The Terminator - Past-perfect
Date: September 2003
By: Ben Braddock
It was little film that was so huge it spawned two sequels and made its star the biggest name in the world. Ben Braddock looks back 19 years to the film that changed the face of the blockbuster.
"I'm the king of the world!" proclaimed James Cameron, punching his fist in the air on stage at the 1998 Oscars. But even the king of the world couldn't stop a Terminator movie happening without him. "Could I have conjured up another story with the same characters?" he pondered recently. "Yeah, absolutely. And if I'd owned the rights I probably would have."
Moral copyright means sod all in the law courts. It was 1981 when James Cameron tossed and turned in a sweaty Italian hotel bed and awoke with the idea of The Terminator. Paul McCartney knows about that; 17 years before Cameron dreamt of walking endo-skeletons, the Beatle woke up with a melody in his head that would become his most celebrated song, "Yesterday:. In 2003, neither The Terminator or "Yesterday" are owned by their makers. Cruelty is not always criminal.
The story of The Terminator now is based on big bucks, nothing as fragile and personal as a fever dream. It's not an artist's franchise anymore; it belongs to the studios. But 20 years ago the idea rested in the arms of a bunch of youthful film punks, the second generation from the ever-productive Roger Corman stable. Nobody much expected The Terminator to be anything more than a cheapo exploitation flick. With a budget that Cameron says now was the cost of Arnie's motor home on T2 (it was actually $6.5 million), it's hard to believe how inexpensive and hype-free the original really was. Just as much as it's difficult to fathom quite how low-voltage Arnold Schwarzenegger's star was back then. And Cameron? Who was this 30 year-old whose only outing behind the camera had been Piranha II? And Schwarzenegger? A former body-builder with a thick Austrian accent? Get outta here.
That the film was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood at the time is hard to believe, considering nearly every major player involved in it - Gale Anne Hurd, James Cameron, Arnie, Stan Winston - now comprise the Mount Rushmore of the Hollywood establishment. With the image of Cameron clasping the Oscar and Arnie shaking hands with Dubya, never forget just how young, punky and irreverent these kids were back then...
But spare a thought for poor Lance Henriksen. Once Cameron had sweated out that dream of the endo-skeleton rising from the fiery inferno and had fleshed it out into a full script, he'd always imagined his title character as an anonymous killing machine, a wiry Everyman who could blend into a crowd. Not very Arnold Schwarzenegger, but very Lance Henriksen. Cameron had earmarked Henriksen after working with him on Piranha II (after briefly concidering OJ Simpson, who, producer Gale Anne Hurd said, "was athletic and had a kind face, the sort of face you wouldn't associate with a machine built to kill..." - ahem) and the actor indulged in a little bit of extra-curricular acting in order to help Cameron get the film financed.
"I went into Hemdale [the prospective financial backers] decked out like the Terminator," Henriksen recalls. "I put gold foil from a Vantage cigarette package in my teeth and waxed my hair back. Jim had put fake cuts on my head. I wore a ripped-up punk rock t-shirt, a leather jacket and boots up to my knees. It was a really exciting look. I was a scary person to be in a room with. I kicked the door open when I got there and the poor secretary just about swallowed her typewriter. I headed in to see the producer. I sat in the room with him and I wouldn't talk to him. I just kept looking at him. After a few minutes of that he was ready to jump out the window!"
John Daly, Hemdale's big chief, was sold. Teaming up with Orion and HBO, Cameron and his producer wife Gale Anne Hurd had their movie. That dream was now about to become widescreen reality.
Nobody paid much attention to the role of the Terminator when they read the script. Certainly, to Mike Medavoy, Orion's then CEO, the character of Reese - the freedom fighter sent back in time by John Connor to save his mother's life - was the lead. So when he gave the script to the Austrian hulk, fresh from filming Conan The Barbarian, it was this role he and Cameron had in mind...
"At the audition, I kept saying the Terminator had to be able to change the weapons blindfolded and shoot without blinking his eyes and how he should walk and look with his head tilted forward," said Schwarzenegger. "Then Jim said, 'You should play the Terminator.' I was like, 'Oh... I came for the other thing.' Then he started sketching the Terminator with me in the role. You could almost act off the drawing, the coldness of the character. But everyone around me said, 'Maybe you shouldn't play a villain. It might be bad for your carreer'."
But Schwarzenegger's always been a canny operator. He may have been the only one to see how the Terminator, despite only having 16 lines, was really the star turn. He didn't have to think any movie he was doing was good (a friend of his told how Schwarzenegger would refer to the movie during filming as "a piece of shit"), but he craved notoriety and stardom like few others. "Once Arnold was cast, the complexion of the film changed completely," recalled Cameron. "Gritty realism would never have worked with Arnold in the role."
While the movie became more comic book in style, it did retain the grit and grime of Cameron's original intention of making a film "like Alien". For Kyle Reese the director chose Michael Biehn, a 28 year-old whose biggest role up to that point was as a stalker opposite Lauren Bacall in 1981's The Fan. For the female lead Cameron picked the then-unknown Linda Hamilton. While shallower fans of the films point towards Arnie is the franchise's major selling point, it's almost certainly more Linda Hamilton and her personal journey that sets the film aside from its witless and usually misognynistic clones. Script-wise, Reese is little more than exposition; Sarah's journey from shat-upon waitress and good-time girl to the battle-hardened saviour of humanity is far more compelling.
That said, Schwarzenegger is astonishingly good in the film, and it certainly made him a star. The manner in which he moves his eyes from side to side as his head mirrors their movement shouldn't be undervalued. He's always know his own limitations, but works extremely hard to perfect those few acting talents he does possess. "I didn't take Schwarzenegger seriously as an actor at the time," Henriksen recalls. "And I was wrong. He was very effective and he was served very well by the film."
Cameron and Hurd had had a piece of wierd luck. Dino De Laurentiis had committed his outsize star to a new Conan movie and so the filming on Terminator, which was due to begin in the summer of 1983, had to be postponed for 10 months. It gave them enough time to hyper-plan their movie, and when it came to shooting, every scene was meticulously storyboarded. That didn't prevent the inevitable production problems. Linda Hamilton broke her ankle, leading to a complete production overhaul, and an insect infestation in Los Angeles led to various loactions being taken over by the LAPD. "It seemed like our locations matched their spraying areas," recalled Michael Biehn. "We got sprayed on a lot."
Hurd was a canny producer. Her years with Corman had told her to hold money back for pick-ups and the months after were spent guerrilla shooting. One shot here, another shot there. One last-minute addition was the final desperate moments of the dying Terminator, accomplished with foam-core, tinfoil and cigarette smoke. Another scene needed a close-up of Reese being put in a body-bag. Cameron's suit-bag came to the rescue.
Orion thought they had a down and dirty exploitation film and backed The Terminator with little enthusiasm. "The guy from Orion told me that a little action thriller like this usually lasts about three weeks," said Cameron later. "Box office drops by 50% by the second weekend and then it completely vanishes by the third. I really was astounded by their reaction. Even after the initial success, which was even more than I expected, they still had no interest in beefing up the ad campaign or giving it any added support at all. They treated me like a piece of dog shit."
It was a screening to the actors' agents that changed Orion's mind. A few phone calls later, with Hurd and Cameron by now uninvolved bystanders, and Orion had arranged a critics' screening. What was initially thought of as an in-one-weel out-the-next cheapo would soon become a big hit for the embryonic company that would catapult them into the indie top rank for the next five years. But there was one last indignity to spoil the party. Harlan Ellison, with his usual incendiary nature, slapped a lawsuit on Orion, claiming Cameron had plagiarised The Terminator from two of his short stories, "Soldier" and "Demon With A Glass Hand". The potentially knotty matter was settled out of court and subsequent prints namechecked the writer. "I loved The Terminator, was just blown away by it," said Ellison once. "I walked out of the theatre, went home and called my lawyer."
For all it was onwards and upwards. Cameron and Hurd got Aliens, Linda Hamilton got Beauty And The Beast and Schwarzenegger became the world's biggest movie star. "The Terminator legitimised me as an director. It radically changed the Hollywood community's opinion of me. Other people get remembered for lines like, 'Time and tide wait for no man'," says James Cameron. "I'm going to be remembered for 'Fuck you, asshole'!"
- Arnie's voice is used in exactly 16 lines, uttering a mere 17 sentences spoken. The Terminator has two other lines onscreen, one with the voice of a police officer overdubbed, and one with the voice of Sarah's mom overdubbed.
- Look out for an early appearance by Bill (Aliens) Paxton as one of the punks beaten up by the Terminator at the beginning of the movie.
- Whisher William Jr, who co-wrote The Terminator with Cameron, is featured in a small cameo. After Arnie is left burned on the curb by Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, a policeman attempts to assist the Terminator but gets knocked unconscious for his effort. And that's William Wisher.
- Michael Biehn almost didn't get the role of Kyle Reese because in his first audition he spoke in a Southern accent after appearing in a stage production of Cat On A Hot Tine Roof and the producers didn't want Reese to seem regionalised. After a talk with Biehn's agent, the producers called Biehn back for another audition and he got the part.
- Schwarzenegger's famous line "I'll be back" was originally scripted as "I'll come back".
- James Cameron later divorced Gale Anne Hurd and married Linda Hamilton.