'The Terminator' at 30: An oral history
Thirty years ago, a killing machine from 2029 — assuming the form of an Austrian bodybuilder — arrived with a lethal directive to alter the future. That he certainly did. The Terminator, made for $6.4 million by a couple of young disciples of B-movie king Roger Corman, became one of the defining sci-fi touchstones of all time. Its $38 million gross placed it outside of the top-20 box-office releases for 1984, yet the film grew into a phenomenon, spawning a five-picture franchise that’s taken in $1.4 billion to date and securing a place on the National Film Registry, which dubbed it “among the finest science-fiction films in many decades.”
The movie launched the career of James Cameron, who went on to direct the top two box-office earners of all time, Avatar and Titanic. It also boosted Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose monotone delivery and muscle-bound swagger made a cyborg assassin the height of cool. The actor, now filming next summer’s Terminator: Genisys in New Orleans, took a break to reminisce about his most indelible role. Settling for a landline call after four failed attempts to FaceTime — the former California governor’s favorite mode of communication — Schwarzenegger quipped, “Obviously we need James Cameron to provide the technology to link us.” His Terminator comrades also shared their memories via phone — just like it was 1984 again.
DEATH METAL NIGHTMARE
It all started in 1981 with a dream. Cameron, then a 26-year-old model maker and art director for Corman, was in Rome attempting to get his name off the ignominious Piranha II: The Spawning, a low-rent horror sequel he had directed for five days before being fired.
JAMES CAMERON (director-coscreenwriter) Nightmares are a business asset; that’s the way I look at it. I was sick, I was broke, I had a high fever, and I had a dream about this metal death figure coming out of a fire. And the implication was that it had been stripped of its skin by the fire and exposed for what it really was. When I have some particularly vivid image, I’ll draw it or I’ll write some notes, and that goes on to this day.
Returning to Los Angeles, Cameron showed his sketches to Gale Anne Hurd, a 26-year-old Corman assistant. She would soon become, in succession, Cameron’s writing partner, producer, wife, and ex-wife.
CAMERON Gale was working for Roger on a movie called Humanoids From the Deep, and they were doing reshoots of some teenagers in a pup-tent getting raped by slimy creatures from the swamp. She was young and supersmart. I showed her what I was working on, and she thought it was pretty cool.
GALE ANNE HURD (producer-coscreenwriter) He told me about the dream he had of the metal endoskeleton, and the whole story came together as a result of that stirring image.
CAMERON We both were committed to the same principle. It could be shot out in the streets of L.A., cheaply, guerrilla-style, which is how I was trained by Roger Corman. And it involved visual effects elements that I could bring to the table that another director couldn’t and do them economically, because I knew all those tricks.
HURD We had what we called a scriptment. It was 40 pages, single-spaced typed. We batted ideas back and forth and always kept in mind that if we wanted to not only sell this script but produce and direct, it had to be at a budget level that wasn’t intimidating to investors.
THE WAR ZONE
Crucial to both Cameron and Hurd were the ideas of a strong heroine — hence Sarah Connor, a waitress who is targeted by the Terminator because she will give birth to a rebel leader — and an annihilated future world.
HURD For me and Jim, always, was the idea that heroic people are the ones who least expect to be heroes. There’s a tradition of male characters who go to war, who are in the boxing ring, who rise to be the corporate titan, you name it. But Jim has always found women to be the more compelling parts to write. Culturally, they’re the ones who feel less equipped, because that’s what society tells them.
CAMERON People think that I was a typical male director who was brought to task by a strong female producer and forced to do these themes. But they have connected the dots in the wrong way. My respect for strong women is what attracted me to Gale. It’s what made me want to work with her. Ultimately, it’s what made me want to be married to her. When we went into [1989’s] The Abyss, we were already divorced but we still wanted to work together because we knew how strong the creative partnership was.
