With Alien: Covenant about to hit screens in 2017, we thought we’d take a trip back and explore one of the most successful and often turbulent franchises in cinema history. This six part article series will take you from the beginning, through all the twists and turns, all the way through to Ridley Scott’s latest entry into the Alien legacy.
It seems hard to believe in this day and age, but although Alien had been a decent win at the box office for Fox, there was no immediate call for sequel. Ridley Scott had moved on to other things, O’Bannon and Schusset had experienced a tumultuous and toxic relationship with the players of Brandywine, so were in no mood to do it again. Even Brandywine’s Giler and Hill, who would eventually go on to be involved in some way or another with all the Ripley-centric films, had thought a sequel would probably be asked for, but since it wasn’t, they weren’t in any hurry to get one going. Added to which they would file suit against Fox for allegedly being short-changed on the profits, and until that matter was settled, it was a no go zone.
A New Player Emerges
As all the key players went on to involve themselves in other things, far away from Fox a new player was starting to make his way through the ranks of Roger Corman’s shlock productions, eventually becoming the default director of Piranha 2: The Spawning. While hardly a masterpiece or anything more than a footnote in his now lengthy filmography, James Cameron, a former truck driver turned production designer/default director, was now on the fast track to follow on where Ridley Scott left off. With Fox and Brandywine coming to terms on reimbursements, the road was now clear.
Knocking on Cameron's Door
It was not Corman’s derivative Jaws rip offs that would get Cameron noticed, but something that Cameron recounted was conceived of in a fevered nightmare: The Terminator. As often happens in the film industry, a buzz had started to form around the young filmmaker even before the film had been made or released. And the likes of Sylvester Stallone and the Brandywine members were soon knocking on Cameron’s door.
Not knowing what The Terminator was about to do for his career (and for its star Arnold Schwarzenegger), Cameron had thought it best to avail himself of both invitations he had received to write sequels for First Blood and Alien. He set an obscenely short schedule to complete both tasks and set to work with hungry ambition and one would imagine little sleep. It would be the Rambo sequel that made it to the screen first, but after a four day writing binge, Cameron provided the Alien sequel treatment to the decision makers and went into production on The Terminator.
Based on his 45 page treatment, a complete departure from O’Bannon’s horror movie in space, Brandywine and Fox agreed to wait (absolutely unheard of these days) until Cameron had The Terminator in the can. He would have to deliver a script that fulfilled the premise of his treatment, and they even dangled the carrot of the director’s chair and the producer’s chair for his colleague and wife Gale Hurd, IF The Terminator proved successful.
A Completely Different Animal
Well, you’d have been in some remote cave to not know how that turned out. Come 1985, Jim Cameron was a hot commodity, and the job was his. He immediately set to task on his razor sharp take of the Alien universe. This one would continue the story of Ripley, lost in hyper-sleep for 57 years. There the similarities end. Cameron would deliver a war movie, with all the grit and bravado he could cram into a couple of hours. This would be a completely different animal than the first. What wouldn’t be any different would be the war all the players would have to fight to see it realised.
Go to Hell!
The script was barely written and the first of many disagreements began. Weaver had been brought in, liked Cameron, liked the script and has always been a strong advocate that he was a rarity of a writer who got the character’s voice and wrote her dialogue well. But when it came time to make a deal, Weaver asked for a million dollars and Fox balked.
Now to be fair in 1985 that was a hefty pay cheque for any actor of the day to receive. Only the crème de le crème of stars could command such sums. And while Weaver had certainly paved her way into recognition and had some significant box office wins by then (Ghostbusters) there were those at Fox that considered the sequel to Alien a risk even without a payroll commitment of that magnitude. They told her to go jump and informed Cameron to write the sequel without Ripley.
In true Cameron style, something that is now the topics of many ‘making of’ novels and documentaries, his reply was short and direct: ‘Go to Hell.’ Brave to say the least. A director with only one success under his belt against the might of 20th Century Fox, but in the end, he would set a precedent that has come to define his career. He prevailed. Aliens would be done with those he wanted, and his way, or he wouldn’t do it.
The Cast Fills Out
Weaver was now a lock. An exhaustive casting process would now follow to fill out the ranks of the marines, and the sole survivor of LV-426. Because the film was to be shot in the U.K. certain British Equity rules had to be followed. As a result, anyone living or working in Britain had to be tested for the roles before anyone from the U.S. After seeing literally thousands of actors, the cast started to fill out with predominately American actors. Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrickson, and Al Mathews would be brought over from the States amongst others. Jeanette Goldstein, a U.S. ex-pat living in the U.K., would be cast as the scene stealing Vasquez. But the toughest role to cast was that of Newt. Little Carrie Henn, who only ever starred in this film, gave a flawless and believable audition that Hurd says left all other’s forgotten. Most of the actors, with the exception of Weaver, arrived before principle photography to learn how to be marines as Cameron assemble his team to create all new designs for the film.
