This past July, in the bowels of a sodium-lit hotel ballroom at San Diego Comic-Con, a momentous reunion was happening away from the public's eye. Thirty years (and five days) from its original theatrical release of July 18, 1986, the creators and core cast of Aliens came together to reminisce about the seminal action/horror sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien that changed so much for the team behind it. For director James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, Aliens cemented the power couple as a force in genre cinema and in the Hollywood heirarchy. Sigourney Weaver's repeat performance as Ellen Ripley fleshed out the character as a flesh-and-blood heroine who redefined the power of flipping gender roles. For actors Michael Biehn (Hicks), Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Bill Paxton (Hudson), Paul Reiser (Burke) and Carrie Henn (Newt), Aliens either launched or resuscitated careers to new heights.
Blastr was one of a small handful of media outlets in the room to witness the joy on the faces of the participants -- some who had not seen each other in years -- to talk about the impact of Aliens on their lives and the impact it's still having on modern pop culture storytelling.
Director/Screenwriter James Cameron and Producer Gale Anne Hurd
Looking at the script for Aliens, it's striking how an action film of its intensity is -- at its core -- about the ferocity of maternal instinct.
JC: That's right, and by design. I cribbed some chunks [of the script] from a piece I had been writing called Mother, but it seemed to fit very well. In the same way that we needed to evolve and ratchet up Sigourney's character, we needed to take the nemesis - the idea of the alien -- and take it to a new level. It was kind of staring us in the face. There's this ship filled with all these eggs ... who laid the eggs? Now, there was a scene that was removed from Ridley Scott's film that showed there was a closure of the life cycle where the humans were cocooned and became eggs. We just threw that out because, in my mind, that didn't go against canon because it hadn't made it into the release cut. So I thought, you've got a mother someplace, and now you have two mothers in opposition. The piece I cribbed from, Mother, I never went anywhere with that. I just stuck it all into Alien 2 when I wrote the treatment. The treatment was written really fast in a week to 10 days. It had all of the Marine characters and the major stuff in it. I just had to turn it into a script with dialogue.
Thirty years after Aliens' release, you can still see its influence from strong female protagonists to even the framing of action like this season's "The Door" episode of Game of Thrones. Does that surprise you?
Cameron: Video game,s too. First-person shooters and science fiction with pushed technology, combat games like Halo fed a lot from it. But we also stood on the shoulders of those who came before. Obviously, with Ridley's film [Alien], it was seven years before we made ours. The mood and style was basically carried on, even though we were telling a different kind of story. But you can see the reference points in other films [to Aliens], and that's cool. I think it's part of how it works. I'm flattered by it. It's not like I want to run around and sue people, even though I get sued a lot by people who think it's not cool. (Laughs)
Gale Anne Hurd: I think the remarkable thing also, as someone whose loved genre my entire life, it was one of the times that the horror genre was really taken seriously. There were seven Academy Award nominations which shocked the hell out of us...
Cameron: And for Sigourney's performance, as well. No actress had gotten nominated for a science fiction/horror picture up until then.
Anne Hurd: So, to me, that was the game-changer. All of a sudden, horror was not something that was just a guilty pleasure, which is wonderful. Aliens was considered mainstream. If there were multiplexes, with this you didn't buy a ticket to something else and sneak into see the guilty pleasure. It changed the face of two things for better or for worse, all of a sudden sequels, which were not common then, were considered a little more viable...
Cameron: A lot more viable. When we made Aliens, the rule was always that a sequel would cost twice as much and make half as much. It never really looked like a good business model, so they were relatively rare.
Anne Hurd: These days, it's gotten out of hand. As opposed to formulaic filmmaking, go to an auteur and have the auteur write the script and reinvent the story while staying true to canon. It's also important tonally for all of the actors to be in the same movie. A lot of people think if it's a comic book or a horror film, it should be campy. I've seen films that otherwise might have been successes but the tonality of the acting didn't match.
Cameron: You never break tone with The Walking Dead. It's deadly serious and the relationships are super, super important. The relationships between the people is what creates the relationship between the audience and the work. It's what happened in Aliens. Frankly, I see parallels between Aliens and The Walking Dead because you start to really care about those people and their fate.
Anne Hurd: Yeah, but you only had two hours to do that. We have 16 hours!
Cameron: That's true, and that's probably harder to sustain.
Aliens has been re-mastered in 4K for this new blu-ray release. Is it the best print you've seen of it?
Cameron: It's so cool. It's my color correction done for the blu-ray.
Anne Hurd: It's a funny thing. Back then, Jim didn't have color correction in his contract. When the first VHS [of Aliens] was made, the color timer decided it should be warm! We had dinner with [Rupert] Murdoch and they deep-sixed 250,000 VHS copies so Jim could color correct it.
A lot of talk has been swirling about director Neill Blomkamp's script for an Alien sequel that ignores the third and fourth installments of the film franchise. What do you think of it?
