James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd on Aliens
LOFFICIER: Ridley Scott's Alien was an incredibly scary movie. Aliens on the other hand, isn't actually scary, but it grabs hold of you about fifteen minutes in, and never lets go. It's more suspenseful, like a roller coaster ride...
JAMES CAMERON: You captured exactly the distinction between the two films that we set out to do. In other words, that was our intention going in, to do a film that was not as scary... it's scary, but it's not as scary, but more intense, and I like to use the word, exhilarating. Because I think you get exhilarated by the intensity of the kind of action that's in this film. At least, when it's presented in a good theatre, with a good sound system and so on.
Lofficier: Did you have the ending in mind from the beginning, and then pace it backwards, or did you just discover it as you went along?
Cameron: It was definitely developed with the beginning as a given...
Lofficier: You knew you had Sigourney Weaver?
GALE ANN HURD: We knew that it would be about the character. At the time Sigourney Weaver was not signed.
Lofficier: So, you would, conceivably, have put another actress in the part?
Cameron: No. Never, never, never! I was asked to write a story based on Ripley. Later on it turned out that everybody but us thought that the film could be made without Sigourney Weaver, which completely blew my mind, and was absolutely out of the question for us. So, as far as we were concerned, we started with Ripley from the end of the last film, and it was her story. We, fortunately, were able to overcome these obstacles in the minds of the other people involved. We had to fight very hard for Sigourney to be in the picture, which to me was crazy...
Hurd: Then it's not a sequel, it's something else.
Cameron: It's another movie, and why bother.
Lofficier: Was calling it AlienS your idea?
Cameron: It's funny. It was very much like... I don't know Dan O'Bannon, but I read an interview with him that said that he was typing away one night at 4 o'clock in the morning, and he was writing, "the alien did this, the the alien did that," and he realized 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 succint. 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...
Lofficier: Going back to the end... Did you have the idea of the Queen from the beginning?
Cameron: I thought it was very important to have something beyond that hadn't been seen before in the first film, even though we have a number of aliens throughout the main body of the film. They're mainly a reprise of Mr. Giger's design. I thought it was important to show some new form beyond that. And, I think there's a lot of revelation going on there, as to how their whole social organization works. I think of the Queen as a character, rather than as a thing or an animal...
Lofficier: As you can tell from Ripley's dialogue at the end...
Cameron: Well, she has to take it very seriously as a thinking entity.
Lofficier: Someone raised the point that having the concept of a queen alien was in contradiction to the reproductive cycle of the alien as it was implied in the first film.
Hurd: Where did the eggs come from then?
Lofficier: From the humans that had been infected by the alien.
Cameron: But, you see, that was never seen at all. Yes, it's in contradiction to the reproductive cycle that was in the original script of the first film. But it's not in contradiction to what you saw in the film. What you saw in the film was a thousand eggs, one of them hatches, one of them goes through its life cycle, becomes an adult, and is killed. There is no connection between the adult and the future eggs. Now, in the scene that was apparently shot and cut, and which I never saw, in which Tom Skerrit and Harry Dean Stanton are turning into eggs, that closed the cycle. But, to me, that was completely irrelevant to what you actually saw in the film.
Unless you're an ardent fan of the film and studied what was taken out, which to me is irrelevant to the group experience of this movie, it's not a contradiction, it's merely an alternative explanation. And a more plausible one, really.
Lofficier: Obviously, you've given this point a lot of thought. This change was not made lightly.
Cameron: Yes, it was a conscious decision. Had the first film appeared in its complete form, then I would have had to take a different approach to the story. But I felt only a responsibility to what people saw within the first film, not the intentions of various people behind it.
Hurd: Few people knew this anyway. Most of the people we spoke to assumed the alien was a shape changer.
Cameron: No, I don't think that's quite true either. Some people might have been misled, but I don't think everybody was. I never thought it was a shape changer.
Lofficier: Why was not H. R. Giger actively involved in this film?
