Being released on October 26th, The Alien Anthology Blu ray box set is any Alien fan’s wet dream – all four films rendered in glorious high-definition, with a wealth of extras that will sate the appetite of even the most ardent fan for days. B-D recently sat down with series star Sigourney Weaver – who portrayed Ellen Ripley, arguably the greatest action heroine of all time – to get her thoughts on the franchise that made her a star. Subjects discussed include her memories of the dysfunction surrounding the making of the third film, her thoughts on the prequel, and which of the films, if any, is her personal favorite.
There aren’t many times I allow the fanboy in me to take over, but when it came to interviewing Sigourney Weaver I just couldn’t help it. The Alien series – all four films of which are being released together in the Alien Anthology Blu-ray box set October 26th – is without a doubt my favorite franchise in the history of cinema, and Weaver is on my top five list of most beloved actresses.
As I stepped into her suite at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to begin our interview, Weaver greeted me with a warm smile and a pleasant handshake, wearing an all-black ensemble that made her seem even taller than she already is (at 5’11”, she certainly dwarfed me in size) and looking just as gorgeous and elegant as ever. Uncanny, considering she turned 61 just this month; even more uncanny given that unlike the majority of actresses her age, she actually doesn’t look like she’s had her face pulled taut in every direction. Nevertheless – possibly due to the genuine ease and confidence with which she carries herself – she easily looks ten years younger than her real age.
So here I was – voice shaking, heart exploding, sweat dripping from my armpits – and yet I needn’t have worried, as Ms. Weaver is without a doubt one of the friendliest and classiest people I’ve ever met. She’s the whole package – beautiful, talented, a genuinely decent person, and free of the sort of snide contempt for genre fare that tends to be the rule rather than the exception for A-list movie stars. She also has a knack for choosing the right projects – which owes much to her thoughtful and intelligent nature.
“I think I’m just lucky“, said Weaver. “I mean, I was an English major in college so I think I know how to read a good story, and that’s really what was the focus for me. It was never the role. It was always, `Is this a story I’d like to see? Is this story something bigger than just the people in it?’ The third thing would always be, `What kind of a filmmaker is this person?’ Because unlike the theater, you really need someone who’s a fighter with a very strong vision. Because things can go wrong in shooting. Everything is out of chronology. There are a lot of things that can undermine a production, but if you have sort of a force of nature leading you, as all the directors of the `Alien’ movies were, then you have a really good chance of making something distinctive.”
“Distinctive” is certainly an appropriate adjective for the Alien films (I do not, it should be noted, include the AvP movies in that canon), each of which, despite their overarching commerciality, represents a unique and startling vision all its own. While fan allegiance tends to sway in the direction of the superior first two films, when I asked Weaver which was her personal favorite she found herself hard-pressed to come up with an answer.
“That would be really hard for me“, she said. “Because each one had, at the helm, such an original visionary. Ridley transformed the idea of space from this sterile, cerebral place to a place where people actually got up and had breakfast and swore and griped and carried on like regular people. Then Jim [Cameron] took it to a whole other scale of story and emotional resonance. Each director has put his own emotional stamp on it and I think they’re all legit. It was kind of dizzying to go from one to another, even though there were some years between. But I think it was fun for me to come back every few years knowing a little more about what I do and having more confidence and more experience in life. So I felt that that was an extraordinary opportunity for me.”
Of course the focus is always on the first two – and most successful – films of the franchise, but what of the less-warmly received but no less intriguing third and fourth entries? Alien: Resurrection – the fourth movie helmed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet – is possibly the most polemical of all the films among fans, so it was interesting to hear what Weaver’s own thoughts were on the (in many ways) unjustly-maligned sequel.
“I really enjoyed a lot of `Alien: Resurrection’“, she said. “I thought that the scientists were really wonderful and the Company was more detestable than ever. As we become more and more of a corporate planet, I think that the lessons from `Alien’ have not really been paid attention to. But I loved the evolution of the character of Ripley. I wasn’t too keen to come to Earth [where the third act of Joss Whedon’s original script took place]. I always feel that science fiction, when it comes to Earth, is a little [meh]. I wanted to go back to the original planet that the “Space Jockey” brought the eggs from and go back into the alien world rather than have the alien arrive in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. So I think I was part of what put the kibosh on that.”
She did, however, make an interesting observation about Resurrection that I hadn’t really thought about before; the film’s timeliness, she observed, was perhaps its greatest liability as a commercial venture.
