In Deadly Combat with "ALIENS"

by Adam Pirani

One thing I've decided," says filmmaker James Cameron, “is that the next film is not going to be about guns, cars or space.”

As writer/director of ALIENS and Terminator, and co-writer of Rambo: First Blood Part ll, the 32-year-old Cameron can already lay claim to having made a permanent mark in the action and SF movie genres.

For Cameron (who discussed his earlier movies in FANGORIA 056 and STARLOG #89), ALIENS represents his first major studio picture. One of' his intentions with the $17 million film was to deal with positive themes. "In a way – without this sounding stupid – almost everyone in the film is a hero,” he says, “with the exception of' one character. ALIENS is an exploration of courage and heroism – hopefully one without cliches. And every character reflects it in a completely different way. It's about being pushed to the limit, and finding the resources to act.

“I'm talking about the key characters, the core group: Hicks, Vasquez, Gorman, Drake, Hudson. Hudson's a perfect example. He's the character who seems to be the coward of' the group – always whining and complaining, but, in one last burst, he gets it together.

"After years of being pummeled by depressing films exploring the nether reaches of human depravity, I think an audience wants to see some positive emotion. And that's what I was trying with all the characters - except the bad guy."

According to Cameron, genre movies offer the freedom to deal with ideas that would be impossible or unacceptable in a contemporary scenario. “In a science fictional sense, there's something in this film that I haven't seen done," he says. "It's an amalgam of SF with another tried and true movie genre, the war film about the small, close-knit group of men under pressure. In our case, it's men and women, which is an opportunity you can only do in science fiction because the co-ed combat force hasn't happened yet.

"ALIENS takes cliches – the bonding between them, what happens, what disintegrates, what gets stronger, all that, which creates an emotional crucible out of a combat situation – and transports them into a science fictional context. In a sense, it's what George Lucas did with Star Wars – taking cliches from Westerns and other old movies and putting them into a breathtaking new environment, and it becomes viable again. Raiders of the Lost Ark also proved you could do that.

"At a certain level, there are large parts of this film that work as 'Grunts in Space.' And that's absolutely the intention. On the other hand, after Rambo, I'm not interested in making a film where people are running around shooting each other and getting into the moral complications of saying, 'Well, just because they're wearing a different uniform from a different country, it's OK,' in order to feel absolutely lily-white and clean about the havoc that's wrought on their bodies by high velocity ballistic weapons.

"So, no human being kills another human being in this movie, but the SF environment allows an incredible amount of firepower unleashed in quite exciting ways. So it's sort of violence without guilt.

“ALIENS is the film I wanted to see when I was 14 years old.”

The question of violence in his movies is a problem that Cameron perceives as being inherent in the nature of the medium. “There are two equally balanced arguments,” he observes. "One is that people will be inspired to be violent by screen violence, and the other is that people who might be violent will have a cathartic experience watching screen violence and leave the theater purged.

“I would say that the chances of those arguments being true are about equal, and so, I don't worry about it. I just do what I like, what's exciting.

“You can't have conflict without violence, whether it's emotional, verbal or physical violence. If, as a filmmaker, you like action, excitement, visual movement and editorial panache, you could do music videos or a musical – or you can do action.

“Now, I say action, you say violence: choose your word.”

The Trauma

Against the background of its future war setting, Cameron also wanted to use ALIENS to explore more intimate emotional and dramatic themes, using the single character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). “One of the dramatic approaches I wanted to get off my chest is the sense of taking a character to the absolute limit of what they think they can stand, and then giving them a reason to go far beyond that,” he explains.

“Ripley is a type of character which has always fascinated me, in a general sense – someone who has been through a very traumatic experience, and how it affects them, and affects their life.

"I'm fascinated by characters who carry some great weight with them. I think you can see it in Terminator's Kyle Reese – somebody who has this tremendous psychic burden and how it affects and colors him.

