We’re at a very precarious time in the history of mainstream cinema, the financial atmosphere of the world has forced the hand of the big studios into a strangling fist. I challenge anyone with the time to look over the releases schedule of the past two years and the upcoming releases into 2011 and not long for the early 90s when smaller studios were springing up to handle indie fare and genre films.
But we’re living in a belt-tightening world now, where the careers of studio executives depend on big movies with big budgets with big built-in audiences. That means a lot of adaptations from popular material, remakes and sequels. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that, in the constant battle of art vs. commerce, commerce has been kicking the living hell out of art for the latter half of the decade.
Which makes me sad for the visionary directors of the current period who are churning out independent films with vision. Releases from this year that come to mind: Duncan Jones’ Moon, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom and Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer. Johnson was coming off Brick, a well-received but wholly independent film. He managed to keep his butt in the driver’s seat for his sophomore effort. Jones made the most of his tiny budget to play on interior sci-fi claustrophobia and miniatures to show us the expansive landscapes of our natural satellite. Marc Webb came from the world of music videos to develop 500 Days of Summer into a visual style that would set it apart from the generic RomCom it could have easily become.
And it was the success of 500 Days of Summer as a debut film coming from a director of music videos that got me looking into one of my favorite art vs. commerce horror stories: the making of Alien 3.
Director David Fincher was best known for his commercial work at the time. He had started out shooting matte photography at ILM and even did some shots for Return Of The Jedi early on in his career. By the time he was brought into the Alien franchise, the third film was already in the midst of an identity crisis.
With the success of Aliens alerting 20th Century Fox to the franchise that had sprung up under their noses, the idea of “cracking” what made an Alien film unique was abound. Preliminary writers on the project wanted to distance themselves from the confined corridors and color-less palettes of the previous two films. Ridley Scott had made a gothic horror film and James Cameron had refocused the concept into a combat movie. Early drafts were Ripley-less as Sigourney Weaver was uninterested in rejoining the series. Two early drafts saw the aliens spread like an airborne virus with Hicks or other Marines forced to control it. A later draft seeded the idea of a prison planet or a prison ship, but when Vincent Ward (What Dreams May Come) was brought on as a director, he scrapped it all
Ward’s vision for Alien 3 saw Ripley returning to a wooden planet inhabited by Monks who lived mostly free of modern technology. The monks saw the introduction of Ripley as a test by their god and the arrival of the alien as intervention from the devil. As producers tightened the budgetary leash on Ward, he became frustrated and dropped out of the project, leaving producers Walter Hill and David Giler with the task of writing a script that would fit into Fox’s idea of how much an Alien movie should cost*.
Enter Fincher, who is hired as the director while Hill and Giler are mashing Ward’s story with the earlier prison planet draft. The film has already spent $7 million dollars in development and no script. The script wouldn’t be finished by the time Fincher started shooting.
[* Aside – I’m actually leaving out an interesting draft of Alien 3 by Larry Ferguson that Fincher later described like this: “In the draft Larry was writing, she was going to be this women who had fallen from the stars. In the end she dies, and there are seven monks left – seven dwarfs. Seriously. I swear to God. She was like….what’s her name in Peter Pan? She was like Wendy. And she would make up all these stories. And in the end, there were these seven dwarfs left, and there was this f*cking tube they put her in, and they were waiting for Prince Charming to come wake her up. So that was one of the endings we had for this movie. You can imagine what Joe Roth said when he heard this. “What?! What are they doing over there?! What the f*ck is going on?!”]
In a 1991 article written in the midst of re-shoots by John H. Richardson, Fincher seems keenly aware of just how screwed he was as a commercial director coming in to a film that already was suffering in the tug-of-war between creative and monetary interests:
Fincher: So what do you want to know about my movie?
Q: How you got involved, the production process, what happened in London. All that staff.
Fincher: Well, it’s weird, because when I got involved, it was, we have a movie to make. How do we solve these problems? How do we get this movie made? I’d love to just take the 50 million bucks and just f***in’ start over again.