MICHAEL BIEHN (Kyle Reese): In preparation for the film I’d read a book about the guys that held out in Warsaw during World War II. When they were killing all the Jews or taking them away and putting them on trains, there was a bunch of Jewish guys who were hiding in the rubble. And they fought the Germans against insurmountable odds, like 30 or 40 of them, some women, some children. That grittiness and that mentality — that there’s no time for love or tenderness or music or religion, there’s only time for survival. I said to myself, “This is where this guy came from. This is how he would feel.”
HURD Being of Jewish descent, of course I also read all those things. I don’t think we explicitly wanted to say that this future world was inspired by stories of living underground in Warsaw. But on the other hand, whatever I read as historical fact was going to influence our work by virtue of the verisimilitude of that experience and how profound it was. It’s that same kind of a violent harrowing experience.
CAMERON The Terminator themes had been important to me since high school. Those apocalyptic visions, ideas about our love/hate relationship with technology, our tendency as a species to move in a direction that might ultimately destroy us, and a central faith in the resourcefulness of humanity. And those are motifs that have gone through all my films — Titanic has a lot in common with Terminator for those reasons.
Once they had a full script, Hurd and Cameron shopped it around to studios, eventually getting it to Orion Pictures and two allies from their Corman days.
CAMERON We saw it as a low budget guerrilla-style production, but we had aspirations to do something that was somehow world-class within those limitations. It was pretty clear that the studios were only interested in buying the script; they were not interested in me as a filmmaker. I was actually worse than a first-time director because I had directed a little bit on Piranha II and it was a piece of garbage.
HURD We pitched it to every studio. All the usual suspects, followed by all the unusual suspects. Then we took it to Barbara Boyle, who had been one of my mentors when she worked for Roger Corman. She had taken a job at Orion, as had Frances Doel, who had also worked for Roger.
FRANCES DOEL (Orion creative executive) I defended it as a very good story and a very good script, which I definitely thought would have an audience. One of the senior Orion partners in New York said, “But I don’t understand these comic-book pictures.” He was a very cultured gentleman and I could well understand he had never read comic books and probably looked down on them.
BARBARA BOYLE (Orion’s executive VP of production) I completely loved the script. When we finally pitched it to [Orion president] Mike Medavoy, Gale and I did all the talking. I had this whole yap, saying it’s about taking control of the present to influence what will happen in the future.
DOEL Jim at that time was essentially unknown as a director, but Gale I knew to be an absolutely terrific hands-on producer with a great sense of story and taste. Barbara and I both had great faith in them to make the picture.
BOYLE I had such a deep investment in seeing the picture get made because of what I saw as its artistic, philosophical meaning, as opposed to being a straight sci-fi battle show. To me, it said: stop complaining about what you can’t do because of the men in the world.
DOEL It did not seem to be the kind of movie Orion was likely to be interested in. But I was interested in having a female character who was active, not simply somebody’s girlfriend.
Orion chief Mike Medavoy agreed to finance the film, but on one condition: It needed a major star.
HURD Initially Jim and I thought in order to keep the budget down we would use a fairly unknown cast. Lance Henriksen was originally going to play the Terminator.
CAMERON Medavoy came to me and Gale and he said, “Are you sitting down? You must sit down. I want O.J. Simpson for the Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the good guy, whatever his name is.”
MIKE MEDAVOY That did come out of my mouth. At the time, O.J. Simpson had one of those commercials for Hertz where he jumped over a counter and ran to get a rental car. It was all of that athletic stuff, which I thought the Terminator should have.
CAMERON Gale and I just looked at each other and thought, “You’ve got to be f- - -ing kidding me.” Mind you, this was before O.J. was actually a killer. We might have reconsidered after he had killed his wife. [Laughs] This was when everybody loved him, and ironically that was part of the problem — he was this likable, goofy, kind of innocent guy. [Laughs] Plus, frankly I wasn’t interested in an African-American man chasing around a white girl with a knife. It just felt wrong. [In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; a civil court later awarded a judgment against him for their wrongful deaths.]
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (The Terminator) Mike Medavoy came up to me at a screening and told me that they already had the Terminator cast with O.J. Simpson, but they would like me to play Kyle Reese. And he told me I should go meet with the guy who’s going to direct it.
