‘Terminator’s’ Generator : James Cameron Says He Uses Violence to Make a Point
James Cameron likes to point out that the world’s most famous videotape--the footage of motorist Rodney G. King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers--actually contains two segments.
Amateur cameraman George Holliday shot scenes on the set of the Arnold Schwarzenegger action epic, “Terminator 2,” at a location two blocks from his Lake View Terrace home, before capturing the beating. “That, to me, is the most amazing irony considering that the LAPD are strongly represented in ‘Terminator 2’ as being a dehumanized force,” says Cameron, the film’s writer-director. “What the film is about, on the symbolic level, is the dehumanization we do on a daily basis.”
“Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” a film rumored to have cost anywhere from $80 million to $100 million, opens Wednesday. With that kind of money at stake on an action film, it’s unusual to hear even a mention of symbolism.
But at 36, Cameron is Hollywood’s preeminent science fiction director. After launching his career with the inauspicious “Piranha II,” Cameron co-wrote “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and wrote and directed “The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “The Abyss.”
Mario Kassar, chairman of Carolco Pictures, which financed “Terminator 2,” declares that Cameron is a “genius” in the field of high-tech filmmaking. But the key to that genius, he says, is that “he is a writer. Everything has to make sense to him. He’s a very logical person.”
Cameron marries state-of-the-art stunts and technical wizardry to surprisingly intimate stories about people caught up in overwhelming situations. His gritty landscapes and strong, blue-collar characters have rejuvenated the tired genre of the sci-fi thriller.
But this sequel to the 1984 hit that helped establish both Cameron and Schwarzenegger marks the director’s biggest gamble. Not only is he in the uncomfortable--though perhaps enviable--position of having to top himself, he has made an action film that takes a strong stand against violence.
In the original film, a cyborg from the future was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, a woman destined to give birth to a son who would one day lead a human resistance movement against the machines. Cameron shrewdly cast Schwarzenegger as the cyborg. The bodybuilder-turned-actor’s most famous role until then had been as a barbarian named Conan.
Shot for a modest $6.5 million, “The Terminator” sold $35 million worth of movie tickets domestically and acquired a huge following in video. In the intervening years Schwarzenegger and the cyborg character have, in Cameron’s words, “fused into a cultural icon.”
And that worried Cameron.
“Part of the Terminator’s image is a dark, cathartic fantasy . . . you can project yourself into a situation where you are the Terminator and nothing can stop you. It’s a fantasy of strength and power.
“He was written as a villain, a chaotic force for death. Subsequently, Arnold did a number of films where he did the same thing as a hero, (and) there was this strange revisionist sense that the Terminator was a good guy. That bothered me a lot and I felt strongly it must be addressed in (the sequel).”
In “T2"--the shorthand used by cast and crew--Sarah (again played by Linda Hamilton) has been training her son for his future leadership role for a decade. But visions of nuclear destruction have sent her to an insane asylum.
The supercomputers of the future world make a second attempt to alter the past by sending back a new and more deadly Terminator (Robert Patrick) to kill Sarah’s son (Edward Furlong). The post-nuclear survivors retaliate by sending back a more primitive Terminator, played by Schwarzenegger, to protect Sarah’s son. The boy tries to convince his cyborg protector that the mission can be accomplished without killing people.
“I figured why not take that (“Terminator”) neo-myth and channel it correctly,” Cameron says. “I’m also tickled by the idea that, yes, he has good imposed on him, but he’s really a kind of anti-hero. The Terminator still has to do things his way.
“Which fulfills the dark fantasy, yet limits him from exceeding a certain line where he can’t go and still be a hero. I think the audience enjoys hovering on that razor edge of (moral) correctness because it helps them to redefine in their mind what is right and wrong.”
Cameron realizes that in making an anti-violence action film he will be accused of schizophrenia. But he insists the film is about people--and a machine organism that is an extension of people--struggling with their own violent nature.
“A Terminator is blank morally. He is only as good or bad as that which programs him. Yet within this film he struggles for a sense of personal will. In his very last decision he actually gains the ability to make a moral decision.
“The same thing with Linda Hamilton’s character. She has systematically dehumanized herself in order to do something very, very important to the future of the world. But what’s the point of survival if you lose that which you’re trying to protect? Why win the struggle against the machines at the expense of your humanity?”
