Terminator Genisys – David Ellison & Dana Goldberg interview

The producers of Terminator: Genisys tell us all about the forthcoming film and their plans for the franchise's future...

A Cold War air of secrecy hung over the set of Terminator Genisys when we visited it last July. And just to make things seem even more conspiratorial, everyone had to talk at a whisper because, just a few yards away, director Alan Taylor was hard at work directing the forthcoming movie.

Producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg were at pains not to talk about Genisys‘ plot in detail, but they did give us an idea of what its tone and pacing will be like; anyone disappointed by Terminator Salvation will be relieved to learn that Genisys will go back to the chase movie roots of the first two movies. There’ll be time travel, explosions and a plot twist or two, but like James Cameron’s The Terminator and T2, it’ll take the classic format of a killer robot (or two) in pursuit of fleeing human targets.

Here’s what David Ellison and Dana Goldberg had to say…

Could you talk a bit about the storyline, and the time period in which it takes place?

Ad – content continues below

David Ellison: Sure. What we can tell you is that it’ll open up in the future war, which is big, and massive, and has obviously never been seen in any of the other Terminator movies. We hope it’s of the scope and scale that fans have been excited about. And then, basically, after the future war, there’ll be a transition to the moment where John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah, and then a sequence of events will take place where everything goes into a radically different direction.

I think what’s important to remember when thinking about this movie is that it’s not a sequel, and it’s not a remake. This is not T5, it’s a prequel to the earlier Terminator films, and it’s not a remake of the 1984 Terminator. It’s the first in a completely stand-alone trilogy based on the universe that James Cameron created.

In that world there are characters you know and are familiar with. There’s a Sarah Connor, there’s a Kyle Reese, there’s a John Connor. The way we thought about it is, those characters will always exist inside the Terminator universe, but in very different circumstances, and they’ll be very different versions of themselves than you’ll be used to seeing.

The other thing that’s important thing to remember about the story is, if you’re like the two of us, and you absolutely love this franchise and universe, there are going to be great Easter eggs in there. There’s going to be a respect for canon. But also, if you haven’t seen a Terminator movie before, we view this as Terminator 1. You don’t have to have seen anything before you see this movie – it’s completely standalone.

Is your approach to this film similar to what you did with the Star Trek franchise at Skydance, in that it’s the same characters but with its own continuity?

David Ellison: Yes, yes. Very similar. In terms of touchstones, Star Trek 2009 – JJ [Abrams’] first movie, is very much that. There’s a Kirk, there’s a Spock, there’ll always be an Enterprise, but obviously they’re very different characters and can go in completely different directions. One of the big reasons for doing that was, we constantly asked ourselves, “Why now?”

Ad – content continues below

James Cameron did a wonderful job directing the first two movies – they’re perfect movies as far as the two of us are concerned. And there’s no point in remaking what he did brilliantly. It was really a case of coming up with a story that absolutely is respectful to canon, but is actually a whole unique experience, that gives the universe a reason to exist today.

Dana Goldberg: As David said, there’ll always be a Sarah, a Kyle, a John, a Terminator. There are going to be Terminators that are evil. There’s going to be time travel. There are certain tenets to the canon that, for us, are touchstones. As David was saying, those are your foundations, and now you build on it, and skew them based on the experiences they have within this film, not any other films. Credit to our fantastic writers, when they came aboard and talked about it, they asked the same thing David mentioned – “Why now? Who are these people within the context of this movie? Who will they be over the course of the next two movies?

Because it was very much envisioned and was broken to be a trilogy, so we’re not in the situation at the end of this movie where we’re saying, “Now let’s figure out what happens next.” As David likes to say, and it’s true, we know the last line of the third movie. We’re not going to share it, but we know it. 

Does James Cameron have a part in these new stories? Have you consulted him for ideas?

David Ellison: He’s been incredibly complimentary of this movie in the press, which we greatly appreciate, but he’s not involved. He’s incredibly good friends with Arnold and the writers, but I think he’s working feverishly on Avatar 2, 3 and 4 right now, so there’s no official capacity.

Can you talk about the conversations you had before committing to the story, because there were so many different options you could have taken.

