James Cameron's 'Aliens' Was Pure Madness Behind The Scenes

The Nostromo crew had it easier than the ‘Aliens’ crew.
James Cameron's 'Aliens' Was Pure Madness Behind The Scenes

Welcome to This Movie Was Hell, Cracked's weekly deep dive behind the scenes of some of film's most nightmarish production tales. Today's movie: Aliens.

It’s no secret that working on a James Cameron production is about as peaceful as a blindfolded go kart race in a nitroglycerin factory, typically with more yelling than a volume-cranked episode of WWE Raw. We’ve talked before about how the making of The Abyss was basically a new form of prolonged water torture, and also that time when the entire Titanic crew ended up in the hospital after a surprise dose of PCP, possibly because Cameron screamed at the caterers for having the audacity to feed him some soup one time. But with the first Avatar: The Way of Water trailer dropping this week (to the joy of muscular Smurf fetishists everywhere) let’s talk about another James Cameron movie that also had a rocky production history: 1986’s Aliens.

As Hollywood legend would have it,  Cameron first pitched the project to Fox by writing down the word “Alien” then adding an “S” which he then turned into a dollar sign, Scrooge McDuck-style. Cameron recently confirmed this story, adding that it just “popped into” his “mind in the moment.” After that aggressively ‘80s meeting, the Aliens project immediately got messy. For starters, Sigourney Weaver entered into some pretty intense contract negotiations with Fox, prompting the studio to ask Cameron to “pursue a storyline that would not include the Ripley character” which he “refused to do,” lest Aliens focus entirely on the adorable adventures of Jones the cat.

So Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his new wife and the producer of Aliens, took off on a Hawaiian honeymoon, telling Fox that they had until the end of their vacay to figure out Weaver’s deal. Yup, they turned their literal honeymoon into a deal-making ultimatum. While Weaver ended up getting her $1 million dollar payday, once filming started, things were anything but smooth.

Aliens was filmed at Pinewood studios outside of London, England – hence why the entire movie was very nearly derailed by tea (seriously). Even before the cozy beverage-related incidents, Cameron and Hurd fired cinematographer Dick Bush – not because his name was eliciting giggles, but because of his complaints about the shooting schedule. Next actor James Remar, who was originally cast as the heroic Corporal Hicks, was let go. 

At the time, Remar claimed that he simply had “urgent” matters to attend to in the U.S. But decades later, Remar admitted that it was because he “got busted for possession of drugs.” Co-star Al Matthews also recounted an incident in which Remar was carrying a shotgun full of live ammo on set, and blasted a hole in the wall of a neighboring soundstage in which director Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors was filming. So there’s a very good chance that very nearly murdering Miss Piggy could have been a factor in this decision too.  In his place Cameron cast actor Michael Biehn, who showed up just a few days later with “no time to prepare.” 

There was an immediate “culture clash” between the young Canadian director and the old school British crew, who derisively referred to the bearded newbie as “Grizzly Adams.” According to Sigourney Weaver, part of the crew’s skepticism concerning Cameron stemmed from the fact that they were “Big Ridley fans” who couldn’t believe that this random canuck nobody was making a sequel to a legit classic like Alien. Part of the problem was they hadn’t seen Cameron’s breakout hit The Terminator, and while he kept holding screenings for the Aliens crew, “none of them would go.” 

For Cameron, as related by actor Lance Henriksen, making movies is “a war.” But for the British crew, it was just another gig. The focal point for this fundamental difference in attitudes became a little old lady pushing a small tea trolley. Despite the fact that they were likely busy filming fake space marines melting psychosexual nightmare creatures with make believe flamethrowers, when the tea cart arrived, it signified the beginning of a teatime – a 15 minute break that became the bane of James Cameron’s existence. 

Cameron reportedly “locked heads” with veteran assistant director Derek Cracknell over the tea breaks. Cameron thought the British crew was “lazy, insolent and arrogant.” And the Brits had some opinions about Cameron too, but those were presumably muffled by all the tea-soaked scones. At one point, said tea cart was “allegedly damaged.” According to J.W. Rinzler, the author of The Making of Aliens, Cameron became so frustrated with teatime, he was “ready to strangle this poor old lady, who was just doing her job.” Things got so bad that Cameron considered moving the Aliens production, or even replacing the entire crew. In the end, he settled for firing just Cracknell – which was very nearly “game over, man” for Aliens

Cracknell’s firing sparked a full-blown revolt, a “mutiny” in which the crew walked off set in protest. Ultimately, it was Sigourney Weaver, beloved by both parties (for obvious reasons) who “brokered a piece.” This prompted a lengthy meeting between the crew and Cameron and Hurd. In the end, Cracknell agreed to be “more supportive” of Cameron’s vision, while Cameron agreed not to give everybody crap for simply wanting a few sips of tea from time to time. We can’t all swap out our caffeine intake for the stimulating effects of deep sea shipwreck excavations, Jim. After the meeting Cracknell was re-hired, and filming resumed.

Of course there were other problems too. Like the time actors Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein (in the role of Private Vasquez, regrettably) were asked to hold their breath while filming a scene in which actual toxic chemicals were burned, resulting in hazardous fumes. Apparently the original movie’s theme of “don’t put your employees in harm’s way for your own ends” didn’t totally stick. Also the interior set for the APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) caved in, and thankfully just “grazed Sigourney.” As for the exterior scenes, the APC was an aircraft towing vehicle designed for 747s that was mocked up to look futuristic military conveyance. 

And it was involved in multiple accidents. In one shot, the brakes failed and crashed into the camera which was fortunately being operated remotely, thanks to Hurd’s cautious approach. But in another scene, the APC’s driver forgot that the vehicle was in reverse, not drive, and backed into a wall, nearly injuring the cinematographer and Cameron. Not to mention the scene in which Bishop the android shows off his famous knife trick …

According to Henriksen, the scene was shot on the day they flew back to L.A – specifically the “morning of the flight” after the cast had thrown a goodbye party. So the likely hungover actor ended up cutting Paxton’s pinky finger on the second take.

Of course, all of this was ultimately in the service of one of the greatest science fiction movies of all-time. And apparently Cameron’s perfectionism even continued once the movie was done; Quentin Tarantino once wistfully recalled seeing Aliens in L.A. on opening day, where Cameron was “orchestrating everything, he was making sure that the audience got in, got them out, making sure that the project was good.” Or, in retrospect, maybe he was just making sure that no one was bringing any tea into the theater.

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Thumbnail: 20th Century Studios


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