CAMERON The Arnold thing was harder to deal with, because he had just come out with Conan the Barbarian, so I had to think of a way to torpedo the idea. I was walking out to meet Arnold for lunch to discuss Reese, and the last thing I said to my roommate was “Do I owe you any money? Because I have to go pick a fight with Conan.”
SCHWARZENEGGER I could visualize very clearly what the Terminator should look like. And so when I met Cameron to talk about Kyle Reese, I gave him all these points: This is what you should do with the Terminator, this is how the Terminator should act.
CAMERON I went to lunch to pull “creative differences,” but I actually liked him. I was studying him at the restaurant, just watching the light from the window on his face and thinking, “Holy crap, what a face! Forget the Reese thing. Arnold would make a hell of a Terminator.”
SCHWARZENEGGER I said, “No, no, no — look, the guy has 17 lines.” I didn’t want to do that. I was building my career, being a leading man and not being a villain. But Cameron said that he’d shoot it in such a way that all the evil stuff that I do will be totally excused by audiences because I’m a cool machine. And so cool that some of the people will cheer.
HURD He has that intensity. You could believe that he could be a killing machine, that he would not stop until you’re dead. And so when he committed that was enough to get us financed.
CAMERON We didn’t change a line of dialogue. I didn’t change my storyboards, but all of a sudden he was this big formidable guy—a human bulldozer, like a panzer tank. Originally, the Terminator was supposed to be this anonymous guy in the crowd, you know, the killer could be anybody. Arnold stands out in a crowd. But it gave the film power in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
TV actress Linda Hamilton was chosen to play Sarah Connor, and Michael Biehn (The Fan) was cast as Kyle Reese, who also comes from the future to guard Sarah.
BIEHN Jim had seen The Fan, where I play an obsessed fan who stalks Lauren Bacall. At the beginning of that film I start out as a nice guy and he turns out to be a really bad guy. That’s what Jim wanted to do with Reese. I never do anything in the first hour of The Terminator that makes you think I’m a nice guy until I come out at the bar and start shooting at Arnold to protect Sarah.
HURD Jim and I auditioned quite a few actresses and Linda was the only one who captured the essence of Sarah — her relative innocence as well as the strength of character she develops over the course of the film.
LINDA HAMILTON (Sarah Connor) I was going to be a Shakespearean actress when I came out of the Strasberg studio in New York. And so I wasn’t as excited about The Terminator as my people were. Maybe I was a little snobby. I thought, “Oh, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m not sure about that.” I was little nervous about whether all the pieces would fit together.
BIEHN Arnold has obviously gone on to prove himself over and over again, but you have to remember what people thought of him at the time. When I told my actor friends that I was doing a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger they kind of snickered at me and said, “Well, good luck with that.”
HAMILTON Believe me, I did go to the set to check Arnold out. And I remember standing back and watching him and going, “Hmm, this might work.” There was something so utterly robotic and terrifying about him. I realized that we were doing something new here, and all of the sudden I believed.
For the integral special effects work, Hurd enlisted Stan Winston and his team of young F/X gurus to create the machine look of the title character and put it into action.
HURD We were told by the bond company that they only wanted to finance the movie if we got Dick Smith [Little Big Man, The Godfather], who was the biggest name in makeup effects at that point. So I called him at his home in New York and he told me that he didn’t do these types of machine effects. But he gave me the name of Stan Winston.
CAMERON Stan and I started a collaboration that went along essentially until his death. I miss him terribly, first of all because we were great friends but we also shared this view of what it took to impress and entertain and create new things.
JOHN ROSENGRANT (special effects) We were all in our early 20s. We were all kids. And we were really eager to get working on something that had some merit. The script certainly had that. And Stan and Jim as collaborators certainly offered that.
SHANE MAHAN (special effects) Ultimately the goal was to make it real and convincing — to make the unbelievable believable.
