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Spoiler Alert: James Cameron is difficult.
August 30, 2013 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Originally created as a special feature for the out-of-print 2003 Aliens DVD, Superior Firepower: The Making of 'Aliens' is a warts-and-all documentary about the making of the film.
posted by griphus (44 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
The DVD may be out of print. But I can assure you that documentary is alive and well on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set.

Another documentary in the set, Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien³ is even better.
posted by whittaker at 9:26 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Spoiler Alert: James Cameron is difficult.

Also, the boat hits the iceberg.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:27 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I can assure you that documentary is alive and well on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray set.

Oh, crap, is it? I'll flag this, then.
posted by griphus at 9:28 AM on August 30, 2013


/loads up on 10mm caseless light armour-peircing rounds, straps flashlight to phone.
posted by Artw at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


That whole "Kate Weighs a Lot" thing was especially gross when you consider that she was a size 6 when she made Titanic. If anything soured me on James Cameron, it would be that.
posted by pxe2000 at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


*puts favorite on post*

It's just a precaution. Doesn't mean we're engaged or anything.
posted by cortex at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does this have the bit where Cameron loses his shit over the British crew taking tea in the middle of a scene?
posted by octothorpe at 9:37 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Octothorpe: the very same!
posted by whittaker at 9:39 AM on August 30, 2013


Does this have the bit where Cameron loses his shit over the British crew taking tea in the middle of a scene?

No footage from what I remember, but they definitely talk about it.
posted by griphus at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2013


While we're here... Under Pressure: Making The Abyss
posted by brundlefly at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a horizon of around 10–15 years where, once passed, documentaries on films get a whole lot better, more insightful, and with the PR fluff removed as the subjects interviewed no longer have to make nice to people whom they worked with (or for) and it's no longer their job to sell the film.
posted by whittaker at 9:44 AM on August 30, 2013


What kind of documentary is three hours long? One related to Cameron.
posted by asfuller at 9:45 AM on August 30, 2013


Griphus: there is footage of him being a dick to crew members in charge of a wire-pull on a gag over the fact that they're not wearing gloves.
posted by whittaker at 9:46 AM on August 30, 2013


Cameron could sacrifice a PA daily to Baal and I wouldn't care if he kept making movies as great as Aliens and T2. Hell, even the action in Avatar was still great.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


...members in charge of a wire-pull on a gag over the fact that they're not wearing gloves.

"How can you pull hard without gloves?"
posted by griphus at 9:49 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine was a PA on The Abyss. He was only on the shoot for about a week until one day he made some kind of error which delayed the shoot and got chewed out by Cameron. Cameron completely humiliated him, screaming in his face like a petulant child in front of the whole cast and crew. After the shooting day ended the crew came up to him and embraced him as one of their own. Him getting yelled at by Cameron was actually a good thing. It was a rite of passage. Everyone had endured Cameron's temper since day one and now my friend, the new PA on the shoot, had become one of them.
posted by cazoo at 9:56 AM on August 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Superior Firepower was put together by a guy named Charles de Lauzirika-- who did the docs on all the films in the Alien Quad set.

His 3-hour doc on the Prometheus Blu-ray is also quite good. Depending on your feelings of the film (and your level of interest regarding production,) it might actually be better than the movie itself.
posted by Ct314 at 10:10 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does this have the bit where Cameron loses his shit over the British crew taking tea in the middle of a scene?

Totally by coincidence, I actually sat down and watched all of this a couple of weeks ago. Alien and Aliens are two of my favorite movies. It's great. Cameron's wife in particular comes off like a total monster.

The best stories are the British crew breaking for tea (the massive outer doors of the hull open, smoke everywhere, and in comes the old tea lady), how they had to fire the first director of photography, and their dealings with the person that wrote the score. As in, the movie was set to release in less than a week, and they hadn't finished all the cues. The wife comes in and says, "If you can't finish this, we'll find someone that will." And the composer responds, "Ma'am, it's not that I can't finish this, it's that nobody can finish this." So he kept his job and they hammered it out.