Ad – content continues below

David Ellison: Absolutely. To go into the “Why now” of it, the original Cameron movies are very much Cold War allegories, about the fear of a new holocaust. That’s a significant part of this movie. Now that being said, the significant theme in this movie is mankind’s relationship with technology. Skynet no longer has to beat down your front door, because with Apple Stores, you invite it into your life. The fact that our phones all now have thumb print scanners and microphones, we are addicted to our technology and we cannot live without it – to the point where it’s easy to imagine a world where Skynet has infiltrated every single aspect of your life, and you didn’t fight it – you invited it in.

That was a big part of the “why” – where we can hopefully do what all great science fiction does, which is that we have something to say about the world we live in.

Dana Goldberg: To be clear, when we talk about the world of Sarah, Kyle, John and all that, it’s our foundation, but there are new characters in this movie. We didn’t want to solely stick to characters you’ve met before. There’ll be new people, original ideas in this movie.

David Ellison: Yeah. I mean, with Matt Smith, who we can say very little about, is a completely new character who’s unique to this franchise. He has a significant part across all three movies.

Is the ‘present’ in this film 1984, or is it 2015?

David Ellison: Terminator movies are always, at some point, present-day movies. Ours is just the same. 

Ad – content continues below

But obviously, in the original Terminator, Sarah Connor was about 19 or 20 in 1984. So would it take place then, or are you going to update the story so that she’s 20 but in 2015, if you see what I mean?

David Ellison: Well, Emilia Clarke is playing Sarah Connor, so yes, she’s in her 20s.

Dana Goldberg: Time travel is a very significant piece of our film, but as we say, we believe in following what Cameron established, which is that the year 2017 plays prominently in our movie.

Can you tell us about Jason Clarke and Emilia Clarke’s casting?

David Ellison: Certainly. I met Jason Clarke on Zero Dark Thirty, when my sister [Megan Ellison] made the movie. I also saw him in Chicago Code and I was just blown away. We wanted to work with him since that time. When it came to casting John Connor, there was simply nobody else that ran through our head. The level of depth and emotion he brings to this part is truly phenomenal. As for Emilia Clarke, I’ve loved Game Of Thrones. It redefines what is possible in television, and Emilia has a sense of strength and nobility that you simply can’t teach. When it came to talking about who our Sarah Connor would be, there was only one name that was ever discussed, and she’s an amazing, completely different and new version of the character who we love.

Dana Goldberg: Then there’s this other name you might of heard of: Arnold Schwarzenegger – who I’m amazed nobody’s asked about yet. Just to cut to the chase because I know someone’s going to ask – there was not going to be a Terminator movie, as far as we were concerned, that did not have Arnold Schwarzenegger at its centre. For us, there was no decision. Arnold is the Terminator. This is his most iconic role, and to say that we’re thrilled to have him in this movie is a wild understatement.

Ad – content continues below

He’s fantastic in this film. And it’s a different character he plays in this film, without question. I’ll let you quiz him about that. 

[Our interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger from the same set visit can be found here – Ed]

Then there’s Jai Courtney, who plays Kyle Reese. We were lucky enough to work with him on Jack Reacher, which we made with Tom Cruise. Jai played a very different character in that movie – he played a straight villain, a pretty evil guy. Sometimes you make a movie, and it’s the guy who’s sixth on the call sheet who says in the back of your head, he’s something special. Jai has always been that for us. He came in and tested with Emilia, and at the end of the test, we looked at each other and said, “That’s our Kyle Reese.” 

What did you learn from the second Star Trek, in terms of balancing new things for the audience and series canon?

David Ellison: I never want to speak ill of anybody’s work, and we’re incredibly proud of what we did with all our filmmaking partners on Into Darkness. One of the things I think is a learning experiences is, we talk about making it a standalone movie. This movie can’t feel like inside baseball. It can’t feel like if you don’t know the film canon, if you haven’t seen all four movies, then you’re going to be missing something. This has to be for everybody, whether you’re a Terminator fan, like the two of us, or whether you’re somebody who’s never seen a Terminator movie and this is your first introduction to it, it can’t rely on anything other than frame one of this movie. And that was definitely something we took very seriously when going to make this film.

Going further along the line, you’ve conceived this as a trilogy. How complete is this one film? Does it answer all the questions it sets out?

David Ellison: Almost.

Ad – content continues below

Dana Goldberg: It answers a lot of questions. The reality of a really good movie is, it always leaves you wanting to know a bit more. We hope we successfully do that at the end of this film. 

