This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Alien franchise and we’ve been lucky enough to speak with someone that has been working on the franchise since James Cameron’s Aliens. In our exclusive interview with Studio ADI’s Alec Gillis conducted by HN Entertainment’s Nicholas Whitcomb and CJ Paschall, we learn how being a child of divorce led Alec into a passion for filmmaking along with a timeline of his effects career journey and how started his practical special effects company Amalgamated Dynamics.
The films we covered ranged from his decades work on the Alien/Predator universe, to other stuff like the Nostradamus-like technology seen in Demolition Man, the disappointment of Alec’s work being replaced on The Thing along a brief mention about their work on Godzilla: King of The Monsters and Godzilla vs Kong.
We’re going to start off with Alec Gillis talking about his thoughts on Alien 3, how he and partner Tom Woodruff Jr. got involved with the film along with the many perceived issues before, during, and after the release of the film.
“Well, my attitude towards Aliens was always that kind of Cameron kind of leaped forward like two sequels down the line which set the bar so high, right. He had Alien was a beautiful film, still my favorite of all of them is Alien, you know, that’s what I grew up with and I’ve worked on so many of the other ones, so you never feel like the stuff you’ve worked on is ever as good as what influenced you and what originated everything. Cameron made vast numbers of aliens and a Queen alien, and to balance out the power of the Queen alien and Ripley with the power loader, not to mention spaceships and marines, smart-weapons and all this stuff that was just such an amazing build on everything, even the tennis shoes. You saw her hightops in Alien and Cameron had to make the biggest/badest hightops you’ve ever seen. So he did an amazing job but he made it very difficult for every other filmmaker after him.”
“By the way, the reason we got the job [for Alien 3] and Stan Winston did not was that Stan was directing he had made an announcement at that point… we had done Pumpkinhead with Stan and that was his directorial debut which was an absolute blast. And Stan had told the industry that he was no longer creating creature effects for films he did not direct. That’s in part why Tom [Woodruff Jr.] and I left Stan because Stan is a very loyal guy and he had five or six of us on payroll and making an announcement like that naturally shrinks your job opportunities, right. Pumpkinhead was a $2 million movie we’re going to be working on 2..3..4.. whatever million dollar movies for a while that means no more Robert Zemeckis, no James Cameron, no whoever else, you know, we wanted to work with. And then also, Stan wasn’t saying “guys I’m downsizing and three of you are going to lose your jobs” he was just going into debt deeper and deeper holding on to us all and we felt kind of guilty about that. This would have been in 1987 after Predator after Pumpkinhead.. was when I said ‘I think I gotta go, I think I got to continue my journey’ I was there for two and half years and got tones of experience Stan gave us opportunities I’m grateful. He is my creature effects mentor as he is Tom’s.”
Stan Winston almost got involved with the sequel, but would only do it if he could direct it after recently directing his own feature Pumpkinhead.
“What happen with Alien 3 was they did approach Stan, Fox approached Stan Winston and he said ‘yeah, I’ll do the creature effects I want to direct the movie’ and to me that would have been a logical choice because he had done 2unit directing on Aliens and he knows the creature game inside-and-out he had done a couple of movies [as a director] and based on Pumpkinhead I would say ‘yeah, Stan Winston in that era Stan Winston could direct an Alien movie’. But the studio had already gone down the road with their list of directors they picked the A-list directors or the people they are extremely excited about for whatever reason.. so Vicent Ward had already been selected as the director so, of course, the answer is “sorry Stan, we can’t’ then Stan is like ‘then I’m not doing the movie’ so they go to the next logical group which was me and Tom. We were more than happy to oblige and work on the film.”
Alec and his partner Tom Woodruff Jr. attempted and failed to get their own movie project going which he cites as the catalyst to branching off on their own to create Algamanted Design Inc, their own special effects company.