"I don't know where this comes from because I've never had a serious trauma in any life, but I think that's maybe why it interests me. I like to probe at it – what would it be like, and how would these individuals put the pieces of their lives back together, and what would they do if they were faced with it again'? Would they be weaker or stronger, would they flee from it, or find the tools to deal with it”. That's really what this is all about."

Ripley's relationship with Newt is very significant in this respect, Cameron notes. "In fact, I started the story synopsis that we gave to Fox with the line, 'Sometimes, survival isn't enough,' ” he recalls. “Ripley survived her first encounter with the Alien, but this film takes her to the point where she's probably ready to blow her brains out because that's what it can be like. You know, so many veterans who came back from Vietnam, who killed themselves – all they could think about while they were there was surviving, and then they got back and too much of their world had been swept away in the process, their attitudes had changed too much.

“The whole idea of the little girl is a `light at the end of the tunnel' concept. If Ripley was to go into it alone and survive another encounter with these organisms, after I've set up in the first act that the first time completely destroyed her life, then that's not going to be a satisfying ending. There must be a sense that, when she comes through the fire this time, it's an end to the cycle. She will have the tools to go on. So, the relationship with the little girl, Newt, is absolutely critical.

“The other idea that I've always been fascinated by is: 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? And so, really, it's a love story – not between a man and a woman, but between a woman and a little girl, who becomes her surrogate daughter. If this all sounds sappy, I think it's OK because there are many other elements that balance it out.

“Stylistically, ALIENS owns much more to Terminator than it does to ALIEN, in the sense that Terminator was intended as a full-on, adrenaline, rollercoaster ride, with a solid emotional base, and accessible characters – and that's the intention with this film as well."

The Combat

A sequel to ALIEN without Ripley, sole survivor of the first film's' biomechanoid parasite, would have been incomplete. Cameron enjoyed working with Sigourney Weaver, who reprised her central role. "We both agreed, virtually from the word go, on the character's basics,” the director says. "And we just went from strength to strength.

"Originally, Sigourney was concerned about the idea of a sequel – she wasn't sure that it could he done – but when she read the .script, that put her fears to rest. She just threw herself into it wholeheartedly. We never had any major problems seeing eye-to-eye on how things should he done, other than just the momentary, 'I don't know if I would say it that way' sort of thing, but nothing that ever impeded us.

"I think her performance is spectacular, and she worked very hard on this film, and I've nothing but respect for her."

Among the movie's other actors, Michael Biehn (Hicks, STARLOG #108), Lance Henriksen (Bishop, FANGORIA #55) and Bill Paxton (Hudson) had all worked with Cameron before on Terminator. Henriksen also starred in Piranha II, Cameron's directorial debut which preceeded Terminator. Noting that his goal in casting is “to find the best actor for the character,” Cameron adds, "The characters were not written with specific actors in mind. In other words, Bishop was not written for Lance, though I know him well.

“The casting was the result of the normal procedure: seeing X number of actors for each role. In fact, the way Gale [Anne Hurd, producer, STARLOG #107] and I work is that we each play devil's advocate to the other's casting ideas, and it tends to steer us away from snap decisions or gimmick casting. Because, unless we both agree on somebody, we won't cast them.

"I feel that every character in the film has been cast well – I don't mean `cast well' like we're patting ourselves on the back, but we found pleasant surprises in everyone in the cast. The characters, I hope, are memorable – unless I botched it in the cutting room."

As a writer/director, Cameron found his work itself a surprising inspiration for creating the characters of the U.S. Colonial Marines. "Filmmaking is a trauma that's akin to combat,” he laughs, adding, “Never having been in combat, that's probably unfair for me to say, but, in terms of having to he fully on and fully alert, day after day, for a long period of

time, and dealing with one crisis after another, it does create that sort of stress environment. That's probably why I feel akin to some of the military characters in the story, even though I wouldn't ever want to be in the Army.”

Cameron credits his development as a filmmaker to several sources. An early spell at Roger Corman's New World Pictures, then a breeding ground for ingenious, budget-conscious moviemaking talent, was preceded by a self-supervised visual education. “The technical aspects of the craft were learned in the school of hard knocks, Roger Corman school, where you get a camera and you go do it, and then you figure out how to do it.