You can only imagine.
posted by phaedon at 10:22 AM on August 30, 2013


Cameron's wife in particular comes off like a total monster.

Gale Anne Hurd?
posted by Artw at 10:28 AM on August 30, 2013


To be fair, I would have lost my shit if the crew took tea in the middle of a scene on a $2M-a-day shoot or whatever outlandish rate that shoot cost.
posted by Mister_A at 10:43 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the total budget for the film ended up being something like $17 million in 1985.

It was made for an astonishingly cheap amount, considering.
posted by whittaker at 11:21 AM on August 30, 2013


Yeah, one of the big takeaways I got from that documentary was how much Cameron managed to create with a pretty small budget. Stuff like only building half of the Sulaco since they were only going to shoot from one angle or using mirrors to double the number of sleep pods.
posted by octothorpe at 11:33 AM on August 30, 2013


Does this have the bit where Cameron loses his shit over the British crew taking tea in the middle of a scene?

/Proud to be British

Thing of it is if you listen to enough DVD commentaries and watch enough docs on old British films and television you'll hear plenty of hilarious stories of union intransigence (like if don't get your shot in by a certain time, tough shit the lights are going out or how a massive BBC strike was over whether a clock on a kids television program should be handled by the Electricians or the Prop Men)

Unfortunately if you don't have strong unions or representation you end up with the situation we have now with zero hours short term contracts all over the place in the econmy in general here and the precarious position of sfx people in the US and other places
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:57 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh and by all accounts Cameron is a dick but Aliens is basically a perfect movie

And a pretty decent concept artist too
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:00 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


He was only on the shoot for about a week until one day he made some kind of error which delayed the shoot and got chewed out by Cameron. Cameron completely humiliated him, screaming in his face like a petulant child in front of the whole cast and crew.

The Abyss was such an insane shoot, the fact that Cameron (or anyone!) was able to keep their shit together is a testament to, well, something.

I don't know - I've never heard a story where Cameron was just a shit. He's not Buddy Rich. It sounds like he is extremely demanding, and can be a total asshole when provoked by something getting in the way of the movie going well, and generally his movies are so technically complicated a LOT of things can go wrong, but he is not just being mean - he is trying (and usually succeeding!) to keep these wildly expensive, complicated shoots functioning by his own force of will. Obviously treating your friend that way is pretty outrageous, and not how I would act, but I kind of see a 'proof is in the pudding' thing to Cameron and his movies, and his assholishness is truly in service to the work. Maybe a sweetheart could/can do it too, but we know that Cameron can do it. Whether 'it' is something that is worthwhile is a different question.

That Abyss documentary is so good. It shows (IMHO) how yes, he was extremely demanding and seemingly unreasonable, but he bore as much of a brunt of that as anyone, and it was all in service to the film. It's all there on screen. In the case of the Abyss, the end result is a hugely flawed movie that is still one of my very favorites. When they are talking about Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio balking at James Cameron's suggestion that the actors pee in their wetsuits when a shot that took hours to set up was going to be lost, and thus that whole day with it. You feel for MEM, but you have to feel a little bit for James, too.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:36 PM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, fearfulsymmetry, that tea story... When I was a kid, fantasising that I would grow up to be James Cameron, I thought it was outrageous that the crew did that. Then I grew up and the world got worse and I encountered some bad bosses, and suddenly I find myself sort of cheering the tea drinkers on, because the freedom to do that is emblematic of a degree of autonomy and dignity that maybe should not be sacrificed just to make a piece of entertainment for small boys featuring rubber monsters a little bit more quickly and at the convenience of a bully with a hair-trigger temper.
posted by lucien_reeve at 12:42 PM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


While we're here... Under Pressure: Making The Abyss

It's hard to believe how much of the Abyss was practical effects. Maybe not technically special effects at all -- most of what's on the screen is quite real.

