Sigourney Weaver: from Alien to A-list...

Charting the rise of Sigourney Weaver, who helped turn a low-budget horror film into a world-spanning franchise, and went from Z-list to superstar in the process.
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Charting the rise of Sigourney Weaver, who helped turn a low-budget horror film into a world-spanning franchise, and went from Z-list to superstar in the process.

In 1979, with only his second feature, Brit director Ridley Scott went to Hollywood and created a modern genre. It wasn’t one you could immediately pin a name on, but when Alien came out, you knew you’d never seen horror like it before and you’d never seen science fiction like it before.

The Hammer horror and Fifties B-movies of old had all been a joke. This was something else. This was awesome. Such imaginative and costly visual design had only been employed in barely a handful of sci-fi movies – 2001, Star Wars, Close Encounters – and never with such credible and chilling results. The world Scott envisioned, the retro-fitted environment of the ship Nostromo, was shabby and run-down and plausible, while Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the planet scenes and the creature itself were nightmarishly stunning. At last, the world thought, that’s what a real alien looks like.

The most significant decision in making the first film was casting Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the crew member who survived that first outing.

Considering Weaver’s pedigree – father president of NBC, mother a stage and screen actress, a degree in English from Stanford University and a catwalk physique – it seemed inevitable that show business would be good to her. Her teachers at Yale Drama School, however, were not impressed. “They really did tell me I had no talent and I’d never get anywhere,” the actress has said. “I should get all my money back from that place.” Not that she’d need it now.

OK, it’s easy to forget that she was pushing thirty and hungry for a break when Alien came along, her screen time before that consisting of a daytime soap and a walk-on part in 1977’s Annie Hall. But Ripley set her on a roll that, since then, has seen her work with some of the world’s top directors (Peter Weir, Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, Ang Lee), earn three Oscar nominations (Aliens, Gorillas in the Mist, Working Girl) and become that rarity in Hollywood – a woman who can single-handedly carry not just an action movie but an action franchise.

The Alien series (discounting the Alien Vs Predator entries) has grossed more than $680m worldwide. Weaver personally pocketed $5.5m for Alien3, which she co-produced, in 1992, and double that for Alien Resurrection five years later. On the last film, she got sole credit as executive producer.

It’s a privilege she doesn’t take for granted. “How many actors have been able to do the same role over and over for so many years? It’s like getting to do a James Bond every few years.”

“Basically, film scripts are a blueprint. They want someone to come in and dig deeper. They hire you because they know you’re going to really thoroughly explore this person..."

When asked why the creature at the end of Alien got into the shuttle – to pursue Ripley or to escape the imminent destruction of the ship? – Scott’s reply was, “Because we needed an end to the picture.” It’s a good indication of the pragmatic considerations of directing. But it’s Sigourney Weaver’s artistic sensibility that has woven the human thread running through the series.

Producers Walter Hill and David Giler’s rewrites of Dan O’Bannon’s story introduced two female crew members, Ripley and Lambert. At first, Weaver wanted to be Lambert, initially conceived as a wisecracker rather than the hysteric that Veronica Cartwright turned her into. The Fox studio didn’t want a newcomer in the lead, but Weaver tested for Scott after getting the Brandywine production team in her corner.

When executive Alan Ladd Jr showed the results to women colleagues back at Fox, they loved her. She was offered the part, at a fairly low $33,000.

The decision to leave the characters as blank slates for the actors to sketch on was essentially Hill’s, utilising a working method he’d developed as writer-director on Hard Times and The Driver. “I don’t care where people come from,” he said, “I don’t care where they are going. I do care what they are doing . . . excluding what happened before our drama starts and what will happen after our drama ends makes the screen characterisation much more refined.”

It’s a method Weaver instinctively understands. “Basically, film scripts are a blueprint. They want someone to come in and dig deeper. They hire you because they know you’re going to really thoroughly explore this person and give them a whole person when there’s just sort of a design for a person in the script.”

Critics of Aliens have noted Ripley’s lack of concern that the world and the people she knew were now gone. But once more, she was freed from the past and the future was unwritten.

This fits in with Scott’s philosophy too, but Weaver found her occasionally drawing the director’s flak. Himself lacking the experience, reputation or temerity to confront actors of John Hurt’s and Ian Holm’s standing, he would indirectly quash any motivational faffing by having a go at the new girl, then apologising to her in private afterwards. Weaver doesn’t seem to have taken it to heart, still claiming, “There was something about Ridley’s honesty and lack of bullshit.”

That first film will always stand alone as a complete work of art. It wasn’t made with a sequel in mind (though Brandywine certainly saw the potential). Its success rested on its stripped-down narrative concept – take an ensemble cast and kill them all, what you see is what it gets – and on being the first film to use prosthetic effects to show one body bursting out of another – the creature as an early metaphor for AIDS. Seven years later, but 57 in Ripley’s universe – Aliens would achieve something similar.

A key factor that has tempted Weaver back to the role is the freedom to reinvent Ripley with each instalment. Critics of Aliens have noted Ripley’s lack of concern that the world and the people she knew were now gone. But once more, according to Hill’s dictum, she was freed from the past and the future was unwritten. The course of the second movie would provide her with a proto-family, and that would be James Cameron’s legacy.

The way Cameron got his hands on Ripley fresh from The Terminator was poetic. She was the cinematic counterpoint to Schwarzenegger – female, vulnerable and good – but with equal balls and firepower. In some ways, she would re-emerge as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 (who in turn would morph back into the muscular, invincible Ripley of Alien Resurrection).

