Visiting the set of Terminator Genisys

Last year, we headed to New Orleans to visit the set of Terminator Genisys. Here's what happened...

Spoiler note: there are very mild references to sets etc in this piece. Plot-wise, we discuss what’s been given away in the trailers thus far.

By midday on the 17th July, New Orleans is broiling in the summer heat. Away from the city center with its gleaming towers and Superdome, down a cracked highway past little wooden houses in varying states of repair, a short distance from a branch of Taco Bell, one of Hollywood’s biggest production companies has taken over a sprawling yet anonymous-looking grey building.

From the outside, it’s just another expanse of weathered concrete, but inside this former lumber yard, director Alan Taylor is busy making Terminator Genisys. It’s appropriate, perhaps, that as we’re ushered into the building, the first thing we notice is the distinct smell of sawdust. Not from any leftover stock from the wood sellers, but from all the sets that are constantly being built and then taken down again.

As our eyes adjust from blazing sunshine to the gloomy interior, punctuated by the spectral hue of green screens, we struggle to count how many sets there are in this cavernous space. There are huge sets, small sets, sets still being constructed, some apparently finished with and others now being taken to pieces.

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The sets are numerous, but they’re only a small part of an even larger logistical jigsaw. Electrical cables criss-cross all over the place, terminating in huge lighting rigs at one end and complicated-looking control consoles at the other. Crewmembers are attending to props on work benches and in racks. There are costumes hanging on hangers. Outside, there are lorries full of equipment, catering trucks, food marquees and trailers for the stars.

Behind all the supposed glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, there’s the logistical reality of taking a screenplay and turning it into a movie. Not all directors would agree with James Cameron’s famous statement that filmmaking is war, but we do get the distinct impression that the task like being the commander of an army.

Come with me if you want to live

It’s just over 30 years now since the release of James Cameron’s The Terminator, the 1984 film that cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger’s status as a Hollywood star. Perfectly cast as the four-square incarnation of death, Schwarzenegger has dominated the franchise ever since – to the point where even Terminator Salvation, the 2009 sequel that jettisoned much of the earlier films’ action-chase formula – still contained a CGI recreation of a 30-something Arnold.

Terminator Genisys, meanwhile, marks both a new beginning for the franchise and an attempt to get back in touch with its 1980s roots. First, by bringing back Schwarzenegger as a battle-weary T-800, and also by heading back to 1984 for a story that throws the Terminator timeline into completely new territory.

Like the 1984 film, Terminator Genisys begins in the future, with humanity’s savior John Connor leading a resistance against Skynet and its army of exterminating machines. Connor sends brave foot soldier Kyle Reese back in time to the year 1984 to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, who’s been marked for termination by Skynet.

Except, when Reese emerges in 1984, Sarah Connor isn’t the terrified waitress he (and we) might have been expecting. History has been altered, and instead of the old T-800 model, Connor’s about to be pursued by some far deadlier brands of Terminator.

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These and numerous other plot details can be gleaned from Terminator Genisys trailers – but back in July last year, everyone on the set was wary of divulging story specifics. Then, as now, former Tardis occupant Matt Smith’s role in the film is shrouded in mystery – to the point where the actor would only say that, “I have close interest and links to John Connor,” before adding with a chuckle, “I love football…”

Tech Noir

Secrecy aside, producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg are adamant that what they’re creating is both an extension of the two classic opening films in the franchise, and its own story entirely – the start, the duo hopes, of a brand new trilogy.

“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,” Ellison told us. “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,” Ellison told us. “This is not T5, or 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.”

The conclusion we immediately drew is that Ellison’s production company, Skydance, is following the approach it took with 2009’s Star Trek – an amalgam of familiar characters in new situations, all played by a fresh generation of Hollywood actors.

“In terms of touchstones, Star Trek 2009 – JJ [Abrams’] first movie, is very much that,” Ellison agreed when we put the comparison to him. “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.”

To this end, we now have Emilia Clarke, famous for her role in Game Of Thrones, cast as the new Sarah Connor, previously played by Linda Hamilton. Jai Courtney takes over from Michael Biehn as a more brawny Kyle Reese. Then there’s Jason Clarke, who’s the latest in a line of actors (most obviously Edward Furlong and Christian Bale) who’ve played John Connor in the past.

