous about it the whole time, which is good. The more nervous you are, the more you’re going to set it up and make it work.”

“It always stuck in my mind,” said Joss Williams, “and it still does today – the sequence when we actually shot it onstage at Pinewood of the powerloader that we built and seeing the Alien Queen that Stan Winston had built, fighting. And it was just what Jim had drawn some eighteen months, maybe two years, previously.”

“When the film opened,” explained Cameron, “I went to the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. When the spaceship door came up, and there was Sigourney in the powerloader, the audience went apeshit! That’s what it’s all about. It really taught me to not be afraid of the challenges, to find them, to seek them out because that’s where the magic is.”

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James Cameron’s Alien III (or ‘How it was Never Going to Happen’)

Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Jale Ann Hurd at the Aliens premiere, 1986.

Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Gale Anne Hurd at the Aliens premiere, 1986.

“I’m wondering if Alien 3 is in the typewriter?” Bobby Wygant asked James Cameron upon the release of Aliens in 1986. “Not for me it’s not,” he answered.

“I think Fox will want to see how this film does,” Cameron continued, “and if they’re still enthusiastic about, or if they become enthusiastic about a continuation beyond the film that Gale and I made then they’ll have to pursue that in their way. I mean find a writer, find a director, because we’ll be on to something else, I think. Some new territory.”

“But if the money were right?” Wygan teased. “No, I don’t think so,” he answered. “At this point, y’know, the way I work on films and the way my wife -who produced this film- works, is we throw ourselves into the picture right from pre-production through the end of post-production. It takes us a year or two, year and a half to do a film, and that means maybe my career will only be ten or twelve films – you can’t stay doing the same things over and over again.”

“[Another sequel is] entirely in the hands of people other than myself. The only thing I can say definitively right now is: from my involvement as a writer, the story was not constructed with an eye toward another sequel. But then, the first one wasn’t either.”
~ James Cameron, Starlog magazine, September 1986.

Wygan also asked Sigourney Weaver about Alien 3. “It took someone as talented -and crazy- as Jim Cameron to come up with a story that was as good as the first one,” Weaver said, “and I would be surprised if it could happen again. And I have a feeling, if it happened again, that Newt would have grown up and that she would be the one to go on and carry the guns, so to speak.”

In 1995 Carrie Henn briefly mentioned James’ ideas, or framework, for an Aliens sequel: “I know that James Cameron had planned to have Hicks, Ripley and me in Alien 3, to have a family-type thing.” Her feelings about that not happening? “Still, life goes on.”

Lance Henriksen also revealed that Cameron had discussed some character beats for Bishop in a potential third movie: “I also remember Jim saying to me [that] if we ever did another one that what he would have done is probably had that character realize that somebody had fooled around with his brain and make him constantly worried that he was going to do something dangerous. And so I thought, ‘Well, what a nice piece of conflict that is.'” Earlier in 2004 he had said: “Jim Cameron […] was talking about doing another Alien movie. He often pondered about what he might do with Bishop, saying that somehow they messed with his brain to make him dangerous.”

starlog 170

Starlog #170, September 1991

As for James’ opinion on David Fincher’s Alien 3? The swift and off-screen deaths of Newt and Hicks, and the pulverisation (and subsequent euthanisation) of Bishop were two points of contention. But Cameron wasn’t completely condemnatory towards the film. “I actually think that Alien 3 is a pretty good piece of work, in terms of film-making,” he said. “Fincher early on showed what he had as a film-maker, and I think the film has some great stuff in it, some beautiful photography.”

“But,” he added, “it’s hard for me to watch, because it feels like such a slap in the face to the people who have invested in the story through the first two films. I understand his reasons for doing it, but I think the best way to do a sequel is to honour the original and be original and creative in your own way. He was original and creative in his own way, but at the expense of the previous film and what a lot of people might have invested in that story up at that time. It makes it difficult for me to watch the film.”