Everyone who’d seen Alien felt a thrill of anticipation when they heard the simple yet devastating title of the sequel. Scott had said about his movie, “It has absolutely no meaning. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror.” That terror had been sustained by long passages of tension-building in the remote, lonely spaces of the Nostromo, punctuated by the electric shocks of glimpsing, but never quite fully seeing the creature. By 1986, we were more accustomed to eye-popping, heart-pounding fantasy effects from films like Raiders, Ghostbusters and most of all, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Would adding more aliens create yet more terror? The question was academic because Cameron’s movie was to be about something else: action, adrenaline and guns.

Cameron’s film kicked ass, and by the end of it, Ripley, this woman from nowhere, seemed to have been given something resembling a life.

Ironically, one of those winning elements was something of a sticking point for Weaver, and almost certainly influenced the directions that the third and fourth films would take. Cameron took the actress to a weapons range in preparation for her return to the role, an experience she felt ambivalent about. “She kind of grinned wolfishly and said, ‘This is fun’,” Cameron recalled. “But you could tell she was also guilty about it, because she’s this really liberal, cause-oriented person, down on handguns and all those sorts of things.” Commenting on the movie, he added “Sigourney was a little worried about the stuff with the guns. I said, ‘What are you gonna do, talk the alien to death?’.”

The fact stands that she did the film and it worked beautifully. “Jim just wrote me this great part. The whole idea of Ripley as a rebel . . . the Company disenfranchises her when she comes back. She’s persona non grata, she’s in rebellion against this system because she knows what they really are.”

Cameron’s film kicked ass, and by the end of it, Ripley, this woman from nowhere, seemed to have been given something resembling a life. How callous, then, that the next film, Alien3, would open by taking it away from her.

It’s not hard to see what was wrong with Alien3. It gave us no guns, Weaver’s locks cropped to a grade one, Brian Glover’s embarrassing pantomime pompous idiot and a supporting cast of British luvvies with little to say except ‘Fuck’ and ‘We’re all gonna die’. The action scenes were muddled, the plot relied on the characters being stupid, and the religious angle sounded pointless and half-baked. It retained virtually none of Giger’s original vision and drew us reluctantly on to a downbeat ending that killed off the hero.

What’s harder to see is why. The list of names attached to the project reads like a Who’s Who of style-mongers. William Gibson, David Twohy, Vincent Ward, Renny Harlin and David Fincher all had a hand in it at one point or another. But that was the problem. Development hell reigned supreme. The producers took a back seat creatively, and kept their distance literally from the shoot itself, refusing to fly to London, where it was being filmed, while the (first) Gulf War was going on. Hacked to pieces and kicked into a corner, the production’s only brief was to make something different from the first two.

Alien3 cost $50m to make and took a little over $30m on its first American run.

Weaver was publicly supportive about director Fincher’s lot. “The [audience] is going to expect guns, action non-stop, and David has done something very stylish, cynical, yet innocent at the same time. Maybe some people will say it’s too slow or existential. And that’s got people at Fox a little nervous.”

It cost $50m to make and took a little over $30m on its first American run. But in all fairness, it did reasonable business in Europe. Ripley’s self-sacrificing death gave the trilogy an appropriate sense of closure and the film delivered at least one provocative image – Ripley giving birth to the creature and clasping it mother-like to her breast as they fall into the furnace together – at a time when people were killing one another over the abortion issue in the States.

For Weaver, it was a hard and depressing shoot, but she had no regrets about Ripley’s demise. “I know it sounds crazy but I came to realise that the only way she could finally get peace was if I, the actress, were willing to go deeper into the material and allow her a release.”

But in Ripley’s universe, release isn’t that simple. By 1997, the publicity machine was rolling again and the trailers for Alien Resurrection washed the taste of the last film from our mouths with the promise of a return to full-on Cameron-style action mode.

Written by Joss ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Whedon (who has since disowned the script as having little resemblance to what he wrote) the story opens 200 years after Alien3. The Company has gone, but the future still looks like a claustrophobic military-industrial nightmare. Only the prisoners in Alien3 have given us any inkling of what humanity has become outside this scenario, and they were, frankly, stupid. It’s fitting, then, that the new Ripley, cloned form blood samples, is beyond human, sharing some of the alien’s genes.

Weaver looks terrific in Alien Resurrection. She took up karate to prepare for the role and, in her late forties, looked better than ever.

Is it a coincidence that those around her suggest humanity’s evolutionary decline? Brad Dourif’s twitching psychotic, Ron Perlman’s Cro-Magnon lunkhead, Dominique Pinon’s paraplegic midget and Dan Hedaya’s unfeasibly hairy shoulders. But with Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing, it was always going to be a bit weird.

“Ripley is part alien,” Weaver explained. “She’s not of either world. I feel she misses the alien world more . . . She’s not intent on saving people. She’s more of a nihilist. On the other hand, the animal in her would do anything to survive. It’s almost as if the alien blood has made her so much more alive and more in her body. She’s so strong, she’s very sensual, she’s very predatory, she has much more of a sense of humour, I think, because she has died.”

Whatever one thinks of Alien Resurrection, and few think much of it, Weaver looks terrific. She took up karate to prepare for the role and, in her late forties, looked better than ever. In addition, the nature of the new Ripley created space for a more ambiguous relationship with the creatures. Ripley squirming provocatively on, and sinking into, a bed of alien tentacles, Ripley giving herself up to the alien’s erotic embrace . . . told you it was weird. But these images are classic, the high point of the movie, worthy in other contexts of a Dietrich or a Garbo.

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

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