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Saturday, June 8, 2024 | Exclusives, Featured Post (Fourth), Interviews


Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen for the ultimate companion to James Cameron’s Aliens. ALIENS EXPANDED, the new four-hour documentary love letter to the cast, crew and fans of the 1986 classic, is about to burst on the scene after a lengthy gestational period! Did I just write, “four-hour documentary” – about Aliens? AFFIRMATIVE! In case you haven’t heard (or read), the creative geniuses at CreatorVC (In Search of Darkness 1-3, In Search of Tomorrow) are at it again, with exclusive interviews and scene-by-scene analysis of the science fiction classic! Everything is covered comprehensively from concept to casting to creature FX and more. 

ALIENS EXPANDED is described as “the most passionate and sophisticated exploration of Aliens ever made.” The backbone is the scene-by-scene analysis, but this documentary goes much deeper by offering an expanded take on the stories behind the making of Aliens. Many of us have seen the documentary, Superior Firepower: Making Aliens, directed by Charles de Lauzirika which is a powerful piece itself. However, ALIENS EXPANDED goes further by capturing fresh perspectives, recollections and even some previously unheard-from voices like Cynthia Scott (Cpl. Dietrich), Collette Hiller (Cpl. Ferro) and Daniel Cash (Pvt. Spunkmeyer) to name a few. The expansion goes even further, reaching into the film’s marketing with Alan Dean Foster (author of the Aliens novelization), Mark Verheiden (Aliens comics writer) as well as Charles de Laurizika (director of  Superior Firepower: Making Aliens). 

ALIENS EXPANDED gets under the skin on such topics as Cameron’s battle with the British crew while making the film, the creation of the Alien Queen and remembering Bill Paxton – all the while speaking to the many facets of why Aliens has aged so well and stands the tests of time. RUE MORGUE recently sat down with Ian Nathan, the filmmaker behind ALIENS EXPANDED, to get his perspective and insight on undertaking the definitive companion piece to the legendary film. It went smooth and by the numbers!

Tell me a little about your background in film and writing – and what brought you this documentary.

Filmmaker Ian Nathan.

It’s a long story, my background. So, the path is probably quite a familiar one, in some sense. I was a film-obsessed kid who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when film was very much still a cinematic experience. It began, for me, with the Bond movies and then Spielberg and all the Star Wars films. I saw Star Wars at the cinema … so that began my growth. But, when you’re at school, in humble, suburban London at the age of 16, there’s no file in the careers office that says, “film writer,” “film journalist” or “film critic.” A career master would never point you in that direction, so I never knew it existed in any real sense until I went to university, and I got involved in the student newspaper there and was given the film critic job. It’s one of these things in life where you go from drifting a bit, not knowing quite what you want for yourself, to having almost overnight, this kind of will descend upon you where you say, “That’s what I want.”

Anyway, I’ll jump forward five or six years of scrambling around as a freelancer, and I got a job with Empire Magazine. If you don’t know, Empire is Britain’s biggest film magazine. It was a big deal, I think, in the ’90s – and still is – but, then, magazines were in their heyday, and it was a great moment in film for us because we had the Star Wars prequels and then The Lord of the Rings and Tarantino, with all sorts of texture and color we could write and talk about. I worked my way up to being editor, and it was a fantastic time in my life. I got to travel all over the world and go on movie sets and got to live a bit of a dream. But also, I came to understand it was about the writing, and it was about expressing the thoughts I had about film in a way I hoped was exciting and good …  I’d always been an Alien fan. I’d always been hugely into Aliens, and so, that was my beat at Empire. If anything came up for Alien Resurrection or any retrospectives we did on those films, it was my gig, you know – Ridley, Scott – my gig! And yeah, I elbowed everybody out of the way and made sure it was mine!

So, this publishing company called up and said, “We’re looking to do a book on Alien, is there anybody at Empire who might be up for writing it?” They looked upon us as the potential source of authors, and mine was the name put forward and I, well, I pushed myself forward. That was “Alien Vault,” and it was an amazing learning curve, an amazing challenge, an amazing experience to suddenly go from, say, 300,000 words on a subject to 30,000 words on a subject and over a much longer period. But the next one, “Our Road to Damascus,” was the next moment when I felt [like] this is what I want. And again, bump forward several years: I’ve written now over twenty books, and I left the magazine in 2015. Along the way, I was doing quite a lot of talking-head things for television and films because you become known as an expert. One of them was In Search of Tomorrow, which is a documentary from CreatorVC, who’ve done the In Search of Darkness films as well. 

