Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the new Terminator movie will be the beginning of a new trilogy, if all goes well. Granted, with a franchise this iconic it’s probably best to plan ahead, but fans of the series are all too familiar with the notion of a new reboot/sequel setting up a three-movie plan, only for said reboot/sequel to be DOA. 2009’s Terminator: Salvation was supposed to kick off a trilogy of films starring Christian Bale as John Connor, set in the post-apocalyptic future, and 2015’s Terminator: Genisys was supposed to begin its own trilogy of films that would have explained how Jason Clarke’s John Connor became a half-man/half-machine hybrid. The Genisys trilogy plans were particularly extensive, with two sequels set to be shot back-to-back and a TV series intended to fill in some story gaps before the failure of Genisys put an end to all that.
The critical and commercial disappointment of both of those films meant that those trilogy plans never came to fruition, and James Cameron is hoping the third time’s the charm with the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate. During an extensive interview with Deadline about the new movie and the franchise as a whole, Cameron (who is a producer on Dark Fate and was heavily involved in the story creation and writing) revealed that he and the film’s writers hunkered down to create a three-movie arc that they could pitch to Linda Hamilton in order to get her to agree to return:
“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. 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.”
Indeed, Dark Fate’s screenwriting process was unique in that Cameron and the folks at Skydance put together a writers room, with final “screenplay by” credit going to Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray. It’s not hard to imagine that in the process of coming up with the story for Dark Fate, the team also came up with larger ideas about where this story goes.
But Dark Fate is also very much a reset, serving as a direct sequel to Terminator 2 thanks to some time travel tomfoolery a la 2009’s Star Trek. Cameron says in helping craft this story, he went back and watched the bad Terminator sequels and reboots and realized the key to success going forward was to make it simple:
“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. 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.”
If it sounds like Cameron was intimately involved in the creation of Dark Fate, it’s because he was. While he stresses that he never visited the set and allowed Tim Miller to take the reins of the project as the director, that didn’t prevent him from working on the screenplay himself as filming got underway. That’s right: credited or not, Dark Fate will mark the arrival of new Terminator material written by Cameron for the first time since T2:
“I focused on getting the script punched up. 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.”
That included keeping the franchise R-rated, although Cameron reveals the studio was still unsure about the rating when filming began. It’s confirmed now that Dark Fate will be released as R, but Cameron says initially, they were shooting two different versions of scenes—one PG-13 and one R:
“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.”
This practice isn’t unusual (James Mangold did it on The Wolverine, which was ultimately released as PG-13), but it’s nice to know that the filmmakers and producers eventually realized another way they could make Dark Fate distinct from those subpar sequels was to go full R-rated.
We’ll get to see Sarah Connor back in unfiltered mode when Terminator: Dark Fate opens in theaters on November 1st. After that, who knows? Have they finally made a Terminator movie successful enough to launch a genuine direct sequel to itself? Cameron’s saying all the right things here, and the most recent trailer is mighty encouraging, so here’s hoping.