EXCLUSIVE: James Cameron understands better than anyone that revisiting the past to alter the course of history is a dicey proposition at best, but that hasn’t stopped the Hollywood titan from taking on his latest cinematic mission: returning to The Terminator franchise that gave him the first signature success of his history-making career.
“It’s special,” Cameron said of the Terminator success that propelled him toward ever-grander spectacle projects like Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, and Avatar. Sci-fi’s greatest showman moved on from his Skynet series in 1991, but now he’s reunited with his first great cinematic brand through Terminator: Dark Fate, the Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures release that hits theaters November 1.
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Cameron is joined by the franchise’s two signature stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, as well as Edward Furlong, who was a child actor when he portrayed John Connor 28 years ago in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Cameron said “hasta la vista” to the franchise after the mega-success of T2 and turned his attention to a different Schwarzenegger collaboration (True Lies in 1994), but the filmmaker’s sleek cinematic contraption continued on its metallic march without its creator, adding three feature films of increasing suspect achievement: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003, Terminator: Salvation in 2009 and Terminator Genisys in 2017.
That trio of films may have been forgettable since their release but their status will be downgraded to officially obsolete when Dark Fate opens the day after Halloween. That’s because the time-travel aspects of the new story have been used to effectively erase the events depicted in the three previous installments.
Cameron said that approach was part of Skydance boss David Ellison’s pitch to bring the creator of John Connor, Skynet and the T-800 Terminator back into the fold by pruning back the mythology. (A similar tactic was used by Paramount’s most successful sci-fi brand, Star Trek, when the 2009 film used time travel as both a plot device and as a fresh-start opportunity for canon clutter.)
“I suppose it is an unusual situation from a high-level perspective since I wasn’t involved in three intervening films, but when I talked to David Ellison about it his vision for this was basically to go back to basics and do a continuation from Terminator 2, which is one of his favorite films,” Cameron said. “He’s always believed in the potential of Terminator but he really felt that his own film, Genysis — and he was quite honest with me about this — fell short of the mark and didn’t really do what he had wanted it to do. So he said, ‘Let’s start with a blank slate and take it back to Terminator 2.’ And that idea was intriguing.”
That intrigue snowballed into engaged interest and then intensifying enthusiasm. Then the big question was about cast: What about Hamilton and Schwarzenegger? Cameron and Ellison huddled with Tim Miller, the Deadpool director who had already been brought aboard to helm the next Terminator film (when the plan was a sequel to Terminator Genisys from 2017) and the three gnawed away at the possibilities. A quick consensus formed: everyone wanted the return of Sarah Connor but only if Hamilton returned to play the part herself.
“We spent several weeks breaking story and figuring out what type of story we wanted to tell so we would have something to pitch Linda,” said Cameron, who was married to the actress from 1997-1999. “We rolled up our sleeves and started to break out the story and when we got a handle on something we looked at it as a three-film arc, so there is a greater story there to be told. If we get fortunate enough to make some money with Dark Fate we know exactly where we can go with the subsequent films.”
Terminator: Dark Fate will be distributed by Paramount Pictures in North America and by 20th Century Fox in other territories. The R-rated sci-fi epic is produced by Cameron and Ellison’s Skydance. Cameron wrote the story treatment and took a hands-on producer role. Miller directed the film off a script by a writers room that teamed Josh Friedman (creator of TV’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) with David S. Goyer (co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy), Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray.
Cameron is quick to point out that Miller is the director of the film in every sense of the term. “My belief is that if you get a director who’s a grown-up and knows what to do, you turn them loose,” Cameron said. “My role as producer was in pre-production, and prep and shepherding the script. But it was Tim’s film when it reached the floor.”
In fact, Cameron, consumed by the sheer scope of the Avatar sequels and their world-creation demands, never personally visited the Dark Fate set. From a distance, though, he took a strong active interest in the story elements of the project. With Cameron and the familiar stars back in the mix, there had been a surge in morale for the cast, crew and creative team, but Cameron knew one aspect of the project that required more than bandwagon gusto.
