Salvation by cyborg: McG helms next chapter in 'Terminator' saga
It's safe to say that any die-hard Terminator fan would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the office where Joseph McGinty Nichol met with James Cameron to discuss Terminator Salvation, the fourth installment in one of most successful science-fiction franchises of all time. In one corner you had Cameron, who co-wrote and directed the original Terminator in 1984 and went on to make such revered action films as Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. And in the other corner sat Nichol—or, as he's more commonly credited, McG—a music-video director who broke into feature filmmaking with the Charlie's Angels movies, which were filled with the kind of silly, deliberately over-the-top set-pieces Cameron has always avoided. Now McG was about to continue the Terminator legacy and he felt he couldn't do so without first paying homage to its creator in person.
"I wanted to be respectful and tell Jim that I intended to honor what he put into motion," says the 38-year-old, Michigan-born, California-raised director, on the phone from his L.A. office. "And I believed him when he told me that he finished telling the story at the end of the second film. So I brought it to him that the story was still worth exploring because [Terminator Salvation] was about the future war between the machines and humanity. He nodded his head and said, ‘That's interesting’ and went on to talk about how when he was making Aliens, everyone thought he was full of shit. Like 'Who does this guy think he is, following Ridley Scott?' Remember, he had only made a few films by that time. He wished me well, but added, 'I reserve the right not to like it.' And I said, 'That's fine, I reserve the right not to like [Cameron's new film] Avatar.' And we laughed as two directing colleagues would and that was that. I look forward to having a private screening [of the finished movie] with Jim, most likely at [Hollywood super-agent] Ari Emanuel's screening room. It's neutral turf, so if we get into a fistfight, Ari can break it up!"
That's only kind of a joke. The fact is, since his involvement with Terminator Salvation was first announced, McG has regularly had to defend himself against attacks (mostly verbal and not physical…yet) from the hordes of sci-fi fans convinced that he would desecrate the Terminator name. "I've always believed that it's the privilege of the public to put people in boxes," he explains. "And if you look at my body of work, I fit into a box that's not conducive to a great take on Terminator. So I can't expect people to cut me any slack. But I know in my heart these are the films that are closest to me. I was raised on films like Terminator, Die Hard and The Road Warrior. I think intelligent action films represent the magic of movies at a very high level and I'm thrilled to throw my hat in the ring and be part of it. By now, I feel like I've pushed enough film through the camera to take this one responsibly and deliver. And with the help of Christian, Jonah and Stan, I think we've done it."
Those three people he's referring to are, of course, the film's star Christian Bale, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (who McG claims played a major role in shaping the screenplay, although he is not currently listed as one of the film's two credited scribes) and special-effects guru Stan Winston, who created the iconic T-800 model for the first Terminator film and worked closely on new designs for Terminator Salvation before he passed away last June. For McG, assembling this dream team of talent was the only way to justify making another Terminator movie.
"I initially thought [the movie] was a bad idea," he says. "But when I heard that the take on it would be the future war, it piqued my interest. So I read the script and didn't respond to it, but I had an idea about how I could flesh out the story I'd be interested in telling. I went to Jonah and he was brilliant as usual and I naturally went to Stan regarding the Terminator build because he's the architect of the original. Finally, I felt we needed to restore order and credibility in the house of Terminator, and to me the best step in the right direction would be to hire the most credible actor of his generation, Christian Bale. The list of actors in their late 20s, early 30s who are tough is very short. He's one of the few."
Toughness was crucial for the movie because, as McG is fond of saying, Terminator Salvation is, at heart, a war film. Set several years following the events of Judgment Day—when the machines rose up against their creators and launched a nuclear attack that transformed the world into the kind of apocalyptic wasteland described in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road (which McG cites as a major influence)—the movie follows the initial attempts of humanity's designated savior John Connor (Bale) to assert himself as the leader of the resistance movement. "I always like a becoming story, so I wanted to see the becoming of John Connor," McG says of the film's narrative arc. "When we meet him, he is not yet the leader of the resistance. You have to figure that when he first crawled out of the mountain—after the radioactivity had cleared to the degree where it was safe to populate the surface of the Earth—who would listen to him? I'm sure there would be other survivors who said, 'Fuck you, kid, get in line.' So he has to earn it every step of the way."
Unlike the previous three Terminator installments, the plot of Salvation doesn't revolve around Skynet, the A.I.-empowered computer system that controls the machine army, sending one of its soldiers back in time in an attempt to change the future. Instead, all of the action occurs in the year 2018, before Skynet has developed the ability to time-travel. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have a few surprises up its sleeve. In a development that John's mother/mentor/drill sergeant Sarah Connor (who does not appear to have a role in the film, one of the few elements from Terminator 3 that carries over into this installment) never foresaw, Skynet has been experimenting on surviving humans in an attempt to fuse man and machine. The resistance rescues one of these "hybrids," Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who resembles a normal person on the outside but underneath packs more iron than Iron Man. "The Marcus character is a real exploration of what it means to be human," McG explains.
"You can have metal bits and pieces running through your body, but it doesn't make you any less of a man. And the question is, where do you become a machine and let go of your humanity? I did a lot of thinking about Christopher Reeve and the idea that if you lose control of your four limbs or body, does it make you less human? Of course, the answer is no; many would argue that Chris Reeve became more human [after his accident]. So where does the soul reside, where does humanity exist? Not in your arms, your legs or your torso. That's what the movie is all about—the nature of what it is that makes us human."
In case you're wondering where the war is in this so-called war movie, don’t worry—McG promises that moviegoers will get plenty of bang for their buck. Rather than restrict the action to green-screen-lined soundstages, many of the film's biggest sequences were shot in the New Mexico desert and favor practical special effects—including real explosions and bullets—over CGI. "I wanted all of the action based in reality with a respect for physics and I wanted it to have a tactile reality for the audience. That's why we did so much practically, to really convey the difficulty of a world under duress. I didn't want clean, shiny Logan's Run Terminators. I wanted Children of Men/Mad Max Terminators."
The grimness and intensity of the film's world often carried over into real life, most notably when Bale was caught on tape yelling at the film's director of photography Shane Hurlbut for apparently interfering in an important shot. The actor's rant was later leaked to the public, leading to numerous news stories and even a few homemade remixes posted on YouTube. "That's the nature of a movie set," McG says now about the incident. "I've never made a movie where there weren't flare-ups. I encouraged an environment of intensity and hotheadedness led by me. I have a bad temper and am very passionate and want that level of intensity to show up onscreen at all times. And I want the best, most intense version of Bale, because that's what he's here to do. Besides, it was taken out of context and I think people understand that and it's largely come and gone without too much fuss. I do think it's a slap in the face to Hollywood that private material would be leaked. Movies are designed to only see the finished result."
As he puts the finishing touches on Terminator Salvation, McG is already looking ahead to the next chapter in what the studio hopes will be another trilogy. "I strongly suspect the next movie is going to take place in a [pre-Judgment Day] 2011," McG reveals. "John Connor is going to travel back in time and he's going to have to galvanize the militaries of the world for an impending Skynet invasion. They've figured out time travel to the degree where they can send more than one naked entity. So you're going to have hunter killers and transports and harvesters and everything arriving in our time and Connor fighting back with conventional military warfare, which I think is going to be fucking awesome. I also think he's going to meet a scientist that's going to look a lot like present-day Robert Patrick [who famously played the T-1000 in Terminator 2], talking about stem-cell research and how we can all live as idealized, younger versions of ourselves."
As James Cameron might say, that's interesting.