As a franchise, Terminator has spanned movies, TV, video games, and more across the last three decades. But it all started with James Cameron, who, along with his then-wife Gale Anne Hurd, is credited with the series’ creation. With Terminator: Dark Fate, Cameron has returned to the series for the first time since 1991’s celebrated T2: Judgment Day–a fact that’s been well-publicized in the film’s marketing, Comic-Con panels, and beyond.
But exactly how involved was James Cameron, really? After all, the famed filmmaker remains hard at work on his many planned Avatar sequels, which must demand most of his time and energy. And Cameron didn’t direct Dark Fate–that honor went to Deadpool director Tim Miller. When we got the chance to speak with Cameron recently with a small group of reporters, we asked him exactly how involved he was on Terminator: Dark Fate, and his answer surprised us.
Cameron has both a producer and a writer credit on the film, and he said he was involved with the story conception from nearly the beginning, although director Tim Miller predated him on the project. He also contributed extensively to the editing process.
“I was kind of reluctant to come back into that world, but when I had the opportunity to recover the rights through the copyright law, I started thinking about it,” Cameron admitted. “It’s like, ‘Well 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, ‘Well that simplifies things.’ The movie came from him; that was not my vision walking in the door.”
When he started to get involved, Cameron was conscious of the fact that this wasn’t his movie. “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,'” he explained. “I said, ‘I want to come in as non-threatening here. 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.'”
His strategy in general was to be as hands-off as possible. “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,” he said. “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.”
“I think ultimately, the film reflects those things that we all agreed on would be cool. It’s pretty much that simple,” Cameron explained. One of those things is the REV-9 Terminator and his unique ability to separate his exo- and endo-skeletons and operate them independently, which they came up with “in the first few days of sitting around in the writing room,” Cameron said. “We loved it–we all loved it. We got a strong image.”
In the story of the finished film, Sarah and John Connor successfully changed the future by destroying Cyberdyne Systems at the end of T2, and when Grace (Mackenzie Davis) travels back in time to the present, Sarah learns that things in Grace’s future are different. Granted, that new future isn’t exactly utopian–Grace definitely has her own problems–but the point is, there are multiple timelines. Cameron said they also spent a lot of time in the early stages working on the movie debating details like those.
“The blood is still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles,” Cameron said. “This is a film that was forged in fire. But that’s the creative process, right?”
He contrasted working with Tim Miller on Dark Fate with working with Robert Rodriguez on last year’s Alita: Battle Angel. “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’ve 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.'”
For his part, Miller told GameSpot recently that he felt he had the creative freedom to make this movie his own, while Cameron’s insights and contributions proved valuable throughout the process.
“Jim, of course, created the franchise, so he is the authority on all things Terminator,” the director said. “He’s a great touchstone if I ever felt like, you know, ‘Am I drifting off-theme? What are the things that I think should be most important?’ Jim is really great to answer those questions. But most of all, he’s been thinking about these movies–even though he didn’t plan to direct another one, he’s been thinking about them for a long time. And he always has something interesting to say about how Arnold would have evolved, or Sarah’s state of mind…he’s really in touch with the human side of these characters in a way that’s great to be able to talk about with him.”
That may be the case, but Cameron also admitted he “hadn’t thought too much about the Terminator universe in about 20 years” before returning for Dark Fate. However, the filmmaker did claim credit for the way Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 re-enters the story. He described this version of the Terminator as similar to the Flying Dutchman–a legendary ghost ship that’s doomed to sail the seas forever, unable to make port. And he expressed excitement about being able to explore a new side of the character he created nearly 30 years ago.
“I had this idea that he’s completed his mission, and, you know, he’s a learning computer. He’s a neural net computer designed to be chameleonic, to try to learn to blend,” he said. “That was the conceit of the original story–the kind of entry point to the character. So I thought, ‘Let’s play that out.’ What happens if you’ve got this Terminator who is just out there floating around for 10, 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.”
Cameron said he likes that the T-800’s storyline touched on the question 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. I think this film is really an opportunity to explore these ideas of fate or predestination versus free will, and how we deal with it as human beings.”
He said from that point, it was just a matter of building on that idea. “After that it was just iterating through, ‘How do we do it? And what about Linda [Hamilton]? 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.”
Cameron never visited Dark Fate’s set, but he did see a rough cut of the movie early in 2019. Miller believed he was happy with the direction the movie was going, but Cameron said it “transformed quite a bit” from that point, thanks in part to his extensive notes: “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.”
Cameron also said he planned out an entire new Terminator trilogy with Dark Fate as its starting point, although Miller, who directed Deadpool 1 but not Deadpool 2, suggested he might not return for those currently hypothetical sequels.
“Who knows?” Miller told us. “I feel lucky enough–like the luckiest nerd in the world–to be playing in the sandbox once with Jim’s toys. I’m OK with that, if that’s all it’s meant to be. Just like Deadpool, you know–I’m so grateful for the experience, and I never expected to get that much, so, I’m good.”
Terminator: Dark Fate hits theaters Friday, November 1.