“I focused on getting the script punched up,” Cameron said. “I didn’t feel like we went into the shoot with the script exactly where it should have been. There was a lot of momentum on the project, there was a start date, there was a lot of energy and a lot of “go fever,” but the script wasn’t where it needed to be so I quietly worked on it in the background and shipping out pages. Sometimes I was shipping out pages the day before they shot a scene. I’m not sure that was 100% always helpful but overall I kept the characters on track and sounding right and being where they needed to be.”
Did Cameron go back to dissect the three Terminator films made without his participation? Yes, he and the project’s writing team did revisit the third, fourth, and fifth movies in the killer cyborg series, which Cameron says revealed some things that would need to avoid if Dark Fate is to have any chance of a bright destiny.
“One of the things that seemed obvious from looking at the films that came along later was that we would need to get everything back to the basics and that we would need to avoid the mistakes of making things overly complex and that we needed to avoid stories that jumps around in time and one that goes backward and forward in time,” he said. “Let’s keep it simple in the relative unity of time. With the story, let’s have the whole thing play out in 36 hours or 48 hours. In the first two movies everything plays out in less than two days in each one so there’s energy and momentum.”
Cameron also wanted a return to the ominous and visceral world presented in the first two films, which present a story universe of gun-metal hues, high-caliber action, and hard choices. That created a conflict, however, between two imperatives: matching the early films with their “promise of a gritty and unrelenting R-rated action” versus keeping the film in a PG-13 arena where the broadest audience and biggest box office would stay viable. The tug in either direction was substantial, Cameron said, and no easy answer presented itself.
“Science fiction filmmaking has been compromised over the past couple of decades,” Cameron said. “That compromise is trying to pander to a larger audience and making these big expensive movies and then following the common wisdom that, well, once you’re making one of those movies the reflex is it must be PG-13 and the thinking is if it’s not then you’ll cut out 25%-30% of your potential earning power. And on a big film that’s your margin, that can be the difference between profitability or losing money.”
In the end, Paramount told producers to give Dark Fate the kind of intense action and menace that befits its name and heritage.The previous two Terminator films, McG’s Terminator Salvation and Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys, were each PG-13 expeditions into the Skynet mythology and, in the end, that may have done more to embrace the R-rated approach than anything else.
The stakes of that kind of decision have been raised by the marketplace opportunity represented by China, which will accept intense PG-13 fare (such as the Fox film Spawn) but won’t take any R-rated content (like, say, Fox’s Logan). In some rare cases, there may be a third option that was illuminated by Fox’s superhero film Deadpool 2, which is a repackaged version that adds new content but also excises moments of, say, intense violence or sexually charged imagery in order to meet PG-13 guidelines. Few films lend themselves to that kind of reworking, but the meta-storytelling approach of Deadpool 2 made it viable.
Cameron admits that early in the Dark Fate filming time was set aside to shoot scenes both ways — with full-R language and action and then also with a tamed down version that would serve as a sort of coverage-for-content that would preserve fallback options if the rating decision was reconsidered.
“Even going into the shooting we were like, ‘OK let’s cover it both ways,'” Cameron conceded. “So we would have a scene where Sarah is completely unfiltered and with no mediation and then shoot it again where it was tamed down. But eventually we just said, ‘To hell with this, it’s a waste of time.’ I think the feeling was that everyone wanted to recapture the tone and the sensibility of the first two films, which I considered flattering.”
The ramp-up for the film revved up at Comic-Con International in San Diego last month (which is where Furlong’s return was announced by Cameron, who appeared from New Zealand via satellite hook-up) and it kicked into a higher gear today with Paramount’s big social media push marking Judgment Day.
For the uninitiated, in the original Reagan Era film the date of August 29, 1997, is cited as Judgment Day, the day that human civilization is knocked to its knees by Skynet, an artificial intelligence that becomes self-aware and promptly fills the sky with nuclear missiles to begin its conquest of humanity. (Judgment Day, therefore, works both as an apocalyptic term or as a reference to Skynet’s evolutionary leap in awareness and judgment.)