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Interview with Jenette Goldstein, 1987

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Vasquez lives – and the charismatic actress being the smart-gun toting marine is armed against extraterrestrial trouble.

Somewhere, beneath the makeup, sweat, ferocity and courage that made up Private Vasquez, the rippling heroine of Aliens, there’s a soft-spoken, freckled, 5’2″ woman named Jenette Goldstein.

Goldstein, to her credit as a performer, shares precious little with her scene-stealing character; in fact, had the film been a true representation of the 26-year-old actress, it might have been titled Beverly Hills Marine. Yes, far from the gritty deprivation of Aliens, the actress was raised in that much publicised community. Despite growing yo so near the glamour of Hollywood, the trappings of celebrity remain foreign to Goldstein. She enjoys the anonymity, and she’s still a bit amused by the flood of fan mail she received – ranging from the US Marine Corps to often offers of marriage (to late, but more on that later) to a seven-year-old girl who wrote to Vasquez, inviting her to stay in her home if she ever got out that way.

Ironically, Goldstein had ventured for from home when she took her first toward joining the rather exclusive club that makes a living in front of the cameras. Goldstein began acting in high school, and, after going to college in Santa Barbara, left to study in New York on a two-year program. She them met and married an Englishman, following him to London to attend drama school.

Three years later and numerous stage appearances later, in small productions ranging from Shakespeare to musicals, she answered an ad for a film role in the local trades. It read simply, “Genuine American actors, British Equity, for feature film Aliens, 20th Century Fox,” she relates, over lunch near the old homestead of Beverly Hills.

“I had seen Alien, but I had no idea this was a sequel. It had been so long ago, it didn’t even occur to me. I thought it was about actual aliens, you know, immigrants to a country. I was wondering why they wanted Americans. I figured the movie was about lots of different immigrants to England.”

Since she didn’t have an agent at the time, she answered on her own, with rather surprising results. “I actually came in wearing high heels and lots of makeup, and I had waist-length hair,” she says.

Other auditioners, who had advance notice from their agents, were decked out in military fatigues – Goldstein’s first inkling she would be reading for the role as a marine.

A bit taken aback, Goldstein told the casting director that she had done some bodybuilding, so they asked her to return for a second look. This time, she came prepared – scraping her hair back and scrounging up a pair of army boots. Though she wasn’t auditioning particularly for the role of Vasquez, the producers -like much of America- liked what they saw. “I was in the shape I am at the moment. I had been training for years, going to the gym. Before the role, [director] Jim Cameron asked me how big I could get in four weeks,” she laughs. “I had never tried, so I just ate a lot. I gained 10 pounds of, basically, fat over my physique. But I kept training, and I had two years of groundwork underneath.”

Getting to grips with the smartgun.

Getting to grips with the smartgun.

What was underneath was fine, it was Goldstein’s outside that needed an overhaul, largely because blue eyes and Huck Finn-style freckles didn’t quite fit the job description. “The makeup took an hour,” she sighs. “The makeup woman said I had the most ornery freckles she had ever seen. It was freezing cold on the set, and we were oiled up all the time. The fake sweat and water made the makeup run a lot, so it was a toss-up between looking sweatier and having my white skin show through.” They also gave her dark contact lenses, and, rather unceremoniously, whacked off most of her waist-length hair. “They just brought out the buzz saw,” she quips. “But I was ready for it, to undergo a change. I didn’t want to save it. I thought that was too gruesome.”

Physical preparation, however, presented only part of the challenge. Golstein also had to capture Vasquez’s anger, dialect and martial mentality.

Having grown up in Southern California, she notes, Goldtein had some awareness of the Chicano sub-culture. “I had to do it from memory,” she explains. “I didn’t have a dialect coach, or the time or money to fly back to Los Angeles. I had my parents send me some source material from libraries in Los Angeles – interviews with gang members, that sort of thing, because there was nothing like that in London, just travel books to Mexico.”