"But learning cinematic storytelling started back when I was 12 years old and drawing my own comic books," he recalls. “If you look at a comic book, frame for frame, they're cut like films: close-up, wide shot, etc. You learn how to create a visual narrative.

"At one point, I wanted to be a comics artist, and I basically learned to draw by emulating Marvel comic books. Of course, at a certain point, you set that all aside as a career – unless you actually go on to do it. I would probably be very happy drawing comics right now – the visual programming is there.

"And of course, we all grow up on movies. The difference between an artist and somebody who's not an artist all boils down

to the ability to observe the environment, record what you've seen, and transcribe it. It's not some talent that's in the hand, it's presumably in the visual cortex.

"That also applies to watching movies. You watch how a story is told, or you study it. It really just comes from observation of the technique. The only qualification that you need to be a filmmaker is that you know how to watch a movie.”

The Next Battle

Looking forward to his own next movie – though it won't include “guns, cars or space” – Cameron has some fairly concrete ideas. “Very likely, the next film will be much more an imploded actors'/writer's sort of film, very close to the inner workings of what the characters are about,” he says.

“When you feel like you've conquered one area, you want to work on others. These two films, ALlENS and Terminator, have both been very technical enterprises, and the technical often takes away from what you can do performance-wise, just because of the exigencies of smoke, wind, bluescreen, front projection, back projection, hanging miniatures and – you name it.

“Next time around... well, I've got some ideas. One is a devilishly clever way of doing a very intriguing near-future story, with no special effects whatsoever – but it could be quite riveting. So, at the risk of getting typecast in the science fiction vein, I might do that one. And then, another one is a very rollicking adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel – believe it or not – with a twist. Anyway, entertainment is what it's about.”

With ALIEN and ALIENS already entertaining audiences, will there be an ALIEN 111? “That's entirely in the hands of people other than myself,” Cameron comments. “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.”

The decision about a Terminator sequel is more closely in Cameron's control. “There are no firm plans to make Terminator ll – at present,” the filmmaker reveals. “But, it may happen. It just has to happen under circumstances and conditions that are acceptable to Gale [Terminator's producer and co-writer] and myself, and so far those conditions haven't been met. But when they are, we'll make the movie.

“Chances are, however, that someone else will direct Terminator II and Gale and I will supervise it very closely.”

Recent years have seen successful directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg often using their influence to produce movies. But Cameron doubts that becoming such a “mogul” is in his future. "I'm never going to stray very far from wanting to be on the floor making the film,” he admits. "I'm not that interested in becoming the head of a big filmmaking machine. I'm not saying that either one of them doesn't feel that way either. Somehow, Spielberg, with his energy, is able to do it, and still do his own things, and I don't know how – probably has about four clones.

“But it's very hard to wear those hats and still be 100%a responsible for what you're doing yourself as a filmmaker. And I like looking through the camera. I came home from the set of this film every day with hands so filthy that my housekeeper wouldn't let me sit down at the dinner table. And I knew the movie was over when I came home with clean hands.

“But that's the way I work – I work very close to what we're doing. If I'm near the camera and the grip's not, I move the camera. And, touching up and set, painting it, fiddling with the actors' makeup and doing whatever. I'm a little bit manic that way.

"So that's always going to be a limitation on me becoming umbrella entity over a number of different productions. On the other hand, I do think I could interface well with another director and understand his problems, which might also be a limitation as a producer because I might tend to be too lenient.

"You never know till you try it,” says James Cameron. "The test case will be Terminator ll if we do that film because I've already decided not to direct it. It would be the fourth sequel that I've been involved with, and my third sequel as director,” he laughs, “and that's not too good a record out of four movies.”

This article has been transcribed from Starlog Magazine, September, 1986. This information has been shared here for your information and reading pleasure, however this material remains copyrighted by Starlog.

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