For Cameron, Hamilton and Furlong, the November film will be their first foray into the bleak mythology since Terminator 2: Judgment Day and its milestone release in 1991. That sequel to The Terminator (1984) was the most expensive film ($102 million) in Hollywood history at the time of its release, and it finished as the top-grossing film of 1991 with $521 million in worldwide box office.
Cameron produced, directed and co-wrote (with William Wisher) Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the sleek sequel from Carolco Pictures and Tristar Pictures that opened over the Fourth of July weekend in 1991. The landmark CG effects carried the intense sci-fi action film far and wide in overseas markets, while its domestic success was staged atop the original film’s second-life popularity as a home video rental in those Blockbuster days of the VCR craze.
The two Cameron films propelled Schwarzenegger to the top ranks of Hollywood blockbuster stars and made his character (a cyborg assassin from the future with a mechanical monotone and impassive menace) one of the most unlikely entries on the list of truly iconic Hollywood screen characters.
Cameron’s two films also became templates for several generations of filmmakers (and video game designers) who borrow freely from their approaches to CG visual effects, production design, make-up innovations, sci-fi aesthetics, stirring music, sound design, etc. Does Cameron find that flattering or nettlesome?
“I think it’s part of the fun to be in that sort of causal chain in the development of artistic memes — or however you want to think of it — in cinema,” Cameron said. “You know, I think of where I was when I was writing Terminator, I loved Alien, I loved The Road Warrior, I loved Blade Runner, I loved Westworld, I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey. And all of that, It’s all in there. So I was influenced by the films that came before me. No artist exists in a vacuum and all screenwriters are fans of something. Something got you so excited you just had to jump up and go try to do your own version of it and so none of that exists in a vacuum. The trick is to make it new and fresh and take the elements that went into your thought process and to combine those elements in some new and fresh way and then make that your own.”
Cameron continued: “I look at a film like The Matrix for example and I see little snippets of DNA from The Terminator in there and I’m fine with that it’s like, ‘Great!’ I can celebrate that. It’s a completely fresh idea. I think The Matrix is one of the most profoundly fresh science fiction films ever made and yet I do see snippets of Terminator DNA in it. And I’m flattered by that. I like that because I kicked the ball down the field and somebody else took it and ran with it. They did something great. I might riff on something from The Matrix at some point, consciously or unconsciously. I think that’s how it works, we inspire each other as artists to go farther and to think of new things based on ideas that are in the zeitgeist.”
Cameron said the complexities of the films can deepen, too, as the audience collects insights and impressions along the way and become savvier spectators and more sophisticated concept consumers.
“The benefit there is now you don’t have to stop and explain stuff,” Cameron said. “There was a point in time when things needed to be explained and now we can build on those ideas without having to explain them. You know, some mud-man from Borneo might come in and watch a science fiction movie now and, well, they’d be lost for a lot of reasons so let’s say instead it’s somebody that has been plucked from the 1940s. If they are watching a science fiction movie from today they wouldn’t get it at all. They’d be missing all the cultural references and the development of the ideas in between the world as they know it and the worlds as we know it now.”
And for Cameron, who celebrated his 65th birthday this month, there’s no time like the present when it comes to reconnecting with the legacy of the past and hitching it to the filmmaking opportunities of the future. Cameron’s voice more energized and louder as he explained the bright possibilities he discovers in the darkened magic of a movie theater.
“What I love to do the most is to create that completely kind of subsuming experience where you turn off your phone and you engage. You, as an audience member, engage for two hours or two and a half hours, whatever it is. That’s what I love. We stand and stare at each other on the Avatar set sometimes when we’re just kicking back with some of the animators and we’re like, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’ That’s my favorite thing. And you ain’t seen nothing yet baby!”
There’s a lot more material from the interview with James Cameron, check back here at Deadline in the days ahead.