Stephanie Austin interview: producing Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Co-producer Stephanie Austin talks to us about the trials of bringing one of the biggest movies of all time, Terminator 2, to the screen...

In 1990, producer Stephanie Austin, previously known for her work in television, helped shepherd one of the biggest films of the decade to the big screen. Little did she know at the time, as she first looked through James Cameron’s ambitious sequel script, that she would soon be producing the most expensive movie up to that point – a new high-watermark in special effects, and a proving ground for other CGI blockbusters.

Over 25 years later, Terminator 2: Judgment Day still looks as shiny as ever – but the confidence and assured pace of its director’s vision gives little clue as to the frantic rush to make the film behind the scenes. Even today, Stephanie Austin talks with just a hint of disbelief at how quickly this juggernaut of a summer movie came together. As a new, restored 3D edition comes to the small screen, here’s the story in her own words…

It’s amazing how modern it still looks. It’s a lovely, clean restoration they’ve done on this.

It had a lot of skilled people working on it! And I also think that the building blocks that you have to work with are really important, too – the kind of filmmaker that Jim Cameron was back in 1990, 91, shows up today in this conversion, because he really has an astonishing attention to detail. Well, I’m astonished. 3D conversions I’m not usually all that crazy about, but I think this one works.  

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So how did you first get involved with T2 back in 1990? I understand you were working at Carolco at the time, as a producer. 

I was, yes. I was actually producing a television project, and Walter Copeland, who was the head of production, said, “Oh, Jim Cameron wanted to meet you.” He’d seen a television special I’d made called The Day After, and I’d been producing it, but I’d also been on a team that did some innovative visual effects in terms of a nuclear [war]. He’d seen it, and he was impressed by it. So I worked with [Wayne Lock?] Praxis on that, and we built some special tanks to create this effect, so Jim asked if he could meet me. 

I thought, “Why does a guy like Jim Cameron want to meet me?” I mean, I’d been producing this little TV thing! And so I went to his office and read the first few pages of Terminator 2 and decided I should go home. Because there was no way I could produce this for the amount of money he’d said he wanted to make it for, which was about the same as the original Terminator. As you know, that turned out to be a ridiculous concept! [Laughs]

So that’s interesting. He originally had in mind a really low budget then?

Oh yeah. Going into it, he said he really wanted to. I think there was a part of him that realised that it couldn’t be [that low-budget] for many practical reasons, but later on, the total amount that he wanted to make Terminator 2 for was the working budget for just the visual effects. Just to give you an example of how far off the mark he was! [Laughs]

So it was in the production meetings that you started to realise how expensive it would be.

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Yes. Dennis Muren at ILM had been working conceptually. When Jim did The Abyss and the water snake effect, that sparked some ideas about how one might build a character out of this, you know, effect. We all had an inkling, but you just had to sit through the first production meeting with Jim to realise that things were going to be a lot bigger in every way. He had a hugely ambitious vision for the movie and, as I say, I got to about page eight of the script, I was reading it in his office under secure circumstances, and I asked if I could take a break. I actually called my lawyer and I said, “Listen, I should just leave right now, because there’s no way I can make this movie for this amount of money.” So it’s not like I went into it blindly.

The script was extremely ambitious, and as I say, these were visual effects that had never been conceived of, or actually built at that time. And of course we were challenged by render times and how complicated it was just to produce these effects, because the access to mainframe computers was limited at the time. I think we were using every mainframe in northern California when we were doing the film!

You mentioned the secrecy surrounding the script, which was unusual at the time. I wondered what Cameron’s reasoning was for that; was it because of The Abyss, and the number of knock-off under-water films that came out before that?

Yes, I think that’s part of it. And I also just think, even back then, it was very, very difficult to keep anything under wraps. Although it was pre-social media, there were always leaks of scripts. If you’re making a picture at a studio, for example, anyone who’s working in the mail room or photocopying can slip a copy of the script to someone, so it’s never something that’s desirable. But from the beginning, we were quite innovative, and we were the first people, I think to watermark every single script, and every person was assigned an identification number, and that identification number appeared on every script, on every shooting schedule, on everything that went to that person. People weren’t really even using emails, so all this stuff had to be physically produced for every iteration.

Were you at Cannes when the film was announced?

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No, I was not. Sadly! A friend of mine was there, though, and called me, because he saw this huge billboard on the Croissette with my name on it, so I sort of experienced it vicariously. 

But there was a huge anticipation that built up very quickly, and also there were naysayers who were saying it was too expensive.

Oh yes. We were under tremendous criticism throughout the whole project, because for its day it was a very big-budget movie. And because, in the beginning they tried to downplay the expense, and as I say, Jim had told people that he wanted to make it for about the same budget as the original Terminator, and he had this entire rough idea of how we would do that. But you know, the techniques change, and people’s expectations change, and we didn’t want to skimp on delivering a product.

The truth of the matter is, when we had the very first… we had two screenings, one was a kind of a family and friends screening that we had up on George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, where we were mixing, and that screening was so successful, with people standing and clapping. But it was family and friends – it was people who worked at the ranch. It gave us a good indication.

