This article contains spoilers for Terminator Genisys.
When screenwriting team Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry) were given the task of writing the script for what became the new Terminator Genisys, their pitch for a fifth film in the series contained three key elements: they wanted to include Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 again, revisit the characters of Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor and her son John, and somehow approach it from a different angle. Their solution: create an alternate timeline using the events of the original 1984 film The Terminator as a jumping-off point and then radically tweak them.
So in Terminator Genisys, we get an older T-800, a Sarah Connor who’s already a fighter and not a helpless waitress, a visit from a T-1000 way earlier than expected, and a John Connor who is a villain, changed into a machine/human hybrid by Skynet (which also assumes a human shape at two junctures). At the very least it’s a provocative set of events that has had fans debating the film since its July 1 opening. Den Of Geek had a chance to sit down with Kalogridis and Lussier for a chat about taking on James Cameron’s baby, altering franchise history and swearing like truckers while writing.
Den Of Geek: You were a little hesitant to take this on at first. Is that right?
Laeta Kalogridis: Yeah. Simply put, having worked with Jim Cameron and regarding him as one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever or will ever live, this sort of towering, genius figure, and I’m not exaggerating — everything that exists in this (Terminator) universe exists because of him. He created all of it. So I had no desire to add anything to it that diminished it in any way or that was disrespectful in any way, or that felt that it didn’t, hopefully, anyway, add some value to it as opposed to subtract it.
What did the producers talk about when they approached you?
Kalogridis: The producers said, “What would you do if you did this job?” That was pretty much their marching orders: What would you do? And we came back with, “Well, it would definitely involve Arnold as a central character, not like Spock Prime…”
Patrick Lussier: Not an extended cameo. We wanted him to be a vital part of the story. The time travel was something we felt was missing from Terminator Salvation. Then the core characters of Kyle, Sarah, and John Connor, we wanted them to be in there. I talked about how we would work Arnold into the story and how important he would be to the story. And coming up with the, as Laeta puts it, the funhouse mirror version, of seeing things that you knew and that were part of the world that had been set up originally and then turning them on their ear. It was all part of the original pitch.
Did you take the third and fourth movies into consideration at all, with the continuity there getting sort of knotty?
Kalogridis: We didn’t look as much at 3 and 4, in part because we knew were constructing an alternate timeline altogether. So everything that exists outside of that timeline is canon in its own right, but is a part of other timelines. So since we knew we didn’t need to match the continuity in those two movies, we didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting them to do that.
Lussier: We were mostly interested in the first two emotionally and the first one because that’s the moment when Kyle goes back. That was where we land. We land in the alley with Kyle. We land at the park with the Terminator and the story branches off from there.
The alternate timeline allows you to go anywhere from this point.
Kalogridis: That’s the hope, with the very, very, very, very, clear distinction that nothing that has been created before is, in any way, obviated by this choice. Those timelines still exist. They persist. They are real. They haven’t changed. The Skynet that we created, when he says, “I’ve come a very long way,” the idea behind that, although it’s not really broken out in the movie as it exists now, is that we’re operating on a multiple timeline model, a multiverse model. That Skynet is not from our universe. It’s not from our timeline. That’s why he says, “I’ve come a long way.” So that’s our out to creating the alternate timeline that we are in, which is a Skynet that comes from another place.
Is there a big diagram somewhere with all this mapped out?
Kalogridis: I have one.
Lussier: Oh, yes. And it has loops here, and loops down here, and this person does this, and that one guy is like this — it looks like we should be…
Kalogridis: We have multiple timeline theories and causal — we have all sorts of crazy ass info. Which may or may not become valuable as time goes forward [laughs].
When you were writing for the new actors (Emilia Clarke as Sarah and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese), did you still kind of hear Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in your head?
Kalogridis: Oh, totally. Yes, absolutely.
Lussier: Totally. Oh, yes.
Kalogridis: It’s impossible not to. Those characters are so iconic.
Lussier: Certainly we did when we wrote the first draft before anybody was cast but Arnold. It was impossible not to see Michael Biehn and Linda at the ages they were in embodying that, and to hear their voices. You couldn’t not. It was impossible to shake it.
Kalogridis: Not that you would want to.
Lussier: No, not that you would want to, because those are the characters that we were lucky enough to get to embrace. So you wanted to. Very much so.
Were you surprised to see the reveal about John Connor in the trailer?
Kalogridis: We certainly didn’t — when we wrote the script, we envisioned the journey as being really one where you wouldn’t have that knowledge. But we’re not involved in marketing. So the decisions made there obviously we weren’t really part of.
Lussier: They didn’t come tell us how to write it and we didn’t tell them how to market. That was sort of the unwritten deal. [laughs]
Kalogridis: But it’s certainly not the way that you envision the story being experienced.
How do you two write together? Do you send scenes back and forth to each other or do you sit in a room and work on the script together?
Lussier: All of the above.
Kalogridis: We throw things at each other. A lot of swearing.
Lussier: Yes. Truckers and sailors would run from the room. [laughs]
Is it up to one of you to write the final version of any given scene?
Kalogridis: No. It’s pretty collaborative.
Lussier: Yeah. We both sort of do it and then it goes around…
Kalogridis: And then we revise each other, revise each other, and revise each other. I honestly can’t remember who did the last pass on a scene. As long as it’s working it doesn’t matter.
How many drafts did you go through before you had it where you wanted it?
Lussier: Oodles. I think the primary draft that kicked everything off that went out to hire a director and then went to the start of preproduction was a draft that we finished on the 17th of July, 2013. And from that all the rewrites that were done were basically for production and for different things that would come up. There were myriads of drafts and changes and things like that, but the primary thing started there and the core story never deviated.
If there is a sequel or two as the producers have discussed, do you have a roadmap of where the story goes?
Kalogridis: Yes, if we get lucky enough. We do have unanswered questions. And we do know a way in which the story could unfold if it turns out being something that we get to do.
What are you working on next?
Kalogridis: It’s slightly classified.
Lussier: Yeah. Stuff. Stuff that we’re very excited and feeling very good about working on.
Kalogridis: But that’s what you always say, right? Stuff that hopefully will get made. Because it’s a bit of a crapshoot, isn’t it?
Terminator Genisys is in theaters now.