It is spring 1991, and David Fincher was drafted in by 20th Century Fox to direct ALIEN 3 in what was intended to be the finale in the ALIEN saga.
It is the break this 29-year-old director of commercials and music videos has been waiting for. He knows the pressure is on; this is his first feature film, he is the youngest member of the crew, and he is tackling the Swanson of a lucrative franchise.
The production of Alien 3 has already gone through an army of writers and numerous directors. He is the last man standing, but he is determined to have a good time.
Energised and undaunted by the challenge, Fincher reads the script and grafts his own unique vision to it. His is to be a bleak world isolated from humanity, populated by the scum humankind has rejected: rapists, murderers, and child molesters. These pitiful souls have turned to religion in the hope their sins will be forgiven when the day of judgement arrives.
That day arrives when two strangers land in their midst. One seeks only to destroy them; the other offers them a glimmer of redemption if they can help her banish the evil once and for all.
Paul McGann played prisoner Golic, a key figure in Fincher’s notion of sin and redemption. He recalls meeting the director for the first time at Pinewood Studios.
“I started chatting to this young lad while I was waiting outside David’s office when suddenly this kid said to me, ‘Are you doing what I think you’re doing? You’re waiting for me to take you to the guy. I AM the guy!”
Inside his office, Fincher ran through concept designs he had drawn himself and fooled around with a marionette of the creature.
“At the beginning making Alien 3 filled him with glee,” continues McGann, “here was this brash, clever and charismatic man with a vitality you had to admire.”
Fincher’s enthusiasm was legendary on set. He would sit before a bank of monitors, simultaneously chatting with the cinematographer, the SFX crew and the actors. Like some grand conductor, he orchestrated every aspect of the film, crafting his vision perfectly, his smile never waning. “Nothing about the job phased him,” recounts Clive Mantle, who played another of the planet’s doomed convicts. “He never lost his sense of humour with the crew.”
Yet by the end of filming, this lively kid from Colorado was nothing but a shell. The studio pressure had become too immense, and Fincher finally cracked. Just a few weeks before editing was complete, he stormed off the set, never to return. His vision lay in tatters.
What could have made a man so driven to succeed at this project, wash his hands of it and walk away?
Paul McGann remembers the initial signs of trouble.
“David approached me and pointed to six or seven men in suits standing shoulder to shoulder watching him. The level of studio scrutiny was unbearable. He couldn’t even drink his coffee in the canteen without them being there watching.”
It is a testament to Fincher that the cast and crew were shielded from the troubles.
“We knew that there was studio pressure,” says Mantle, “but we were very well protected by David Fincher. He never let it get through to us.”
“They can’t get me. What can they do to me?” Fincher once asked McGann. Four months into production, the answer came: Fincher’s ideas were out. This meant removing any pretensions of apocalyptic grandeur. It meant removing any symbolism of the creature as a biblical instrument of vengeance. But most tellingly, it meant removing Golic, McGann’s character.
McGann describes the day Fincher came to his trailer to give him the news.
“We already knew there was a serious problem because shooting had stopped. David sat me down and told me that there would have to be changes where Golic was concerned. I was told to talk differently, to make the character knockabout and funny. And he to be British, not American. David said the character was ‘too close to home’ but never explained what this actually meant.
“It was an awkward conversation and it made me nervous. David wouldn’t delve into the politics of the decision. It didn’t seem to be his words he was saying. My first thought was, ‘Oh fuck! I must be shit.’ But David was good with actors and it would have been a different conversation if that were true.”
Perhaps the answer lay with Sigourney Weaver. After all, she had earlier insisted one of McGann’s scenes be re-shot. As a co-producer on Alien 3, she had the clout. Indeed, she was formidable on the set, taking no shit from anybody.
Her time in the business had given her a level of status to be respected. She kicked ass and could bully; she ridiculed Paul McGann when a magazine described him as the perfect man. She felt obliged to remind Fincher of his age and inexperience on more than one occasion.
Publicly, she stated, “I thought it was unforgivable [of the studio] to hire this brilliant young director and not give him any support.” Yet such was her power; she could have protected Fincher from the studio.
Was it a case of the star flexing her producer’s muscles and showing this young upstart who was the boss? In the original script, the Golic character has a far more interesting relationship with the Xenomorph, freeing it from captivity and aiding it in its goal like some twisted disciple. By removing this avenue of the story, the finished movie certainly belongs more to Weaver.
Mantle is more philosophical about the outcome.
“That may be the case, but the public haven’t paid to see a bunch of bald British actors run around screaming. They’ve paid to see Big Sig kill an alien.”
“Whatever the reason,” adds McGann, “it made the experience an unhappy one for me.”
Be it studio incompetence, star ego, or a director with too much vision, Alien 3 hurt David Fincher – it was a movie that scarred him.
