James Cameron - How to direct a 'Terminator'
Date: December, 1984
By: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
A fantasy filmmaker unleashes a cyborg killer with the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an android assassin from the far-off future come to murder the promise of the present.
"I was sick and dead broke in Rome, Italy," director James Cameron reminisces, "with a fever of 102, doing the final cut of Piranha II. Thats when I thought of Terminator. I guess it was a fever dream."
Terminator, the second movie helmed by the Canadian-born filmmaker, also marks the debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger (STARLOG #88) in a new screen role - as a villain.
"I would have to say that in my febrile youth, I was an absolutely rabid science-fiction fan," Cameron continues, detailing his background. "I read all the classics, all the Old Ace paperback novels. When I went to college, I put the brakes on that reading and got into the 'real world,' which made me realize that many science-fiction writers have a much better perspective on life than those writers who are mired in the specifics of day-to-day life. Now, you might say that I've come full-circle and am back to being a big science-fiction fan."
"The thing I most like about science-fiction is that it provides a way of exploring issues without upsetting any one group. You can do a story about an oppressed minority, and your readers could range from people who are members of oppressed minorities themselves to people who profit from that oppression; they can read the story and project their views into it and not get upset, while also reading the other side. If you do a story about a Latino and a landlord today, however, then the readers may get upset and take sides without seeing what the story is really saying."
Using science-fiction as a way to comment on today's realities is another aspect of Terminator. "The story is set in a present that is affected by the near future," says Cameron. "The catastrophe which creates that future happens right around the corner from us today, and the people of that future - the year 2029 - know the people from the present. There is a direct relationship between the present and the future that I don't think has been done before. At the risk of telling the audience what they should think after they've seen the movie, Terminator speaks to the fact that though none of us may think much about the consequences our actions as individuals might have on the future, those actions do have consequences."
"Basically, I want to give the audience an E-Ticket ride (a la the old Disneyland ticket scheme). I think they want to think a bit during the film, and talk about it afterwards, but not to have to try and figure out what it is they just saw. My 'film-school,' if you will, was hitch-hiking to the nearest town and seeing the the features at the two theaters there every Saturday. I was well-grounded in being a member of the audience, and I try to remember that; let's remember that we must be in tune with our audience or the movie won't work."
"The greatest goal of a filmmaker is to entertain. If you have something to say, let it be said in such a way that you're not chasing the audience out of the theater. You have to entertain first, but many filmmakers have forgotten that ther must be something more than entertainment. If you're just going to entertain, why are you doing it? The audience will walk out. And when they come off the emotional rollercoaster, they have nothing left. There's more to filmmaking than just selling popcorn."
Comparing Terminator with other genre films, Cameron observes, "There's a love story at its heart; to put it in a nutshell, I would call it a romantic nightmare. More work was spent - from a writing and acting standpoint - trying to make the people believable in an everyday setting, both in the future and the present. These are people who get up, eat their Wheaties, complain about how much money they're not getting at work, then something incredible happens. The future comes down on them like a bag of bricks! The female lead, Linda Hamilton, goes from being a coffee shop waitress, a student, to where you see that she does have the potential to be a world leader, which is what she will become. It's a stron role for a woman, not one of the cliche female characters that have been so much in evidence recently."
FX & Filmmaking
"Science-fiction films were notoriously under-budgeted untill George Lucas came along," Cameron notes. "Whats happened, though, is that filmmakers have become hardware-happy. The earlier movies told their stories through the characters; I think that earlier approach was better. Today's audience is being taken on a rollercoaster ride, where they sit there, waiting to see the next incredible special effect. They don't care what's going to happen next to the people, because the filmmakers didn't create believable characters for whom the audience can really care. With some of the smaller films coming out now, moviemakers are realizing they must concentrate on the people in the story. An excellent example is The Dead Zone."
Cameron's view of the writing process that Terminator went through contains some insights for those writing SF screenplays. "I wrote the script with a strategy in mind, knowing the movie would be in competition with the big FX films," he explains. "For X-number of special effects, you must spend X-number of dollars at the threshhold. Below that, you'll be showing people things they don't want to see. The audience has become visually educated and sophisticated, and even a bid jaded, by the big guys. My strategy was not to do special effects from the beginning to the end; the story is set in Los Angeles, 1984, and the main character is the girl next door. Everything plays out from beginning to end against an everyday backdrop."