CreatorVC wanted me to come on and talk about Jim Cameron’s early career. So, Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss were the main three films and a bit of T2 as well. That interview was three hours long. We talked every which way about Cameron and science fiction and what worked and why he worked. Robin Block, who ran CreatorVC, and produces documentaries, stayed in touch with me, and along the way, asked if I was interested in doing a documentary. I was a bit doubtful, as I’d always been certain that there’s a line between filmmaking and writing about film. A lot of my colleagues had written screenplays and desperately wanted to make the switch from writing about film to being involved in film, and I was always a bit skeptical. I always said it’s kind of healthier to know where you were in that divide – that you were outside looking in, and you were alongside the reader and the cinema goer – but the way Robin talked about it was [as if] it was an extension of what I already did. I’m just telling a story about film but doing it with a different medium. You’re not doing it on the page; you’re now going to do it on screen.

I grew very interested in that idea. Could I do it? And how would I do it? And we talked about a Stephen King documentary at one point, doing the adaptations. He came back to me with an idea where, if you know CreatorVC, you know In Search of Darkness and In Search of Tomorrow, you know they’re broad. They take on whole eras and cover that idea of horror in the early ’80s or science fiction in the early ’80s. David Weiner, who directs them, is terrific at it. And Robin said, “Can you imagine doing that? Taking that broad approach but applying it to one film, to jump into the film, and then, go wide?” We went out to lunch, and he asked which film I think could do it, and I said, “Aliens,” and he said, “Exactly!”

Why Aliens?

“Why Aliens?”  is a good question. I love Alien. I’ve written a book on Alien, and I’ve written a book on Ridley Scott, and I’m very much in awe of it! It’s a film that endlessly fascinates me, and if one day, I get to make a documentary about it, I would love to. But Aliens was the right one for this format because it had this love and passion and community and an enduring quality where everyone goes back to it. It’s a friend for life, Aliens, and once you’ve seen it, it’s always there for you, and if you come home at night and you turn the television on and it’s halfway through, you know you’re going to watch it till one in the morning because that’s what you do. There are only certain films that do that. Other films you are aware of, and you have to make your way toward. But Aliens is always there, and I thought that was the perfect template … And you know, in a sense, the documentary asks us one single question: “Why do we love Aliens so much?” and it comes up with many, many answers.

Where did you start? And how did you branch out from there?

Essentially, you write a synopsis because when you do documentaries, you work with transcripts from a lot of interviews. You don’t impose a dialogue upon people, they give it back to you. But I needed a synopsis, and this was doubly important because the way CreatorVC works is we have backers, we have fans and film addicts. We go to them to raise the budget; We don’t go through a film company. This process has worked very well, but what you need to do to get that process going is something to show your potential backers what they’re investing in.

Now, we already had an idea of structure that Robin talked about, and we honed it together. We decided we were going to take the finished film, Aliens, as you know and love it, and break it down into sections or sequences which would be our chapters. There are nineteen chapters with a legacy section at the end that run chronologically. We started with the salvage at the beginning, and we ended with the power loader and going back to sleep at the at the end with Newt. From those sequences, I would then draw out all the things I want to discuss and how each sequence informed that.

So that was established, and then, I worked out where, roughly, I would do each bit. I had each sequence, and then from each of those sequences, I would know what I was going to explore. So it was, the face huggers loose in the medical infirmary. That’s where I explore the creation of the face huggers and Stan Winston and that team. So that was my synopsis. And then, obviously, from your synopsis, simultaneously you look at who you need to talk to and fill this chapter up with story. And, from the beginning, you know that you’re going to want James Cameron! You know that’s a given. You’re doing a huge in-depth documentary about the making of Aliens so you need its fundamental author and genius.

But really, you work out who you need from the cast. And because there was so much breadth in ALIENS EXPANDED, I was going for everyone. So, everybody who was alive –, all the marines … and then from there, you go one stage further. Who, behind the scenes, do you want? From Gail Anne Hurd to people like Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. who were on the creature effects team? 

One of the things you face with Aliens is that it’s 37 years old, and so many of the people are not alive anymore, especially in terms of behind-the-scenes. Adrian Biddle, the director of photography, is dead, and a lot of the filmmakers and British crew are dead, but I found a lot. So then, you go one stage further out, and you want experts and fans who can comment from the outside back in, as they are extremely useful. They give the documentary a huge amount because, you know, if you are Jeanette Goldstein or Mark Rolston or Michael Biehn, your memories are very much about your experience of Aliens on the set, the creation of your character and your relationship with fans afterward. But often, fans and film critics and experts can have breadth in what they talk about. They can understand the concept of we’re going to talk about Vasquea, but also, we’re going to apply the idea of feminism and female characters in the film and how lightly and brilliantly that’s done and how that relates to the army now and the American military and how it was a prediction of that.

Obviously, James Cameron is going to give you a lot, but he’s not going to give you everything. And then, of course, you go on the very long journey of tracking down people who represent them and asking them to do it and explaining what you want to do.

