Beauties and the beast

Entertainment Weekly, December 5 1997

Beauties and the beast

By David Hochman

Sigourney Weaver is reborn as Ripley in Alien Resurrection, and she brings Winona Ryder along for the ride.

It’s another soggy, post-apocalyptic afternoon on the set of Alien Resurrection, and Sigourney weaver is slipping Winona Ryder a little tongue. Actually, it’s a huge tongue. “Actually,” says Ryder, “it’s a disgusting, slimy, uchhh…”

Weaver’s star-trekking alter ego — Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley — has just blown away another pesky alien, and now, with a fierce battle cry, she reaches into the creature’s mouth and rips out the offending licker.

“Here,” Ripley says, handing the tongue to Annalee Call, the pirate android played by Ryder. “It would make a nice souvenir.”

The scene ends and Ryder walks away, slime on her fingers, totally grossed out. Her on-again, off-again beau Dave Pirner, the Soul Asylum frontman, makes goo-goo eyes at her from the edge of the set. Ryder, scampering toward him, scrunches up her pixie nose and lets out a giant “Ewww!” Wiping off her hand, she asks Dave, “Was I terrible?”

It’s easy to understand Ryder’s insecurity. The last time humans battled this pack of goo-gurgling extraterrestrials, a major Hollywood franchise was nearly destroyed. The Alien saga, which began so brilliantly with Ridley Scott’s elegantly macabre 1979 masterpiece, Alien, and which exploded into a full-on action epic in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, was nearly sucked down a black hole five years ago with David Fincher’s depressing Alien 3. That third installment took a to-the-pulp beating by critics, grossed a disappointing $56 million at the North American box office, and delivered an ending that didn’t sit well with many Alien devotees. To refresh your memory: Realizing she was pregnant with an alien queen, Ripley sacrificed herself by diving into a cauldron of fire. Understandably, most people thought the series had fallen prey to Hollywood’s third-movie franchise curse (see also: The Godfather Part III, Jaws 3-D, and Beverly Hills Cop III).

“I certainly thought it was over for me,” says Weaver, 48, who reportedly earned $11 million — and got a coproducing credit — to tango with aliens again. “The idea of a fourth Alien movie just seemed ridiculous.”

But never underestimate the power of slimy interstellar creatures in Hollywood, especially the kind that rake in nearly $312 million dollars at the box office. “Even Alien 3, for all that’s been said about it, was successful internationally,” says Tom Rothman, Twentieth Century Fox’s president of film production (it took in $103 million overseas). So screenwriter Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), acting on the soap opera axiom that dead doesn’t necessarily mean dead, brought Ripley back to life. After sacrificing herself to save mankind 200 years earlier, Resurrection’s Ripley is revived from a blood sample by misguided scientists who want to breed the creature she’s carrying inside her. When space pirates, including Ryder, board her ship, they see Ripley for what she really is. As a result of fusing with alien DNA during the resurrection, the new Ripley turns out to be part human, part acid-bleeding insect.

All of which seems to have Weaver herself a bit confused.

“I don’t quite know how to put this,” she says, “but I’ve developed a warm spot for that alien. There’s something really, I don’t know, sensuous about him. He’s kinda sexy.”

The Resurrection soundstage on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles is fogged in by liquid nitrogen, giving an eerie glint to every shaft of light. Weaver and the rest of the cast — including Ryder and Ron Perlman, of TV’s Beauty and the Beast fame — mill around the dank spaceship set in their skintight Army pants, knee-high combat boots, and leg warmers, carefully stepping over alien tails, limbs, and guts. It looks like an aerobics class at the Hiëronymus Bosch Health & Racquet Club.

At the helm is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the latest “unknown” director recruited into Alien service. Like his predecessors — Scott, Cameron, and Fincher — Jeunet had only a few offbeat credits (several TV commercials and the darkly inventive French films The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, which he codirected with Marc Caro) before getting the call from Fox.

Unlike the other directors, Jeunet didn’t speak much English and had to dispense most of his direction through a translator. “We were nervous at first,” says Weaver, who speaks some French, “but by the end of shooting, he could yell and curse along with the best of us.” Says Ryder: “Everybody always got kissed on both cheeks. It was fabulous.”

Besides, it just wouldn’t be an Alien movie without a Hollywood outsider in charge. “It’s the Alien tradition,” Weaver says. “You take a brilliant young director with not a lot of experience, give him a ton of money, and say, ‘What’s your vision of this crazy world?’ ”

Directing Resurrection was an $80 million proposition Jeunet accepted without hesitation. “David Fincher told me, ‘Run like hell, man,’ but the movie was actually a dream to do,” he says through a translator. “I realized there’s no difference making a small film or a blockbuster. Either way, you’re creating a universe. This one just happens to be in outer space.”

