Monday, March 06, 2006

Aliens (1986)

Aliens grew on me ... though thankfully not on my face!

Through some complicated technical reason, I got Aliens (1986) in the mail before Alien (1979), so it'll be interesting finally seeing Alien after seeing this one.

But this was the first time I went absolutely crazy and studied a film inch by inch.

Saturday night:
  • Watched the original theatrical release
  • Watched the "pre-production" part of the special features documentary
  • Read the original script treatment (on the DVD) - the story without dialogue.

  • Watched the special edition, reading along with the original script. Great exercise! Lots of pausing and rewinding.

  • Watched the special edition with commentary, which was well-done, with commentary by James Cameron (writer/director), Gale Anne Hurd (producer and Cameron's wife at the time), many of the actors (though not Sigourney Weaver), and some of the special effects guys. There's nothing like a well-put together commentary track; I can tell a lot of work went into this one.

  • Watched the "Production" part of the special features documentaries. Today I'll hopefully get a chance to see the "Post Production" part.
While I'm interested in all aspects of the making of Aliens, as a writer I was particularly interested in how it all started, and where the ideas came from. I got that from Cameron's commentary early on in the film.

The producers of the original Alien, David Giler and Walter Hill, were working with James Cameron on something else (sheesh, I should've taken notes), and Aliens came about almost by accident (ain't that always the way!). Cameron was a virtual unknown as a writer, and still very young as a director. He'd written and directed The Terminator, but it hadn't been released yet and people didn't know just how good he was.

When Giler and Hill offered for him to write the sequel to Aliens, he jumped at it (inside, anyway. Outside, he was cool as a cucumber). He took a sci-fi story he'd already been working on and adjusted it to the Alien storyline, "dropping in" the characters of Ripley and the marines.

Giler and Hill loved it, and moved it forward. The eventual script is fairly similar to the original treatment, which I understand is quite unusual.

What interested me was how Cameron took an existing, very unique and powerful character (Ripley), and moved the character forward. It was interesting that later on Weaver disagreed with Cameron about Ripley's motivation - Weaver felt Ripley would not hate the Alien; Cameron was adamant she did. The disagreement led to more depth of character for both actor and director, as they explored her reasons for opposing the Alien - not because of personal hatred, but because of the danger these aliens posed.

In some ways, it must be great being writer and director. Especially working with actors would be great, to really flesh out the ideas from just words on paper.

It's interesting, though, that in the original script he didn't skimp on detail. If I knew I was going to direct, I'd be tempted to write vague, and specify later, when I knew what I had to work with. Perhaps that's an area I need to learn from - visualising the ideal first, then working your way back to what you can do. I'm more of the Robert Rodriguez school (ten minute school!) where he wrote with existing locations in mind. I guess that's not as practical for a science fiction film. Would like to see how George Lucas did it for THX-1138, which had a low budget and a lot of local locations.

Other stuff I noticed from the screenplay vs. screen comparison:
  • The script featured lots of description of the physical environment, but the finished product was all about characters' reactions to that environment. It's all about people, people!

  • The script has lines that are longer, less conversational and more expository. I'd love to know how many of those lines were changed in development, and how many changed on set. The acting was great in this film, by the way. There was a lot of real listening and responding going on, not just people remembering to say their lines right.

  • Action scenes were more involved on paper; they were cut-down and simplified for the screen. (Either that, or I missed the more involved bits because they happened so fast! In any case, the extra complications weren't crucial to the story)

  • The script emphasised the characters' reactions to each other, but in the final cut these inter-relationships weren't played out so much - maybe because there were so many characters. I guess a lot of these cuts were done so it just became about Ripley and Newt as the main, main characters, Ripley and Burke until he got his face hugged, and Ripley and Hicks towards the end.
This film is amazing in that it has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To have box office success and critical acclaim is quite the pig's pyjamas! It's probably worth me taking a closer look at James Cameron's other works - even the ones I already know.


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