How James Cameron Came Back for Terminator: Dark Fate

James Cameron tells us why Terminator: Dark Fate is a fresh start for him and the franchise.

Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate
Paramount Pictures

For years, over the course of several sequels/reboots that never quite lived up to the classic status of the first two films in the series, the Terminator film franchise was conspicuously missing a key name from its core creative team. That was James Cameron, who wrote and directed the first two films but stepped away for decades as other studios and filmmakers attempted to extend the brand and the mythology that he had carefully crafted. Now, however, after winning back the rights to the property and being courted by producer David Ellison to take a more active role, Cameron is back as a hands-on producer and co-writer for Terminator: Dark Fate, a film touted as the first direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Currently on the set of his Avatar sequels in New Zealand, Cameron sat down via Skype with Den of Geek and just a small handful of other outlets to discuss his return to the series that put him on the map as a filmmaker and remains one of the most iconic in sci-fi/action history.

“I was kind of reluctant to come back into that world, but when I had the opportunity to recover the rights through the copyright law, I started thinking about it,” says Cameron when asked what he hoped to accomplish with a new Terminator movie. “It’s like, ‘Well is there still something to say?’ And when I met with David Ellison at Skydance, he said, ‘Look, what I want to do is take it back to the basics. In a sense you can do the sequel to Terminator 2.’ And I thought, ‘well, that simplifies things.’ The movie came from him. That was not my vision walking in the door.”

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Cameron explains that his initial pitch for the film was different — but laid the groundwork for the next evolution of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg. “I had this idea that there was a version of the Arnold Terminator, the T-800, that was this Flying Dutchman character,” he recalls. “He’s just out there in this kind of limbo, where he’s accomplished his mission, and…you know, he’s a learning computer. He’s a neural net computer designed to be chameleonic, to try to learn to blend — like Arnold blends [laughs]. That was the conceit of the original story; the kind of entry point to the character.”

Cameron continues, “So I thought, ‘Let’s play that out. What happens if you’ve got this Terminator who is just out there floating around for 10, 20-plus years, and he would essentially max out on his ability to emulate human behavior, and become as human as he could be until he got new orders…we’ve seen the Terminator that was programmed to be bad; we’ve seen the one that was programmed to be good, to be a protector. But in both cases, neither one of them have free will. So I think this film is really an opportunity to explore these ideas of fate or predestination versus free will, and how we deal with that, how we deal with it as human beings.”

read more: Terminator: Dark Fate Creates a New Future for the Franchise

After that, says Cameron, the plot was developed among a team that included himself, Ellison, director Tim Miller (Deadpool) and a team of screenwriters that included David S. Goyer and Billy Ray, among others. “I think there’s a certain point where a film kind of takes its own path, kind of the confluence of the various influences of the artists involved,” says Cameron. “So by the artists, I mean the screenwriters, David, myself, Tim Miller, and everybody had ideas and things that they wanted to see, and then we had to create something that, that satisfied all those artistic impulses.”

With the filmmakers essentially stating that the last three films — Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys — were “alternate timeline” variations on the premise, Terminator: Dark Fate nevertheless leans into the notion of different futures and the way free will bends those futures right from the film’s startling opening sequence (which we won’t disclose here).

The heart of the story is about a human/cyborg hybrid named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), sent back to protect a young woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) who has a role to play in humanity’s continued battle against a new artificial intelligence threat. Their nemesis is the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), a new kind of killing machine that is not only a shapeshifter but can split into two separate units — the liquid metal outside and the endoskeleton within. Stepping up to help is Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has changed the course of the future once before but now realizes that destiny may be inevitable even as she is consumed by the desire for vengeance against the machines.

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“One of the things that was against us from the beginning of this movie is the fact that we’ve got the future as Sarah was told it would take place, and then she obviously changed it,” says Cameron. “So now we’ve got to reconcile what she knows about the Skynet future with what has transpired in the future that Mackenzie Davis’ character comes back from. Now the audience is having to process two futures, which was never a challenge that I had to deal with on (the first two Terminator movies). So now you have two futures, or two possible futures, as Reese would call them. Ultimately, Sarah and finally Dani, just say, ‘Fuck the future. Fuck fate. We’re gonna make our own future. We don’t like the choices.’”

The film reaches a sort of endpoint in terms of the future that Sarah and John Connor’s actions created at the end of Terminator 2, but as we see early on, that doesn’t mean the future is set in stone either. “I think Sarah has had to adjust to the fact that there’s probably a kind of inevitability, like a great kind of forcing factor that always tends to see the rise of an artificial super intelligence,” says Cameron. “It’s just the direction that the universe is heading. This is a collision that the human race is on, essentially with its own progeny, in a sense. So we came up with this idea that what Sarah had done was she kicked the can down the road, but she’s just going to have the same fight again, and have it again, and have it again, until there’s a resolution.”