Cameron: I think it works gangbusters. He shared it with me and I think it's a very strong script. He could go make it tomorrow. I don't know anything about the production. I know nothing about what Ridley's doing but, hopefully, there will be room for both of them.
Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley) and Bill Paxton (Private Hudson)
How did Jim Cameron come on your radar in regards to making a sequel to Alien?
Sigourney Weaver: I remember the producers of Alien wanted to meet Jim for another project and Jim piped up, "By the way, I've written this script on spec for Aliens." At that point, you didn't ever do sequels. Even without getting the invitation...
Bill Paxton: Was that [Alien producers] Walter Hill and David Giler?
Weaver: Yeah, they were the producers. Jim at that point had only done Piranha II. He hadn't done Terminator. It invited him from the universe into this world. (Laughs)
Paxton: Things happen for a reason, like you getting cast in the original film.
Weaver: I know.
Paxton: Alien was the movie that we all discovered Sigourney Weaver, in more ways than one. (Laughs) Was it your first movie?
Weaver: I had done this little Israeli film where I had two or three scenes over five days. For all intents and purposes, I learned how to do it on Alien. Ridley said, "Can you please not look in the camera?" I said, 'Well. I would be happy not to look in the camera if you didn't put it right in front of me.' I didn't understand not crossing the lines. (Laughs)
Paxton: The pro's pro is telling us this. (Laughs)
With Cameron and Hurd, you crafted a female heroine that's remained the standard for how women should be portrayed to this day.
Weaver: I think Jim really succeeded. I think we really met where we feel about women because I think we both really feel that women really get it done and all these stereotypes are bulls***.
Hudson is one of cinema's great, memorable support characters. On a now vast resume, where does it land?
Paxton: It was a landmark movie for me, for sure. It changed my whole life. When I go to the signings, fifty percent of what I sign is Aliens related. The other fifty is every other damn thing. (Laughs)
Weaver: How did [Jim] find you?
Paxton: I knew Jim. I worked for him in his art department. When he saw me, I was making a short film that I was able to sell to Saturday Night Live based on a song written by Bill Mumy called "Fish Heads." When I was working with Jim, I got hired on his night crew on Galaxy of Terror. I've never even seen the picture. It was for Roger Corman. Jim heard that I had made this film and he opened up to me about this script [Terminator] about a cyborg from the future that comes back to the present because he's going to give birth to a son in the future who is going to rise up against the machines. [Paxton makes a blown away sound and laughs]
Michael Biehn (Corporal Hicks) and Carrie Henn (Rebecca "Newt" Jordan)
Why do you think Aliens has remained so beloved for three decades?
Michael Biehn: I think it's like asking [football coach Mike] Ditka why the '88 Bears won the Super Bowl. First of all, it was a wonderful script. Jim had already gotten his feet wet and done a fabulous job on a low budget with The Terminator, so people were on their toes and knew he was good. When I went over and saw the sets, they were unbelievable. You realized you were in something really good. Then, they were able to get so much shot. Everybody from Stan's people to the set dressing to sound to music, they all just wanted to do the best they could. Sometimes things come together and sometimes they don't.
Carrie, you were a kid who had never done a film. Did the impact of what you were doing faze you at all?
Carrie Henn: I was blissfully ignorant. I had no concept of what I was doing. I knew Sigourney from Ghostbusters, but I really didn't have a concept of what was going on, which was probably appreciated so there wasn't a little diva running around. It was all amazing.
Lance Henriksen (Bishop, the artificial human) and Paul Reiser (Carter J. Burke)
Bishop was the rare android that won the audience over as a sympathetic character.
Lance Henriksen: There was a humanness to him. I thought, wouldn't it be something if they planned into my makeup that I would age so other humans would feel more comfortable to them? Because if I didn't age, it would make them severely distressed.
On the other hand, Paul, you weren't known for playing villains at all before Aliens. Did your casting surprise even you?
Paul Reiser: I was working on a show with a buddy of mine, writing this comedy that I was going to be in. We're writing my character and he said, "Here's the funny thing, everybody always look at you like you're such a nice guy. You're not that nice." And I went, 'I know!' (Laughs) I like to surprise people either way. If you think I'm nasty, I'm not only nasty.
What struck you about the potential of Aliens as a film?
Reiser: We talked before that it was a rare script that when you read it, you could visualize it. Literally. Cinematically you could see it was that well written and conceived. And then you get there, and you're making it and it's another new surprise. 'Oh my goodness, look at this equipment and stuff and smoke!' Then you see it cut together, which should have been the last stop as we go, 'It's a fantastic thing!' But this has had this additional longevity that I was not aware of. People for years said they love the movie.
How did it impact your career?
Henriksen: Aliens had a major effect on my life. Suddenly, I had a career. The thing was so successful and so well done, and framed us so well, we were defined in a way. I've done a lot of films, and my biggest worry when I leave a movie is, are they going to cut it right? With Jim, you know that he's going to frame you very well. He does it all the time with every movie he does. Aliens feels like it's part of me.
Aliens: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray with a new featurette with James Cameron is available 9/13/16.