The story behind the Terminator
Date: April, 2001
By: Clark Collis
James Cameron first dreamt of the metal man in an Italian hotel. Actually, "dreamt" is probably not quite the word. Try "hallucinated" instead. For, as the helmer fell prey to a combination of flu and sheer hunger, the vision arrived in the form of a waking nightmare. Cameron was staying in an Italian hotel because of his directional debut, Piranha 2L The Spamning - a cheapjack sequel to Joe Dante's only marginally better-financed Piranha. Despite its microscopic budget, however, Cameron had leapt at the chance to helm a film after shaving away for years as the special effects wünderkind at Roger Corman's New World Pictures.
Sadly, the film's Jamaican shoot had not been an easy one. When his effects crew produced the eponymous piscine death machines, Cameron was so aghast at their crapness that he stayed up night after night, creating his own piranhas. Budgetary restraints, meanwhile, forced leading man Lance Henrikson to do most of his own stunts, on one occasion breaking his hand after leaping out of a helicopter. Nevertheless, Cameron believed he had done a pretty good job. Produced Ovidio G Assonitis disagreed, telling the director: "It's shit. Nothing cuts" and taking the raw footage to Rome for someone else to edit. Enraged, Cameron reacted by flying to Europe and secretly editing the film at night. Stony broke, the helmer survived by scavenging his hotel's hallways, eating discarded food from other guests' room-service trays.
Then, one day, Cameron began to hallucinate about the metal man. The metal man with the broken arm, pulling himself along with a kitchen knife. The metal man who, despite his injuries, still relentlessly persued a wounded girl who could not get up and run.
By the time he returned to LA, Cameron was convinced that his vision was his ticket out of a world of flying piranhas and other C-movie schlockers. His agent disagreed, telling him not to waste his time. That is was a bad, bad, bad idea. Most people would have eventually concurred. But then people are not James Cameron. "What I did was fire my agent," says the director today. "And start writing."
"Come with me if you want to live"
Cameron's hallucination would, of course, form the basis of The Terminator - a movie that not only established its creator as one of Hollywood's hottest talents but also helped transform a certain Austrian body-builder from Tinseltown laughing stocj to a A-list actor. Commerciallu successful on its original release in 1984, the movie would subsequently be eclipsed by its sequel which in turn may yet be put in the shade by the now greenlit third instalment. Indeed, considering that Cameron's vision also spawned a theme-park ride, innumerable lucrative merchandising spin-offs and a raft of iconic catchphrases ("I'll be back", "Hasta la vista, baby!" etc), his ex-agent's demurral has to rank alongside not signing the Beatles in the pantheon of enterainment industry screw-ups.
Yet, Cameron's agent was hardly alone in concluding that the idea could suck the chrome off passing car bumpers. The director and his producer/lover Gale Anne Hurd spent a good portion of 1983 unsuccessfully trying to interest studios in their tal of LA waitress Sarah Connor and the homicidal time-travelling cyborg who pursues her. Eventually, Cameron convinced Lance Henrikson - pencilled in for the lead - that independent production company Hemdale might appreciate a more... 'direct' approach.
"I went in decked out like the Terminator," Henrikson remembers. "With gold foil from a cigarette packet over my teeth and a cut on my head. I kicked the door open and the poor secretary just about swallowed her typewriter. I sat in the room with the executive and wouldn't talk to him. After a few minutes of that he was ready to jump out of the window."
Suitably impressed and/or terrified, Hemdale agreed to stump up enough of the proposed $6-million budget to greenlight it. Ironically, Henrikson was soon bumped from the title role in favour of former American footballer and murder-suspect-in-waiting OJ Simpson, with Arnold Schwarzenegger cast as Reese, Sarah's human protector from the future.
When Schwarzenegger and Cameron finally met, however, Arnold was more interested in how the robot should be portrayed than talking about his own part. "I kept saying that he had to be able to change weapons blindfolded and shoot without blinking," Schwarzenegger recalls. "Jim finally said: 'You should play the Terminator.'"
