Warning: spoilers for Terminator: Dark Fate ahead.
For Tim Miller, there was only one reason to make another Terminator movie, and that was to continue the never-finished story of Sarah Connor—the Sarah Connor played in the first two movies in the series by the legendary Linda Hamilton. Her portrayal of Sarah—future mother of the man who will lead humanity in a war against the malevolent artificial intelligence Skynet—broke new ground for a female action star in The Terminator (1984) and especially Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), decades before it became the much needed norm, and Miller thought it was time to bring her back to where it all started.
But Miller, who made his directorial debut with 2016’s hugely successful Deadpool after years of doing visual effects and second unit directing, had another agenda in mind as well. He wanted to bring the Terminator franchise back to its core story after several reboots/sequels/sidequels along the way had arguably blurred the focus of the saga. Signing up for Terminator: Dark Fate with producer David Ellison and working with Terminator creator James Cameron, who was returning to the series himself to help write and produce it after decades away, Miller began developing ideas for the film with Cameron, Ellison and the help of other visionary minds, as he told Nerdist in the interview below.
And yes, he got Linda Hamilton back, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a very different T-800 and a terrific new cast including Mackenzie Davis as Grace, a super soldier from the future; newcomer Natalia Reyes as Dani, the young woman who may now hold the key to humanity’s survival in a future that’s been altered; and Gabriel Luna as the Rev-9, a new kind of cyborg sent by a new threat with abilities that even Sarah Connor, the T-800, and Grace may not be able to defeat.
I understand that you started the process of developing the story for this by bringing science fiction authors into the writers’ room.
Tim Miller: We brought in five guys, Warren Ellis, who’s a comic guy. I had briefly been attached to Gravel, and I was a big fan. I love The Authority and Transmetropolitan, and I knew Warren. We brought in Neal Asher, who’s a sci-fi author. I really like Neal’s work. Back when Fincher and I were doing Heavy Metal, I found this story, “Snow in the Desert,” and I tracked him down. I’m like, “I love this story. Do you have more like it?” And Neal sent me 50 fucking stories. He’s an idea factory, really nice guy.
We brought in Neal Stephenson. Huge fan. Snow Crash is probably one of my favorite novels of all time, and I’ve known Neal for a while, because I was briefly attached to Snow Crash, and he’s a great guy. And my favorite author of all time, Joe Abercrombie, who is a fantasy author, but he’s just fantastic with character, and he’s great with ideas in general. And again, I’m friends with Joe from First Law, his big fantasy series. Oh, and Greg Bear. Hull Zero Three is one of my favorite books.
Was it fruitful bringing these guys in?
Well, it was my idea, and I find sometimes working with screenwriters, they’re so goal-oriented. Whereas I think novelists sometimes are able to play in a broader, “what if” sort of world. And they’re cheaper (laughs). So I thought, “Why not bring in novelists for this first initial exploration, and see what kind of ideas we get out of it.” At that point, it was complete blue sky. It wasn’t like we had a direction. So I thought it was a great experience. Jim liked the idea. He reads a lot. We read a lot of the same books, so Jim knew all those authors as well.
Do you have a favorite sci-fi author?
William Gibson. Neuromancer, which I have set up at Fox. Neuromancer and Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Neal Stephenson might be a close second.
I always feel like there should be more sci-fi authors and literature brought into the film world.
Here’s the problem that I find in adapting all of this stuff is that it’s hard to find screenwriters who… maybe it’s easier for me, but if I try to adapt something, I would start with the source material and try and stay as true to that as you can. Whereas screenwriters seem to want to throw all of it away and start over. We just got a draft for Neuromancer, and I brought Bill into the process from ground zero. I’m like, “I’m not doing this without you.” And it’s all got to be built. We could publish a book on the thread between me and Bill and the writer, J.T. Petty, about how to handle all these different things, and where we made changes, why, and made sure that it all goes back into the central thread that Bill had established.
To me, you fall in love with these stories for a reason, and you better stay true to it. But I feel it’s the same way with Deadpool and Terminator to a larger extent. You can look at Deadpool and Terminator as stories, words on a page, with a backstory and characters, and you’re extrapolating and telling another chapter in the story. It’s all the same thing to me.
So what was the Terminator story you wanted to tell, what was the story that maybe Jim was interested in telling, and how did those end up being the film you made?
Maybe I should do a B.C./A.D. thing, because it’s like there was “before Linda, after Linda.” There was a whole host of stories that we talked about, but the period we talked about them wasn’t very long, and it was all overshadowed because what we really want to tell is the story of Linda. And when Jim got an indication that maybe she would come back, all efforts focused on, well, what does that story look like?
If Linda wasn’t coming back, we didn’t want to do what others had done and have a new actor come in and play her. So the story would have to take a very different direction, although we all wanted it to be. And to me, that was the reason to come back to the franchise, was that it was always Sarah Connor’s story. John is interesting, yes, but it was always about a mother’s love for her son, and that was the story that everybody wanted to continue if Linda came back. Luckily for us, she did.
At the same time, you also came up with ideas for potentially three movies. How did you boil down what you knew was going to be in this one at least?
This one has a rhythm to it that was much like the first two Terminator movies, at least for where the jumping off point is. It’s part of the DNA that we’re only going to tell this compressed story, so it’s all going to happen over a very short period of time. So if you’re going to take Dani from nobody to most important person in the world, that’s really what you got to focus this first movie on, and there’s not a lot of room for anything else. And then I think as a fan, I felt semi-qualified to say, “These are the things that I would want to see as a fan, and these are the things where I feel like we have room to play and invent new things.”