TOM WOODRUFF JR. (special effects) Jim had done this incredible color pencil work on black paper. He is a phenomenal artist — the final version of the Terminator endoskeleton is pretty close to what Jim had envisioned from the very beginning.
ROSENGRANT Jim and Stan went to junkyards and looked at all kinds of mechanical truck housings and car transmissions, trying to get the flavor and feel of what the machine would look like.
WOODRUFF Arnold came in to Stan’s shop. To look at him, he was a man-mountain, but actually a very nice congenial guy. And the perfect person to play a human form wrapped over a metal skeleton because you looked at him and he didn’t seem 100 percent natural.
ROSENGRANT Doing the full-body life cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger — wow, that took a lot of plaster bandage. He was huge.
WOODRUFF We all sat down with a clay casting of Arnold’s head and just started sculpting it away, putting in glass eyes and acrylic teeth and pieces of metal details and trying to come up with how it would look fleshed out as a three dimensional puppet.
MAHAN I took the head cast of Arnold and sculpted it down. It was kind of a reverse forensics study, and the result is that the metal skull incorporates Arnold’s cheekbones, brow lines, and jawline.
WOODRUFF Stan broke the endoskeleton all down among John and Shane and myself. We were all sculpting different pieces and I ended up working on the spine and the pelvis. I sculpted the spine around a casting of my wrist and forearm because I was puppeteering the head for close-ups.
ROSENGRANT We were developing different types of materials to cast the robot out of and we were also starting to play with silicone molding. And figuring out how we were going to get the chrome finish on there — Stan came up with this process of vacuum-metalizing plastic, which was something that wasn’t really being done up to that point. There was technical ground being broken.
WOODRUFF For wide shots, we had a waist-up version of the endoskeleton that was mounted to a backpack that Shane wore and had a radio controlled head on it. But for more specific action I was able to put my arm inside a vertebrae in the neck and grab a handle inside the head and lock my arm into the back of the rig.
MAHAN All the effects are done in camera — except for a few sequences that are stop-motion, which for their day are very brilliantly done. The signature of time is the only thing you can really detect. It’s all a credit to Stan and Jim and what we were able to figure out in terms of illusions and intercutting.
WOODRUFF For all the shots at the end when the Terminator is getting pounded by a lead pipe by Michael Biehn, it was my hand in there also getting pummeled. At one point, I lost the feeling in my fingers, and later that year Cameron sent me a Christmas card that said, “Merry Christmas. Hope the feeling comes back to your fingers someday.”
Filming began in March 1984 in L.A., with most of the shooting done at night to keep costs down.
CAMERON I went around Los Angeles with the location scout and we looked for streets that had mercury-vapor lights, because I knew we were going to need available lighting. We didn’t have any time, and we didn’t have the electrical budget. Even when we did interiors, we did them at night because we’d been knocked off the street if it was raining.
BOYLE Nighttime, inexpensive, guerrilla filmmaking — it was so typically Corman in its execution.
CAMERON [Cinematographer] Adam Greenberg had a thick Polish accent and he would say [imitating the accent], “There is nothing here! How I expose the negative?” And he’d just throw up his hands. But we got so lucky with Adam. His close-ups are lit so beautifully. Linda and Michael inside the Cadillac — that was lit with a couple of little fluorescent lights but their eyes are so luminous.
SCHWARZENEGGER Jim was always aware of that blue look, giving the movie the look of steel at all times — that night look, chilly look, the kind of look that made you say, “I don’t want to be stuck there.”
ROSENGRANT We were in downtown L.A. and Arnold went into a restaurant in full Terminator dress and said, “I need a table for four, please,” and the host guy freaked out.
MAHAN The energy was so high, even though it was very exhausting. I think we shot it in 44 days or something like that.
BIEHN It seems kind of ridiculous when you think of these guys at four in the morning in downtown L.A., running around with a half of a Terminator propped up on a two-by-four.
MAHAN Night shoots are tough in general, but especially when you’re going at that speed. So there wasn’t much time for levity. We were constantly in serious mode.
