How James Cameron Put Down a Mutiny on the Set of Aliens

Rebecca Keegan’s book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, was recently released to coincide with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar (you can read all of our Avatar coverage, including news/reviews/interviews by clicking here). I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but the few excerpts I’ve read are pretty fascinating. Keegan had an unprecedented amount of access to the man and dug up some pretty great film-related tidbits from his past. This week and next, I’ll be relaying some of the most interesting sections of the book – stories from the fascinating career of James Cameron, with words from the man himself – culminating in a /Filmcast interview that I’ll do with Keegan next week. I’d highly suggest you pick up the book yourself, as it’s certainly a worthy read for any film fan.

Up first, a story of from the set of how the Aliens shoot almost spun wildly out of control, and what Cameron had to do to put down a crew mutiny. [Update: Several people in the comments have pointed out, correctly, that the following story was covered in the extensive Aliens DVD special features.]

In a section of the book entitled “The Tea Trolley Mutiny,” Keegan writes about the production of Aliens at Pinewood Studios, a historic production house where films like The Shining and the James Bond movies were shot. The culture-clash was evident immediately:

The Pinewood crew was an abrupt change from the young, eager, non-union film crews Cameron and Hurd had labored with at New World Pictures and on The Terminator. “Gale and I were shocked to be working with people who simply couldn’t care less about the film they were working on,” says Cameron. “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. There were a few bright lights amongst the younger art department people, but for the most part, we despised them and they despised us.”

The crew was completely unaccustomed to Cameron’s work style, but it was the disruption caused by tea time that really lit the fuse for inevitable disaster:

“Jim was like a tornado hitting Pinewood Studios,” says [Bill] Paxton. “The crew guys, they were used to their breaks at 10 and 2, they’d go to the pub on the lot at lunch, they’re ready to knock off by 5.” One ritual that was particularly hard for the Americans to understand was a twice daily set-clearing fury that accompanied the union-mandated arrival of a woman pushing a tea trolley. “I was shocked when at a particular time of the morning everybody would be gone,” Winston recalled. “Hello? Where is everybody?” In the middle of filming a scene, the giant stage doors swung open, letting the special effects smoke spill out, so the crew could rush the tea lady, with her urn of hot water and plate of cheese rolls.

Cameron’s relative inexperience – he was 31 at the time – was also the source of friction. According to Gale Anne Hurd (Cameron’s producer and wife during Aliens):

There was a lot of resentment and really very little understanding of what Jim was trying to accomplish. At the time there was a sense that you don’t get to the top of your profession through talent, you get there by paying your dues and putting in your time.

Tensions grew between the director and crew every day. One particular source of friciton was the film’s first assistant director, Derek Cracknell.

Cracknell felt he was better qualified than Cameron to direct the film. “Jim would ask him to set up a shot one way and Derek would say, ‘Oh no no no, I know what you want,’” says Hurd. “Then he’d do it wrong and the whole set would have to be broken down.” Cracknell was seriously undermining Cameron and Hurd’s tenuous authority. The director of photography, Dick Bush, also wasn’t working out. And Cameron and Hurd were falling behind on their ambitious, 75-day shoot.

With problems piling up, Cameron and Hurd decided to fire Cracknell. According to Keegan, this caused the “festering hostility…to erupt into a full-blown mutiny”:

At Cracknell’s urging, in the middle of the shooting day, the Pinewood crew downed their tools and stopped work in protest. Cameron and Hurd were in a delicate situation. At the time, England was busy with film shoots and there wasn’t another crew they could bring in immediately. They called Twentieth Century Fox and tried to decide what to do. Cameron wanted to move the entire production out of England, but Hurd tried to talk him out of it. “It was, to this day, the most difficult moment of my entire career,” says Hurd. Instead of attempting to replace their crew, the young filmmakers gathered everyone together on the set for a summit meeting. Cameron addressed the group with characteristic frankness. “Look, this is a really important movie to me,” he said, as Hurd and Paxton remember it. “This is my first studio movie. We have an almost impossible shooting schedule and I need everyone’s help. I can’t do this on my own. But I also can’t have a situation where it seems like the crew is working to prove that the endeavor is gonna be a failure. If you have a problem with that, you’ve gotta step forward cause we’ve gotta replace you.” The meeting lasted for hours, as crew members aired their grievances about the long hours. At the end of the day, the AD staff agreed to be more supportive of Cameron, and he to be more sensitive to tea time. But no real warm feeling ever developed between the director and his British crew.

When he finally wrapped at Pinewood, Cameron stood up again to address them. “This has been a long and difficult shoot, fraught by many problems,” he said. “But the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was the certain knowledge that one day I would drive out the gate of Pinewood and never come back, and that you sorry bastards would still be here.” He never did return.

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Excerpts reprinted from THE FUTURIST: The Life and Films of James Cameron Copyright (c) 2009 by Rebecca Keegan. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. You can buy The Futurist at Amazon.


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