The first big scene Jeunet shot required the Resurrection cast and crew to spend approximately two weeks filming a complicated alien chase sequence in a 548,000-gallon water tank on the Fox lot.

“Hands down the worst experience of my entire life,” says Ryder, 26. “Like, literally. I thought I was gonna die. I had a really bad anxiety attack, actually. We were all pretty miserable.” Adds Weaver: “Going underwater with an alien was a fabulous idea. But, man, being in a dark, submerged kitchen with lots of boots in your face and guns going off and everybody’s gunk all around can get really ugly.”

The underwater scenes actually have a Hollywood precedent. Says Whedon: “Halfway through writing the movie, I thought of The Poseidon Adventure, which I’d seen nine times. Little did I realize how tough the scenes would be to shoot.”

Back on dry land on this particular afternoon, Jeunet’s goal is to get his cast to react to an alien they can’t see. Such is life when computer-generated effects must be added. Ryder and Perlman do their best to act surprised, but Jeunet doesn’t buy it.

“Ah-lyen! Ah-lyen!” the director yells. The translator steps in: “It’s supposed to be the first time you are seeing the alien!”

“Wait a minute,” says Perlman. “You mean we’re supposed to pretend we haven’t seen any of the other Alien movies?”

Unless you’ve spent 20 years under a meteorite, you probably know something about those other Alien movies.

Scott’s original Alien was one of the most acclaimed films in science-fiction history. The magic was in its simplicity: A crew of a spaceship investigates a transmission from a desolate planet. A fierce life-form there hugs John Hurt’s face, sneaks into their craft, and kills off every member of the crew except one–a steely, high-haired heroine named Ripley. In many ways, it was a classic horror movie, and a bit of a horror for its untried star. Weaver’s most prominent movie role previously was as Woody Allen’s movie date in Annie Hall.

“I attacked the role like an Off Off Broadway play,” Weaver says, “because that’s really all I’d done before. I used to look directly at the camera, and Ridley, who could be so intimidating, would say, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I’d say, ‘But it’s so big!’ ”

Whereas Alien was quiet and spare, Aliens was a rip-roaring intergalactic romp, a full-fledged action movie with pumped-up GIs engaging in high-tech combat. “It made the first Alien look like a cucumber sandwich,” Weaver says.

It’s not really nice to say what Alien3 looked like. The production was a nightmare from the start. “We didn’t have a finished script, Fox was already having budget issues, and the studio was unsupportive,” says Fincher, who went on to direct Seven and The Game. “It wasn’t a time I look back on fondly.”

Weaver, who shaved her head for Alien3, agrees the studio bailed on Fincher after another director, Vincent Ward, left shortly after taking the gig: “As soon as Fox hired David, they lost confidence in him and tried to undermine him. They started off telling him they wanted Hobbit in Space. Midway through, they’re saying they want an ‘E’ Ticket ride of a movie. It was a mess.”

“To say I lost confidence in David isn’t really accurate,” says Roger Birnbaum (now chairman/CEO at Caravan Pictures), who hired Fincher while head of production at Fox. “The production itself was chaotic. If David had a finished script prior to shooting and had producers around him who could manage problems [that] he ended up dealing with himself, he could have made a really great movie. Unfortunately, those things didn’t happen.”

The biggest trouble came at the end: Fincher, trying to spice up the finale, reportedly added six seconds to his nearly finished film (at a cost of $500,000) to soup up Ripley’s death scene. “We were all pretty p – – – ed off,” says Ryder, speaking for a generation of Alien watchers (she was 9 when she first saw Alien and grew up with a poster of Ripley over her bed). “The idea of Ripley dying wasn’t received well, especially in my home. For fans, it was a big disappointment. I was like, Goddamn it.”

But with a new executive team in place — Joe Roth (now Walt Disney Studios chairman) and Birnbaum were out; Rothman and Bill Mechanic (head of Fox Filmed Entertainment) were in — Fox decided to break open the Alien sleeping pods one more time. “We said if we could get a great script and the right cast, it could bring back the franchise,” says Mechanic.

Weaver, whose character wasn’t included in Whedon’s first plot treatment for Resurrection (“We just thought we’d go with another hero,” he says), was cynical at first. “My question was, How are they going to bring me back in a way that I won’t laugh out loud?” recalls Weaver. But after flying to Paris to meet Jeunet, who stepped in after Trainspotting director Danny Boyle backed out (he got cold feet because of the special effects), Weaver agreed to play undead.

“All the elements I cared about were there again,” she says. “The story seemed smart, the studio was behind it, J.P. seemed like a genius. Even the alien was cool again. It wasn’t a creature that eats you like a big tiger, which gets so boring.”

Weekly World News would kill for this interview. Sitting in a director’s chair on a quiet corner of the soundstage, Resurrection’s lead alien has agreed to chat for a few minutes.

