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It Can Come From the Future

October 25th, 2009 · 2 Comments


The following is my contribution to The Class of ’84 Blogathon convening here at This Distracted Globe.

The Terminator, 1984, poster The Terminator DVD

The Terminator (1984)
Screenplay by James Cameron & Gale Ann Hurd and William Wisher (uncredited), story by James Cameron
Directed by James Cameron
Produced by Pacific Western/ Hemdale Film Corporation
Running time: 108 minutes

Should I Care?
After three sequels and a Fox TV series each decreasing in quality and relevance, what’s most striking about The Terminator is its mood of unrelenting bleakness. Though exciting, its B-movie budget restraints keep this from escalating into the all-ages action spectacle its spin-offs would happily aspire to. Instead, this is one dark cup of coffee, a lurid, appropriately ultra-violent and nihilistic sci-fi horror flick. While I wouldn’t call this James Cameron’s masterpiece — his follow-up Aliens has my vote — it does feel like his most honest, sacrificing none of its ideas in a concession for broad commercial appeal.

The cast may seem unremarkable, but Arnold Schwarzenegger’s less than half an hour of screen time is a model of efficiency. In hindsight, there was no better performer on the planet to play the Terminator, the most iconic screen role of Schwarzenegger’s life. Linda Hamilton & Michael Biehn aren’t great actors, but fit within the economics the director was rather fortuitously stuck with here. Cameron — who doesn’t get enough credit for his strength as a writer — forges an unusually potent relationship between Sarah and Reese, while making a drive-in flick look and feel like something much bigger. Brad Fiedel’s electronic musical score remains one of my favorite of all time.

The Terminator, 1984

So, What’s This About?
In Los Angeles of the year 2029, machines have risen from the nuclear apocalypse they initiated against mankind to wage a losing war against the survivors. In desperation, a cybernetic organism known as a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) — part man, part machine — is sent back to Los Angeles of 1984. A soldier named Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) has followed the cyborg through time. Reese clothes and arms himself by breaking into a sporting goods store. The next day, the Terminator pays a visit to an unlucky gunsmith (Dick Miller) and begins assassinating the Sarah Connors in the L.A. phone book one at a time.

Waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) realizes she may be in danger. She ducks into a nightclub and calls the cops, where Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield) urges her to stay in public until they can get there. The Terminator reaches Sarah first. Reese manages to protect her and goes on to explain that the Terminator has targeted Sarah in order to eliminate her unborn son, who is destined to lead mankind to victory against the machines. Once captured by police, Traxler, his partner (Lance Henriksen) and a psychologist (Earl Boen) offer Sarah a far more rational explanation for her ordeal. This theory lasts as long as it takes for the Terminator to track Sarah to the police station and come after her.

The Terminator, 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dick Miller

Who Made It?
James Cameron grew up around Niagara Falls on the Canadian side of the border. He came to the United States when his family moved to Brea, California in 1971 and attended Fullerton College, scouring the USC library for information on film technology while putting himself through college as a machinist. Cameron would drop of school in 1978 and with $400,000 he raised from dentists in Tustin — looking to produce their own Star Wars — made a 12-minute special effects demo. This got the attention of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, whose head of visual effects hired Cameron to do front screen projection work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

With battlefield speed, Cameron was promoted to production designer and to head of a visual effects camera unit at New World. He was named second unit director and got the chance to work with actors on Galaxy of Terror (1981). Dismissed by his executive producer after wrapping Piranha II, Cameron would write The Terminator, with a production manager named Gale Ann Hurd polishing his script and producing. William Wisher — a college buddy — pitched in additional dialogue and after years of rejection due to Cameron’s non-existent directing resume, Hurd finally secured $6.4 million in financing from Hemdale on what became one of the most profitable and iconic movies of all time.

The Terminator, 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger

How’d They Do It?
Arriving February 1981 in Rome to shoot his first film as a director — Piranha II — James Cameron realized that his Italian executive producer merely hired him as a contractual obligation to New World. As soon as filming wrapped, Cameron was sent home and the film was recut without him. He recalled, “When I got back from Piranha II, I knew that I was never going to get offered another movie unless I came up with something myself. I had to write a film. That made sense for me as a director. I thought it had to have effects, which justified my existence on the project, but I had to not price myself out of the kind of budget that they were likely to trust me with.”

“I thought, how can I introduce that otherness, that element of wonder, into a low budget environment that can be shot on the street, very conventionally, very guerilla filmmaking. So, I thought, fine. It’s present day. It’s present day Los Angeles. It’s the back streets of L.A. So, what happens next? Maybe it can come from outer space. It can come from the future. From a narrative standpoint, it starts to limit your options. It starts to lay out a certain way based on those givens. So I had a given: a contemporary environment that was determined by budget. No big movie stars, so maybe the main characters can be kind of young.”