The cost of the film has been a subject of press speculation. Other than to say the rumors about the film’s final budget are “wildly exaggerated,” Cameron feels Carolco should disclose it since “it’s their money. I hope (they do) because it’ll put the movie into a better focus.” However, when offered a chance to discuss the film’s cost, Kassar flatly refused.
“The money spent is certainly not out of line for what we’re presenting to the audience visually,” notes Cameron. “In fact, I think we’ve been damned efficient. What’s up on the screen looks like more to me as a filmmaker than the amount of money I had to spend.
“State-of-the-art, mind-blower type of things aren’t cheap. It’s an epic film. That’s what we planned to give people.”
Principal photography lasted six months. It included a grueling chase between a truck and a kid’s bike through L.A. flood-control channels, a helicopter ducking over bridges to chase a SWAT van down a freeway and a motorcycle exploding through a third-story office window and hitting a helicopter hovering outside. To say nothing of the animation and computer-generated effects.
As he sits in his Burbank office days before the opening, Cameron wonders if his film might be a last hurrah for big-budget epics.
“Grim” is how he describes the future for such films.
“The big epic pictures I remember fondly from my childhood--'Spartacus,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Ben Hur,’ ‘Gone With the Wind'--you can’t make these films anymore. You get too much flak for having that kind of courage. Also, the cost of film production, especially in Los Angeles, has gone up about 30% in the past couple of years.
“To me that’s unfortunate. The films that have always excited me are those that take you into another world of experience.”
Born in Canada, Cameron grew up in Niagara Falls where he went to movies all the time and acquired a lifelong fascination with science. His family moved to Brea in Orange County in 1972. He majored in physics at Fullerton College before turning his energies to producing, directing, shooting and editing a short film.
This led to a job at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as a production designer and second unit director on “Planet of Horror” and special-effects cameraman on “Battle Beyond the Stars.”
It was with these low-budget wonders that Cameron acquired his hands-on directorial habit. “When you work on a Corman film, you have to do everything. There’s nobody to do it for you.”
“Jim is a very intense director,” says Stephanie Austin, co-producer of “T2.” “He is concerned with every detail. There is no aspect of the shooting day he doesn’t have control over.”
That intensity makes for a set where everyone’s adrenalin is going all the time, she says. “Jim is a perfectionist and everyone who works for him must be too.”
“I push very hard,” he admits. “Usually, after the first couple of days, the prop guy takes my chair away and I never see it again. For me, filmmaking is a tactile experience.”
Cameron sees his fascination with technology as an extension of his humanism.
“We are a technological species. To me, interest in science is an interest in humanity as we know it in the latter part of the 20th Century.
“But there are other things I want to do as a filmmaker. My next picture will involve the science of the human mind with no gadgetry or hardware at all.”
He refers to “The Crowded Room,” a project Cameron is developing from Daniel Keyes’ nonfiction book “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” an account of a multiple personality disorder.
He is developing several additional films he will produce or executive produce through Lightstorm Entertainment, a company he formed last year with former Vestron executive Larry Kasanoff.
“It’s a sobering thought to me if I have a good career I’ll make a movie every year and a half. That’s going to limit my work with a lot of actors at their prime. (With Lightstorm) I can at least have an association with them through these other films.”
A hallmark of Cameron’s work is his complete comfort in working with women both in front of and behind the camera. All his films have featured strong female leads--Hamilton in the “Terminator” movies, Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens,” Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in “The Abyss.” Beginning with Gale Anne Hurd, his ex-wife and partner on all films prior to “T2” (she received an executive producer credit on the sequel), he has worked closely with women on the production end. His two co-producers on “T2” are women.
“It shouldn’t be unique because everybody should be doing it. Women are 50% of the audience.
“Hollywood says women don’t go to see this type of picture. But that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. They don’t because they have nobody to relate to in the movie. ‘Terminator’ and ‘Aliens’ have proven there is a (female) audience. Women caught up to those films later in video.”
This time, Cameron says, “Tri-Star is actively going after the women’s vote on ‘T2.’ They’ve spent a lot more time working out the (TV) spot aimed at women then they spent on the action spot.
“For the first time I’ll get to see if you can sell this type of film to women. If we don’t, it won’t be because the studio hasn’t tried.”