HAMILTON We were working in the Kern’s fruit factory, slick juice running on the floor, covering holes you couldn’t see. And we had to work eight days in a row, and this was day nine. And that 250 pound metal arm that they had created — it wasn’t a special effect — they were shoving it at me and that arm had gotten me in the throat. And I finally thought, “This director is definitely rooting for the machines and not the people.”
WOODRUFF Terminator was a grueling shoot. You hear all these stories about how sharp and critical Jim can be — all true, but all in an effort to make the best movie possible. Maybe he steps on a few toes or cracks a few eggs, but God bless him that’s why he makes the movies he makes.
CAMERON In the last reel of the film, every other shot or every third shot is some kind of an insert. All of those shots were done in post-production in a frenzied three or four days of shooting. I got a freebie for some stage space down at Corman’s place from a friend of mine. Gale and I threw in $40,000 of our own money. I literally put every penny that I had been paid already back into the movie, which was stupid, but it turned out to be a good investment.
HAMILTON The movie’s early scenes of me as a young waitress were actually filmed at the end of the shoot. I’m supposed to be young and fresh and they had to spend two hours covering the bruises on my body with makeup.
CAMERON I was sitting in the office at Gale’s house and I remembered that we didn’t have a shot of the Terminator’s boot outside a glass sliding door at night. So I put black paper tape on a production assistant’s Bass Weejuns shoes. We used the sliding door at Gale’s house and I exposed the shot day for night so it would turn all blue and match the lighting that we’d done in the scene. And that scene’s in the movie — handheld, hunched down on the carpet, just a tiny glimpse of the Terminator’s boot outside the door. Not for nothing, you know.
NOT FEELING THE LOVE
In the summer of 1984, Cameron showed a rough cut of the movie to Orion executives. According to the director, the screening was “disastrous.”
BOYLE [Orion chairman] Arthur Krim said to me, “You made exactly what I was afraid you’d make: an exploitation picture in the Corman style.”
DOEL Jim was adamant about what he just would not tolerate in terms of notes or criticism. Gale had to do — and did do — a wonderful job to support Jim and stick by him, but also deal very calmly and diplomatically with Orion.
HURD They had such little faith in the movie that they didn’t want to screen it for critics. The head of marketing almost said as much. And if you were Orion and you had Amadeus, which they had released five weeks before, and which did go on to win Best Picture, well, I can imagine them saying, “Amadeus, The Terminator — which one doesn’t fit?” I can’t blame them now, but at the time I was devastated when they didn’t like it.
CAMERON Mike Medavoy was very negative. He was pretty much the opposite of a helpful, supportive executive. He never understood the film. But after the movie came out, he was falling all over himself taking credit for it.
MEDAVOY I don’t remember that to be the case, but if he says so, then that’s what he felt. Jim’s looking at it from his point of view and I’m looking at it from my point of view and we’re now looking back to 30 years ago. And like in all of these things, everything gets conflated and changed over time.
HAMILTON When it was being released we were supposed to go to New York to do press, and at the last minute I was uninvited because no one was really interested.
HURD Certain agents saw it and loved it. They are truly the heroes in all of this, surprisingly. [Michael Biehn’s Agent] Ed Limato, my hero, called up everyone in Orion in New York and said, “This movie is fantastic, guys. I’m going to have to reconsider having my stable of stars being in your films if you don’t believe in them.” That included Mel Gibson and Richard Gere.
BOYLE I’ve spoken to other executives at other studios who told me, even though it was quite successful, that it would’ve easily broken $100 million if they had properly advertised it.
CAMERON I was on a panel with Medavoy years later. And he’s talking about how he supported young filmmakers and nurtured them. And he points down to me and says, “Like Jim Cameron on The Terminator.” And I laughed and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, let me set the record straight. He didn’t help me at all.” And Mike laughed, and he thought I was kidding.
MEDAVOY He got the freedom to make the movie he wanted to make. No less, no more. We didn’t interfere with anything, we didn’t make his life miserable, we didn’t recut the movie. The fact that Jim gets angry because he feels he didn’t get the love he deserved, that’s a different issue.
