How’s this for fate? James Cameron invented the modern sci-fi blockbuster, when he made The Terminator and the knockout sequel that followed. David Ellison, the producer and co-founder of Skydance, decided that he wanted to make movies when he grew up, after he watched both Terminators as a kid. And what was the first film that director Tim Miller went to see, when he and his wife moved to Los Angeles? That would be Terminator 2: Judgment Day… If fate is what we make it, then perhaps Terminator: Dark Fate is what happens when fate makes a movie.
Not that any of this unique creative trinity left anything to chance when it came to bringing it to life. All of them knew that no other Terminator sequel so far had matched the seismic impact of the original and T2, and all of them wanted to hit that exact same high standard again. “There was only one way we were going to do it,” says David Ellison. “And that was if James Cameron was going to come back.”
Ellison spoke to the legendary filmmaker for about a year. At the same time, he was wooing Miller, who had blown Hollywood away with his reinvention of the superhero movie in Deadpool and had his pick of what to do next. “Tim had the exact same mentality on Jim and was massively excited about the return of Sarah Connor,” says Ellison of the creative thread that bound the three of them together: the idea of the return of Linda Hamilton’s iconic creation. “[Tim] said, ‘The only way I’m going to do this is if we can get Jim involved.’” And so, the three men met up at Cameron’s house out in Malibu, to chat about the fate of humanity and where the Terminator could go next…
In terms of story and ambition, is it fair to say Terminator: Dark Fate is essentially T3?
CAMERON: “Absolutely, that was what we all locked in on. There was a genuine consensus in the room that we wanted to get back to basics. That was coming from [the director] Tim Miller, from David Ellison – my fellow producer who brought me into this – and from the original writing team. The idea was, ‘Let’s just go back to the basics. What do we like about Terminator? How do we imagine that for the 21st century?”
ELLISON: “Terminator 1 and 2 hold a very special place in cinematic history, and we wanted Dark Fate to be a direct sequel to T2, and a continuation of Jim’s vision for the franchise. That was our goal. There was obviously no way of doing that without Jim’s involvement and without continuing Sarah Connor’s story. And bringing Arnold back. Also, while we wanted to continue that story, we also wanted to build a path for an entirely new generation of characters, which is where Natalia [Reyes] and Mackenzie [Davis] come into the picture.”
MILLER: “Jim was always coming back for this one, and he said, ‘I’m down for it. It can be whatever we want it to be.’ For me, as a fan, I’m thinking, ‘I think if you don’t have Jim come back to the franchise, it won’t feel like a Terminator movie, like a continuation of this original story.’”
When the first Terminator came out, Artificial Intelligence wasn’t really a reality – not like it is today. How did that affect this movie?
ELLISON: “One of the great things about Terminator is that when Jim imagined it, it was science fiction, but now it has translated into science fact. We did a tremendous amount of research prior to production. And two things were consistent with pretty much everyone we spoke to, and that was that actual artificial intelligence will occur within our lifetimes and that everybody was pretty terrified by that proposition! If you think about how integral technology is to our daily lives… We have a connection to our technology and our devices that we never had, so Terminator now is more relevant than ever.”
CAMERON: “It’s funny. I talked to a bunch of AI researchers about, ‘What will this type of intelligence be like? And what are your goals?’ And they said, ‘Basically, our goal is to create a person. Our goal is to create a machine that has personhood. That can think for itself, that has motivations and goals, that has a sense of identity.’ I said, ‘How long do you think you’re going to be able to contain something smarter than you?’ They just laughed at me: ‘Oh, you’re the Terminator guy. Yeah, we expect that sort of thing from you!’ But they’re not going to be laughing some day…”
MILLER: “You know, it’s really not interesting to watch somebody do a Google search or hack into some CCTV cameras, but what our terminator can utilise modern technology for makes for some great action sequences and provocative, troubling questions for the audience, about us and our relationship with technology. What I also liked about this terminator was the opposite of all these thematics – in that, if you could make a robot now that could get close to fooling humans on some level, you would have a human that’s more human than a human. So, why would he or she use a gun or beat people up when they could just be charming and persuasive? I think //that’s// the real danger of A.I. – that A.I. will take the place of your friends and your loved ones and everyone else in your life. So, I wanted Gabriel [Luna, who plays new terminator [the REV-9] to also be charming, to use technology in terrifying new ways but to also learn something from people as well that he couldn’t have learned through the internet or CCTV cameras. Human intel, as the soldiers call it. That was a big thing for me.”
How did you decide to focus the film on Sarah Connor – and how did you get Linda Hamilton to play the iconic role again?
CAMERON: “I don’t think you can be a fan of the first two films without being a fan of Linda and the character arc she went through. She was this naïve waitress who then goes on this epic, dark journey of the soul. She eventually emerges out the other side, by the end of Terminator 2, having recaptured her lost humanity. Because I always said that Linda was the terminator of movie two. The Arnold terminator had become a protector. The most relentless one in that movie was her. When she decided to go after [AI pioneer] Miles Dyson it was like, ‘Forget it. You’re dead, dude.’ But she rescues herself from the brink of becoming a machine herself. It goes back to that old adage that to slay the dragon you have to become the dragon. And she had become the dragon. So, it intrigued us, all of us, in those early creative sessions: what would she be like now?”
ELLISON: “Our first week of the writers’ room, we were all kicking round ideas. It was blue sky and what everyone kept zeroing in on was Sarah’s character. Where had she been and what had happened to her after the events of T2? What had she turned into? And that was a story that we were really excited about telling. At the end of the first week, Jim said, ‘Okay, so it’s clear that we all want Linda back in this franchise,’ so he reached out to her. The conversation went incredibly well, but she wanted time to think about it because this was a huge decision for her, coming back. Jim and Linda will reference that they had both won twice with the franchise and with the character and they thought that there was risk with her coming back. But, ultimately, Jim said, ‘People love you as this character and want you back.’ Eventually Linda said yes, which was a great day for us in the writers’ room!”
MILLER: “She actually came in with an open mind of, ‘What do you want me to be?’ But she liked what she heard, which was sort of a continuation of her character, and she went along for the journey. She certainly had a lot to say – Linda’s not shy! But she was down with following the path we’d outlined, more or less. She wanted to be crazy again, or at least broken and hardened because of everything that has happened. It was a really interesting process. Linda didn’t want to know about it in detail until we had a script. When she did see the script, and saw what we had done with it, she saw that it was a right and fitting evolution of the character. Not only that, but what she read about the other characters really surprised her. One morning I met her for breakfast, and she had just gotten to a certain point in the script… She was like, ‘Oh my God! I love this!’”
As fans, before you were filmmakers, David and Tim, what was it like seeing Arnold and Linda back together on screen?
ELLISON: “It really is one of those pinch yourself, dream-come-true moments. I’ll never forget the first day that we saw them on screen together. It was just this overwhelming realisation of, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening’. We were making a real Terminator movie! T2 was the movie that made me realise that I wanted to make films, was one of the inspirations in building [his studio] Skydance and getting involved in the film business. It really was the definition of a dream come true.”
MILLER: “It was fantastic. There were those moments, as a nerd, that I remember distinctly. The scene where Linda and Arnold are on the monitor together for the first time, I was like, ‘Holy shit – I’m making a Terminator movie!’ There was that, for sure. But aside from that, Linda and Mackenzie and Natalia and Gabe and Arnold, it was just like a love-fest the whole time. Most of the crew said it was one of the best movies they’d ever worked on. Arnold said it was //the// best movie he’d ever worked on, because we had a lot of fun. I’m not a screamer, I’m pretty chilled.”