They say don't meet your heroes – and usually they're right. Work on a film magazine for a few weeks and you soon discover that the actors you once idolised are often spoiled, petulant monsters who would rather be anywhere else in the world than in stuffy hotel room answering your dumb questions.
Then Sega asked if I wanted to interview Sigourney Weaver.
Due out in October, Alien: Isolation is a terrifying survival horror video game, set 15 years after the events of Ridley Scott's original movie. A remote space station has picked up a distress call from the Nostromo and now contact has been lost with the facility. In an ironic act, Weylan Yutani has sent out Ripley's daughter Amanda to investigate. When she arrives, she discovers something has gotten on board the dark and claustrophobic station. Something … alien.
Early previews of the game have been hugely positive – it is a nightmarishly tense adventure; with Ripley playing a long cat-and-mouse game against a cruelly relentless xenomoprh sporting advanced artificial intelligence. There are no pulse rifles, no massive shoot-outs. Just exploration and fear.
Return of the Nostromo gang
In July, Sega announced that developer Creative Assembly would be adding two bonus missions, both set during the original Alien movie. In "Crew Expendable" the player selects one of three characters then takes part in the action just after Brett's death, the aim being to lure the monster into an airlock. In "Last Survivor" you're Ripley, desperately activating the self-destruct sequence before legging it to the Narcissus shuttle. Most of the cast returned to record new dialogue for the sequences. Including Weaver.
I said yes, I would like to interview her. But I was worried.
Ripley, and by extension Weaver, is my teenage hero. I watched Alien with my parents when I was far too young, on an old VHS rental copy; then when I was 13, I snuck in to the cinema to watch James Cameron's sequel, a brilliant, terrifying experience that had me sleeping with the blankets over my mouth (to protect me from face huggers) for several months. I sort of enjoyed Alien 3, I tolerated Resurrection.
I always thought Weaver as Ripley was amazing, though: tough, enigmatic, physical, guarded. She was the perennial outsider, her crew distrusted her, and later the marines and prisoners abused her. But she always knew better. Something in my fragile and lonely teen self related to that. I wanted to be Ripley.
The terror of video game conversions
For her part, Weaver was nervous about the game. She's been here before. "Oh yes. I've been approached a number of times to do video games, but this was different - it had so much story, so much character, it was sort of more emotional and at the same time, it seemed like it would be a very visceral experience. You have to go through that ship on your own - it's going to be wild for people to do that.
"The film has really held up - I think because of the way Ridley shot it – and it really takes that material... it's a homage to what he did so brilliantly, but it also takes it in a really creative direction."
Of course, you could argue that any actor is going to say this about their latest project. But then, heck, Weaver doesn't need the money, she doesn't need to curry favour with Sega, she doesn't need to be in a stuffy hotel room in New York talking to a series of journalists. But on time, and with a small group of staff, she walks in, smiling and welcoming to everyone. She speaks with passion and interest about the game, and about how it reminded her of the original movie.
Which is exactly the effect Creative Assembly was hoping for.
Reanimating the Alien
The team has been obsessive about recrafting the retro-futuristic look of Scott's set design. When work began on the game, Fox opened its huge Alien archive to the developers and they trawled it at great length.
"There was a lot of stuff that hadn't been in the public domain before," enthuses Hope. "Everything from blueprints to continuity polaroids, to photographs of the set from different angles, which gave us an amazing insight into how the environment was constructed. We were all really familiar with the film but it wasn't until we got the archive that we saw really high resolution images of things like the costumes. It means we could really study and understand them, and then replicate them in the game."
He's in no doubt about what his favourite discovery was. "[Fox] found an eight-track reel and didn't know what it was - it was in the bottom of an old cardboard box that hadn't been opened for 35 years. I just said, I don't care, just sent it to us. It was the original sound effects archives - lots of weird noises, moaning sounds - you even had the 1970s British sound engineers calling out the take numbers prior to the recordings. We could take that source material and put it in the game."
So how did Weaver feel treading those dark corrifors once again? "Oh, it was so spooky!" she laughs. "I spent so much time in those corridors and huge hangers. Films take so long to shoot, and as a young actor I was constantly wandering around and thinking, gosh, how great it is that they've built these wonderful sets for us, not thinking that it's really for the viewer.
"But yes, it took me back - the attention to detail, especially to Ridley's humorous often bizarre little touches, the odd little toys and gizmos - they really worked hard to get that. It seems like a labour of love."
No such thing as franchises
I ask her if she realised at the time that Alien would be a phenomena, that it would last. As an actor, she had been reticent at first about taking on a sci-fi role. She'd studied drama at Yale, famously with Meryl Streep, starring in a succession of avant garde and classical theatre productions. She didn't want to be Princess Leia.
"I remember Ridley pulled out some sketches of the sets and the alien itself, and the eggs... I realised I'd never seen anything like this in a film. I just thought, I want to be part of that.