“We had a script Tom and I had written that Gale Anne Hurd was interested in and we thought this was terrific we’ll get this movie out and bring back the work to Stan, how fun is that going to be? We’re going to be directing a movie and Stan will be doing the creature effects and it was an interesting lesson because there’s a lot of people interested in scripts but that’s very different than signing on the dotted line and getting a check cashed. That script that we co-wrote never got off the ground but the upside was that provided the impetus to get off our butts and being as complacent and comfortable in Stan’s world and go create our own world. So this is why we formed ADI and why I sometimes joke that because of that failed screenplay project that ADI is based on failure. Which I’m a big proponent of I’m a proponent of failure, I think that bumper-sticker-meme that says ‘failure is not an option’ is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen because not only is failure an option, it is a requirement to learning. It’s like that old Barebriant football league quote like ‘you either win or you learn’. Failure is how you chose to perceive it you can take failure and turn it into success. This may sound corny or what have you but I look back I got a million failures in my past and I think failure not being an option that puts way too much pressure.. it becomes something to be feared and avoided at all costs and that might make you work really hard to complete the project and make it successful or it might make you gun-shy to try because if failure is the worst thing that can happen to you then you’re not going to stick your neck out and run the race. People lives aren’t at stake it’s just ‘does the monster look cool?’ so that to me has always been kind of freeing and once that you accept that you are going to fail…you free yourself up to take more risks.”
They then pivoted back to talking about the problems with Alien 3 and it sounded like there were just too many cooks in the kitchen and studio pressure, as assumed.
“The inherent problem with Alien 3, as opposed to Alien, was that with Aliens they got very lucky that a guy like Cameron, who is an auteur, comes on board this is a guy who can write a phenomenal script, direct a kick-ass movie, can design the Queen alien and the power loader this is just unheard of, right. To be great at all of those things. The auteur thing was what they had going for them in a way her more of an auteur than Ridley Scott was because Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett wrote Alien, Ridley Scott was the director who is obviously a very visual guy and a graphic artist himself who was already a fan of Giger’s and was able to bring Giger’s fully developed vocabulary of weird-ass never before seen creature stuff into that movie and you have Ron Cobb and everyone else who contributed to the visuals. That was it’s own lightening-in-a-bottle Cameron then on Aliens had lightening-in-a-bottle. There wasn’t that lightening-in-a-bottle on Alien 3.”
“You had two scripts that the studio really liked one was just a non-Alien sci-fi prison movie script and the other was an Alien script I think the first Alien 3 script we read was written by our friend the late John Fasano, and it was very interesting and I could have this wrong I think he might have been working with Vincent Ward on that cause it did have elements of the prison in it, you know the wooden, some stuff that felt a little bit more like Europeans style like French sci-fi like it would be a wooden planet, right. And my American mind goes ‘well, that’s ridiculous why would you use wood as a building material in space?’. Well, they answered the question, it was wood over a metal structure because the aesthetic is what was required by these monks who lived this medieval lifestyle and all that and again my American mind goes ‘wow, these medieval monks who are live a spartan life, non-materialistic lifestyle sure did force the government or whoever paid for this to art direct their little world to look like Hobbit-land’. Anyway, seems contriductary to a monk-like philphosy. But for me the issue was you are jamming two different concepts together and also Vincent Ward his movie the Navigator, which I love, Vincent has a fascination with the Medieval era so he wanted to cram the Medevil era into this. So you have so many things different from the lineage of Alien and Aliens, and Aliens fits into the world of Alien but this did not really so cleanly into the world. It did a pretty good job script-wise of balancing these dispersed things out and getting rid of ideas that were a little too farfetched or not within the wheelhouse.”
Gillis also defends the film along with David Fincher speaking how the first-time director was likely hired as a means of controlling/micromanaging the project, while sharing a story about how Fincher was on a call with the head of 20th Century Fox before cameras even started rolling and threated to have his named taken off the film. It gives you a glimpse into the on and off set tension Fincher had with producers/studio executives during that notoriously glib production for him.
“But you still had studio execs, weighing in on a first time director that’s a big problem. You know I’ve seen this with studio films where a first-time director is brought in so they can push him around, you know. I’ve seen it repeatedly actually or a foreign director when they come in and then the studio wants him to basically do their bidding and this I think is the problem that it is a studio mentality that because they have the power individuals in the studio have the power they think they also have the creativity they’re going to make sure their job is to protect that franchise and make sure it’s great and their going to everything they can they problem is that they’re not that talented, you know. Whereas if you pick a director who does have the talent and the vision if you can find a guy like Cameron and you actually give that person the reigns your chances are better of having a successful product but if it doesn’t go it doesn’t happen you’re the studio executive that let that first time director run amock and fuck up the franchise. It becomes this fear-based mentality.”