“I think it got harder for Jean-Pierre because the story is much more about the science and the corporations“, she noted. “It’s difficult for us to watch the fourth one because it seems like yesterday or tomorrow. It’s not happening far away. It seems like something we read about in the papers. Cloning and BP and all this stuff. I think it makes people more uncomfortable.”
As for the third movie – itself considered something of a disappointment by many fans (although its stature has grown in recent years, particularly thanks to director David Fincher’s sterling post-Alien 3 oeuvre) – Weaver weighed in on the complications surrounding its production, complications which eventually led to Fincher essentially disowning the film.
“Every day we’d shoot all day and, at midnight, David would have to get on the phone and defend shooting the next day’s work“, she said, a twinge of long-ago frustration registering in her voice. “You shouldn’t hire someone like Fincher unless you’re going to let them go. So I think it was very difficult for him. Really, it was difficult for everybody. I think the film is really good, though, what he did. It was a very specific vision that Fox wanted him to do. It was not his take on it, which I think made it more complicated for him. It made a difficult film that much more difficult. I thought Fincher was amazing. [The dysfunction surrounding the film was] one of the main reasons that we shot the fourth one in California. Certainly whatever issues were there were complicated by the distance and the time change. It was hard to have a coherent conversation in those circumstances.”
Of course, Weaver could never have guessed what an enormous success the first movie would become, which makes the fact that the Blu-ray set includes her original Alien screen test (which Weaver had to approve, and which she described as being “embarrassing” though she admitted she could “sort of see what Ridley maybe liked in it“) all that much more intriguing, as at that point she was merely a young, hungry actress unaware of the great, enduring character she would come to inhabit in a total of four films, in one of the greatest film franchises of all time. Following from that, I was curious to get her thoughts on some of the young actresses whose names have been tossed around for a lead role in the intended prequel, including Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan (An Education), and Noomi Rapace (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). In other words, who did she think should be the “new” Ripley?
“I don’t know“, she told me honestly. “I think it’s a tricky thing because you want to get a good, young actress in there. But she should be very different from Ripley. But I would trust Ridley [Scott, who is attached to direct for the first time since the original]. He found me! It’s an important decision. But, as with all of these `Alien’ films, it’s an ensemble film. It’s very important who you pick for all the parts.”
As for the prequel, Weaver indicated that though she obviously can’t be involved as an actress, she’d be delighted to take part as a kind of story consultant, and it makes sense – being the one creative constant throughout the first four films, she doubtless knows the franchise better than anyone.
“If they needed help with the story, I could probably help them because I probably have a good sense of what people appreciate in the series and what they don’t care about“, she said. “So I hope they’ll ask me.”
It is Weaver’s obvious passion for the franchise – a flame that still burns bright after more than 30 years and across four films – that gives the actress such a relatable, grounded presence, and I’m speaking as a fan who feels a great level of attachment to the series. It is this passion that has in recent years led her to vocalize her distaste for the AvP films (“That whole thing makes me heartsick…that’s Fox’s decision to throw that legacy into the…whatever“, she told one interviewer) but one that also transcends the series itself – into a greater consideration of what it means to be a human, and what it means to be a monster.
“The good creatures always have something in them that’s human“, she said almost pensively. “I guess it’s probably part of our genetic makeup, sitting around in the cave hoping our light won’t be seen by something bigger than all of us. In Japan in the summer they always show ghost stories because in the old days they didn’t have air conditioning, and it would send a shiver down everyone’s spine and keep them cool. So I think we’ve integrated these monsters into our culture and they’re endlessly fascinating, especially the human ones because what is it that makes someone act monstrous?”
It is a line of thought that perhaps relates most dramatically to the fourth film, in which the “Ripley clone” has a mixture of both human and alien DNA.
“At what point would Ripley’s genes, what point would she go over to the other side?” she asked rhetorically. “Is it 49/51? What is it? What is the ratio whereby the thing that’s not very human will start to dominate? I think that’s something we all struggle with. We’re all trying to bring out the best version of ourselves with our kids and in our communities, not the worst. Certain things – why do we drink? All these things. Jekyll and Hyde is something that’s always fascinated us.”
This quote came at the tail end of our conversation, at which point I’d already been bent eagerly forward at the table for the last 20 minutes, hanging on her every word, in awe of the unaffected woman before me, who has starred in so many great films and yet retained such a warm and considerate demeanor. That’s a rare thing in this town, and meeting her was an experience I won’t soon forget.