With director Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate opening in theaters November 1st, the other day I got to participate in a Skype interview with producer James Cameron with a few the reporters. Cameron’s currently in New Zealand filming his Avatar sequels.
During the thirty-minute interview, I found Cameron to be in great spirits and more than willing to share candid behind-the-scenes stories that you sometimes don’t get when you’re talking with people. He went into great detail about what he wanted to accomplish with the film, how they figured out the new timeline, why he thinks one of his big contributions to the movie was getting Linda Hamilton to be part of it, why he wanted the film to play out in a little over a day, how they figured out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role in the film, why he didn’t want to be on set but was involved in the editing room, and a lot more.
If you’re a fan of James Cameron and the Terminator movies, you’re going to enjoy reading what he had to say.
Finally, before getting to the interview, if you were nervous about Terminator: Dark Fate, you can relax. Tim Miller did an awesome job with the material and fans are going to have a great time when they see it.
Question: Talk about what you wanted to most accomplish with the franchise by returning to Terminator after so many other people attempted to reboot or reimagine it.
JAMES CAMERON: I was kind of reluctant to come back into that world, but when I had the opportunity to recover the rights, I started thinking about it – is there still something to say? And when I met with David Ellison at Skydance, he said, ‘Look, what I want to do is take it back to the basics. In a sense you can do the sequel to Terminator 2.’ And I thought, that simplifies things. The movie came from him, it was not my vision walking in the door. [But] I had this idea that there was a version of the Arnold Terminator, the T-800, that was this Flying Dutchman character. He’s just out there in this kind of limbo, and he’s a learning computer. He’s a neural net computer designed to be chameleonic, to try to learn to blend – like Arnold blends [laughs].
So I thought, what happens if you’ve got this Terminator who is just out there floating around for 20-plus years, and he would essentially max out on his ability to emulate human behavior, and become as human as he could be until he got new orders. And that idea gets into the idea of free will. We’ve seen the Terminator that was programmed to be bad; you’ve seen the one that was programmed to be good, to be a protector. But in both cases, neither one of them have free will. So I think this film is really an opportunity to explore these ideas of fate or predestination versus free will, and how we deal with that, how we deal with it as human beings. I mean the Terminator is really just a metaphor, always, for certain aspects of human behavior and human psychology and so on. So that sounded like a fun challenge. And then after that it was just iterating through how do we do it? And what about Linda? Should we get her? I think there’s a certain point where a film kind of takes its own path, kind of the confluence of the various influences of the artists involved. So David [Ellison], myself, Tim Miller, and everybody had ideas and things that they wanted to see, and then we had to create something that, that satisfied all those artistic impulses.
We are obviously seeing a future develop that is different than the future that was going to happen at the end of Terminator 2. How far did you go establishing the new timeline and kind of how this new uprising happened?
CAMERON: One of the things that was against us from the beginning of this movie is the fact that we’ve got the future as Sarah was told it would take place, and then she obviously changed it. So now we’ve got to reconcile what she knew, what she knows about the Skynet future with now what has transpired in the future that Mackenzie Davis’ character comes back from. So now the audience is having to process two futures, which was never a challenge that I had to deal with on Terminator one two. So now you have two possible futures, as Reese would call them. And ultimately, Sarah and finally Dani, just say, ‘Fuck the future. Fuck fate. We’re gonna make our own future.’ And Sarah has had to adjust to the fact that there’s probably a kind of inevitability to see the rise of an artificial super intelligence.
That’s just the direction that the universe is heading. This is a collision that the human race is on, essentially with its own progeny, in a sense. So we came up with this idea that Sarah had kicked the can down the road, but she’s just going to have the same fight again, and have it again, and have it again, until there’s a resolution. So in our grand scheme, what we came up with is there is a resolution. Kick the can as many times as you want, but there has to be a resolution. But if we’re lucky enough, we make some money with this film, and we get to do a second one, maybe a third one, we have a direction to resolve that innate conflict.
Talk about the process of convincing Linda to come back and what that means for this film as a direct sequel to the first two movies.