Having Linda Hamilton return to the role of Sarah Connor for the first time in 28 years was a key factor to making the film that Cameron, Ellison, Tim Miller and the entire team envisioned. “Look, I think it’s very hard to imagine any version of the film we made without Linda,” says Cameron. “I think that’s when you know you’ve cast well, when you can’t imagine it any other way. Obviously, Linda was already cast, but it was a question of whether she wanted to do it. She was under no obligation to do it whatsoever.”

Citing their long history, Cameron adds, “I know Linda very well, obviously we were married, so I know how she thinks and how she processes things and it certainly wasn’t obvious to me that she would want to come back to this world. It certainly wasn’t a slam-dunk. I mean, you see it afterwards and you go, ‘Oh, it’s a no-brainer.’ But it certainly was a difficult decision for her. I think one of my big contributions to the movie was — I can’t say I got her to say yes. What I can say is I got her to a point where she didn’t automatically say no.”

Cameron’s powers of persuasion eventually convinced Hamilton to meet with Tim Miller, “to hear his ideas and how he wanted to see her and what she’d be doing and that sort of thing,” explains Cameron. “Basically, I think I made it at least appealing enough for her to want to meet with Tim, by outlining all the reasons why she shouldn’t make the movie. I sent her a very long email. It was about three and a half pages, half of which was devoted to why she shouldn’t do the film, and half of which was devoted to why she should do the film. We all know the reasons why she should. We love the character. It’s been often attempted, but never succeeded, and I don’t just mean other incarnations of Sarah. I mean other attempts to have strong female action heroes that are complex and dark the way she was.”

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Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a presence in every Terminator film so far, but plays perhaps his most unusual variation on the T-800 in Dark Fate. “I proposed the aged T-800 who is now becoming more human, in the sense that he’s evaluating the moral consequences of things that he did, that he was ordered to do back in his early days, and really kind of developing a consciousness and a conscience, which I think is a very interesting idea,” says Cameron. “To me, he’s the most interesting of the three incarnations of the T-800 that I was involved in for that reason. He might be an artificial intelligence, but he’s an intelligence, and he ultimately, left to his own devices, discovers, which we as the human race have discovered over thousands of years, morality and ethics.”

Although Cameron did play a more active role in Terminator: Dark Fate than he has in any entry in the franchise after Terminator 2, he wants to make it clear that the film is very much Tim Miller’s vision. “I figured that the set is the domain of the director,” says Cameron. “There’s one captain of the ship and, within that metaphor, the set, the production, the principal photography is the ship. Now, I was also doing the capture work on Avatar, so I really couldn’t travel to Budapest because I was working six, seven-day weeks anyway.”

Although he never managed to visit the set in person, Cameron had no desire to direct Terminator: Dark Fate over Miller’s shoulder anyway. “When I did have an opportunity to visit the Alita: Battle Angel set, I only went once for a couple of hours because I wanted to communicate to the cast and crew that it was Robert (Rodriguez)’s picture. So I did the same thing on Terminator. It’s just my philosophy as a producer. I want to be an asset. I want to be a resource. I don’t want to be a go-to person or look-around person. The director needs to be empowered. This is Tim’s film, and David Ellison and I worked together as producing partners to make it the best version of Tim’s film that could exist.”

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Cameron says he was heavily involved in the early and later stages of the production, leaving the physical shooting of the movie to Miller. “I think I saw a rough cut, maybe right after the first of the year,” he remembers. “It was pretty rough. It was pretty long. It transformed quite a bit after that. I think David Ellison and I and Tim worked together to try to find the best film that could emerge from that. It wasn’t a slam-dunk at the time.

“I felt there were a lot of pathways that were taken that were unnecessary,” he offers candidly. “I’m an editor myself, so I gave notes that were both broad and very specific. I continued in that process up to about two and a half months ago when we locked picture. I never went to the set. I’ve yet to physically meet the new cast because I never went to the set. But I was very involved in the writing and I was very involved in the cutting of the film. And to me, the cutting is really an extension of the writing. It’s the last draft, if you will.”

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If Terminator: Dark Fate strikes the right chord with audiences (translation: makes a lot of money), then the stage is set for the series to continue; the film itself leaves a certain amount of questions unanswered that Cameron says have been broadly mapped out for two more installments. “One of my major motivations on this film or coming back to the — hopefully — franchise, was to explore the human relationship with artificial intelligence,” he elaborates. “I don’t feel we did that in Dark Fate. I feel that we set the table for that exploration, and that exploration would take place in a second film and a third film. And we know exactly where we’re going to take that idea.

“What we wanted to get in the first movie was this idea that it’s just going to keep happening,” he concludes. “The names will change, but the basic conflict is going to continue to take place until it gets resolved one way or the other. And so I believe we’ve set that table and if, like I said, if we get the opportunity, we know where to take the story…I think you start simple and then you elaborate, and you can elaborate over a series of films. If they’re made by the same people with the same intentions and the same philosophy, then there can be a kind of a story arc across multiple films. But that said, I think Dark Fate stands alone as a pretty good one-time story.”

Terminator: Dark Fate is out in theaters November 1.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye