Alien 3 – Fincher Talks!
How David Fincher really felt about Alien 3.
Director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) began his career in the movie business as a matte photographer, working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light And Magic special effects facility near San Francisco. His name can be found in the credits of such movies as Return Of The Jedi, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and The Neverending Story.
Fincher left ILM in 1983 and co-founded Propaganda Films; directing an impressive slate of music videos and commercials (alongside such up-and-coming directors as Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek and Alex Proyas).
Among Fincher’s most notable music videos were Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Vogue’ and Aerosmith’s ‘Janie’s Got A Gun’.
It was Fincher’s music videos which caught the attention of Alien franchise producers David Giler and Walter Hill in 1990 – after Alien 3’s original director, Vincent Ward, was fired at the eleventh hour due to ‘creative differences’.
Fincher suddenly found himself helming his first feature – with only five weeks prep, a budget of $50 million and without a finished script.
He was just 28.
In 1993, after the film had opened to generally hostile reaction, Fincher gave a candid phone interview with journalist Mark Burman, originally meant for the BBC, which was then published in the premier issue of Imagi-Movies Magazine in the Fall of that year. During the hour-long conversation, Fincher expressed his thoughts and feelings on his then only feature as director.
This is perhaps the one and only time Fincher has spoken at length about his experience on that notoriously troubled production.
“I think audiences find it pretentious and ponderous and resent the fact it’s not a scary-scare movie. It’s a queasy-scare movie.”
“The first thing that we decided was that the alien wasn’t going to be the main focus. It’s like the bridge on the river Kwai. the bridge is one of the things you have to deal with, that’s not what the movie is about. The idea was not to make a whiz bang, shoot ‘em up. But to deal with this character. Let’s put a 40-year-old woman in outer space, not an underwear-clad victim like in the first Alien.”
Like many filmmakers of his generation, the original Alien had a major impact on Fincher upon its release in 1979.
“Oh God, Alien changed my life! It just seemed so real to me. I was aware of being told things about people and story through the art direction rather than exposition. I always thought Ridley was brilliant but I never appreciated just how brilliant he was, until I tried to make this movie.”
“Actually he came down to the set once when we were setting fire to something. In he walked with his silk suit and one of his big Cuban cigars, looking fabulous. There was a documentary crew from the publicity machine at Fox filming the whole conversation.”
“Ridley asked how it was going and I said ‘Really bad’ and he said, ‘It never goes well, this is not the way to make movies, make sure you make a little film where you have some control while they’re beating you up.’ And all he did was tell me he still hasn’t seen a dime from the first Alien. I don’t think they ever used it in the documentary!”
Fincher’s biggest issue to contend with when accepting the assignment was the fact that despite his obvious talent and passion for the project, he didn’t have the clout of a more established filmmaker and thus the respect of the studio suits overseeing the production.
“Oh it was just awful. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Look, it would be stupid for me to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It took me five years to decide what I wanted to do and I always held out for something on this scale because I like this kind of canvas, I like the scope of this kind of thing.”
“The lesson to be learned is that you really can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t really have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. When Steven Spielberg comes in and says, ‘I made Jaws, the biggest grossing film of all time and I want $18 million to do Close Encounters,’ which is probably the equivalent to what we spent, it’s very nice to be able to say ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing film of all time. Sit down and shut up, and feel lucky that you’ve got him.”
“It’s another thing when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood because of the money that’s being spent and you’re going ‘Trust me, this is what I really believe in’ and they turn around and say ‘Well, who the fuck are you, who cares what you believe in?’”
Although Fincher did indeed have the full support of his cast and crew, the studio were still uneasy about the idea of killing off Ripley.
“In a way we had to rationalize it. Here is this woman waking up again and finding the same fucking monster. Please! We decided the reason it keeps happening is because that’s what she’s cursed to do. She is cursed to fight this thing until it’s over.”
“I had a master plan for the whole thing. I saw the first film as the beginning of the yuppie ideal. It was getting ahead in the office, sticking to the protocol and being vocal and eventually triumphing because of one’s own beliefs. Obviously it’s more than that, it’s a monster movie and it’s Ten Little Indians, but I saw that film as being a real kind of personal empowerment. They gave it a feminist message as well.”
“In 1978 you have the beginning of the whole ‘Me’ decade and then by the time of the second film in 1986, you had a lot of women coming to grips with wanting a career and also having these incredible maternal instincts and I think Aliens really taps into that.”
“And when we started this one I thought what could I do with the story that would ride the next yuppie wave? And I thought what are the yuppies coming to grips with? Sacrifice, the idea that sacrifice was a noble, capitalist alternative. We’ve come full circle and realized that selflessness is as important as selfishness in order to survive. So I thought that’s the obvious place to go with this character because we’re not really going to have too much more to do with her.”
“Once we decided we were going to kill Ripley off we had a lot of fights and discussions about building to that moment and I always said you can’t work backwards from the idea of Ripley sacrificing her life. Certainly in terms of the American audience you can’t because that’s still seen in American culture as a sign of weakness, as the easy way out. It isn’t looked on as taking responsibility, it’s looked on as shirking responsibility. I said ‘We’ve got to force her to this last decision.”