The underwater drilling rig is an actual sealed environment at 1:1 scale, welded together out of 40 ton chunks of steel inside an abandoned nuclear reactor. The minisubs are working minisubs. The actors spent the movie in hard hat scuba gear, except for those times when the actors were diving without their own air supply (!). Lots of the crew was also diving, 45 people underwater on a normal day of shooting. Cameron himself was directing from underwater, deep enough that an hour of decompression was necessary. They had to build an underwater air tank refilling system so that cast and crew could stay underwater indefinitely (five hours at a time or more).

Because a lot of the shooting was happening at 4AM to keep the set dark, cast and crew were sometimes falling asleep underwater. Apparently whenever they had accidents such that their helmets filled with water (!) they were instantly blind and had negative buoyancy. The cast talks about being saved by rescue divers so casually that you get the sense it happened pretty often. Ed Harris notes that the rescue divers had to be outside the shot, so whenever he was swimming around with no air tank (!) he'd have to wait for them to come to him with his air supply. Even that's not as crazy as the shots where Harris had to act with his helmet deliberately full of water.

I'm not even through the whole documentary yet.

Quote: "you gotta be a trouper and drown like a man"

This is all unimaginable in the age of CGI. It's unimaginable by any standard. Cameron calls himself "the architect of all this suffering." It makes Hitchcock look like a humanitarian.

It's a pretty good movie.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:45 PM on August 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


So, they actually submerged a rat in perfluorocarbon and made it do liquid breathing. It survived, but the SPCA was apparently not pleased.

For his liquid breathing scenes Ed Harris just got a helmet full of water. On one shot he got a lungful of water and almost drowned because his safety diver gave him a regulator upside down.

That's right, treatment considered inhumane for rats is too good for Cameron's actors.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:11 PM on August 30, 2013


Cameron's actors had a choice. Though.
So.
posted by petebest at 1:21 PM on August 30, 2013


There is also footage out there of the unfortunately never released 'behind the scenes' making of Full Metal Jacket (filmed by his daughter Vivian in an identical manner to the Making The Shining documentary) showing a distinctly disgruntled Kubrick fuming in his directors chair as the British crew gently chide him as they break for the unmissable tea trolley.

The lesson is this - no-one comes between a British craftsman and our national drink..
posted by Mintyblonde at 1:33 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


For his liquid breathing scenes Ed Harris just got a helmet full of water. On one shot he got a lungful of water and almost drowned because his safety diver gave him a regulator upside down.

For that shot he was being dragged sideways to simulate him falling into the abyss. Man, I really need to rewatch that film. I loved it as a kid, but it's been years.
posted by brundlefly at 1:40 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually thought The Abyss was a great film ... until I saw the director's cut, which I have been trying to forget ever since.
posted by kyrademon at 3:06 PM on August 30, 2013


Just idly just skimmed through a bit of Cameron's Wikipedia entry. When Orson Scott Card thinks you're a dick, man, I just don't know.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:53 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember I had the first run dvd of The Abyss and it was before audio commentary tracks but there was a subtitle commentary track that all sorts of interesting info about the making of. The one thing I remember was the scene where two people were in suits and Cameron didn't like how it turned out so he went back 3years after original filming and refilmed the scene but could only get 1 actor back so he filled the other suit with pingpong balls for buoyancy and only used the facial shots from 3yrs before and some dubbed dialogue.

And there was a note about how the fight scene at the end took 4days to shoot and there was a continuity guy who sole job was making sure the wires hanging from the ceiling were always swaying in just the right rhythm.

All I can say is James Cameron is ridiculously good at movie making and even though his stories get dragged through the mud(for good reason sometimes) the fact that he is so incredibly successful is definitely linked to his attention to detail and knowing how to put all the working pieces of a shoot together.
posted by M Edward at 3:58 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Still the best profile of Cameron that I've read. (It starts off with him chewing out Arnold Schwarzenegger--at that point, one of the biggest film stars ever--for playing hooky from the True Lies set.)