The research soon gave way to a crash course in film making, as the novice screen actress tried to find her way around her first movie set. “I didn’t know anything about film. I figured it was shot out of order, but I didn’t realize what that meant to you as an actor,” she says. “I learned as I went along, and  asked the other actors what things meant, what a ‘two-shot’ was or a ‘master’. I just relied on the actors who had been in other films, and they were great.”

Sequencing did come as a shock. The introduction to the marines, for example, as they awake from hyper space and gnaw on breakfast, was filmed at the production’s end. That way, the cast had several months to get acquainted. By then, Goldstein had already befriended Mark Rolston, who portrayed Drake – Vasquez’s huge, blond compatriot, who comes down with severe case of Alien-induced acne in the first confrontation. Though military life isn’t exactly her idea of a good time, she felt at home among the mostly male company. “I grew up with brothers, so I was used to it,” she says.

Like most great films, Aliens possess a richness of detail that can’t be absorbed in one viewing. Director Cameron prepared a background dossier on each character, and the actors personalized their uniforms in the spirit of their characters.

Goldstein, appropriately, scribbled the phrase “Adios” on her gun, signifying the last word someone who crossed her would hear. On the back of her shirt, it said simply, “Loco”.

That’s one reason why Vasquez, to the delight of feminists everywhere, was frequently told to “take point” – the most dangerous position on the patrol: “It was just logical,” the actress says. “Who would you want to take point? The craziest person, the one who doesn’t care about dying, because who else would do something like that? It’s never mentioned in the film, but in the characters’ background, she and Drake are recruited from juvenile prison, where they’re under life sentences. Therefore, they were different from the others, who were on a time limit. Hudson was supposed to get out of the marines in four weeks, which is what made him flip.” That also explains the back of Hudson’s vest, tailored by actor Bill Paxton to read, “Contents under pressure. Do not puncture.”

“Vasquez and Hudson are paired together throughout the film as each other’s foil,” Goldstein observes. “He says everything, whether it’s important not to, and she says absolutely nothing unless it’s important. That was Vasquez’ attitude: she had no one or nothing, so she was the logical choice for point. It made perfect sense to the commander. Who would you put in that suicidal potion? Someone who couldn’t care less, and whether it’s a man or a woman doesn’t really matter.”

Goldstein downplays the excitement generated by Aliens‘ strong female characters – as Vasquez and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) emerge as the film’s two most heroic combatants. “Vasquez is gun-toting because she’s a soldier. That’s her job,” Goldstein contends. “Ripley is forced to carry a gun. It’s not the weapons, but the human spirit. At the end, the weapons are shown to be ineffective. It was showing how ill-prepared the army was, and how all the bluster counted for nothing.”

Still, the actress does admire Cameron’s deft handling of female characters, even those in (literally) short-lived roles. “All the woman’s roles were good, particularly the little girl (Carrie Henn). Little girls are usually shown to be such idiots,” she notes.

On the Hive set with fellow smartgunner, Pvt. Drake (Mark Rolston).

Goldstein spent most of her time on the film playing with big girl’s toys, including “unbelievably loud” guns that weighed 65 to 70 pounds. Designers created the smart-gun by connecting an anti-aircraft gun -the kind that usually sits on a tripod- to a cameraman’s Steadicam unit. The actress’ grace wielding the massive weapon led once critic to describe her as moving around like a “flamenco dancer.”

“I wanted Vasquez to seem like she only really lived when she was carrying a gun,” she explains. “It became part of her, and everything clicked into being. Then again, that gun was so heavy, there was only a certain way you could walk with it,” she laughs. “As every steadycam operator knows, you have to walk like that, or you’ll fall over.”

When Vasquez’s luck runs out in the film, however, she hardly crawls and grimaces, blasting Aliens and grappling with one creature mano-a-mano before a grenade saves her from a serious case of indigestion. In the scene, a stuntman in Alien costume was lowered by a harness onto her from one of the air vents, then promptly dispatched with a barrage of gunfire into its face. It was a juicy scene in more ways than one. “I had to get all slimed up,” she grimaces. “I think Vasquez is just so angry that it has finally got to her. Rather than being scared, she’s pissed off she’s about to die.”