Big things don’t happen when you want them to. You are a slave to the universe…[Cameron] came in late, and it was a long journey to get him. At one point, we wondered whether we were going to get him, and I had to contemplate the documentary without him and how that would work where he was more of a story within the documentary. Cameron is the backbone that you return to because he can comment on pretty much everything within the documentary. But all the while, I had to keep in mind the original purpose – the original motivation. Why do we love Aliens? Why am I making this documentary?

ALIENS EXPANDED features many lesser-known actors who were involved in the film. There’s also a lot of ground that has been covered in previous “making-of” segments and interviews. Is there much new information in the film that we haven’t gotten to this point?

I do think so! One of the burdens of any documentary tackling a film this well-known and this old is that you’re confronted with a lot that has already been done. You know, there are some very good making-of documentaries on the Anthology box set and the Quadrilogy box set. Superior Firepower is a terrific documentary on the making of Aliens, done through Fox. Charles Laurizika, the director of that, is in my documentary … He could speak very knowledgeably about it. But that is a difficult thing because you are conscious that you may have to retread territory … There are very familiar stories involved in the making of so many films that a kind of mythology exists around them. You can’t go into the making of Aliens and not talk about the conflict with the British crew, the revisiting of Ridley Scott’s material [and] how Cameron got the gig. You have to go and do those things, but I didn’t want to make a “making-of.” 

What I’ve not done is go through every point made in my documentary and go back onto the Internet and try to Google it all to find out whether someone has already done it because that way, madness lies. If you start even mildly traveling around the Aliens universe online, the detail is just mind-boggling. And once you start doing that, four hours suddenly isn’t a lot –once you start comparing it to all that stuff. I had this sense of versatility that I could have discussions of how you would design the Queen and what the Queen represented and how she fulfilled the very logical idea brought by Cameron to what’s going on fictionally in this universe. Who were these characters before we met them? What are the back stories of Vasquez and Dietrich and Spunkmeyer and what are their journeys as much as the characters and the director felt?

It seems that with this documentary you have expanded Cameron’s film in a way not dissimilar to how Cameron expanded Ridley Scott’s film.

Absolutely! I mean, Cameron talks about the fact that Aliens was an act of fandom. The reason he wanted to do it so badly is because he loved that first film. He was transformed by it. It was a signature moment in Cameron’s career when he went to the theater one hot May night and came out going, “This is what I need to be doing.” When the proposition was put to him, he said it was like Vegas! All the coins were pouring out of the slot machine. This is what he wanted. And I think it’s so important that you know, at that time, there weren’t science fiction sequels. They weren’t really a thing. Star Wars was a saga that was continuing with Empire Strikes Back and then, Return of the Jedi. It wasn’t the Hollywood rule that, if you have a hit, you naturally did a sequel. Maybe Smokey and the Bandit, you know, or maybe Cannonball Run. But big sci-fi sequels weren’t a deal at that point. I think Cameron invented them with Aliens, and what he’s so brilliant at is he understands the concept of a sequel, and he put down a blueprint about how it has to work.

Cameron talks about the fact that you can’t go head-on with Ridley in terms of horror, tension, and claustrophobia. You can’t be Alien. That’s why he loved it! You come to it with a new thematic element, which is the soldiers, but you still draw everything you need to draw out of it – the look, the creature, Ripley, LV426 – but you give it a fundamentally different energy. You can have your cake and eat it. You can take that film, play with it and expand it. You can take the biology of it and complete the life cycle. You can make it logical. With Ripley, you can expand her character, and that makes her different, yet still the same. She’s still the same person and Sigourney Weaver’s performance is so important! Then, you can bring in other elements like the marines [and] like Newt. you can do something new, but the familiarity is there, and that’s the great art of the sequel. 

Now that you’ve made this epic documentary, what are you hoping will be the reaction from the fans?

First and foremost, I hope they like it! I hope they find it good, and they enjoy it. I feel very responsible to my audience and to my backers. I hope it gives you what you want. We used to have a phrase at Empire that you want to give your readers 70 percent of what they want and thirty percent of what they didn’t know they wanted. So, I hope there’s that. There’ll be seventy percent of exactly what you want with Cameron telling stories and the marines telling stories in detail and then, thirty percent of fans going, “I never thought of that. That’s interesting.” The one response I want more than anything is the first thing you do after you’ve finished it is that you watch Aliens. Once we are wrapped, I’m going to go into my living room. I’m going to turn off all the lights. I’m going to put all my notebooks away, and I’m just going to watch Aliens. I want it to be a companion for everyone. I want it to be on your shelf beside your box sets, and I want it to be exciting and hope it opens up the film a bit more.


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