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James Cameron on Coming Back for TERMINATOR: DARK FATE
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“No fate but what we make” may be a tagline and rallying cry for the characters in the Terminator franchise, but the new installment Terminator: Dark Fate suggests that it’s most true with regard to the future of the series itself. At least that’s the case when that “we” involves the man who created it in the first place, James Cameron. Cameron has passed along his blessing to some of the past sequels as a matter of courtesy, but Dark Fate marks the first time since 1991 he was actively involved in developing and deepening the story he originally conceived. And it shows: the best Terminator adventure in decades, director Tim Miller’s chapter was designed and feels like it’s of a piece with those first two films, while pushing forward the characters and mythology for a new generations.

Terminator: Dark Fate director Tim Miller and star Linda Hamilton on set. Paramount Pictures

Nerdist joined a select group of reporters for an interview with Cameron, who spoke electronically from New Zealand, where he’s in the midst of shooting performance capture footage for the long-awaited Avatar sequels. In addition to talking about what first got him on board to help develop the ideas behind a new Terminator film after so many years, Cameron spoke about recruiting his former star (and ex-wife) Linda Hamilton for her own return to the franchise, revealed some of the ideas that continue to intrigue him about the world he created 35 years ago, and hinted at a few of the concepts that he hopes will drive the series into its own future.

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.

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 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?

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 [or T2].

So now you have two possible futures, as Reese would call them. And ultimately, Sarah and finally Dani, just say, ‘F*** the future. F*** 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.

Linda Hamilton and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark FateParamount Pictures

What was the process of convincing Linda to come back and what did that mean for this film as a direct sequel to the first two movies?

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?

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 predated 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? F*** 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 ten 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?

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. 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…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.

Arnold Schwarzenegger grappling with Gabriel Luna in Terminator: Dark FateParamount Pictures

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?

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 this 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 s*** 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.

Speaking of ‘Carl,’ the T-800 Arnold plays in this film, is there an explanation in your mind about why he ages?

Sure. Absolutely. Look, it’s all in the first film—sweat, bad breath, everything. He’s a cyborg. The ‘org’ part is ‘organic.’ There’s flesh over the outside. The bigger question is how something that’s got some kind of synthetic material that’s not flesh can come through the time field. But that’s another geek-out story for another time. [But] he’s organic on the outside. He’s got to eat to support the organic part of his body. It might only be 30% of him by weight, but he definitely has human flesh. The science behind that is complete bulls***, but it’s a cool idea, right?

I think the very first, and it’s in the first movie, he’s actually got sort of gangrene and his wounds are kind of rotting by the end of the film. When the guy pounds on the door and says, ‘Hey buddy, you got a dead cat in there?’ he’s rotting. His human flesh is dying before it all gets burned off. So all biological systems are subject to age unless you were to specifically genetically tinker that out, which obviously they didn’t do. So his outer form ages. His inner form, his nuclear-powered endoskeleton can run for… I think he says 120 years in movie two. So the flesh will die and fall off eventually and then he’ll just be the endoskeleton walking around. But a little harder to blend in at that point.

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?

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?

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.

In the conception of this story or these characters, did anyone else answer a question about your existing mythology that maybe you had left open-ended or had not explored yourself?

Between Tim and David Goyer, Billy Ray, everybody had a lot of ideas to explain things. Usually, stuff I’d already thought of, [but] Billy Ray came up with the whole reason for why the Arnold T-800 is intruding into Sarah’s life. That was kind of his big gift or proposal to the project, but that wasn’t answering a question from the past. I don’t know. It’s a little bit jumbled in my mind because we spent like three or four intensive weeks in a room just batting around and going over and over and over all the minutiae to the point that I can’t remember where my ideas begin and theirs leave off, and vice versa. Because to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought too much about the Terminator universe in about 20 years.

Mackenzie Davis wielding a gun in Terminator: Dark FateParamount Pictures

How much did you guys figure out about the future?

We’ve got a lot of thinking about what things look like up in the future to draw upon. The story credits for the movie are a little weird because you’ve also got Charles Eglee and Josh Friedman in the story credits because we sat in the room and we broke story across three movies before we focused down onto the first of the proposed three, which is Dark Fate. So there’s really a plot line that runs all the way out through a third film, if we get to that stage. And the reason for that is you spend a couple of weeks to future-proof yourself so you don’t paint yourself into a corner and you could still do the things that you want to do. So yeah, there’s a lot of good thinking that exists already on that.

You described this mythology to some extent as humanity is kicking a can down the road. And in a way that’s what the story is really about – even if we can stop one thing, it’s going to happen anyway. What opportunities do you feel like you’ve created in this story, if you guys get to tell subsequent stories, to step away from what has become a familiar if very entertaining series of chase movies where these people are fleeing or trying to survive, and maybe explore a different aspect of this mythology that you’ve created?

One of my major motivations on this film or coming back to the, hopefully franchise, was to explore the human relationship with artificial intelligence. I don’t feel we did that in Dark Fate. I feel that we set the stage or we set the table for that exploration, and that exploration would take place in a second film and a third film. And we know exactly where we’re going to take that idea. What we wanted to get in the first movie was this idea that it’s just going to keep happening. The names will change, but the basic conflict is going to continue to take place until it gets resolved one way or the other. And so I believe we’ve set that table and if, like I said, if we get the opportunity, we know where to take the story. I think you start simple and then you elaborate, and you can elaborate over a series of films. If they’re made by the same people with the same intentions and the same philosophy, then there can be a kind of a story arc across multiple films. But that said, I think Dark Fate stands alone as a pretty good one-time story.

Featured Image: Paramount Pictures