Like the cyborg killing machine it’s named for, James Cameron’s sci-fi action classic “The Terminator” is a blockbuster that simply refuses to die. And if the crowd at Wednesday’s 30th anniversary screening at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre was any indication, it never will. Writer/director Cameron and writer/producer Gale Anne Hurd were on hand to celebrate three decades of robotic rampage in a lively Q&A moderated by Geoff Boucher.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was scheduled to join them, but a sudden flu kept him from attending. Instead, the actor sent a brief video greeting, which played before the film. Shot four hours prior, it showed the star recuperating in his bed and looking miserable. “I know machines are not supposed to get sick,” he joked wearily, “but I want to thank the millions and millions of fans around the world who’ve supported ‘The Terminator.’” And then, with trademark showmanship, he ended the recorded message with, “I’ll be back.”
A New Kind of Robot: Before “The Terminator,” truly iconic movie robots were somewhat rare, and Cameron, along with effects legend Stan Winston, took that as a challenge. “Gort, Maria from ‘Metropolis,’ Tobor the Great, even R2-D2, they were all actors in suits,” Cameron stated. The director’s goal was to create a fully realistic endoskeleton, “something that couldn’t possibly be a suit.” This involved the use of complex puppets, hydraulics and stop-motion animation to bring the character to life. He believes that decision was the leap that set the movie apart. “Because,” he added, “you inherently knew that C-3PO was just a guy in a suit.”
Horror and Humor: Considering its reputation as a non-stop violent action film, there’s a surprising amount of humor throughout “The Terminator,” a fact that Hurd says was absolutely intentional. “It was always there in the script, because one thing that we learned about intense action sequences is that you can only take so much.” The same holds true for her groundbreaking zombie TV show, “The Walking Dead.” “Even with horror, you need a release. And a great way to do that is with humor, because then you can ratchet things up again.” The actors helped bring out the levity as well. “The cast really added to that. When Arnold demands those clothes and Bill Paxton responds,” she broke off laughing. “Bill was someone that Jim and I knew from working as a carpenter on the set of ‘Battle Beyond the Stars.’”
The Allure of the Apocalypse: Reflecting on audiences’ continued fascination with end-of-the-world stories, whether it’s “The Terminator” or Hurd’s current AMC series, Cameron became philosophical for a moment. “We’re burdened with a consciousness, and that consciousness allows us to think ahead,” he said. “Our daydreams and nightmares project future simulations, which we then hold ourselves up against to see it we can cut it.” But there’s also a more practical matter to consider. “Ultimately, dark futures are always more interesting in movies than bright, utopian ones.”
The Sound of the Future: Like the genre classics “Jaws” and “Halloween,” it’s impossible to imagine “The Terminator” without its instantly recognizable theme music, which Hurd describes as “not your traditional score.” Composer Brad Fiedel’s metallic, percussive soundtrack essentially functions as a robotic heartbeat throughout the film. “Beth Rickman, a very dear friend of mine, was the agent who represented Brad,” Hurd explained. “She reached out to me and said I know you have no money, but I’ve got the guy for you.” Within days a cassette arrived and Cameron and Hurd had found their composer. “Brad was just as committed to the film as Jim and I were,” she said.
The Moment of Truth: According to Cameron, it wasn’t until the very first public screening that they knew “The Terminator” was something special that would connect with audiences in a big way. “Yeah, because up until that time we’d been told that it really sucked,” Hurd added. Apparently, the head of marketing at Orion Pictures didn’t consider it a science fiction film. “He said it’s a down and dirty exploitation film that will come and go in one week,” Cameron stated. He and Hurd were instructed not to screen it for critics because it wouldn’t last a second weekend. “I said, dude you’re just wrong,” Cameron laughed. “It’s time travel and robots! They’re the two mainstays of science fiction!”
Humble Beginnings: Shot for a paltry $5.6 million, Cameron and Hurd attribute their ingenuity and rebellious spirit to their mentor: Roger Corman. “We were ready to take on Hollywood and show them how it could be done cheaper and faster, because we’d learned from the master,” Cameron said. “The first thing he taught me,” Hurd added, “is belief in myself.” According to Hurd, 99 people rejected “The Terminator” when it was first being shopped around, “but all you need is that 100th person to say yes.” And the final lesson that Corman taught her? “You can do just about anything with some bailing wire and grip tape.”
The remastered “The Terminator” is available on Blu-ray now from MGM & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.