“That isn’t the picture I made,” he told McGann one evening over dinner. He tried to smile the traditional Fincher smile, but it was grim. He looked drained, haunted even. “I have demons you can’t even imagine.”
ALIEN 3 involved an awful lot of creative people – as well as even more uncreative suits. What’s that old saying about too many cooks and broth?
The battles over ALIEN 3 began long before it was even filmed. The script didn’t just go through multiple drafts; it was totally rewritten several times, taking completely different directions with each new writer or director. No fewer than ten versions were written over five years, starting immediately after the 1986 release of ALIENS and continuing even during the actual shooting.
The first draft was written by famed science fiction author William Gibson with a brief from producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll to develop a ‘cold war in space’ story. Since Sigourney Weaver had expressed disinterest in another sequel, Gibson’s script had Hicks as the main character aboard a space station run by the Union of Progressive Peoples, which intended to use the Xenomorph for genetic experiments. A writer’s strike put paid to Gibson’s involvement and to his ideas for the story, although it has now beenadapted as a comic book by Dark Horse Comics; in 2019.
The next version was written by Eric Red (THE HITCHER, NEAR DARK) for potential director Renny Carlin (DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER). Reds draft not only leaves out Ripley but kills off all the other ALIENS survivors as well, putting in their place a dull collection of stock soldiers and civilians. Set aboard another space station (containing a replica of Smalltown USA and surrounding farmlands in a bug bubble), it reads like a creed fanboy’s wet dream with pig, cow, dog and – Christ! – chicken-shaped Xenomorphs taking on tooled-up rednecks on Harley Davidsons. It also rips off large chunks of THE THING. One read of Red’s script was enough to make Harlan give it some high knees away from ALIEN 3 as quickly as possible.
David Twohy (THE FUGITIVE, PITCH BLACK) was next in the firing line for a crack at Alien 3. The bare bones of the final script started to appear here; the story is set in a penal colony. Initially, it was written without Ripley, but Giler and Hill were told by Joe Roth, then head of Fox, that he wouldn’t make the film without Sigourney Weaver. So they had Twohy insert Ripley into yet another draft. However, Twohy quit the project in a rage when he found out that Fox had secretly hired writer John Fasano to develop an alternative script for potential director Vincent Ward (THE NAVIGATOR, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME). Twohy described it in Premiere magazine as “one of the most transparent bits of studio treachery I’ve ever heard of.”
The Ward/Fasano version involved monks rather than convicts. It was set on an artificial wooden planet (yes, you read that right, wooden.) The storyline was evolving towards its final shape. When Fasano left to work on ANOTHER 48HRS, his script was rewritten (five times) by Greg Press, as pre-production began in London, with monastery sets being built according to Ward’s designs. Unfortunately, Ward had decided that his monks were far more interesting than either Ripley or the Alien and kept pushing Pruss to move the script in that direction. Fox pointed out to Ward that the franchise was called ALIEN and not BALD RELIGIOUS GUYS and showed him the door. An exhausted Press nipped out through it while he had the chance.
Sigourney Weaver was now back in the ALIEN fold as Ripley and David Fincher signed on the dotted line as director, but only after the sets that had already been built for the Ward version of the film were torn down, without ever being used. Larry Ferguson (HIGHLANDER, The ROLLERBALL remake) was called in by Fox for a rapid rewrite of the Pruss script. Both Fincher and Weaver hated it. Hardly surprising since Ferguson’s story reportedly bolted Ripley onto a recalling of SNOW WHITE (complete with seven dwarfs) in much the same way that AI was a rejigged version of PINOCCHIO. After the vomiting stopped, Ferguson was fired.
Producers Giler and Hill got extra money in the bank when Fox, beginning to panic after the disastrous last draft, hired them both to perform an emergency rewrite. The prison planet returned with vestigial religious elements from the Ward versions, appearing much as they did in the final film. This was the first version that both Fox and Weaver liked. But Fincher wanted some of his own ideas incorporated.
Rex Pickett was brought in to revise the script with Fincher – with the proviso from Giler and Hill that some aspects of their script were set in stone, much to Fincher’s chagrin. He wanted to play up the religious element with the Alien almost as an avatar of God’s wrath. But Fox had already baulked at the God-bothering themes of the Ward version and refused. Pickett departed the project after scathingly criticising the Hill/Giler draft in a memo which, as the producers, came to their attention in short order.
Production on ALIEN 3 started with only 40 completed pages of script. Rewriting continued during – and after – principle photography, not least when the entire ending was re-shot at vast expense in Los Angeles when Fox expressed unhappiness with Fincher’s version. By now, the budget had ballooned to over $60 million (more than double that of the first two films combined). Fincher had had enough of the project and walked out before editing was finished, leaving it in the hands of Giler, Hill and Fox’s suits – and after that, the critics.