Goldstein’s character stands so tall in those scenes it’s hard to imagine that much courage coming in such a small package. “I’m teeny, I know,” she says. “I can’t believe people say I exude height, because everyone else was over six feet tall. I was the smallest one besides Carrie Henn. A few times, they would say, ‘Carrie, honey, would you stand on that box?’ so they could get everyone in the shot. Then, they would say, ‘Oh Jenette, would you mind standing on it too?’ and everyone would break up laughing.”

If not height, Vazquez radiated power – a byproduct of the six days a week Goldstein spent weight lifting when she auditioned for the film. Out of work at the time, Goldstein stumbled into bodybuilding almost by accident. “I was going to four dance classes in London. They were on the West End, and I lived on the East End. There was a man’s gym with a boxing ring that I passed every day. It was good discipline to have when you’re unemployed, you need some sort of a discipline. I needed something that I could do that -if I put in the time and effort- I would get results, which you’re not guaranteed as a far as acting. That’s frustrating.”

“I enjoyed lifting weights, and I got hooked on it. It was something to keep me busy. I didn’t see it as a tool to get to work, though my friends used to joke that maybe they’ll do a film about an American bodybuilder, or something like that, that it’ll pay off. It’s funny that it did.”

Drake and Vasquez: smartgunners, juvenile hall recruits, and “dobermans at play”.

While she still works out regularly and jogs to keep in shape, Goldstein had no intention of getting typecast as a female Rambo. As far as she’s concerned, the gun play stops here. Unfortunately, the producers haven’t been able to see beyond her role in Aliens, despite her decidedly un-Spanish surname. “At first, I was offered Hispanic roles, and a lot of science fiction, just the same. You know, ‘Oh my, she can shoot a gun.'”

The spate of similar parts remains a sore point to Goldstein, and a frustrating limitation. “I’m looking for something different,” she says hopefully. “There’s nothing yet, I’m just waiting to hear on a few things, but believe me, they’re very, very different. I wouldn’t believe I could get cast as a Mexican marine,” she adds. “But people have seen my work, they haven’t met me. That’s why I’ve been trying to get out, and have people see me.”

The appearances have included a couple of morning interview shows and that bastion of show business journalism, Entertainment Tonight. “Once they see you’re actually an actress, and you’re not just playing yourself, then they have to use their brains a little bit. And next time, I’m going to get billing,” she laughs, referring to her relegation to the closing credits in Aliens. “That’s all negotiated through agents. I thought you came in, they looked at your part and assigned billing.”

Nevertheless, moviegoers tended to search for her name, evidenced by a flood of fan mail 20th Century Fox has received. “That’s nice,” she says. “That means people actually took the time to sit through the credits and see who it was.”

With sequels so prevalent -and talk of a second Alien sequel- would she consider coming back as Vasquez if some scriptwriting wizard could conjure her up? “How, scrape her off the walls?” Goldstein chuckles. “Or Vasquez: The Early Years?”

Space, firearms and slime may not figure prominently in her immediate plans, but Goldstein hopes Vasquez’s death won’t be in vain. With a little luck, that brief sojourn into space may have put Jenette Goldstein on the path toward becoming an earthbound star.

Originally published in Starlog #115, February 1987.

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Interview with Lance Henriksen, 1987

tumblr_l5798f4dYj1qa1o5zo1_500Article & interview by Jane Gael Rafferty.

He’s an actor of many changes – whether an anecdotal cop facing a formidable Terminator, a nocturnal nomad prowling Near Dark, or an innocent android battling Aliens.

