Dreamwatch -- December 1997

Ryding high

-- by Haley Wood

Though often associated with such period pieces as LITTLE WOMEN, Winona Ryder is well-known to science fiction fans for her work in films like Francis Ford Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA and Tim Burton's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and BEETLEJUICE. Haley Wood found that even Oscar nominees can be star struck...

"I remember the impact it had on me when I was that age, because I had never seen a female character like that. It was the first female action hero that any of us had seen and so it was a huge impact. And just the feeling that Ridley Scott created: you don't see the alien a lot but you just feel its presence and feel it lurking... it was tetrifing. It was just hands-down one of the greatest sci-fi movies. It's up there with 2001."

Winona Ryder is referring, of course, to the original ALIEN. Back in 1979, the twenty-six-year-old actress was just eight years old, and the horror flick had a formative impact on her impression of women in film. "That whole last sequence where [Ripley] is trying to blow up the ship and make it to the other ship and she goes back for the cat and she's running with the cat and then she thinks she's safe and then she realises the alien's on board...

"If you talk to anyhody of my generation, it's like they can recount that scene frame by frame, because it's such a classic scene. And, I think we've seen guys do that a lot. We grew up with guys doing that. Guys surviving, being the hero. Girls really just being mostly the victim. And this time it was just really great 'cos you saw a woman really kick ass for the first time."

Today, the two-time Academy Award nommee is joining the cast of the latest installment in the ALIEN saga, and she couldn't be more excited. "Everyone was just really, really excited to be in the movie. I mean every actor was like, 'I can't believe it; can you believe we're in this movie?' You know, it was like the big thing on the set, you know: 'Can you believe we're working with Sigourney Weaver?' Or 'We're in ALIENS!' This is just so completely exciting for everyone. Everyone was a huge fanatical fan like I was."

One would think that Ryder would be the last actress to get star-struck. In a short time she has achieved both popular and critical acclaim, garnering Academy Award nominations for both her portrayal of the feisty Jo in LITTLE WOMEN as well as her role in Martin Scorsese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. The latter resulted in both Golden Globe and National Board of Review Awards.

Critics have made much of the talented actress' decision to do ALIEN 4, but she insists that the film is not that big a change for her. It's all about the script, she says. "I tend to go more towards period pieces because they happen to be better scripts that I come across. But I've always wanted to do a great sci-fi. I mean, I'm a huge science fiction freak. My brother runs a comic hook store, and I grew up on those movies. I grew up, you know, on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

"But I'd never read a good science fiction script or a good action-type movie script. They're always so incredibly bad and especial=lly the female parts. So when they brought this up, you know, just another ALIEN, at first, and I thought, 'Well, they can't. Ripley's dead.' I would never try to, you know, take over the series. I'd never do it without Sigourney Weaver. And I would never try to replace her 'cos I'd get, you know, booed off the screen."

Instead, producers came to her with another option. "They said they figured out a way to bring her back, to bring Ripley back. And they wanted me to play another character in it. They were so tentative. They thought I was going to go, 'Are you crazy?' But it was the opposite. I mean, I love these kind of movies. And I certainly was dying to work with someone like Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

"So it wasn't like I said, 'It's time for me to get out of the corset and make an action movie now. I better try to make a movie that makes some money' It's not like that at all. I just love ALIEN movies. To have an opporiunity to be in the founth one is, like, I'd be insane to turn that down."

There were definitely pressures unrelated to artistic integrity which contributed to Ryder's decision to join ALIEN: RESURRECTION. "I would have been killed by my brother if I didn't do this movie because he gets all the merchandise," she laughs out loud. "When I got the script, it was all top secret and nobody's allowed to read it. But when I started shooting, I let my brother read it. Actually, he could have been in it as one of the soldiers, but he couldn't leave the store. And my little brother was in it for a second as a body. As one of the cargo that we're rolling. Yeah, that's my brother."

For those fans who have been hiding under a rock for a while, Ellen Ripley comes back in ALIEN: RESURRECTION via a cloning technique which allows scientists to harvest the Alien she was carrying within her prior to her sacrifice in the last film. When a ship, The Betty, carrying a crew of space pirates and a creepy cargo, docks with the space lab, Ryder's character is introduced: Call, a mysterious mechanic with an agenda of her own.

This time around the Aliens are smarter: after all, their DNA has mixed with Ripley's. And Ripley has more in common with her adversary: she thinks like them, moves like them. Ripley and Call combine efforts to outsmart the Aliens. "Everyone was always making comments on the set because I'm so tiny and Sigourney is so tall and statuesque, and it was like, 'Oh, you guys are complete opposites'.

"But actually in the story, what you realise towards the end, is that we have this thing in common that's very sad. We both kind of want the same thing. But we go about it in completely different ways. I mean, in this film, she finds herself alive again, and she's so cynical at this point. I mean, it's just like she can't believe that she's back, you know.

"She knows what's going to happen. She knows what we're up against. We have no idea. I've never seen the alien. It's folklore to me, to Call. It's something that I grew up hearing ahout, you know the beast that was around hundreds of years before that this woman, Ellen Ripley, saved us all from, But I've never seen it. She destroyed every trace of it, or so we think.

"When we hookup in the movie, it's a really interesting relationship because it's not like a buddy movie at all. It really grows, you know, our characters grow really very close. But it doesn't start off that way at all. It's not cliched at all. That's why I really liked it. It's actually very moving, the relationship between the two of them."