FORGIVE JIM EVERYTHING
The Terminator hit theaters on Oct. 26, and audiences loved it. Time Magazine named it one of the 10 best pictures of 1984, and it became the second-most-rented videocassette of 1985. Hurd and Cameron used their new clout to pitch Aliens to Twentieth Century Fox.
HURD Success for us meant being able to make another movie. It didn’t mean box-office success or critical success — our goal was to be able to do it again. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way should not be in the business.
CAMERON Both of us really grew up fast on that film. The filmmakers that came out of that film were very different than the ones that went into it because we had so many battles to fight, just the daily battles of getting the shots done and the later battles of getting the film released. We came out of it with a sense of confidence.
BIEHN I meet kids all the time who come up to me and say, “My name is Kyle and my parents named me after you.” But one of the bittersweet occurrences that happens is that guys come up to me on the street and say “I went into the military because of you.” And usually they’re okay — or they look okay — but that’s a heavy burden, especially if you know how I feel about war.
HAMILTON What I imagined while reading the script and what eventually came out were worlds apart. But that’s the Jim Cameron factor. After I saw the finished film, I said, “Oh my God, I forgive Jim Cameron for everything. The man’s a genius.”
BOYLE Jim is a sweetheart. A year or so ago he introduced me to someone and said, “This is the woman who gave me my career.” But it was the picture that made his career. It was just a stunning piece of work.
WOODRUFF Thirty years later, I feel like we’ve gone backwards in turns of minimal moviemaking. I understand the $200 million dollar Marvel movies and all the CG that’s necessary to make it happen, but not many people know how to make a practical effects film like The Terminator anymore. Today the audience knows that they’re looking at these expertly rendered frames but they don’t feel like that have any connection with the actors — and therefore the actors don’t have as much connection to them either.
MAHAN I’m not sitting here trapped in the ’80s saying that everything needs to be done with an animatronic or makeup effect. But it becomes the trend in certain movies, all that anti-gravity CG where everything is flying weightlessly through the air, and people detect those layers. It’s the mixing of technologies — which is where Jim and Stan were so innovative — that keeps an audience guessing.
WOODRUFF Today on movies its like every little thing we try to do gets questioned and second-guessed to death by producers. Nobody understands like Jim did how to make a movie by just grabbing pieces and putting them together and making them work.
HAMILTON When Jim came to me and said that he was going to make a sequel, we collaborated. I said to him, “If that woman knows what’s coming and has sat with it for seven years, she’s going to be crazy. You’ve got to make her crazy.”
SCHWARZENEGGER The Terminator was very important for me. The studios said they didn’t want to cast me because of my accent. And Cameron came along and said, “F- - -, if you wouldn’t have this accent, if you wouldn’t talk like a machine, I don’t think we ever would have had a Terminator.” He told everybody about how my accent was a huge plus. For me that was huge breakthrough.
ON THE HORIZON
The film’s gorgeous, ominous final image features Sarah driving toward darkening clouds. Guerrilla filmmakers to their cores, Hurd and Cameron had to break some rules to get it.
HURD We shot that final scene out in the middle of nowhere. My assistant doubled as Linda because Linda wasn’t available. My mother’s dog doubled as the dog. We added the mountains afterward, as well as the dark clouds. It was just Jim, myself, and a couple of other people. And we had to wait until the heat was just right so that we could get those heat ripples, because you couldn’t add them the way you could easily now. Not a car had driven by us all day.
CAMERON All of a sudden this dot appears on the horizon. We see this car coming down this desert road. It’s a cop, and he pulls up and busts us.
HURD The police officer said, “I need to see your permit for filming here.” And we didn’t have one. We said, “Oh, officer, we’re making a UCLA student film. We didn’t know you needed permits.” And he said, “Okay, you’re fine, just take the camera off the road.” I don’t know if that cop ever figured it out. [Laughs] Wherever he is, we thank him for not shutting us down.