But the hardest thing in this movie was we had this triangle of hunter/prey/protector that is the DNA in the Terminator movies. And to do that, we had a lot of protectors. We had three essentially in that role, and to balance all of the stories, Dani, Grace, Sarah, and Arnold, our T-800, all have a moment in the movie where they’re the most important character. And that was the tricky part of balancing that.
So I didn’t really worry about setting up the other movies. I knew where it was going, but who knows if it will actually go that way when another director starts developing it. I didn’t really want the audience to ever feel like we were planting seeds for something else, because I hate it when I feel that in a movie. I want you to focus on the movie I’m here to see. I don’t care about your franchise in that sort of a way.
It’s different in the Marvel universe, where you feel that the seeds are being planted, but they’re being planted in a way that is interesting, because I want to know about these other characters that I know are out there. I don’t feel like I’m being fed something just because they need to launch another movie. I feel it’s just part of the tapestry of the whole universe, you know?
So if this does well and there’s room to make more, do you see yourself as doing one and done? Would you want to stay involved, or hand it off to somebody?
I’m honored to have played in the sandbox once. I’m a little older, so I don’t think I want to spend more of my career playing in that particular sandbox. There’s a lot of great stories to tell. Like we’ve been discussing, there’s so many books I want to do and I love. I really keenly feel the tick of the clock, and you can do some math at my age and figure out how many movies I might be able to make. And so, I feel like I trod this road, and I’m very grateful to have done it. I don’t feel the need to do it further. The sad part about saying any of that is that I love this cast. Boy, I do. I really love it.
From where Sarah Connor was when this franchise started out to what she is now, and everything we got now in terms of female characters and everything that’s changing within the industry, how does she line up with the definition of “strong female character” in 2019?
As a man, I don’t profess to be adept at navigating gender issues, I really don’t, or be some advocate for women’s rights or how they should be handled, or how women should be portrayed. I love women. There’s so many strong women in my life. Natalia and Mackenzie and Linda are all strong women in real life, and they were clear with me on set about, “Tim, that is such a sexist remark.” Or, “That is such unconscious sexism.” Mackenzie in particular was great about setting me straight.
But my wife runs my company. I have a 26-year-old daughter. I have so much respect for women’s roles, and I’ve always considered them equals. And so, to me, it really wasn’t an issue. It’s just, there’s women in the story. Why it’s more interesting is that I think it’s Linda’s age as much as anything else. That she is going to show up and be this badass of a woman past a certain age that, that just doesn’t happen. And the fact that we have three of them, again, due to no part in anybody’s agenda. Nobody said, “Hey, let’s talk about immigration issues.” Or “Hey, let’s talk about female issues.”
Grace’s character, for example, was invented by Joe Abercrombie, and it was always a woman. It was like, “Well, what if the protector comes back, and she is fucked-up, and she has to take all these drugs, and she’s scarred?” And it was just always that way. I think Dani was a little more conscious, but only in that it’s less expected. I mean, I don’t think that it should be so, but the chosen one is usually a man. And in my mind, the more unexpected you could make that person, the bigger the journey they have to go. Because of society’s expectations, or what have you, the more interesting it is for the character, so that was why the choice was to make it Dani, and plus it’s more interesting, you know? We didn’t want the chosen one to be a dude again. It’s just been done before, right? And then you have Linda, who’s Linda. It’s always been a strong female characters.
What was the pitch to Arnold on this version of the T-800, and what was his response?
Well, Jim made that pitch to Arnold before I got involved, but I had actually met with Arnold a couple times before the script was set, and we were developing that. But I think Arnold was perfectly okay with it. He liked the idea that the character had grown in this direction. And even in every iteration of the script, it was always the passage of time that he had come and done this thing, and then time passed, and he evolved to be more human. The variation was where he found him and how human. That was really the variable. But I think he really enjoyed it.
Jim and I had a big debate about whether the family knows or not. It turns out, the audience doesn’t really care. I was a big believer in that the family has to know, because I couldn’t get behind a hero who wasn’t truthful with the people he loved and closest to him, but we didn’t want to make it explicit.
And it turns out that, honestly, the audience loves Arnold Schwarzenegger so much that you really can’t do anything to—it was the biggest surprise in the entire experience, where we had crafted all of the story to lead up to this moment when Arnold walks out on the porch and Sarah confronts the murderer of her son. It was the big dramatic thing, and then in the first audience screening, the audience starts cheering when Arnold opens the door. None of us expected that. It was supposed to be so emotional. Instead, it was like, “Yay, Arnold’s here.” The movie’s pretty heavy, much heavier than Terminator 2, and I think by that time, the audience is so eager to get a little levity and a little lightness, and they know that Arnold’s going to bring some of that, that they’re just so grateful when he shows up.
He called you up to tell you he loved the movie?
Oh, yeah, Arnold FaceTimes. He loves to FaceTime. So he FaceTimed me after he saw the final cut. I had screened early cuts for him. He liked every version of it, but when he saw the final, which was the first time he saw the final effects with his death, he had tears coming down. He’s like, “Tim, it’s so good. It’s so good.” The final moment with him and Sarah, he really loved that.
Header Image: Paramount Pictures