The Terminator, 1984, Shawn Schepps, Linda Hamilton

Cameron backed into the idea of a robotic hitman sent through time, arrived on the title Terminator and wrote a treatment and most of a first draft screenplay. Gale Ann Hurd had been a production manager at New World and co-produced Smokey Bites the Dust. She helped polish Cameron’s script, which he sold to Hurd for the price of $1, striking a pact that he would keep her on as producer, if she agreed not to go with a more experienced director. Cameron recalled, “Our strength in doing the movie was pooling our resources and forming an impenetrable barrier to anyone who wanted to take it away from us or change to concept.”

Gale Ann Hurd spent the next two years trying to raise the financing for Terminator. “Some actors turned down the film because Jim was attached as the director. Buyers approached Jim as the director provided he got rid of me as producer. I trusted him and he trusted me. We held out and were able to do it essentially on our own terms. I thought if I just persevered I’d get the movie made. My idealism and my naiveté carried me through at least two years of trying to get it together and keep it together. If I’d known then what I know now — some 23 pictures later — I’m not sure I would have persevered.”

The Terminator, 1984, Linda Hamilton

Hurd zeroed in on an executive at Hemdale Film Corporation named Barry Plumley. “Of course, he wouldn’t return my phone calls. Practically no one would.” Hurd found out that Plumley was selling a desk. She needed a desk and when they met to complete the transaction, Hurd handed him a 48-page treatment for Terminator. Plumley called the next day to tell her that he loved it. Hurd had also mentioned her project to a comrade from New World named Barbara Boyle, who was now senior vice president of Orion Pictures. “Barbara talked Mike Medavoy into reading the script, talked him into meeting with Jim and me.” Hemdale agreed to finance Terminator at $6.4 million, while Orion came on board as U.S. distributor.

To play the Terminator, Cameron wanted a survivor from Piranha II, Lance Henriksen. The actor pitched in on the drive for financing.”I went into Hemdale decked out like the Terminator. 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!”

The Terminator, 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name soon came up. Cameron recalled, “Arnold was never really slated to be in the picture. Mike Medavoy at Orion suggested Arnold play Michael Biehn’s character, Reese. I don’t think there’s anybody that would think that was a great idea. At that point in his career, doing 25 pages of expository dialogue and talking really fast and painting the picture of a future world we didn’t have the budget to actually visually create was not going to be Arnold’s strong suit, you know.” To play the Terminator, Medavoy suggested O.J. Simpson. Cameron immediately put The Juice out of his mind, but was intrigued with meeting Schwarzenegger.

Cameron revealed, “Over lunch I started thinking, This guy has got the most amazing face. I almost wanted to say, ‘Arnold, just stop talking for a second and be real still,’ but I was petrified. I thought, This guy would make a great Terminator. But he doesn’t want to play the Terminator. I went back to John Daly and said, ‘Forget it, it’s not going to work. But, boy, he’d make a hell of a Terminator.’ Anyway, the upshot is that the deal was closed that afternoon and we were making the movie after a two-year hold.” Schwarzenegger was already booked to spend the fall of 1983 in Mexico shooting a sequel to Conan the Barbarian, pushing a potential start date for Terminator back 10 months.

The Terminator, 1984, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn

With the Austrian Oak on board, Cameron recalled, “What changed was the original concept as written — and the script didn’t change at all, not a single line of dialogue was changed — but the visual concept was that the Terminator was this anonymous character who could walk out of a crowd, just one face in a crowd, could walk up and kill you, for no apparent reason, except for what your life would mean in some future time. And that concept changed, because Arnold doesn’t vanish into a crowd. It took on a slightly more hyperbolic visual style, a little larger than life. It still played sort of realistically, but it became more nightmarish.”

Linda Hamilton was initially only in the running to play Sarah Connor. Cameron revealed, “She was among a number of actresses I saw. I think it narrowed down to her, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rosanna Arquette. At the time, Jennifer Jason Leigh had only done a couple of TV movies. She is an awesome actress, but Linda was great in the part.” Despite auditioning with a Southern accent because he’d spent that morning reading for a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Michael Biehn would be cast as Reese. After months spent storyboarding and designing the film — as well writing Alien II and First Blood Part II on assignment — Cameron finally called action on Terminator March 1984 in Los Angeles.

The Terminator, 1984, Linda Hamilton, Earl Boen, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen

Cameron recalled, “The executive producer begged us to write more of the scenes as daytime, because of the perceived cost difference, but, you know, I plunged madly on. It seemed so important stylistically to keep the film in night, a night film, as much as possible. And so we kept it that way. And I don’t think it really impacted the cost all that much.” Terminator was shot mostly with a single camera by journeyman Adam Greenberg, while Stan Winston labored up to the hour to build a mechanical Terminator for the climax. Fantasy II Effects executed the special effects shots, including a stop-motion puppet animated by Peter Kleinow.

