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 2, Return of Alien, Revenge 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:
Not long afterwards, details for a movie sequel emerged in the press:
- 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.
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.”
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 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 the first Alien II draft throughout The Terminator’s production. There was even another promise: if The Terminator was successful, then Cameron could direct the Alien sequel. “I agreed to write Alien II on the basis– and on the sole basis –that I direct it,” Cameron said. “I created the characters, I created the scenario, and I got emotionally involved. I had a large creative investment in what I’d done up to that point.”
The first public announcement that Cameron had written the sequel came in December 1984, when he told Starlog magazine: “I have written the screenplay for Alien II. It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can’t really say anything more about Alien II than that it exists.” While drafting the screenplay Cameron, who had never intended for his sequel to imitate the original film, concocted a title that shed the roman numerals and allowed it to immediately air its own identity. “I don’t know Dan O’Bannon,” he explained, “but I read an interview with him that said he was typing away one night at four o’clock in the morning, and he was writing , ‘the Alien did this, the Alien did that,’ and he realised that the word ‘alien’ stood out on the page. It was very much like that for me on this film. I was writing away and it was ‘Aliens this and Aliens that’ and it was just right. It was succinct. It had all the power of the first title, and it also implied the plurality of the threat. It also implied, of course, that it’s a sequel, without having to say Alien II.” The first draft was handed into Fox in early 1984, and was received with enthusiasm by the studio. There was some sweat shed over the cost: Cameron’s partner and producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted the film could be made for around $15.5 million; Fox estimated it would total an unacceptable $35 million.
A bigger snag came when Cameron insisted that only Sigourney Weaver could play the lead. Fox protested that taking such a stance would allow Weaver a great deal of leverage over her pay, and that they would make Aliens without her if possible. In return, Cameron and Hurd left the project and, recently married, honeymooned to Hawaii. “We assumed it was a dead issue,” said Hurd, “and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.” But when they returned they found that the movie was still on, and that Weaver had been approached to resume her role of Ripley. Weaver, having found the script suddenly dropped in her lap, was impressed enough with Ripley’s characterisation to sign on. “The emotional content is much greater in Aliens,” she said. “I tried to imagine and comprehend something like that […] Coming back to a whole different world and haunted by the other one. Ripley’s personal situation is so bleak. I know I’m playing the same character, but I feel she has changed so utterly by what happens to her early in the film. I don’t think she’s the earnest young ensign she was when she went into space the first time.”
“To begin with, Alien happened in space,” Cameron told Prevue magazine in ’86. “The characters literally existed in a vacuum – they had no past or life beyond that film. Ripley, of course was the only survivor because she was a very strong female, and that impressed me very much. I wanted to take the character further, to know Ripley as a person, to see some depth and emotion. The movie is about her, every scene. It gets inside her mind, takes her back to face her own worst nightmare – and conquer it, so to speak. In a way, Aliens is about her revenge.” Weaver affirmed Cameron’s concern that a Ripley without catharsis would ultimately end up as a self-destructive person: “I play a character who, probably, if she stayed at home and the nightmares continued, she might end up with a loaded gun next to her bed.”
“Ripley is very different [in Aliens]. The horrific experience she endured on the Nostromo changed her irrevocably from the eager young ensign to a really haunted person. And we must remember that she drifted in space for fifty-seven years … I firmly believe that Ripley’s mind never stopped working while she slept … she’s probably been over that experience in various nightmare forms through the years. Ripley has to start life over again and finds it very difficult to do so. There are so many ghosts in her life. And yet she agrees to face the horror once again … She feels she must finally lay to rest the ghosts and sadness of the past or there will be no future for her. But once on the planet and faced with the nightmarish situation, she finds a purpose … she finds she can identify with the little girl, Newt, who is the only other person to experience what Ripley experienced, and survive … She is a fellow creature who shares the same nightmare. When Ripley finds her, her life means something again.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, 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.”