"I think when a film is under consideration for production, the first and foremost question is: 'Does it work dramatically?' If it doesn't, it will never get to the point of people worrying about how much it costs. A writer should know enough about special FX to be able to stay away from them. The worst thing to do is overburden a script with effects which scare people away; on the other hand, you must have something visually interesting."
"The writer must be able to figure out how to limit the effects and still tell the story. Start with one matte shot of the castle, for instance, then go inside and let the rest of the scene play on two sets. When you have it on the page and people read it, it makes sense to them. On the other hand, if you write the same scene to go inside the castle, out on the parapet walls, back inside through 14 rooms and end out on the roof, you have just made that same scene four times more expensive, probably without adding a thing dramatically."
Nevertheless, this philosophy doesn't signify that Terminator, while admittedly done on a 'lower' budget of $6 million, is a 'cheap' FX flick. "We see the future world, briefly, at the film's beginning and end," Cameron says. "Suddenly, it skyrockets to that level of visual effect. There are quite a few matte shots and many miniatures."
"Our major effect, however, is the Terminator itself, the cyborg. The cyborg is an extrapolation from present-day technology. Without getting to specific, the look of the cyborg comes from current engineering techniques. It's not a suit-of-armor type of robot that can't possibly work, but more like a state-of-the-art robot. When you walk out of the theater, I think you will believe you've been watching an honest-to-god operating robot."
Much of the difference in the 'look' of Terminator derives from Cameron's out-of-the-ordinairy route to the director's chair. "I guess the one thing that's common to all independent filmmakers is that they really have nothing in common," he laughs. "I went to college and majored in physics for two years, then got married and became a truck driver, and decided I really did want to be a filmmaker. I had my own production company and did commercials and industrial films. I raised some money and did a pilot for a feature, then used the pilot to get a job as effects cameraman and art director on Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars."
"Then, I clawed my way up from there, as meanly and brutally as I could," he grins. "Working for Roger was good training. He's the guy who says, 'We'll make a $6 million movie for $500,000.' After Battle Beyond the Stars, I did Galaxy of Terror and had about five technical credits, then worked as co-effects supervisor for the FX done for Escape From New York, created at Roger's Venice facility."
Visions & Violence
While working on Battle Beyond the Stars, Cameron met his soon-to-be collaborator, Gale Ann Hurd, who shared screenplay credit with him on Terminator and also serves as the film's producer. "Gale was the assistant production manager on Battle," he explains. "I had written a treatment and most of a first draft of Terminator, which she became involved in polishing. The initial idea was mine, and the collaboration was her taking the rough edges off. Our strength in doing the movie was pooling our resources and forming an impenetrable barrier to anyone who wanted to take it away from us or change to concept."
"It's always a fight to preserve your vision against the vision of others. If you have five people working as producersm you'll get five completely different concepts of what the story's really about, and often they're completely irreconcilable. You have to fall back on your own instinct. Sometimes the thoughest thing to do is to trust yourself. You might not find that possible in a collaboration if it wasn't a relationship with someone you had worked with and knew. We've been very fortunate with the support of Hemdale and Orion (which financed and distributed the film), since we didn't have that much of a track record; we had directed and produced before, but not on the scale of Terminator. Both companies now have high hopes for the picture, but there weresome times in the early stages where we did think it was going to be scooped out from beneath us."
Hiring Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray the android assassin was a happy accident. "People at Orion passed the script to Arnold," Cameron relates, "with the suggestion that he plays the so-called 'hero,' Reese. He and I met, and neither of us felt very comfortable about him in that part. It had never occured to anyone that he consider playing the villain, but that was the role he wanted! Now, Arnold is a shaven-headed, eyebrowless half-man/half-machine in a black leather jacket with wraparound sunglasses. It does break the mold of what people think about him. And Arnold has come to the point where he realizes he can do what he wants to do as an actor, and he's willing to take chances."
Critics of film violence may take aim at Terminator. But Cameron isn't worried. "It's a gun'n'run, shoot-em-up. Many people get shot and killed. But there isn't much gore; the violence is never rubbed in your face. It's done off-screen and used for dramatic effect. I think the audience will realize that all this violence is directed at an unkillable machine, not a man."
With Terminator rampaging through theaters, James Cameron is now relaxing and wondering about the fate if some long planned sequels. "I have written the screenplay for Alien II," he reveals. "It does exist. What will be done with it, no one really knows. I can't really say anything more about Alien II than that it does exist." He has also scripted the sequel to First Blood. "I suppose there I'll have to go to the theater with everyone else to see what's been done with it."