Barbara Boyle mused, “Now, everybody in town knew of that Terminator script because it had been all around. Everybody knew that it had a woman as producer who co-wrote the script with some guy with no credits called Jim Cameron and that he came with the package as the director, that’s why it hadn’t been picked up. That’s always dicey.” She added, “Hemdale was scared and why wouldn’t they be? The director didn’t talk much, he drew pictures. The producer’s only credit was as an associate on Smokey Bites the Dust. No one at Orion had confidence in the movie.” Seven months after shooting commenced and The was inserted in its title, Terminator opened October 26, 1984 in the United States at 1,005 theaters.

The Terminator, 1984, Linda Hamilton

In its opening weekend, The Terminator was one of six new releases: the action comedy American Dreamer was from Warner Bros., Brian DePalma’s thriller Body Double from Columbia, the drama Firstborn from Paramount, the Paul McCartney starring Give My Regards To Broad Street from Fox and a horror compilation film titled Terror In the Aisles from Universal. To the surprise of most in the film industry, The Terminator debuted #1 at the box office. After adding 100 theaters the following weekend, instead of its attendance dropping, it actually went up. The low budget sci-fi flick would go on to earn $38.3 million in the United States and add $40 million overseas.

On At the Movies, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert hadn’t even seen The Terminator before it opened. The critics bought a ticket just like everyone else and would split over whether the film was any good. Roger Ebert: “In fact, this is a surprising movie. It’s violent, it’s bloody, it’s sadistic, but it’s also well-acted and directed, it is R-rated — don’t go unless you like strong action pictures — but I must say, I did like it.” Gene Siskel: “Yeah, I was rooting for it, I mean, I thought, everyone’s talking about it and I saw it a little bit late and I was not impressed.” Siskel added, “As an action picture, I thought it was not particularly well made, but the love story, you’re right, is kind of nice.”

The Terminator, 1984, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton

Emboldened by his success, James Cameron ran into trouble with outspoken science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. As Terminator was headed into production, friends had tipped Ellison off that its script bore a strong resemblance to two episodes Ellison had authored for the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits, “Soldier” and “Demon With A Glass Hand”. Ellison was later contacted by Starlog Magazine and notified that Cameron had boasted of “ripping off a few Outer Limits” to form the basis of Terminator. Hemdale would settle out of court, writing Ellison a check for $75,000 and amending the end credits of all future prints of The Terminator to acknowledge Ellison’s contributions.

Nonetheless, 15 years later Cameron was still proud of what he considered his first film as director. “So I think from the standpoint of the Hollywood mainstream, they got up one morning and opened the trades and went, ‘What the hell is this movie that’s number one this weekend?’ And, by the way, it was number one the next weekend and the weekend after that. It dominated the Thanksgiving weekend against a couple of big pictures, like Dune, for example, and 2010, which were big studio pictures. Actually, 2010 was a big studio picture and Dune was a high-end independent film. But these were megabuck movies and Terminator just steam rolled over them. And it had been done by these nonentities.”

The Terminator, 1984, Linda Hamilton

Where’d You Get All of This?
“James Cameron – How To Direct a Terminator By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver. Starlog Magazine, December 1984

“James Cameron Interview”
By Kenneth Turan. US Magazine, August 1991

“The Making of The Terminator: A Retrospective”. 1992

The Directors: Take One. By Robert J. Emery. TV Books (1999)

Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, 1973-2000
. By Mollie Gregory. St. Martin’s Press (2002)

The Terminator: Past Perfect” By Ben Braddock. SFX, September 2003

Tags: Alternate universe · Beasts and monsters · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Famous line · Hitman · Interrogation · Man vs. machine · Psychoanalysis · Shootout · Woman in jeopardy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam R // Oct 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

    Great choice, Joe. I think what has kept Terminator from feeling like another 80s sci-fi action movie (Krull, Last Starfighter, etc) are the excellent acting and the strongly written characters: Paul Winfield, Henriksen, Earl Boen, Bill Paxon — even Dick Miller! There’s not many movies from this genre that can boast that many great side characters in the midst of so much mayhem and special effects.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 27, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Adam:You’re right to elevate The Terminator way above the sci-fi cheese of the day like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, but I wouldn’t necessarily say casting is why. I think Cameron took what he was doing very seriously and the actors did as well. Those movies you name are pretty jokey, which is the same as calling them cheesy and pretty much the same as calling them lame. Thanks so much for commenting!

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