Over the course of their decades-long working relationship, James Cameron has asked his action-movie muse, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to do some pretty crazy things, including popping out an eyeball, outracing a truck and flying a Harrier jet through downtown Miami. But all those moments paled in comparison to the single toughest stunt of the Austrian muscleman’s career: dancing the tango with Tia Carrere.
That scene happens early on in Cameron’s blockbuster action comedy True Lies, which blasted into the summer movie season 25 years ago on July 15, 1994, and became the year’s third-highest grossing movie, behind Forrest Gump and The Lion King. Besides wanting to challenge his leading man, Cameron dreamed up the tango scene to complement the movie’s central conceit: what happens to a super-spy when he knows he has a family waiting for him at home.
True Lies is based on a 1991 French action farce called La Totale!, which Schwarzenegger saw and immediately brought to Cameron’s attention. “When I watched it, I got it,” Cameron told Yahoo Entertainment when we spoke with him in February. “[Arnold] was dealing with [the idea] of, ‘I’m a husband and I’m a father, but I’m also this icon of masculinity.’ He related to it as, ‘What if James Bond had to go home to his wife and family?’”
Just as Schwarzenegger mastered some new steps in front of the camera, Cameron faced his own learning curve. “Arnold knew I could handle the action,” he says. “But I’d never done a comedy! So I came up with crazy stuff like him doing the tango with this exotic girl he meets at this mansion party. I sent [Arnold] the script, and in the margin I put an arrow next to the tango and wrote, ‘This is your most dangerous stunt. ’I think he took it to heart, because he did learn how to tango!”
True Lies isn’t the only Cameron movie celebrating an anniversary in 2019. Watch our full director’s reel above for stories about 1984’s The Terminator, 1989’s The Abyss, and 2009’s Avatar.
The Terminator (1984)
Cameron’s breakthrough hit originally ended with a sequence that revealed how the T-800 technology fell into the hands of scientists at Cyberdyne Systems — the company that created SkyNet. Funnily enough, the director didn’t cut the scene for story concerns. He just didn’t like the actors playing the scientists. “The executive producer of the film, John Daly, had forced me to cast two actors that were pals of his. So I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll put them in the same scene, that way worst comes to worst, I can always take the scene out. Of course, these guys were terrible. John Daly, bless your soul buddy, but they sucked.”
Cameron established a precedent for the Alien franchise when he turned the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space horror movie into a combat film. But he swears that was never his intention. “I wasn’t trying to play against Ridley at all; I was trying to lean into and channel and the Ridley-ness of it. I didn’t succeed, because I’m not as good as him … [and so] I kind of inadvertently put my own spin on it. I think it has hybrid vigor as a result of that.”
The Abyss (1989)
Cameron has often sought to push the envelope in terms of special effects. In the case of this underwater epic, though, his ambition outstripped what was possible in the late ‘80s, resulting in him having to come up with a substantially different ending for the theatrical cut. “Based on the technology available now, I think the ending would have worked a whole lot better,” he admits. On the other hand, the experience taught him a lesson that directly benefitted the film that later made him the King of the World. “I don’t think Titanic would have worked as well if it did if I hadn’t made The Abyss and learned that lesson, which is that you have to orchestrate emotionally. It’s not about peaking visually, it’s about peaking emotionally.”
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
When Cameron called up Linda Hamilton to let her know he wanted her to reprise the role of Sarah Connor in a Terminator sequel, she only had one request. “She said, ‘I want to be crazy,’ Cameron remembers. “And I said, ‘I can do that!’” Her request resulted in one of T2’s best s et-pieces, when John and the T-800 break Sarah out of the mental hospital. “It had to be that she wasn’t really crazy. She was right on the line: she still knew where her values system was, but she manifested as insane.”
If you thought the original ending of The Terminator was stiff, the early cuts of Titanic conclude with a sequence that even the dearly-departed Bill Paxton found pretty embarrassing. Set in the present day, this jettisoned sequence featured Paxton and Suzy Amis stopping the elderly version of Rose (played by Gloria Stuart) from apparently leaping into the ocean. “What we found in the cutting process is that people just wanted Jack and Rose. They just wanted that story. So a lot of the historical characters ... got cut way down and I cut the bookend present day scenes way, way down.” Amis didn’t hold the edits against him, though. “Suzy must have forgiven me because we did get married and are still very happy together.”
Cameron invented an entire alien planet for his transporting 2009 blockbuster — which remains the highest-grossing movie of all time globally — but his proudest moment is making audiences believe that the Na’vi could fly. “The part I still like the best, and that I had to fight the hardest for was the flying. We fly in our dreams, and there’s something very ... exhilarating and life-affirming about being able to fly. It’s through the flying that [Jake and Neytiri] fall in love, so it resonates perfectly with the love story. If we hadn’t nailed it, the movie wouldn’t have connected with people the way it did.”
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