David Ellison: One of the things we looked at is, for me, the two greatest trilogies in sci-fi and fantasy have been the original Star Wars films and then Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings. Both of those had a similar process, in that all three scripts actually existed before they began shooting. They knew where they were going, so you could talk about not just what you were arcing out over this one movie, but what you were arcing out over the course of all three. So when you watch [Terminator Genisys], it’s a complete experience, but when you get to the end of it, there are things left open ended on purpose, so that hopefully when we make two and three, you feel like things are getting closed out. You constantly lean in, hopefully wanting to learn more.

What Terminator film is this closest to in terms of tone?

David Ellison: Terminator 2!

Dana Goldberg: Terminator 2. It’s a really easy answer. T2.

So not as dark as the first one.

Ad – content continues below

Dana Goldberg: No. 

What are your plans for the sequels?

Dana Goldberg: We want to shoot two and three back to back, but we want to get the first one under our belts first. You learn a lot when you make a movie. You learn a lot about where you want to take a character, and the actors you’re working with. Things change as you’re making it. So your ability to do the first one, and hopefully have it be successful, and then go do two and three, is a big opportunity. 

Could you talk about your choice of director? 

David Ellison: I’m a huge, gigantic fan of Game Of Thrones. I think the episodes Alan [Taylor] directed truly redefine what is possible on television. By then we were fortunate enough to see a very early cut of Thor 2, and we just thought that the way he elevated that movie, and his ability to create full, three-dimensional characters that are living and breathing, and his ability to deliver things we’ve never seen before, he just seemed the perfect choice for this movie. When we met with him for the first time, the number one thing he wanted to talk about was character. He wanted to talk about the love story. When we go to make these movies, we always talk about the great character story that’s wrapped up in a gigantic canvas. That was really what Alan hit on, so for us, he was the perfect guy to direct this movie.  And he’s been an absolute privilege to work with, and we couldn’t be happier with the way things are going.

Terminator 2 had both CG and great practical effects. How much is this film taking the canvas further in terms of action?

Ad – content continues below

Dana Goldberg: We’re really respectful of the style and methodology of the first two films, so a significant amount of the action is practical. Yes, we’re going to have big chases, and there are sections we’ve shown people and they’ve said, “Is that CG?” And we’ve said, “No, we did that for real.” There’s CG in this movie, obviously, but again, we wanted to stick close to home. There’s going to be a lot of practical action here. 

David Ellison: When we talk about Terminator 2, the scope and scale of that movie was revolutionary for its time. I think it holds up beautifully today. This is a big movie. The scope and scale and the action set pieces are massive, there’s Terminator action and visual effects you’ve never seen before. So we very much hope we’re delivering on the visual spectacle, because we’re really excited about it. 

Dana Goldberg: We know it’s a high bar, but we’re trying to jump it.

Each film introduces its own Terminator. Does this one have that?

David Ellison: Absolutely. When the T-1000 came on screen in Judgment Day, it redefined visual effects, and showed you something you’ve never seen before. And it’s a really tall task, and we think we’ve succeeded doing it. We can’t tell you what it is, but that is absolutely a big aspect of this movie. 

Is this film taking anything from Terminator Salvation? That film diverted from the formula quite a lot in terms of story and tone.

Ad – content continues below

Dana Goldberg: Honestly, no. No offence to that film, but again, it’s going back to the beginning. For us, this is our first film, so we really went to the first two movies, because it’s the origin story. Those are the two that set the tone.

David Ellison: Also, James Cameron created the universe. What he created absolutely served as the foundation of this movie, but it’s standalone. So it’s not Terminator 1, It’s not Terminator 4, it’s completely standalone. 

How much will the technology in this film resemble what we’ve seen in earlier films? For example, in Prometheus, the technology is a million times more advanced than it was in the original Alien.

David Ellison: There are going to be a lot of things you’ll recognise from the original movie. There’s T-800s in this movie, there are Hunter Killers in this movie, but there are also new pieces of technology you haven’t seen. And a lot of that has been upgraded for what visual effects allow you to do today versus when the original films were created. So there’s definitely some things you’ll be familiar with, and some that are completely new and different. But all updated. 

The first three films are essentially chase movies. Will this one follow that format?

David Ellison: Absolutely. Terminator movies are all chase movies!

Ad – content continues below

David Ellison and Dana Goldberg, thank you very much.

Terminator Genisys is out in UK cinemas on the 3rd July.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.