"Hasta la vista, baby"
And this a legend was born. Yet, while Schwarzenegger would have us believe that he always knew the film would be successfull, it is not a recollection shared by fellow body-builder Rick Wayne who visited him on the set of Conan The Detroyer. "As we sat there talking he picked up the Conan sword, which weighed a ton, and went through the moves he'd practiced," Wayne recalls. "Then he grabbed a pair of shoes and I said: 'What are those for?'. He said: 'Oh, some shit movie I'm doing, take a couple of weeks.' It was The Terminator. That was the movie that made Arnold.' For him it was just some crap film."
Schwarzenegger, together with co-stars Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, would soon discover just how wrong he was. For, despite its small budget, Cameron was determined to use all the technical skills he'de honed on the like of Galaxy of Terror to create one of the most influential sci-fi films. And if he had to ride roughshod over people's feelings, then so be it.
"It's just part of the working process for me," says Cameron. "Some people take it personally and some people don't. The ones who work with me again are the ones who don't. Every time I start a film I have a fantasy that it will be like a big family and we'll have a good time and we'll all have these wonderfully creative moments together. But that isn't what filmmaking is. It's a group of human beings fighting against the tendency of the universe to become disorganised. It's was."
As is to ram home the point Schwarzenegger, Hamilton and Biehn often found themselves working on sets that looked like a war zone. "When Arnold attacked the police station, that was a week's work," says Lance Henrikson, who Cameron placated by casting as a cop. "Hundreds of thousands of squibs going off. They used big explosive charges planted on the body which went off like shotgun shells. I got several real burns."
But the person who suffered most during the Terminator shoot was Schwarzenegger himself. The actor not only had to endure countless hours in the make-up trailer, but also the eagle-eyed attentions of Cameron, who directed his every move.
"Jim would say: 'I want you to lay there Arnold," reveals Henrikson. "'Then, when I tell you, I want you to start lifting up with your head. Then your shoulders. Then I want you to sit up. Then I want you to look straight ahead.' He had to give up all his ego."
The end result would more than justifiy the gruelling means. Topping the box-office charts, Terminator was not only an excellent action movie but also successfully hijacked a fascinating combination of ideas from previous sci-fi outings. Indeed, author and scriptwriter Harlan Ellison believed that far too much hijacking had gone on - in particular from an episode of TV series The Outer Limits that he'd written caller 'Soldier'. He launched a law suit against the film.
"I loved the movie," says Ellison, who was given a credit on all subsequent prints of the film. "I was just blown away by it. Then I walked out of the theatre, went home and called my lawyer."
Cameron's biggest grievance, however, lay with the way his film was treated by its own distributors, Orion Pictures.
"This guy from Orion was downright dismissive," says the director . "He told me that a down-and-dirty little action thriller like this usually only lasts about three weeks on release/ I really was astounded by their reaction. Even after the initial success, which was even more than I had expected, they still expressed no interest in beefing up the advertising campaign or giving it any added support."
"They treated me like dogshit."
"I'll be back"
If Orion regarded Cameron's efforts as so much canine excrement then there were many who didn't. Even before embarking on the Terminator shoot, he had been commissioned to write sequels for both the Sly Stallone actioner First Blood and Ridley Scott's Alien. And, while his Rambo screenplay would be substantially altered before reaching the screen, the Alien producers were so impressed by his work that they hired him to direct as well, with the result not only outgrossing the original but also bagging Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination. Cameron's next movie, The Abuss, proved less successfull but confirmed the director as one of the most technically adept film-makers around. And the career of Schwarzenegger has also inexorably risen since The Terminator thanks to box-office draws like Predator and Total Recall - so when the two decided to make T2 it seemed obvious that it would be a much pricier proposition than the original.
Unfortunately, Hemdale had neither the inclination nor the resources to back such a project. Salvation finally arrived in the form of Mario Kassar's Carolco Pictures which bought out Hemdale's interest while also okaying a budget that, by the time Cameron had finished, would make it the most expensive film ever made. Not surprisingly, the director had been pondering the idea of a sequel for years and originally planned to have Schwarzenegger play both a "good" and a "bad" Terminator but "it would have meant having him in appliance make-up for the whole five months of the shooting schedule. And I didn't want Arnold cranky with me."