According to the Alien 3 making-of documentary in the Quadrilogy box-set (and subsequent Anthology), Ripley’s death plunge (sans chest burster) was reshot when it was discovered James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (which was being produced around the same time) had a similar ending with Arnie sacrificing himself in a vat of molten metal. The chest-burster exploding out and Ripley holding it to her as she fell was added in order to create a point of difference, so that Alien 3 couldn’t be unfairly accused of ripping off Cameron’s movie.
This decision never sat well with Fincher.
“I didn’t want to have the alien come out. I still don’t like the idea of the alien emerging. Originally she falls backwards, standing on the gantry, with an explosion of blood on her chest and this thing pushes out. It’s more a stigmata and she falls backwards into it.”
“I never felt it was necessary to show the creature. I was very much against this and dragged my feet and said ‘I don’t believe in it, I don’t think it’s important to see the monster but if we’re going to do this we’re going to have to do something that has a little bit of top spin to it, something else going for it.”
“No matter what cathartic experience we could expect from finally seeing the two strongest images from the first movie, the chest-burster and the character of Ripley, if we left the movie with her choking on her tongue they would feel worse going out of the film than they do now.”
“I said ‘whatever happens she has to be in peace at the end.’ It has to be a sigh rather than gritting teeth and sweat. So we talked about it and went over and shot this blue-screen element. We were shooting that shot four days before the film opened, a completely ridiculous mess. I don’t know if it works.”
Ripley considering her decision to sacrifice herself was another moment of subtlety which got lost in the final cut of the picture.
“The end sequence when Bishop comes and presents his case. I always wanted it to play like she listens to him and she’s really tempted by it. Originally that scene played out much longer and there was a 40-second pause from the time he said ‘Please trust us’ and then she finally looked up at him and said ‘No’.”
“It wasn’t as quick as it is now, I always liked that. I liked the idea of her making a choice as opposed to having the choice made for her.”
The 1992 theatrical cut of Alien 3 had a running time of 114 minutes, which was far shorter than Fincher’s original assembly cut of 144 minutes. Amongst the 30 minutes of discarded footage was a mid-point sequence crucial to the structure of the overall narrative. It was a sequence where the inmates capture the beast in a nuclear waste containment vessel, only to have Golic (Paul McGann’s character) release it.
“Oh God, if you could only read the original story. It just makes me weep. It was difficult for me to meet Paul McGann because I was such a big fan. What happened was a test screening audience of 18-year-old kids in Long Beach, California decided that they weren’t interested in what happened to Golic. They weren’t interested in what he gave the movie.”
“People also wanted the movie to be shorter because you can play it more times a day. So a whole subplot was lost that to this day I feel is very important and certainly answers a lot of the critics questions about my inability to tell a story.”
“The original idea was that Golic would believe that the creature was feeding on everybody else to leave himself and Ripley alive. That they were going to be sort of Adam & Eve and then that idea basically got cast aside because it was considered too strange. But that was the initial idea – why is the alien killing everybody off? The one deluded point of view on the whole thing is that it’s weeding back all the human refuse to leave Golic and Ripley.”
Although the experience of making Alien 3 was undoubtedly a baptism of fire for Fincher, he harboured no ill feelings and was able to view the experience in pragmatic terms.
“They look at these movies like a franchise. There are people, who shall remain nameless, that I was bumping into as I was trying to put this thing together. who were putting the experience into a really interesting kind of perspective. They were saying ‘Look, you could have somebody piss against the wall for two hours and call it Alien 3 and it’s going to do $30 million worth of business, you can’t keep people away. They’re going to go the first night to see what it is.’”
“That’s not to say that 20th Century Fox didn’t want to make a really fine film and they spent a lot of money trying to make it as good as it could possibly be but you can’t buy pre-production time when you start shooting. Because things just get exponentially more complicated.”
“I don’t know, the current wisdom is, of course, that I make things exponentially more complicated but they just are. I probably should have walked away from the first week of shooting when there wasn’t a script but there are extenuating circumstances.”
“They were 15 million dollars into just the production, not including all the money they spent on earlier versions of the script, other directors, sets and designs. To walk away from something like that, in this town at least, at that point is more detrimental to your career than to plow on with something you think needs a lot more work.”
“We really only had four or five weeks prep with the script that resembled what you saw. A lot of times we were fitting scenes into sets that we had aleady constructed. It was not the optimum way to make a movie.”
“Looking at it in the role of communicator obviously in a lot of cases I didn’t get my ideas across. I’m taking that rap but I’m so happy with the monsters and the sfx and the look of the film and the performances and what people were able to do with whatever minimal prep they had. I’m very happy with that so I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I’m not embarrassed by the film.”
“If we failed to do one thing it was to take people out of their everyday life. Actually, my dentist, as he was drilling my teeth, was giving me his thesis on the things wrong with this film and he said, “You know, when you go out of this movie you haven’t gotten away from AIDS, you haven’t gotten away from the race riots, you haven’t gotten away from your fear of other cultures.’”
“We failed to give people the broad, safe entertainment that, in the United States at least, they seem to want. They want to go to the cinema and get away from it all. We tried to bring it down to right here and now, to make a movie about 1990. If we had just gone out and done a shoot ‘em up we would have cheapened the thing in the long run. Instead we did something weird and fucked up out there. I just think in terms of the world boxoffice we may have chosen wrong.”
The complete re-mastered 144 minute version of Fincher’s original cut of Alien 3 is currently available on blu-ray as part of the Alien Anthology box set.
Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.