But when we had the first screening down in LA for the studio, with a public audience – cast and crew, executives, etcetera – that screening tells you immediately. I’ve rarely been in a room where there was that much enthusiasm. People were stamping their feet and clapping for ten or 15 minutes. Cheering and clapping. It was so wildly enthusiastic, and also, literally, people are looking around going, “We really pulled this off.” You know?

Do you think it took a studio like Carolco to make this film? Because I think Cameron himself said at the time that no other studio in Hollywood would dare touch it.

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I don’t think any other studio would have. I’ve got to say that Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar [the executive producers] really put their money where their mouth is. There were certainly moments during the production when I got those phone calls saying, “What on Earth are you doing?” [Laughs] 

I can remember, around the Christmas holidays, and we had put together three reels to show Andy and Mario, so we took that into the Carolco screening room and we were under tremendous pressure. There was much talk of how we were going to trim stuff and how we were gonna cut this back, and where do we save money. It was very, very difficult, and very tense. We showed them the three reels of the picture, and as we walked out of the screening room, Mario turned to Jim and I and he said, “Wow. I guess it’s worth it. But how did you ever spend this amount of money?”

And Jim just said, as quick as you like, “Oh, I don’t know. Ask her!” [Laughs] As if he had nothing to do with anything! It was pretty funny.

You made the effects first, didn’t you. You front-loaded the digital effects.

Yes, we had to. Again, it’s about the throughput time. When you have a July 4th release, many of these effects took months and months and months to render. Really, it was trying to perfect each one of these visual effects shots, which of course multiply like bites over the course of the production. On no film can you predict exactly where you gonna need to change your original concept. As I say, I think we had every mainframe in northern California working to render this down. 

-There must’ve been a certain amount of relief when you saw those digital effects rendered. It was so ahead of its time, you weren’t even sure whether they’d work or not.

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Oh that’s absolutely correct. Fortunately, they worked. And believe me, we were rendering these effects up until maybe two days before. We were sleeping on the floor of the laboratory at the film lab, because we were on 24-hour shifts. The president of CFI [Consolidated Film Industries], which was – it was an unusual choice for a lab because they were a smaller lab, but Jim really liked the timer there – so yeah, we were doing round-the-clock shifts and sleeping there, and the president of CFI actually offered us his office, so that’s where we all slept, on the floor. We’d get up in the wee hours to see another timing. Yes, we were all on edge, and some of this stuff was being delivered literally at the last minute. 

Before that, on the shoot itself, you had the release date to meet, too.

Oh yeah. You’re staring down the barrel of a gun, really, because once those release dates are announced – as it is today – they get locked in stone. You’re competing with other studios’ products for those dates, and you’ve made certain commitments. Those are monetary commitments as well. The pressure was tremendous, literally from the first day. I think I started work the same day or the day after I read that script, so we definitely had to hit the ground running. 

I read on the last night of shooting, or something like that, the crew were wearing t-shirts with some of James Cameron’s sayings on them. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

[Chuckles] Yes! Throughout the production, we tried to do things… I had the art department print up a roll of bullet hits that were patterned off the bullet hits on the T-1000 effect. Don’t forget that character’s named after me: if you look at him when he’s in his police uniform, it says Austin on his name tag. So we used to do fun things – if [Cameron] would yell at somebody, we’d keep this roll of self-adhesive bullet hits and then put them on their backs. We came up with lots and lots of crazy t-shirts – yes, many of them with sayings of Jim’s. And also at one point, everyone was so exhausted when we working right through the holidays, that we frequently chanted, “T3 without me!”

That was one. I mean, I can still remember Jim calling me up on New Year’s Eve and asking me to meet him out in Fontana at the steel mill set early the next morning on January 1st. It was that kind of atmosphere. Very high stress. 

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The ending’s interesting. There’s the one as shot with Linda Hamilton as an old woman, and then it was changed to the rolling road. Could you shed some light on who came up with that?

Well, Jim really came up with that. I think we felt we needed a more evocative ending, and I think that that simple, looking out on the road ahead, was another thing that made the film memorable, as opposed to having her as an old woman recounting it. It’s more hopeful in a way, although grim.

Was it in one of the early test screenings that you realised it had to change?

Yeah. We would screen the film just for ourselves throughout post, as effects came in for example. And you’d watch dailies every single day on the film. I think there was a general sense that there was something that didn’t resonate with the ending as originally conceived.

Is it correct that Billy Idol was originally considered as the T-1000?

Yeah, yeah he was. Mali Finn was an extraordinary casting director. She passed away a few years ago. She had marvellous instincts. I think when Robert Patrick came in, his physicality and this perfect translucent skin – he had this otherworldly appearance that really just locked him in immediately. He had developed some ideas about how he would behave as the T-1000, with those darting eyes. He really came in with the whole character. So it wasn’t just his physicality – it was his technique. He was almost like a snake or something. 

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It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in that role now. Stephanie Austin, thank you very much.

The new, restored Terminator 2: Judgment Day is out now on 2D and 3D Blu-ray.