The Alien film franchise stands out in stark contrast from the majority of horror series, which tend to extol their iconic villain over their more bland heroes. For Friday the 13th, nobody cares for the anonymous teens, all sympathy and audience-support ultimately sides with mass-murderer Jason Voorhees. The same is similarly true for Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddy Krueger), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Leatherface), Saw (Jigsaw) and Halloween (Mike Myers). The Alien Quadrilogy is one of the rare exceptions – a horror franchise where the iconic character isn’t the villain but the hero. Ellen Ripley, seemingly the doomed third-lead of Alien, emerges as the de-facto hero of that picture. Over the course of the three following sequels, Ripley would become a potent female action icon, a doomed tragic heroine and ultimately an existential anti-hero. In the capable hands of Sigourney Weaver, Ripley’s four-film arc though feels of one piece. She quite simply is the glue that keeps the Alien franchise together.
Last night, The Hero Complex Film Festival honored Ellen Ripley and the actress who plays her with a double feature of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. After the screening, Sigourney Weaver herself was on hand to discuss the enduring popularity of Alien, the iconography of Ripley and whether the character will ever grace the big screen again. For highlights from the Q&A, hit the jump.
I don’t think I could have imagined it. I felt at the time that it was going to be visually very stunning and that I had never seen a world that looked like that. I felt the atmosphere Ridley Scott was creating was incredibly real and unsettling; but I don’t think I could have predicted our little movie — and it felt like a little spooky movie — would have such legs.
One of the reasons it has lived on is that unfortunately we have a lot of corporations characterized by the same kind of greed [depicted in the film]. This whole idea of ‘crew expendable’ is unfortunately an idea that is very alive in our world. So there are certain things culturally that I think have kept it relevant. A lot of it is just Ridley Scott though. The way he shot the movie, the way he created a space environment that was so real to us. A working place, a place where people gripe about wages and shares — a place we could all relate to. And just the way the story is told. Reading the script — it was a decent script but I had no idea what it would become when I finally saw it on screen.
Weaver on her early trepidations to star in the film as Ripley:
I [had trepidations] because I hadn’t seen the designs. If you just read the script. It’s basically just ‘Ten Little Indians’ and the monster is just — some monster. I pictured this big blob of yellow gel rumbling around. At the first meeting with Ridley, he pulled out all these beautiful big drawings H.R. Giger had done. He’s one of the main reasons we’re still here talking about this film. Giger’s designs are so uniquely disturbing and Carlo Rambaldi’s vision of the Alien — I wanted to be part of whatever that was because I had never seen anything like that on the screen before. It took me awhile to warm up to the rest of it — the character and everything. I just had to get to know [Ripley] better.
[Everyone on the film] wanted to make Ripley a really strong character. They didn’t decide though to make a young woman the survivor because of any feminist philosophy. They thought nobody would ever think that this girl would end up as the survivor. So they basically did it as a plot twist.
…[Although] whenever I tap into Ripley — it’s hard to describe — but I feel like I’m a little human soul. When I tap into Ripley, because of the writers who have created her, there’s just so much story to tell and she holds that story for me. I’m the vessel and I can feel that people have a connection with her because of her moral compass and because somehow she’s so consistent. She can’t help but want to preserve humanity… I think that’s something that just reaches out to people. That she’s someone you could count on when you’re in a jam. She has some sort of steel thread running through her that’s not going to give up that I find, as an audience member, very interesting.
Weaver on shooting the ‘dinner’ scene with John Hurt:
We all read the script. We knew something was going to come out of John Hurt’s chest. He had a line that said ‘Oh my GGGGGOOOODDDD’. It was pretty big on the page. We all knew what happened. We get down to set and everyone is wearing a poncho. [Writers] Dan O’ Bannon and Ronald Schusett, who were around the whole time, were over in the corner [giggling away] like it was Christmas morning. But none of that tipped it off to me. It wasn’t until we actually started. We didn’t rehearse. Ridley wasn’t in favor of rehearsing even when there were special effects involved. So we started to have that casual conversation about breakfast and what we’re going to do and what we’re going to eat when we get home and then John Hurt just started coughing and I completely forgot we were making a movie. I thought he was choking and when his chest filled with blood, we were all just stunned. It was so real to us and he was so convincing. That was the first take and then without any time at all — the second take — they must have changed something in him quickly, some sort of piece but there was no big setup and then suddenly this thing burst out of his chest, stood on the table and flew off. There’s a master of everyone [looking stunned] — they’re using the master because that’s exactly how [we felt]. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen. I still to this day having been in movies where special effects play a crucial part, I can’t believe that a couple of guys got under the table with a few rubber tubes and made that happen.
I don’t think anyone ever planned on making another [Alien]. I’ve never actually talked to Jim Cameron about this but I know that the producers David Giler and Walter Hill and Gordon Carroll said that they were actually interviewing Jim for something else and Jim [told them] I’ve written a script for [another] Alien. So they read it and flipped. I was in France making a movie with Gerard Depardieu and I received this incredible script with my character on every single page.
[Aliens] is an amazing piece of work. Whatever was nurtured in Alien becomes this huge canvas [for] these primal emotions and huge action sequences. The character of Ripley went from a girl who keeps her wits about her and survives to this very complex character –- sort of an ‘everyman’. You know as soon as the door opens in the beginning and you see [Ripley] lying there and and then these guys come in and they take one look at her and say ‘She’s alive. There goes our salvage.’ You kind of go ‘Oh shit. What kind of world is she going to be in now.’ It’s sets her up as an existential hero who has lived beyond her time, who’s an outcast. I found it remarkable that Jim was so inspired by the first one that he would write this very complex and rich character.
Weaver on her reaction to receiving an Oscar nomination for her work in Aliens:
I was thrilled. I was in prep for Gorillas in the Mist and I remember that day I was having a big meeting with the producers who wanted me to work with domesticated chimps in anticipation of my role as Dian Fossey. After the news of my nomination came through, I remember saying to them I don’t really want to work with domesticated chimpanzees. I don’t think that will help me at all with working with Dian’s real wild gorillas. After I got the nomination, they started to listen to me more carefully…
But I guess I was still surprised. I was very flattered. It’s a genre that doesn’t get enough respect and I feel these movies are not easy to do well. It’s taken awhile for this to happen but I think science fiction is becoming more and more popular because we are actually in a world more and more like the worlds in science fiction. Our glaciers are melting and people are talking about colonizing Mars — so I think that not only will it become a very popular and beloved genre but also increasingly significant.
I feel after going to a couple of these Comic Cons and meeting so many fans who are so passionate about the series, passionate about Ripley — that there’s more story to tell; but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t think Alien belongs on Earth popping out of a haystack, which is where I was afraid it was going to go. I feel it should take place in the far reaches of the universe where no one in their right mind would go. There are very few filmmakers that I can think of that I would want to entrust this to. But I can think of a couple… I feel there’s a longing in certain groups of fans when I meet them for the story to be finished because we really left it up in the air and I feel a bit badly about that because I was part of that decision making process. I didn’t want to make four and five in a bundle. I think it’s hard to make these films all in a big lump. You need time to sort of let things resonate so I can imagine a situation where we could at least finish telling her story. I think that would be very satisfying at least to me — although I haven’t done anything about it; but I can understand why that could happen and I certainly know young filmmakers who are interested in doing that. So we’ll just have to see what happens.