Ryder says that to discuss Call too much is to reveal a big secret integral to the plot. "But what I really liked about the character of Call was that she wasn't ultra-violent," she says. "She actually doesn't really kill anybody. She is just really a cerebral character, all brains.

"Clearly they didn't cast me because of my physique," Ryder laughs. "She's all thinking, more of a computer person. I talked about that with Jean-Pierre, when we were working on the character together. She's not just a shoot-'em-up character at all. she's really very humane."

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directs Alien: Resurrection, helmed the 1996 fantasy film CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. His attachment to the project was one of the aspects of the production which most excited Ryder; a big fan of his work.

"Jean-Pierre Jeunet is one of the most original visual geniuses or our time," she gushes. "By Fox hiring him to do it, you know, I think was a real stroke of genius. He's made this film unlike any of the other movies, but yet it's still going to be terrifying. I mean, terrifying in the sense that you're holding your breath during it.

"You see so many action movies where it's like the same sequence over and over just with different actors. And with this it's like the ideas behind the scenes are so original. He didn't do anything in this film that's ever been done before. Sure there's been a lot of running down corridors in the ALIEN movies, but even this is just shot differenfly, and what we're being chased by is quite different. The element of fear that he brings in is, in a way very European and it's very different from American action movies. It's much darker and scarier which is great."

One obstacle to working with the French director was the fact that he didn't speak English, and worked through a translator. However, Ryder is quick to point out that there are more ways to communicate than just words, particularly in film. "I didn't find the language barrier that difficult because he's such an expressive person physically and it was almost, you know, a telepathic relationship.

"He had a great understainding of the material. I felt really comfortable with him. But you know, there were times when I wanted to throttle him," she laughs. "I had worked with European directors before, but not anyone who didn't speak English."

Ryder admits that the set got tense during some of the filming, particularly a tricky underwater sequence during which the crew has to escape the Alien predators through a flooded kitchen. "Nobody wanted to be doing that and it was really difficult. And the sets were all very smoky and hot. There was crankiness, I'll admit."

Jeunet insisted on ultimate realism in his onscreen bedraggled and weary crew, resulting in an off-screen bedraggled and weary cast. "You couldn't have air," says Ryder, "Because he really wanted that feeling like stagnant, you know, smoky kind of sweaty, hot place. He definitely created the look he wanted by inflicting it upon us. I was smoky and hot and sweaty."

In the end, she says, the process was a real sci-fi education. Ryder, who did have a stunt double, performed a lot of her stunts herself. "When I watched those movies, I never thought about that part of it, you know. Now I know what people go through in sci-fi movies."

A result of the difficult stunt elements - the under-water sequence being the first they filmed was an immediate bonding among the cast, a bond that would pay off in later scenes, says Ryder "'cos we started out with the underwater stuff. That's what we started shooting with. We immediately just kind of clung together; you know. And got to know each other well.

"I really got along with all the actors really well. I felt there was a great feeling of camaraderie and certainly Sigourney was used to it, because she had done that before. But I wasn't used to working with actors on that level where we had to make the scenes work in terms of action scenes where we're all running. You really have to be bonded with everyone. You can't be in your own little world."

Ryder can't say enough about her admiration for Sigourney Weaver. "What really blew me away was that, for her, this is the fourth one. And it's not just like a paycheque job for her. She really cares about the series and really cares about Ripley and how she's portrayed."

Weaver brought stacks of notebooks to the set, some of the notes dating back twenty years. "Everything had to make sense. Every move that Ripley made she would make sure it made sense. It was really interesting to watch her work because you'd think she'd be tired of it by now or she'd just be like 'it's a good way to make a lot of money...' But she's just completely committed to it and loves this series so much."

Box office success hasn't kept Weaver from doing critically respected projects, Ryder points out. "She was in the ALIEN movies. She was in the GHOSTBUSTER movies. So she's like action, comedy and then she is also a great actress. DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, GORILLAS IN THE MIST... she was in great movies. Great dramas. So she was one of the only actresses who could do all of it. And people really respect her.

"Everythiog she's ever been in, even if the movie isn't amazing, she brings such a class to it. She's so regal and versatile and talented. I mean, I wanted to change my name to Ripley when I was eight. I was completely obsessed with Ripley. I never even thought I'd have a chance to meet her, let alone act with her, let alone be in an ALIEN movie with her. It's like a dream come true and she really shows incredible commitment."

The tiny Ryder lets out a giant sigh as she recalls her first meeting with Weaver. "I was a 'keender.' That's a Minnesota word. I was like, 'Hi, you know, you're so cool. I had a poster of you.' And I don't know if she believed me, I didn't say anything for a long time. She's not intimidating; well, she is but she's not. Because she's very sweet and compatible."

While the cast was out promoting the film to the press, Ryder got a chance to tell the veteran actress, in a roundabout way, how much her work had meant to her "We were doing this fall press conference and I was saying how much of an effect she had on me when I was growing up. And she was looking at me and she said, 'I didn't know that.' And then I realised I'd never told her, because I was just too shy I guess."

Ryder insists that ALIEN: RESURRECTION is not going to let down fans like herself. "Having the Alien be the daughter of or the son of Ripley and this whole kind of generational thing and then eventually there's grandchildren running around... it's completely original. The script is amazing. It's just really very fresh and very new. And the action sequences are so different than other movies."

Ryder hopes the film wlll attract a brand-new generation of ALIEN fans who will then go back and rent the previous movies. She wants success and she wants to see an ALIEN 5. "I hope it keeps going because I would certainly love to be involved with it."