CAMERON: It’s very hard to imagine any version of the film we made without Linda. I think that’s when you know you’ve cast well, when you can’t imagine it any other way. Obviously, Linda was already cast, but it was a question of whether she wanted to do it. She was under no obligation to do it whatsoever. I know Linda very well – obviously we were married – so I know how she thinks and how she processes things and it certainly wasn’t obvious to me that she would want to come back to this world. It certainly wasn’t a slam-dunk. I mean, you see it afterwards and you go, “Oh, it’s a no-brainer.” But it certainly was a difficult decision for her. I think one of my big contributions to the movie was, well, I can’t say I got her to say yes, but what I can say is I got her to a point where she didn’t automatically say no. And that got her into the room with Tim to hear his ideas and how he wanted to see her and what she’d be doing and that sort of thing.
Basically, I think I made it at least appealing enough for her to want to meet with Tim – by outlining all the reasons why she shouldn’t make the movie. I sent her a very, very long email. It was about three and a half pages, half of which was devoted to why she shouldn’t do the film, and half of which was devoted to why she should do the film. We all know the reasons why she should. We love the character. It’s been often attempted, but never succeeded, and I don’t just mean other incarnations of Sarah. I mean other attempts to have strong female action heroes that are complex and dark the way she was. It’s been tried. A lot of actresses have focused on the physicality, but not the nuance of the character, and that sort of thing. I said, “That’s been tried, attempted and failed repeatedly for going on two and a half decades, whatever it is, the past two and a half decades now. People love you in this character and they’d love to see where you are, where she is in her life at this point.” But by balancing it, I think I gave her permission to say no without offending anybody. I think that allowed her to make her own decision. And if you know Linda, you know that it would have to be her decision. And fortunately we got a great return to the big screen for Sarah out of that.
The movie pretty definitively reaches an end point of Sarah’s timeline. Were there aspects of the mythology that you created with the first two films that you didn’t have an opportunity to previously explore?
CAMERON: I don’t want to take the position that I was the one driving this. I came in, I said, “Look, guys, I want to be of value to you,” speaking specifically to Tim Miller, as the director of the film. He pre-dated me on the project. I said, “I want to be a resource. You can have the benefit of my thinking on the matter, but you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to follow your own muse.” David Ellison also was a very passionate voice. So, I think ultimately, the film reflects those things that we all agreed on would be cool. It’s pretty much that simple.
The idea of the Terminator endo with the fluid over the top, what we called the ecto and the endo – the idea that there would be this kind of merged state and that they could also fight independently, we came up with that in the first few days of sitting around in the writing room. We all loved it. We got a strong image. And places where we argued endlessly about the meaning of timelines and causality and how things would split or bifurcate or merge back together, that’s where everybody just finally looked at each other and said, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s just not do that.” Because I think the final determiner on that was the audience doesn’t really like it. The audience doesn’t want to invest in some story where the rules keep changing because you keep bifurcating or going into different timelines. So we said, “Let’s just keep it simple. Let’s have a unity of time, if not place,” because they do travel. They go from Mexico to the US. But it’s certainly a unity of time. Let’s play it all out in 24 or 36 hours. Let’s keep it taut, let’s keep it character-focused. Let’s keep it in a sense, small, not grandiose, not epic. I think The Terminator, especially the first film, was epic in its backstory, but it wasn’t epic in what you saw play out. So we all embraced that.
Tim is very much a fan of the first couple films. There were those things from those first two films that he liked – the energy of it, the dark gritty value of it, the R rating. Like every time we sat down to write a Sarah scene, you couldn’t get about 10 seconds without imagining her dropping an F bomb. So the handwriting was on the wall from the early days that it was going to be a R-rated film. I think we’re all satisfied with that. Will it affect the performance of the movie? Sure. We’ll leave money on the table as a result of that, especially in North America. But we all felt like it was just the right thing to do.
In terms of you talking about being a resource, were there things that you had conceived that helped them understand maybe where the technology or this mythology as a whole might evolve as a springboard to create their own story?