Cameron: Well, there are a number of reasons. One, he was doing Poltergeist II, and we didn't know exactly how long that commitment was, but we heard that he was busy. But honestly, I think that if we had really wanted to fight for him, we could have worked around it. However, we already had Syd Mead, and Ron Cobb, involved. Both of them are designers who were also working on other projects at the same time. And I didn't want to deal with yet another designer who was also working on another project.
The other thing is that I wanted to personally take charge of that aspect of the design. I knew Syd was going to handle some of the fantastic high tech hardware of the future; Ron was going to deal with the Colony. I just wanted an area for myself.
Lofficier: So you designed the Queen?
Cameron: I did, with Stan Winston. I did the artwork, and he did the physical sculptural work. We tried to be consistent with Giger's motifs, but not necessarily enslaved to it.
Lofficier: You saw the Queen much more in this film than we did of the Alien in the first film. I thought she looked very good.
Cameron: I think we had the advantage of her not being exactly an anthropomorphic figure, so she obviously is not a person in a suit. Your willing suspension of disbelief is aided by the fact that it's clearly not a performer in a suit. On one hand, you know that it's achieved by a sort of puppeting technique, but the fact that you also know that it's not just a person dressed up immediately helps you perceive it as a living creature.
Lofficier: I thought you showed a great deal of cleverness in shooting the Queen, too. In terms of lights, cuts, etc... it was all kept to a minimum.
Cameron: You have to be not too in love with the effects, if you see what I mean. I understand why some directors choose not to hide the special effects work. They try to make it so compelling that it looks real under normal everyday conditions. But I think it's why one of those logic traps. You become so enamored of the illusion that the story is no longer what's important.
Lofficier: For the first movie, they had to find a very tall actor to put inside the alien suit. Did you have to do the same thing here?
Cameron: From looking at the first film, I realize that all the work that they did was not always necessary. I mean, they were charting new territory. They were creating a lot of stuff from scratch. So they had a number of disadvantages, whereas I got to compare their original intentions with what finally wound up in the film. And you can see that the alien almost never appears, and certainly never appears standing side by side with a normal size person, except I think in one shot, very briefly, and even then, it was not a full-figure shot. It was from the waist up, and he could have easily been up on something.
So I realized that we didn't have to find ten seven-foot tall people. All the aliens you saw in the film were six-foot tall, regular-size people, but very thin. They were the thinnest people that we could get that had the physical strength to do the movements. A lot of it was done hanging on wires, which required a fair amount of strength and agility. What we tried to go for was more speed, rapid action and physical agility.
Hurd: The suits were redesigned so that they would allow more movements. The first suit had a very limited scope of action.
Cameron: We had access to the remains of the first suit. We were able to study it. When Stan Winston and I first sat down right at the beginning to go over these things, we talked about it. The two basic improvements were not as much sculptural, as they were mechanic. We wanted the actors to be able to move with a much greater degree of flexibility. We wanted the suits to be lighter, and less restricting, especially the heads, with better vision.
I put the old suit on myself, so that I would understand from standing outside what it was like to be inside -- you see what I mean? And I couldn't see anything. I knew that I would never get the kind of movements that I wanted from the actors with that suit. They had to run, crawl, leap from wall to wall, drop down, all sort of things.
Lofficier: Let me ask you something else. Why does the dialog of the film seem so much steeped in the 1940s, 1950s war movies style? Why not go the Bladerunner way and try to create a new futuristic linguo?
Cameron: The sense of the dramatic relationships from these 1940s, 1950s war films, which sort of portrayed the common soldier, was more what I was looking for. The dialog itself, the idiom, is pretty much Vietnam era. It's the most contemporary American combat "warspeak" that I had access to. I studied how soldiers talked in Vietnam, and I took certain specific bits of terminology, and a general sense of how they express themselves, and I used that for the dialogue, to try and make it seem like a realistic sort of military expedition, as opposed to a high tech, futuristic one. I wanted to create more of a sense of realism rather than that of an interesting future.
Lofficier: Like Hellcats of the Pacific in space!
Cameron: Exactly! There is a conscious sense of reprising what would be cliches if it was an earthbound combat film. But because it's in a SF context, the cliched aspects are taken away. Because the imagery and the technology are new.
