Universally regarded as one of the best sequels ever made, James Cameron's Aliens (1986) achieved the rare feat of distinguishing itself from its illustrious predecessor while not violating the world and tone the first film created. From Ridley Scott's brilliant haunted-house-in-space concept, Cameron pivoted to a brutally intense military sci-fi action flick. The fulcrum of this pivot was Sigourney Weaver, who provided continuity between the two pictures.
The shoot was anything but smooth going, though. From casting problems to budgetary concerns to an outright crew mutiny, Aliens had challenges right out of the gate. It's a testament to the singular vision of Cameron and his then-wife, producer Gale Anne Hurd, as well as the commitment of the superlative cast, that it all turned out as well as it did.
Aliens is one for the ages. Here's how it actually got done.
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The Queen Was A 14-Foot-Tall Masterpiece Of Puppetry That Required 16 Operators
Writer/director James Cameron knew he had to bring something new to the table with the Alien sequel, and just adding more Xenomorphs wasn't enough. In the final act, we meet that "something new" - the Alien Queen.
In 1985, of course, CGI wasn't an option for bringing such a monstrosity to life. The only way to make a large creature like this - at least without resorting to miniatures - was with puppetry. Cameron called upon the puppet master himself, special effects legend Stan Winston, to make the queen a reality.
Cameron had a clear vision of how he wanted the queen to look, and presented it to Winston in drawings and even a painting. "He was one of the most talented artists I ever had working for me," Winston joked in the DVD commentary. The first test model Winston's team tried out, "the garbage bag test," was a far cry from the finished article, but it proved the concept could work.
The puppet was one of the masterpieces of Winston's storied career (a later highlight would be the T. rex from Jurassic Park). It was 14 feet tall and required 16 operators to articulate it.
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Sigourney Weaver Gave A Bouquet To Each Actor On The Day Their Character Perished
If James Cameron was the driven visionary determined to will Aliens into being, Sigourney Weaver was the heart and soul of the set - the glue that kept it all together. By all accounts, she was well-loved by the other cast members.
"Sigourney was so nice," Bill Paxton recalled on the DVD commentary. "I thought, gee, I must be screwing up, 'cause she was so nice to me all the time, but I realized she was really just a genuinely nice person... She was the leader of the cast, absolutely."
An example of Weaver's above-and-beyond niceness was her habit of "congratulating" actors on the day their characters' deaths would be filmed. Weaver recalled:
There were a lot of deaths and I gave a bouquet to each character the day they were killed; it was like "Oh that's your day today! You get killed today!" It was fun giving Paul Reiser [who played Burke] his bouquet; I just gave him a bunch of dead flowers.
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The Aliens Were Played By Dancers In Spandex
Although various sophisticated special effects techniques were used to bring the aliens to life, the filmmakers weren't above using an old-fashioned standby: people in suits.
In order to make the aliens appear to move fluidly, the producers hired dancers to portray them in motion. Additionally, the costumes were made to be more lightweight and flexible than the rubber suit worn by the first movie's Bolaji Badejo, who had been cast for his body type (extremely tall and skinny) more than for his experience or skill set.
Winston admitted in a Fangoria interview that he had been let down by the shots of the Xenomorph in the climax of the first Alien: "They had this wonderful monster that you hardly saw throughout the entire film. And when it's finally blown out of the hatch, you get a man in a suit..."
"What we had to do, because Jim wanted to do a lot of very interesting moves with the warrior aliens, was we came up with a technique to create the suit that really involved a lot of spandex and pieces on it," recalled Winston in the DVD commentary. "[There was] an enormous amount of wire work for all of these stunt alien performers, which required that the alien costumes be extremely user-friendly."
Winston used every possible trick to make the Xenomorphs seem less human and more, well, alien - from wire harnesses and fast-motion camera speeds (called "undercranking") to additional mechanical parts. "We even redesigned the hands and fingers so that they're longer than the original," he told Fangoria.
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James Cameron Later Felt Bad About His Portrayal Of Marines
The Colonial Marines in Aliens, while basically competent at their jobs, aren't exactly the most disciplined team. They display open contempt for the officer commanding them, Lt. Gorman, and they casually disregard orders - as when Vasquez starts firing her weapon at the aliens in the atmosphere processor, despite Gorman's explicit mandate only to use flamethrowers.
Their arrogance also leads them to underestimate the Xenomorphs and barely pay attention to Ripley's warning about the creatures' capabilities.
"I knew nothing about the US Marine Corps," James Cameron admitted in the DVD commentary. "I now know an awful lot more... and they are much more disciplined than these people. And I just would like to apologize to any Marines who happen to be listening. We did not get that part of it right. These guys are definitely Vietnam-era regular Army."
However, there was one authentic Marine in the movie - Sgt. Apone, played by Al Matthews. Matthews served with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam, where he received two Purple Hearts. His military expertise was apparent to the other cast members. "He seemed like he knew what he was doing," Bill Paxton recalled. "His orders were so authoritarian that we followed him."
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Carrie Henn Got The Part Of Newt Because She Didn’t Smile
Newt is one of the most important characters in Aliens, as the maternal bond that develops between her and Sigourney Weaver's character Ripley forms the emotional core of the story and motivates much of the third act. It was essential that the right person be found to play the role, but casting director Mary Selway got off to a rough start. In the film's DVD commentary, producer Gale Anne Hurd recalled:
[Selway] searched throughout England... trying to find a young girl who could portray this character. And we had every young girl who wanted to be an actress, or whose parents wanted them to act, come in and audition. Almost all of them had done commercials, and every time they delivered a line, they would smile. And of course this is a little girl suffering from traumatic stress.
Enter Carrie Henn - a little girl with no acting ambitions either before or after Aliens, yet somehow absolutely perfect for the part. Said Hurd:
Carrie was found at a US Air Force base in England; her father was a US serviceman serving there. And she came in and auditioned, never having acted, even in a school play, and was dead-on from the very first reading.
James Cameron noted that despite her lack of experience, Henn soon became completely dedicated to the production. One day, Cameron said, when she was too sick to do a scene, she "pitched such a fit that... I wound up doing one little shot with her just so she'd feel better, so she could go home."
Henn bonded with Weaver off-screen as well as on. They "got to be pals," said Cameron. "I think Sigourney felt very protective of her... And I think Carrie thought Sigourney was pretty cool."
She does have one complaint, though. Don't say the line "they mostly come at night... mostly" to her, because, as she warns us in the DVD commentary, she's sick of it:
It seems to be the only line of mine that everybody I ever run into remembers. And anyone who ever wants to irritate me, any of my friends, they just say this, they say it with everything… My friends will be like 'Oh, we mostly go to the movies at night, mostly.'
- Photo: Batman / Warner Bros. Pictures6355 VOTES
The Atmosphere Processor Location Was Also The Axis Chemical Factory In ‘Batman’
Aliens was shot on a tight budget. Building a set on the scale of the atmosphere processor - the huge complex where the Colonial Marines first encounter the Xenomorphs - would have eaten up a lot of money.
Instead, James Cameron and his producers opted to use an existing location - the Acton Lane Power Station, which was located in London and had been decommissioned in 1983, two years before production began on Aliens.
The location would be used again, this time minus the Xenomorph-secreted goo, as the Axis Chemical Factory in Tim Burton's Batman (1989).