CAMERON: I proposed the Flying Dutchman Arnold, the aged T-800 who is now becoming more human in the sense that he’s evaluating the moral consequences of things that he did, that he was ordered to do back in his early days, and really kind of developing a consciousness and a conscience, which I think is a very interesting idea. To me, he’s the most interesting of the three incarnations of the T-800 that I was involved in for that reason. Because it’s really saying he might be an artificial intelligence, but he’s an intelligence, and he ultimately, left to his own devices, discovers that which we as the human race have discovered over thousands of years, which is morality, which is ethics. And I’ve talked to a lot of artificial intelligence scientists and so on. I remember asking some of the top guys, I said, “Could you have an artificial super-intelligence that was the equivalent of or superior to a human intelligence without emotion?” And they said, “No, you have to have emotion. Emotion is what allows beings, conscious beings, to interact with each other and to have a sense of self and to have a sense of self-preservation and purpose and all that.” I locked into that term “purpose” and I threw that on the table as well. I said, what if he has discovered this idea that without purpose we’re nothing and he starts to fixate on what he’s done to Sarah, and her purpose-driven life has just to destroy any manifestation of artificial intelligence from the future that she sees it all as a threat. So her worldview is actually quite simplistic. His turns out to be a little more subtle.
Can you talk a little bit about the fact that the new Terminator is a totally different model than the ones that we’ve seen before. Does this mean then that there are no T-800s in the future? Is this the last time we’ll see an Arnold incarnation of a Terminator?
CAMERON: It’s an interesting point. I mean, I think that you could make a strong case that there was probably a rack of Arnold-based T-800s up in the Skynet version of the future, and some or all of them were dispersed through time to targeted places. We already know that there were the ones we see in the story, plus one or two kind of off-camera ones. Were others sent? I think that the Skynet future no longer exists – or is accessible, let’s put it that way. They certainly wouldn’t necessarily build an Arnold T-800 in the Legion version of the future because that’s a different technological developmental pathway. But I wouldn’t rule out ever seeing Arnold again in a Terminator movie. Look, if we make a shit ton of money with this film and the cards say that they like Arnold, I think Arnold can come back. I’m a writer. I can think of scenarios. We don’t have a plan for that right now, let me put it that way. I think what we’re seeing is that there’s a lot of goodwill for that character in the audience.
When did you actually see a cut of the film, and what sort of feedback did you give Tim in terms of shaping the final feature?
CAMERON: Well, I saw a rough cut right after the first of the year and it transformed quite a bit after that. I think David Ellison and I and Tim worked together to try to find the best film that could emerge from that. It wasn’t a slam-dunk at the time. I felt there were a lot of pathways that were taken that were unnecessary. I’m an editor myself, so I gave notes that were both broad and very specific. I continued in that process up to about two and a half months ago when we locked picture. I never went to the set. I’ve yet to physically meet the new cast.
But I was very involved in the writing and I was very involved in the cutting of the film. And to me, the cutting is really an extension of the writing. It’s the last draft, if you will. The set is the domain of the director. There’s one captain of the ship and, within that metaphor, and the set, the production, the principal photography is the ship. Now, I was also doing the capture work on Avatar, so I really couldn’t travel to Budapest because I was working six-, seven-day weeks anyway. But even so, when I did have an opportunity to visit the Alita: Battle Angel set, I only went once for a couple of hours because I wanted to communicate to the cast and crew that it was Robert’s picture. So I did the same thing on Terminator. It’s just my philosophy as a producer. I want to be an asset. I want to be a resource. I don’t want to be a go-to person or look-around person. The director needs to be empowered. So this is Tim’s film, and David Ellison and I worked together as producing partners to make it the best version of Tim’s film that could exist.
Was there a part of the movie that you guys repeatedly fought over because of different opinions?
CAMERON: I would say many. And the blood is still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles. This is a film that was forged in fire. But that’s the creative process, right? I mean, my work with Robert on Alita was very different. Robert loved the script, loved everything, said, “I just want to make this movie. I want to make the movie the way you see it.” I was like, “No, you got to make it your movie.” I had the reverse experience with Tim, which is Tim wanted to make it his movie. And I’m like, “Yeah, but I kind of know a little about this world.” So I had the matter and the anti-matter version of that producorial experience.