For Lance Henriksen, who portrays Bishop, the “artificial person” in Aliens, his role as an android was an interesting and challenging one. “I had two months before I started filming, so there was plenty of time,” Henriksen says of his preparation for the film. “I used it all, believe me. If there was more to Bishop, more of a story about him, you would find out incredible things.

“My biggest problem was having to follow two exceptional performances of androids. Rutger Hauer [as replicant Roy Batty] in Blade Runner was excellent, and I loved Ian Holm’s work as Ash in Alien. We didn’t have the same problems. Holm had to give the audience tips so that it all added up at the end. That’s a terrible spot for an actor to be in.”

With Aliens, there was some question regarding how to present Bishop to the audience. “Jim [Cameron, writer/director] and I talked for a month on the phone -he was already in London- to try to figure out the best way to introduce Bishop,” Henriksen explains. “We had an idea about him being alone, while everyone else was in hypersleep, tending to meters and buttons and doing a thousand, thousand push-ups. You see this lonely figure in this ship by himself. We realised that doesn’t do much storywise, and then we came up with the knife. I practised that quite a bit. Then, when we got onto the set and finally were ready to shoot the scene, I dragged one of the other guys into it [Bill Paxton]. I said, ‘Jim, this is a little bit stagy, why don’t I put my hand over somebody else’ hand and that involves more people. It makes it an event.'”

Henriksen, reflecting upon Bishop’s position with the Colonial Marines, observes, “I see him as somebody who is basically a servant without being a servile; a companion of labour. At this time in history, it would be demoralising for a human to be around someone who is being subservient. That’s why they call Bishop an Executive Officer, which is just a fancy title for planetary maneuverer. He’s not a Marine, he’s part of the ship, the Sulaco. He doesn’t carry a weapon, there’s no way. Because if you give an android a weapon, you’re getting into another area entirely. You can make a weapon that can shoot itself, like the smartgun, but you don’t give an android a weapon. There’s a vast difference.”

However, Henriksen is quick to point out that Bishop can take charge if necessary. “But only in a life threatening situation,” he cautions. “It would only be for a moment, like the scene where Ripley was going to move Hicks and I stopped her and said, ‘no, we have to get a stretcher.’ Bishop finds a way to get around things. It’s like saying, ‘Look, there’s a fly on the ceiling,’ and while the guy is looking, Bishop just goes ahead and does it.”

As an artist who never stops learning about his character, Henriksen was fascinated with the way Bishop, a non-organic being, saw the world. He discussed these insights with James Cameron, the writer/director of Aliens. “I told Jim, ‘Anything that’s really organically alive is fascinating to Bishop. There’s no good or evil – just this ultimate respect for anything living.’

Henriksen, Biehn, and Paxton celebrate Newt stunt double Louise Head's birthday.

Henriksen, Biehn, and Paxton celebrate Newt stunt double Louise Head’s birthday on the Operations set.

“I read a couple of books,” Henriksen remembers. “One was Mockingbird [by Walter Tevis]. There’s a bit in it where the android knew how to play a piano, but didn’t know why. He didn’t know what music was, but he kept hearing it. It was part of his builder’s input that hadn’t been completely erased. That image stuck in my mind, and what it translated to me was that there were feelings that Bishop didn’t understand, like a joke.”

The actor also realised that his android character was not without problems. “For him, the world is xenophobic. He’s an alien to anything alive. He must be as careful as, say, a black man in South Africa, where you make a mistake and you’re out. You’re either replaced or you’re destroyed.”

Bishop had an innocence that intrigued Henriksen. “I felt that he was only 10 years old, mechanically, so I gave him the emotional life of a 14-year-old,” Henriksen notes. “I was basically playing myself at that age. There’s the knowledge that you have your whole life ahead of you to learn, yet there’s always that vulnerability to the powers that be.”