There are two different arguments about the dialog, really. It's 150 years from now. We may speak completely differently than we do now. But we don't know that. We don't know what it will really be like. But to someone living in that time, no matter what the language is, they will be at home in that language. So it's very important for us to be at home in the language that we hear in the movie. We're supposed to project ourselves into it.
It's like the idea that, perhaps, in 150 years from now, television sets may not even remotely resemble what we know as video today. Maybe they will be holograms, or maybe they will fill entire walls, or perpaps they will project directly into the brain, or whatever. We don't know what it will be, but it will be something different. And whatever it is, it will be familiar to those people, buf if we were to walk into a room, we would very likely not recognize it for the equivalent of a TV set.
If you're trying to create a textural reality within a film, you can't go to the extreme of suggesting what technology will be like. You have to keep it one step beyond what it currently is, but no more, so that you can look at it and say, "Right, that's a TV set! It's a futuristic TV set, but I know what that is.
Hurd: Also with the electronic mass media today, there's less of a deviation in language now than there was a hundred years ago, from a hundred years before that. I think there's more homogeneity in the way we speak, and it's likely to continue.
Cameron: That's the other argument. One could argue that the language has probably stabilized now, and will remain basically the same at least for another couple of hundred years ago. I don't think, for instance, that we speak vastly differently now than we did fourty years ago.
Lofficier: In a way, it is consistent with the mood of the first film, which tried to play it like "truckers in space."
Cameron: Right. It's the same blue collar, everyman character approach, except in a different way.
Lofficier: The "lifter" exo-skeleton that Ripley uses at the end of the film looks a bit like a "Transformer" robot. Was there any influence?
Cameron: 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. 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.
In this particular film, the origin of it was that I wanted to have the final confrontation with the Alien be a hand-to-hand fight. 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 equalize 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.
Lofficier: Why reuse the ending of the first film, I mean, expelling the alien into space?
Cameron: It seemed the only way to go. There was no other way that satisfied me. Crippling her to death would have been impossible. Remember, the acid blood... The image that I could not shake free was the idea of literally hanging, being suspended over an infinite abyss. It was not so much getting rid of the alien as the jeopardy that Ripley was in after the alien was already out. I wanted to have the image of standing along something, and the doors open, and there is nothing there but stars. Which I don't think had been done in a film. The closest thing was in Alien.
Lofficier: I'm not a scientist, but did you check if she really could have survived for such a long time, considering what she was experiencing, the decompression, the air rushing through, etc?
Cameron: It's artistic license really. I've studied enough physics in college, that if I had sat down and worked it out, I probably could have computed the amount of volume of air that the room should have in relation to the size of the airlock...
Hurd: Besides, you never see the room in its entirety. It could be huge!
Cameron: Or you could presuppose that all the air throughout the entire ship is being drawn out. Obviously, she was able to override the interior doors so that they would not automatically close when the outer doors opened, which is how a real airlock would have to work, safely. But one could assume that they had the capability of doing that so that they could load things in and out through that door, straight into the ship.
But I think it's very unlikely, not that she could breathe, because for the length of time that the air was going out, she could breathe, but that she could hold on. The wind velocity would probably be somewhere around 300 to 350 miles per hour.
Lofficier: There are several places in the film when, as a writer, you ask the audience to accept something that is not extremely logical, to suspend disbelief, to go along for the ride, if you wish. Then, the director comes to the rescue and makes the scene so captivating, so enthralling that we don't ask ourselves any embarassing questions -- at least, until after we've left the theater. For instance, Ripley has just seen her friend been severely hurt by a splash of the aliens' acid blood. And when she goes back in to get Newt, she discards all her protective clothing and just go in in a T-shirt. That does not make any sense. She should know better. But it didn't really bother me because the pacing was so good... You see what I mean?
Cameron: Actually, you can explain most of these things logically if you wish. In this case, it's the heat. She even takes off some of her clothes...
Lofficier: But she could die...
Cameron: Yes, but you can die from heat too! It was supposed to have been very hot, because the reactor is going to explode. I'm not sure that it was visually explicit that it was very, very hot, but it was supposed to be really red hot in there. Part of the problem is that a lot of the colors are cool, so that the inferno aspect of the scene does not come across as clearly as I would have liked.