Then, out of the blue, Cameron set up a meeting with his friend, the scriptwriter William Wisher. "Jim pulled out this old yellow sheet of paper from a notebook and handed it to me without saying anything." says Wisher. "There was one sentence scribbed on the dog-eared page. It read: 'Young John Connor and the Terminator that comes back to befriend him.'". Instead of having two identical Terminators fighting it out, Cameron had come up with the idea of an entirely new type of cyborg - the T-1000 - made from liquid metal. It was a brilliant concept on paper. The problem was whether the still nascent digital effects technology, which Cameron himself had done so much to develop on The Abyss, was capable of matching his imagination.
"Pain can be controlled"
From a film-maker's perspective I was pioneering," Cameron says. "I took a leap of faith on The Abyss and an even greater one on T2. On The Abyss, the computer was brought in to solve one sequence, and if the sequence had failed them film still would have worked. On T2, the success or failure of the film was predicated on the digital effects."
But the cost of digitally realising all of Cameron's ideas proved too expensive. Consequently, he sought to replace many of the intended CGI shots with mechanical and make-up effects. All this encreased the workload of Terminator designer Stan Winston, originally hired just to create some deterioration effects for Schwarzenegger's character. "Jim came up with hundreds of impossible effects," explains Winston. "There were more in the first two minutes of this script than in the entire first movie."
With Schwarzenegger and Hamilton back on board, a nationwide search began to find an actor who could play the young John Connor (Edward Furlong was the lucky teen). The part of the T-1000, meanwhile, went to the equally unknown Robert Patrick who, like the original's two surviving stars, was required to undergo a tough course of weapons training overseen by an ex-Isreali commando. Cameron, meanwhile, was grappling with the logistics of a production that, on occasion, utilised 187 walkie-talkies. Yet, despite the magnitude of the projet, the director still managed to keep track of even the tiniest of details.
"When the T-1000 is dying," recalls sound designer Gary Rydstrom, "I was going to do something very bizarre with huge squeals and blending it with monkey screams. But Jim went: 'No, no, no! Do I have to do everything? I can do it with my own voice'. So he went in and recorded himself squealing. And he was right. It was perfect".
Other problems were more personal - such as a dream sequence in which Hamilton's character is visited by her dead lover Reese. The actress, who by now was living with Cameron, believed the footage to be crucial. The directorm apparently, did not. "I was told they were an interruption of the pace of the movie." explains Hamilton. "Jim is an amazing director and he cuts whole chunks of the movie that are brilliant - but if they don't survive the pace of the story, it's snip, snip. I was sleeping with the man and he didn't tell me, untill we were looping. No courage at all!" (The scene was eventually restored in the Special Edition).
Yet Cameron's determination was again proved justified: Terminator 2: Judgement Day earned half-a-billion dollars at the box-offcie after its release during summer 1991. Visually breathtaking, emotionally charged and yet darkly humorous, the result still stands as the definitive sci-fi chase movie.
"No matter what I do," says Schwarzenegger, "People always come up to me and ask, 'When will you do another Terminator?"
"One possible future. From your point of view"
So, when is he going to do another Terminator? The answer would appear to be sooner rather than later. "We have a deal with Arnold," Mario Kassar announced in October. "And we hope to be filming within six months." Not that Kassar has succeeded in recruiting all the old hands with Linda Hamilton declining to reprise Sarah Connor. More worrying, though, is the absence of Cameron himself, who announced last summer that he would not be involved. At first it was assumed that the self-crowned King Of The World wasn't that keen on churning out another sequel, although this theory was shot down with the news that his next film would be True Lies 2.
"I don't control the rights," Cameron elaborates. "And to build value in someone else's franchise doesn't make sence. I'll build value in my own franchise, thank you very much."
How this effects the result - now to be directed, so rumour has it, by Die Hard's John McTiernan - remains to be seen. But, as Cameron himself suggests, the metal man's appeal should not be underestimated: "I think people root for the Terminator because there's some demon in the back of everyone's mind that would like to be him for two minutes - to go in and talk to the boss without using the doorknob. People want that fantasy of being able to do whatever they want to do - whenever they want to do it."