Q: That’s worth talking about. Maybe we can save some young director…….
Fincher: What would you say? There’s no way a first-time director can make a $50 million movie in this town with the f***in’ recession on the eve of the millennium, you know, with the panic that exists in this business right now. There’s no way. You can’t do it, because in the end, if you can’t say, “I made Jaws, trust me,” why should they trust you? One time, (producer) David Giler, incredibly aggressive and p***ed off on a conference call with Fox, said, “Why are you listening to him for, he’s a shoe salesman!”.
Q: Meaning your Nike commercial.
Fincher: Exactly. And it’s perfectly valid. What do I know? I’m a shoe salesman.
When Fincher brought on Blade Runner’s DP, industry legend, Jordan Cronenweth, the studio said production was moving too slowly and forced Fincher to fire him. They told Fincher to film the dialogue scenes first and save the yet-to-be-written action scenes for later, then they cut the length of his shoot from 93 days to 70, they told him he could only have 25 visual effects shots, they told him he could only build half-sets and not the sets that he had brought to the project.
The film was shooting at Pinewood Studios in England and when the exchange rate shifted against the dollar, Fox sent over producer Jon Landua to wrangle the situation. Eventually, Landua called the production (in an poetic twist, 93 days into the shoot) and told Fincher he could cut the film together, then think about “reshoots.”
Q: What did you do when they pulled the plug?
Fincher: As upset as I was, I was so exhausted, I was glad to get back on the plane. We were told they were going to hold the sets until Joe Roth could take a look at the picture, but they decided it was more cost effective to cut the film and see exactly what was needed – what’s laughingly known as the surgical strike. So we assembled it – and it was like two hours and seventeen minutes – and we showed it to them. It was quite a sobering experience.
Q: I saw a list of your reshoots that was seven pages long.
Fincher: No, no. You must have seen the wish list…..
Q: So to this day there’s still a dispute over how to handle the ending?
Fincher: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. In my most depressed moments, people say, “You know, they didn’t know how they wanted to end Casablanca.” Hopefully this is Casablanca.
It wouldn’t be.
Alien 3 is far from a bad film, it’s just not an Alien film, really, and it lacks the unified vision and cohesion of a flick that has had the steady hand of a director guiding it through the production process.
However, as far as film revisionist history goes, 20th Century Fox wasn’t done screwing with Fincher.
For the definitive DVD box set, The Alien Quadrilogy, Fincher was asked to contribute his directors commentary to the film. He declined, meaning that Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all got their commentary tracks and interviews for the documentaries on each film included in the package.
DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika was in charge of assembling the DVD package and – much to 20th Century Fox’s horror – submitted the third documentary titled: Wreckage and Rape: The Making of Alien³.
DVD review site Digital Bits reports:
More than thirty minutes of material that was produced for this documentary was cut at the last minute. You might be wondering what difference thirty minutes could make in a three hour documentary. A big difference. Gone now is much of the honesty and truth about the hell director David Fincher went through on the production. Among the footage lost were actual moments with Fincher on the set, where you saw his frustration and anger. You saw his struggles with producers. You heard from Sigourney and the other cast and crew members talking about the problems, and what a raw deal Fincher got. You even heard from the film’s producers and Fox executives talking about what went wrong. Simply put, this disc was about as good a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alien³ as you could ever hope to get, short of Fincher returning to address the production himself (and he WAS asked to do so, but declined). Unfortunately, what you get now, while it still does contain some of the above (including material that you’ve never seen before), it sort of teases the stuff you really want to know, then glosses by it.
As a result of this drastic, studio-ordered cutting, Lauzirika took his name off the project, using a pseudonym in the DVD credits for the sixth disc.
What little information remains about Fincher’s horrible tribulations trying to make an artistic statement for his debut film resides in long forgotten interviews. Alien 3 ended up making money with its international release, spawning a fourth film written by Joss Whedon.
Fincher went on to direct Se7en.