Lofficier: O.K., but when you were writing the script, were you aware at any time that you were taking chances with the credibility of the story by coming up with something that's a little bit too hard to swallow, or did you just trust the director to pull the fat out of the fire? For example, there is the ending with the Queen coming out of the landing gear, or the scene when the crew barricade themselves in and later the aliens just walk through the ceiling -- surely, they should have thought of that?
Cameron: Being a visual person, I work backwards from the imagery that I like. The logic of a scene, I believe, is secondary to the enjoyment of it. You have to assume that Ripley was dumb enough not to check the sub-ceiling, or you have to assume that she was so thorough that she though she had accounted for everything, and there was something that she had missed or didn't know, or wasn't in the blueprint.
Yes, as a writer, you wrestle with all these things. It's not as much a question of whether it's illogical, it's a question of whether you need to put in so much expository material to explain the point. If you overexplain, you look like you're talking to the audience, which is not good. You're telegraphing. You're no longer have the surprise.
For example, when the Queen holds on to the landing gear, and stows away inside the ship for the final sequence, do we show that? Do we show how she did it? No, because then you'd lose the surprise factor.
Lofficier: In fact, I thought you were going to pull off yet another twist ending...
Cameron: No, no, two endings were enough! Apparently, there was some debate at the end of alien as to whether they should show a facehugger clinging on to the other side of the Narcissus.
Lofficier: Being both writer and director, it must make it easier to decide when to explain things or not?
Cameron: The specific things we've been talking about were all pretty much decided at the writing stage. In this case, when you're writing, you're really pre-directing the film, as opposed to a director who just arrives on the set. So you already understand the material when you come in as director. If I were writing for another director, I'd still try to second-guess the visual decisions.
Lofficier: I wanted to ask you about the Company executive character. It reminded me of a Studio executive...
Hurd: Or an agent. (laughter) Or anyone in any industry. We're most familiar with the entertainment industry, but I think it could be extrapolated to just the entire industrial complex. Multi-national conglomerates and this sort of things.
Cameron: All the studio executives think that he's an agent, and all the agents think that he's a studio executive! (laughter)
Lofficier: How did you decide to have a little girl, Newt, being a substitute for Jonesey the cat in this film?
Cameron: Yes, she's a surrogate cat, isn't she? It's hard to trace back some of those creative decisions. They just came up when I was thinking about the story.
Hurd: I think it's important to have an emotional center to the film, hopefully to raise it above the mere level of action, science fiction, horror types of films that don't seem to convey that dramatics are as important as anything else.
Lofficier: The fact that the survivors in this film are women is very important to me. And the fact the Sigourney Weaver will allow herself to be filmed with her hair looking like that, without make-up. She is really the perfect person for the part.
Hurd: Sigourney is an actress first and a movie star second.
Lofficier: Did she have any input in the role?
Cameron: Absolutely. She had ideas about certain lines of dialog, and certain things that she thought she could say. We went through the entire script with her, and did a sort of dialog polish together. It was all those things combined: rehearsals, writing, etc... The script didn't change very much, but it was fine tuned to her.
Lofficier: Her relationship with Newt showed a great deal of her more human side.
Cameron: Actually, those scenes didn't change at all. The scenes that she was most concerned with altering were the first three or four scenes when she gets back. And the scenes with Burke. She felt that my approach was too trusting towards Burke. That I had her put her trust in him too early. And I said that if you are completely mistrustful of this character, then our misdirection won't work. You will never go and there is no film. So at a certain point, you have to be convinced by him.
Lofficier: Having her go back in order to get rid of her nightmares was an excellent idea, I thought.
Cameron: I think some people missed the point. They think she goes because she'll get her job back, but that's not the case. There's no amount of money that could do it. One of my biggest problems writing the film was coming up with a reason why she goes back. It had to be psychological. One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, 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. That was a good metaphor for her character. I did a bit of that in Rambo as well, but it didn't get used.
Lofficier: How was the little girl who played Newt to work with?