One of the things that might contribute to his reputation is that it seems that the two movies that most of these stories center around, The Abyss and Titanic, both involved lengthy shoots in, around and under water, and Cameron obviously loves playing in the water. (He recently descended to the deepest part of the ocean, only the second such trip ever and the first solo.) Maybe he basically just doesn't get that not everybody enjoys that sort of thing. Also, these documentaries show him in soft-spoken, non-screaming mode, and there may be people who assume that he's sort of a pushover. It's not as if there aren't actors and others in film who don't try to play the alpha male every chance they get; read this old article about Val Kilmer, for example. And the story about Cameron taking phones away from people on the Avatar set and stapling them to a wall with a nail gun? That just makes me like him.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:04 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charles de Lauzirika also did the awesome "Dangerous Days" doco that's like four hours of deep Blade Runner magic.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:41 PM on August 30, 2013


kyradaemon: I love the film very much, but mostly for the first couple of acts. The final act, in either version, just doesn't quite work for a variety of reasons. Given how well Cameron puts together his stories (like the structural perfection that is Titanic), this continues to perplex me, but it may well be another part of that difficult shoot aspect.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 AM on August 31, 2013


A telling incident is described on one of the commentary tracks for Aliens. It was the cast reunion for either the 20th or 25th anniversary of the movie. One of the actors recounts how one day part of the set fell on James Cameron's head and he needed stitches. He asks if they think the crew did it on purpose. There is a very long pause before someone says "....no..no, I think that was an actual genuine accident".

They actually had to think hard if the crew had tried to injure the guy.

The crew of Aliens had good reason to doubt Cameron though. The Terminator had not been released when they started filming the movie. His one movie that had been released was Piranha 2: the spawning.
For Roger Corman.

Not they guy you want to direct the sequel to a classic movie.

I think if the crew had seen The Terminator, they would have shown him way more respect. They would have seen he can do smart sci-fi and is exactly the right guy to direct the movie.

You should really listen to the commentary track if you can. Its an absolute hoot.
posted by drugstorefrog at 3:50 AM on August 31, 2013


God, Gale Anne Hurd gives amazing EPK.
posted by phaedon at 5:07 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The attitude friction between the director and the crew reminds me of anecdotes about Ridley Scott and the making of Blade Runner.
posted by ovvl at 8:52 AM on August 31, 2013


This commentary for The Abyss by one of my favorite movie commentaries is basically 3 hours of story time with a guy who, among other things on other movies, did a lot of puppet-related work on The Abyss. They talk about the movie in general and the story structure and stuff too, but the bulk of it is an endless series of fascinating (to me anyway) behind the scenes stories about how crazy working on the movie was.

The main reason the guy gives for why Cameron's so notoriously difficult to work with is that he's got really high standards for everything, and for most people in most jobs on the set, Cameron can do your job as good or better than you can. But obviously, there's not enough time or money for a one-man operation, so he expects you to bring your A game at all times.

Great post, by the way. Can't wait to dig into some of these links.
posted by sparkletone at 9:02 AM on August 31, 2013


I link this Aliens 25th Anniversary Panel a lot, because it is full of awesome, but the most notable thing about it to me is how the all basically LOVE Cameron, like take a bullet for him love. I think a lot of that come from him being a monster in set in the name of getting shit done, as opposed to out of ego or spite.
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


one of my favorite movie commentaries

By one of my favorite movie commentary podcasts, that is. Missed the edit window on this one.
posted by sparkletone at 9:28 AM on August 31, 2013


A little late to the party, but artw has a really good point here. Every shoot needs a taskmaster, and in this case Cameron holds that role in addition to auteur, technical wiz, and director. If you don't have a taskmaster holding you to account, making sure you're on time and on budget, you are on a Terry Gilliam set.
posted by Mister_A at 9:47 AM on September 3, 2013


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