The Visual Effects Team Comes Together
Fellow Corman alumni Robert and Dennis Skotak would handle visual effects. Ron Cobb would return from the original film to design ships and interiors. Stan Winston, who worked with Cameron on the terminator, would handle the creature designs. John Richardson, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work, would head up special effects. Through the efforts of these men and their crews, a convincing, thrilling, and surprisingly realistic universe would appear. It would be the last part of the equation to go smoothly for Cameron.
The obvious talents of James Cameron and his sheer uncompromising willpower were fast becoming known within the industry, but to the world at large, or even more importantly the British crew that was gearing up for principle photography, were yet to discover what it would be like to achieve that vision. Cameron is nowadays well known for being a tough director, who won’t suffer fools or settle for anything but what he deems is what is required. In very short order, members of the cast and crew found out the hard way.
First James Remar, who audiences probably know of in recent years as Dexter’s dad, was originally cast as Hicks. But after he was arrested for drug possession, Cameron kicked his ass to the curb and brought in Michael Beihn to play the part. Then there was director of photography, Dick Bush. Like most of the British crew, Bush had little knowledge of and (after working with him for a few days) little respect for James Cameron. They clashed constantly about the lighting. With Cameron and Hurd becoming increasing frustrated with Bush and the crew’s attitude toward the work. The ambitious American power couple were not used to the British film industry standards, and constantly felt hobbled and/or marginalised by the crew. When Bush refused to follow Cameron’s direction, Hurd stepped in and sent him packing. As a result, the entire crew walked off the set and refused to return until Bush was reinstated. Cameron and Hurd countered with they would pull the production and go elsewhere. A nasty and costly stalemate had occurred. After an insistent push from Fox, Hurd managed to coax the crew to return, but Bush was history. Adrian Biddle replaced him.
Time, and an ever tightening budget, plagued Cameron throughout production and did nothing to lighten the mood on the set. But all involved, from the director down, used their none-too meagre skills to fight their way to the finish line. All their blood, sweat and tears are in every frame and to a one the work is spectacular.
"If You Can’t Do it We’ll Find Someone Who Can."
If the difference of opinion Ridley Scott had with Jerry Goldsmith over the score was hard on the first Alien, the stoush between Cameron and composer James Horner would be one for the record books. Horner recounts that when he arrived to write the score, there was 6 weeks remaining until release, enough time in his estimation, to do the job. But what he found was a production in fevered disarray. All previous problems and Cameron’s steely determination to get every the way he wanted it done, had pushed every department to their limit. There was no cut of the film for Horner to watch. They were still, in fact, shooting some shots and Cameron was busy fighting the last of his many battles to get what he felt he needed. Horner’s process was at least to have a cut of the film before he could get to work and another three weeks would pass before he could begin.
With Fox breathing down their necks and the entire shoot’s stresses weighing heavily on their shoulders, Cameron and Hurd tried to play hardball with Horner, dismissing his insistence that there wasn’t enough time left for him to give his all. Hurd’s response, according to Horner, was ‘If you can’t do it we’ll find someone who can.’ His response was to call their bluff, but ultimately the release date remained. He ended up soldiering through it, and the score is highly regarded to this day, but it was such an unpleasant experience the composer refused to work with Cameron again and stuck by it for a decade.
With a tagline of ‘This time it’s war’, Aliens was completed with a week to spare before theatrical dates hit. There were no previews. There wasn’t time. Before all those involved in its construction could wipe the sweat from their collective brows, its ferocious balls to the wall narrative and unrelenting spectacle unleashed upon the world to almost universal applause.
One of the Greatest Sequels Ever Made
It is to this day regarded as one of the greatest sequels ever made. In fact some argue that is better than the original. It is still, after all these years, one of this reviewer’s favourite movies. It’s a masterpiece in pace, in narrative, in tension and elation, and is often voted one of the greatest action movies ever made.
Sigourney Weaver cemented her status with this film, breaking through the genre wall with an Oscar nomination and more than earning her rather large pay cheque. To a one, all involved now say the pains of making Aliens was worth it.
If there was any doubt about James Cameron before the release of this film, there was none afterward. When one can follow on from Ridley Scott and match him in praise, propelling a story forward without lazily relying upon the successes already established, truly adding something original within a familiar narrative, you have made a rare thing: a sequel that rewards its audience as well as the studio and its box office motivations.
A Bar Too High?
The Alien franchise would continue. But never again would it, or in fact any franchise, manage to hold the bar as high as this did. What would continue would be the tumultuous productions, with ever diminishing returns. But that story is for another time.
Here's the trailer for James Cameron's Aliens (1986)