Cameron: She was very good. She memorized all of her scenes in advance. Basically, we were able to do complete takes of the entire scenes. She did most of her own "stunts," so to speak. Nothing dangerous, but a lot of exertion. Like in the scene where they are climbing on into the ship and it's lifting up out of the fire and explosions. That was really Sigourney and Carrie climbing up onto this ladder and being lifted up thirty feet in the air over the floor of the soundstage. Just because Carrie wouldn't let anybody else do it for her. She had to do it. We had stunt people right out of frame that were ready to grab her and that sort of things. We reheased it pretty well too.
Lofficier: I bet she must have liked the scene where she had to slide down the ramp?
Cameron: She loved that. She was disappointed that we only did six takes. (laughter)
Lofficier: How was working in England?
Hurd: It's really a much different approach, even though we speak the same language. It's very different culturally. It's always difficult when you're taking on such a tough project to begin with, both in terms of what we wanted to accomplish and the fact that we didn't want to be a paler version of the original, the first film. Then, also, doing it in such a short period of time. So, to have to adjust, in addition, to different ways of working was difficult.
Lofficier: Why go there in the first place?
Hurd: There were two reasons...
Cameron: More production value...
Hurd: ...One was that the first film was shot there, and it turned out very well. There are really only three places in the world that you could have shot this film, England, Germany and America. At the time, Fox did not have the stage space available, and we needed very large stages for a long period of time, and also stages adjacent, where we could do the effects. The company just did not have the spaces necessary.
Cameron: Yeah, but I think you get more production value for your dollar in England...
Hurd: You got more when we started, when the exchange rate was $1.25 than we did when we left, when it was $1.55!
Cameron: The decision to go to England was based on an exchange rate of $1.10, so...
Lofficier: The first movie was made almost exclusively with European technicians and artists. This time, you imported more American craftsmen?
Cameron: Well, yes, Stan Winston was brought there because we knew Stan from Terminator, and we trusted him.
Hurd: He used a very large British crew.
Cameron: I'd say it was mostly a British crew. John Richardson, our Special Effects Supervisor, who built the power loader suit and did all the practical special effects; Peter Lamont, our production designer, who worked on a number of Bond films; the cameraman, etc. With the exception of Stan Winston, and about three or four people in the miniature, visual effects department, we used mostly British people. Ron Cobb did most of his work in Los Angeles. He came over to England for a couple of weeks.
Lofficier: Was there any incident during the shooting?
Cameron: No, we had no accident, we had no stunts that were wrong, no stuntman was injured, no crew were injured and no sets were burned down or destroyed -- other than, I think, that the Pinewood set laborers love to take the sets apart and burn them in that bonfire that they have behind the studio. So in case you need another shot, they have to build it all again! (laughter
They will take the set down and take them out and burn them so fast that you don't have time to say, "Wait!" I'm absolutely that it's a job security concept. If they burn the set, and you need another short -- and they know you always need another shot -- so they will have to build it again. So it keeps them employed.
Lofficier: What are your next projects?
Hurd: I have one. We don't have one. Mine is not a genre film. It's a drama that deals with apartheid in South Africa. It's entitled The Silent Man. I'm waiting for the go-ahead.
Cameron: I'm going to take some time off and do some writing. Perhaps I'll write maybe two or three scripts before we shoot another film together. Probably one or two of these scripts will be genre scripts, meaning in the fantasy or SF umbrella in the widest sense.
Lofficier: Would you go back to being simply a writer, or will you direct all of your scripts from now on?
Cameron: These will all be for me to direct. Writing is difficult and takes a lot out of me emotionally. I can't write quickly enough for someone else. Also, if I write and I come across a really good idea, I know I'll put it in the script that I am writing, even if it's for someone else. I won't try to save it back for another script that I'd be doing. And I don't want to give away all my good ideas.
Lofficier: Do you enjoy working together as a team?
Cameron: We don't always get along. There's always creative dialog. I know this movie would not have been possible to do, as you saw it, within the budget parameters, if we hadn't made such a good team. I never could have done it with another producer who wasn't backing me 100%. And I don't think Gale could have done it with another director, who was trying to achieve something at the expense of schedule and production costs.
Interview © 2001 Randy Lofficier