“David Fincher even at time, David Fincher was fully capable of delivering an absolutely amazing Alien film and I remember back when the film first came out and people were like not so thrilled about it, in America. In England, my experience was that they absolutely loved it but in America, they were like ‘huh?…’ and rightly so because you thought it was going to be a direct sequel to Aliens and they killed off all your favorite characters. That’s because there was an actual.. from the studio and David Fincher there a desire to make this film as different from Aliens as Aliens was from Alien. They really wanted to break ties and do a new story within the universe and I think at the time there was a feeling like ‘all those guns they turned Ridley’s art movie, artistic horror movie, into a war movie wherein you could just kill an alien just by shooting it in the head with a shotgun, so let’s get rid of the gun let’s back to the one alien and bring that creep factor back etc etc..’. That’s probably why they liked it in England and why they didn’t like it in the U.S. and that makes it controversial. Having said that, I’ve always defended the film when people go ‘Oh, what a mess! It’s terrible! That David Fincher really screwed-up’. I’ll tell ya, if there’s anything you like about that movie you can thank David Fincher because he really pulled it together and really with his style and with the power that he had at that time he wielded his power like a ballsy MFer to studio executives, who where really trying to control him.”
“I’ll tell you a quick David Fincher story. We [Alec and Tom] were walking to have a meeting with him [Fincher] and at Pinewood Studios and it was snowing out it was really fricken’ cold. We walk up and we see three Fox executives that had flown in from L.A., to get a handle on the situation, and they’re all in their finery their long bitchin’ cashmere coats. All three of them are huddled around reach other smoking, you know, really close-in together and talking going ‘I don’t know, what do we? He’s out of control’ and then they see us and go ‘Oh, hi!’ we walked off going ‘that’s weird’. We look in the big picture window it’s like Edward Hopper, you know that painter Edward Hooper look up Nighthawks.. big picture window with David Fincher inside warm and on the phone with his feet up on the desk and three Fox executives shivering in the cold smoking outside it was a such a great image. So we walked by them we go in and David’s assistant says he’s been waiting for ya. We go in and there is first time director 27 years old David Fincher with his feet up on the desk and he’s going ‘then ship me home right now and take my name off this fucking piece of shit”, this was before we started shooting, ‘take my name off this piece of shit’ and he hangs up the phone and we go ‘wow! who were you talking to?’ and he said ‘the head of Fox, what do you got what do you have to show me?’. So we showed him a bunch of stuff and we’re like ‘this guy is unbelievable, he’s amazing’. How do you get that self-possessed at age 27 to go ‘fuck off, head of Fox’ he was definitely a fighter and a protector of the project. I don’t what level of pride he takes of it but it’s obviously renowned that he wasn’t part of the publicity and all that.”
Although Alec sees both sides of the beast and how much setting release dates sometimes binds the hands of studios to be less patient than you’d expect.
“They have a release date for a film and they go ‘we’re starting the movie and we’ll get the script together as quick as we can, but we got that release date’. There’s a whole strategy to release dates I can’t hold it against studios when they go ‘ah, shit we got Terminator 2 coming we need to position this movie properly to release this movie otherwise we’re gonna lose money and it’s all for not’. So they just hit the ground running.. the hope was they could get that script in shape and start building sets based on what you know is going to be used, what you like at the time.”
Keep an eye on HN Entertainment’s YouTube channel for the full interview with Alec as we’ll be spending the next couple of days posting some of the highlights on the website that were brought up in our fantastically entertaining and lengthy chat with Alec leading up to the full interview.
Alec Gillis is currently on various social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram, also consider following the official Studio ADI YouTube channel and Instagram account for some really amazing effects videos that the team over there posts on a regular basis. There might be a new Demolition Man video on the horizon, the channel and Alec’s social media accounts are totally worth checking out to get some excellent insight into the world of practical effects.