Vulnerability is also one of the realities of an actor’s life. Henriksen muses ruefully over the numerous times his part in a film has ended up on the cutting room floor. “The lag is the problem,” he says. “If you’re doing a play, you get some instant gratification, or if you’re winning the World Series, it’s happening right at that moment. But with a movie, you do it and then you wait six months or longer to see it. When you realise you’ve been cut out, it’s a stun. I worked for three months on Close Encounters, then got cut out.” The same thing happened when Henriksen portrayed Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff. “Which was,” he explains, “A great movie to work on. I loved it, but the result just wasn’t there.”

Henriksen received more time on screen in Nightmares, Jim Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning, and Choke Canyon, none of which were box office or critical hits. And he enjoyed his role in Terminator, Cameron’s earlier hit, as Vukovich, the cop who never gets to finish telling a story. “Oh, God, that was so much fun! Paul Winfield (Lt. Traxler) and I joked that the relationship between those guys would make a great TV series. They’re going to do a second Terminator,” Henriksen reveals. “You never see me die, so I was telling Jim Cameron that it could start in the hospital with me covered with scars saying, ‘Look, if this guy came once, he’s gonna come again…”

Henriksen with Paul Winfield during The Terminator's production.

Henriksen with Paul Winfield during The Terminator‘s production.

With the success of Aliens, 20th Century Fox is also eager for another sequel. The way was left open by Cameron’s deft touch at the film’s very end. “You can hear the facehugger scampering across the screen. Cameron did that on purpose,” Henriksen says, noting that there is a possibility that Bishop could return in a sequel. “If there’s a good script, I would love to do that part again. There’s so much more to do. I would like to get into the whole concept of how and why androids are made. Bishop is not biological, he wasn’t built in an organic way. If you can imagine your own nerve synapses as being silicone – more of a plasmatic gate to conduct the electrical impulses. The synthetics are very advanced, buy they aren’t organic yet. Jim and I were talking and we realised that although Bishop is very advanced, we don’t see him as the end-all in terms of an android. Jim loves the whole concept of androids. If you could ever put psychology into an old form, building a human would be it.”

Aliens
 reunited Henriksen with Stan Winston, who won a special visual effects Oscar for his work on the film. Winston created both the Terminator cyborg and the effects for Mansion of the Doomed, a film Henriksen laughingly characterises as “a movie I don’t talk about.” Henriksen will be starring in Pumpkinhead, a horror film co-scripted and directed by Winston. Winston’s effects for the Alien Queen’s attack employed, “Every technical device you could possibly use in a movie, from oldest to things never before used. I never saw so much talent being exercised on the same soundstage,” Henriksen says, slightly awed by the memory.

“The last scene took almost two weeks to shoot. It was like being in the center ring at Ringling Brothers Circus. There I was, cut in half, lying on the floor, covered with milk and yoghurt, looking up at the 15-foot Queen. Above me and behind me, this big dropship is smoking. The only thing missing was a guy on a trapeze swinging down!”

Feeling at home with his craft, Henriksen literally metamorphosises into his characters. “A director friend calls me ‘the chameleon’ because, somehow, depending on what’s happening with the person I’m playing, I really change something. I do it organically. Sometimes,” he muses, I see my own films and say, ‘God, I don’t know who that guy is.’ I’m trying to keep instant recognition at a distance as long as I possibly can. I don’t want the audience to be taken out of a movie because they know who I am. I would hate to become as familiar as cornflakes because it hurts your storytelling a little bit.”

“The weirdest thing is happening. Even when I have a beard, people recognize me as Bishop. So, I’m in big trouble now. I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this one.”

Having interacted with strong female characters in many of his films, Henriksen affirms that he likes competent woman. “I like the idea of a matriarchal system, which, by its nature, is pretty good for men. It provides a natural nurturing process, which works, especially in acting, and I think there’s a lot of room for women directors in this business. My last film, Near Dark, was with a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow, who co-wrote it with Eric Red [The Hitcher]. It’s produced by Steven Jaffe, who is a real gift to the industry. But Kathryn Bigelow – that’s a name to remember.”

Originally printed in Starlog #121, August 1987.

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