But in those days, you never really thought about creating a franchise. What we were interested in was taking this very sparse script and, with a wonderful group of actors, bringing people into space, in this very new way. It was space as a real environment, a working environment, with people griping and bitching. It was no longer this sleek Kubrick-style sterile environment, it wasn't fantastical."
Indeed, Scott famously went to great lengths to make life difficult for the actors, hoping to accentuate the troublesome relationships between the characters. He had the set built as a claustrophobic complex of small rooms and narrow corridors, just so they couldn't get away from each other.
And he wound them up. Before interviewing Weaver, I spoke to the game's creative lead, Al Hope, who said that during the voice recording sessions, the cast happily gossiped about the filming process. "Yaphet Kotto, who played Parker, was talking about how Ridley Scott had told him to antagonise Sigourney off camera," says Hope. "He wanted them to be at each others throats."
It was not about feminism
I talk to Weaver about how she got the role of Ripley and her legendary audition (she was originally up for the role of Lambert, but her performance led to a last-minute switch). And of course, Ripley's famous gender switch. "In the original script that they bought, it was all male characters. Walter Hill and David Giler changed it... but having Ripley as a woman wasn't a big feminist statement - they thought no-one will ever guess this girl will end up being the hero. That's why they did it – for the surprise factor."
Now, of course, the surprise factor is gone, but the Alien: Isolation team had the sensible idea of maintaining a female lead – with an obvious candidate. "When we started it felt like it had to be a female character - it's such a large part of the universe," says Hope. "We were extremely fortunate that we already had a character, Amanda, whose story hadn't been told. She is in no way a clone of her mother, but she does share some of those traits: courage, perseverance and clarity of thought under pressure."
Weaver loved the idea. "I thought it was wonderful – very daring," she exclaims. "I found it touching, too - I mean, I didn't even know she had a daughter until Jim Cameron created one for me. The idea that never having seen each other, Amanda would go into space, follow in her mother's footsteps... it was very moving to me."
Fear and reproduction
We go on to talk about the alien itself – what it is about that monster that still scares people. When Creative Assembley showed a demo of the game at E3 running on the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, one attendee ripped the device off in terror and fled the room.
Interestingly, Weaver says that Scott kept her well away from the actor who inhabited the alien suit ("I never saw him sitting down drinking a tea") – she barely saw the monster until that climatic scene in the shuttle. That has fed something in her, a fascination that she's been playing out ever since.
"I guess what interests me about the alien is that I still don't know what it wants," she says. "I feel like it's not interested in eating me, it is interested in me for reproduction, but there's much more going on - it's a much more multidimensional creature than a regular horror film. It's the implication that there are species out there like this. What do we as humans... I mean, what will we have to deal with that?"
We play as we dream... alone
Weaver doesn't play video games, but she seems interested in them. She has played Alien: Isolation, of course ("The flame-thrower is very good," she drawls) and is intrigued by the immersive story-telling possibilities of the medium.
"I think there's a whole new world, a bigger world, of using gaming to enter into stories and experiences," she says. That's going to be incredibly satisfying... the idea that you could enter into perhaps famous stories – you could enter into the world of Kubla Khan – I think that sounds fascinating. You could enter the movie in your own mind, you could enter great pieces of literature. I think there's a huge horizon there - I think many people will be seduced by this experience. It's unique and very, very exciting."
All through my life I have watched the Alien films, studied the critical theory (especially Barbara Creed on the "Monstrous Feminine") and played Alien games. I played the original Alien movie conversion on Commodore 64, a challenging and atmospheric action RPG that, like Isolation, never really allowed you to kill the monster – if you saw it, you were dead. I played the okay Aliens game from Electric Dreams Software, a prototype first-person shooter with jump shocks aplenty. None of them got close to the sheer, trembling terror that seems so natural to Alien Isolation. Of course there are worries about whether this can be maintained over a whole game; we've only seen a fraction of it – we've got to keep things in perspective. Other promising Alien games have crashed horribly, as Sega well knows. But right now, it's not hard to see why Weaver committed to this one.
It's like 1979 all over again
After the interview, I step out into the hotel corridor, shaking and excited. Al Hope is out there waiting. He tells me that a huge cheer went up throughout the studio when they got the call from Fox confirming that Weaver and the other actors would be coming back. "Recording them was an unforgettable experience," he says. "When we started, we had a dream we could do something like this, and to have those actors reprise their roles, some of them for the first time, it was magical.
"When they went into the sound booths and started recording their lines, it felt like being transported back 35 years to when we first heard Veronica Cartwright screaming, 'get out of there!'."
Weaver does another few interviews. Everyone comes out the same – elated, trembling, smiling. She is engaging and funny, and disarmingly friendly. She happily has her photo taken with some of the interviewers, and she didn't mind that one of my questions was actually a meandering and pretentious theory about Freudian messaging. I've interviewed actors before, plenty of them, but I was starstruck this time. Just utterly starstruck. When I left the room, along with elation, there was relief.
Sometimes, it turns out, it's okay to meet your heroes. Sometimes they're Sigourney Weaver.
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