You’ve got to pity this poor wretched creature with the sea-horse snout and cockroach pallor. His mammoth head, weighing in at 18 pounds, must be supported in front and back by two metal T-stands, each topped with a roll of paper towels. His lacerated chest moves up and down with every breath. And although he is one of Hollywood’s most menacing villains on screen, the alien is clearly a pushover off camera, taking the time to pose for pictures with set visitors and sitting patiently while a team prepares him for his close-up. “I just hope I don’t have to pee,” comes the muffled voice of Tom Woodruff Jr., the alien’s costume codesigner and the man encased within the sculpted full-body foam-rubber suit. “There’s no escape hatch in this thing.”

The alien, originally designed by H.R. Giger, has evolved gradually in two decades. “Each movie has its own kind of alien,” Woodruff says. “The first one was almost catlike, the second was more surreal and space creaturey. The third was a jaguar that moved like a locomotive. And this one feels much more like a dog. It’s got dog legs, a more pointed nose, and a more vicious mouth.”

Woodruff is called to the set. The scene requires him to sniff around a corpse the alien’s just killed, before getting shot by Ripley. Steam jets pump smoke from his nostrils. Drool dribbles from ducts in his jowls. The mushroom head weighs on him like a bad loan. The scene, after a few takes, runs perfectly.

“The alien wouldn’t be the same if Tom wasn’t in that suit,” Weaver says later. “Working with him is like working with Lon Chaney Jr., only Tom’s usually covered with K-Y jelly.”

Weaver’s seen plenty of goo in her day too. And at this moment, if she’s not careful, she might just wind up knee-deep in alien afterbirth. The slithering, tentacled alien queen is ready to bear a soupy offspring, and Weaver’s got a front-row seat.

The scene is a pivotal moment near the end of Resurrection, and it introduces an all-new alien creature: the Newborn, a pale, almost human-looking monstrosity that winds up being Ripley’s biggest nightmare yet. It’s an awful birthing room, with fleshy extremities flailing everywhere you look. Overhead, half-decomposed humans, some still able to talk, hang in gooey cocoons awaiting their death.

And yet it’s not disgusting enough. “We need more slime,” says cinematographer Darius Khondji. “Really slime that thing.”

A man in a faded red Disneyland T-shirt rushes into the nest and slimes the queen with a hose that feeds to his backpack slime tank. “In every Alien movie,” says Woodruff, “the slime quotient gets higher and higher. In this one, we went through sixteen 55-gallon drums of the stuff.”

Weaver is used to it. “I’m so comfortable sprawling in these pools of glomp,” she says. “I think slime is the one product I’d feel comfortable advertising.”

Jeunet walks around the queen, telling the 11 puppeteers who control it to make the thing writhe and convulse more violently. “I want to see it bobbling,” he says (“bubbling” is what he actually means). He pulls the queen’s tail toward the center of his camera shot, then runs back to film the scene. The cameras roll; he makes more adjustments; they roll again; he adjusts again.

With Jeunet’s obsessive eye for such detail, it’s hardly surprising that Resurrection’s principal photography dragged on weeks over schedule, according to a source close to the production. That wasn’t the only problem. Early on, 19 crew members required medical treatment after some noxious gas spread through the soundstage. There were also reports a fistfight broke out between an assistant director and a special-effects coordinator near the production’s end, and that Weaver and Jeunet clashed.

“There was a week when things got heated,” Jeunet admits, “but when you have creative, outspoken people working together, it can be a pressure cooker. You need to let off steam.”

Though he says he loved directing a huge American movie, Jeunet says he would not do another Alien. “It needs to continue to be a job for new directors,” he says. “I’ve gotten older in this process.”

And what about a fifth Alien? The final scene in Resurrection shows our intergalactic heroes hurtling toward the third rock from the sun.

“All I can say,” says Fox’s Rothman, “is that the end of Alien Resurrection points you toward the locale of Alien five. We firmly expect to do another one; Joss Whedon will write it, and we expect to have Sigourney and Winona if they’re up for it. But if I tell you any more, I’ll have to kill you.”

Says Whedon: “There’s a big story to tell in another sequel. The fourth film is really a prologue to a movie set on Earth. Imagine all the things that can happen.”

If there’s that much material, would Fox ever consider broadening the franchise into TV or other areas? “I don’t think you’ll ever see Aliens: The TV Show or Aliens: The Cartoon,” says Rothman. “It’s a filmmaker’s franchise. And you just can’t dilute this material. The edge is a vital part of the franchise’s success. Could Sigourney have sex with an alien on Saturday morning? I don’t think so.”

Besides, Weaver would be more than happy to stretch her legs on Planet Blue for a while.

“I always wanted to go back to the original planet to see how it’s evolved,” she says, “and at this point, I don’t think Ripley’s going to argue. If they tell her she’s going to Earth, she’ll say, ‘I’m ready to get the hell off this spacecraft once and for all.’ ”