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The common factor, of course, is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who returns as the Terminator. As we already know, the actor’s advancing years (he was 66 at the time of the visit) is logically explained by Genisys‘ plot: while the T-800 combat chassis remains more-or-less ageless, the flesh wrapped around it is as vulnerable to the effects of time as our own.

“There are some movies where age is an issue, or they make it an issue,” Schwarzenegger says, sitting down before a group of journalists in his iconic T-800 gear. “In Terminator, [age] is not such an issue at all – action-wise, he’s exactly the same. He may have human flesh and his hair might be going grey, but he’s still exactly the same mechanism. So you have to be ready for all the action the way you were 30 years ago when I did the first one.”

Looking at Schwarzenegger, with his face pockmarked by special effects make-up (there’s even a jagged green area, where the special effects department will drop in his CGI jaw later on), he still looks formidable enough to play a T-800 – there are a few more miles on the clock, but he’s still recognisably the tough, hulking Terminator.

It doesn’t feel pity, remorse or fear…

Arnold isn’t the only icon returning from the earlier films, either. The press area around us is festooned with costumes and props from the forthcoming film. On a table sits a handful of futuristic guns. One, we later learn, is so big it can only be carried by a T-800. And look, there’s an actual T-800 standing in the corner, its metallic skeleton looking as icily imposing as it did when it first appeared in 1984. That several of us pose for daft photos with it diminishes its fearsome mystique somewhat, but we’ll draw a veil over that (one person even presses an apple into its claw-like hand).

The T-800, a kind of Grim Reaper for the silicon age, is a reminder of the Terminator franchise’s horror roots. The original film was inspired by a fever dream James Cameron experienced in the early 1980s – a skeletal figure emerging from a wall of flame, knife in hand. That nightmarish vision arguably remained in the 1984 film, which unfurled as a constant, pulse-pounding chase through the benighted streets of Los Angeles.

On Terminator Genisys, one of the co-writers, alongside Shutter Island screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, is Patrick Lussier. A writer and director with an action and horror pedigree (his credits include Dracula 2000 and My Bloody Valentine 3D), Lussier acknowledges the genre underpinnings of the original Terminator – and how he wanted to capture a hint of that in Terminator Genisys.

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“In the original Terminator, if you looked at Arnold, his Terminator is an extension of Michael Myers or any of those killers,” Lussier tells us. “But the story goes so far beyond that because of the emotionality, because of the time travel elements, because it is rooted in a deep love story where the stakes aren’t just ‘what sorority girl’s going to survive’, but the fate of mankind. Generally, slasher movies don’t have that. So in keeping with that, we understood that [horror] was a major component of the first film, that it was part of what made it work. We wanted to have elements of that in this. Elements of, what is it that scares you?”

Both Lussier and his producers talked about moving the Terminator on from its 80s Cold War roots – while Judgment Day remains, the way Skynet and its machine army takes over will, it seems, be more aligned to our love affair – and subconscious fear – of the ubiquitous technology around us. In short, the end will come not just with a bang, but with a smartphone app.

“Skynet, as you first meet it, is the classic Skynet that we all know from Judgment Day and what it did in the canon,” Lussier explains. “All you have to ask yourself is, if Skynet was to appear today, how would it appear? What would it do? How badly would it make you want it?”

“The original Cameron movies are very much Cold War allegories, about the fear of a new holocaust,” concurs David Ellison. “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.”

I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle

As well as the mid-80s, Terminator Genisys will also spend a certain amount of time in the Skynet-controlled future. Costume designer Susan Matheson hints at a future war between the machines and around 300 members of the human resistance. Matheson showed off some of the outfits she’d designed for Genisys, which look as improvised and tough as they should; the resistance fighters have cobbled together bits of armour from number plates and shredded car tyre – the stuff they’ve managed to find while scavenging through the remains of a fallen Los Angeles.

“In post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, there needs to be a reference to the culture of the city,” Matheson tells us. “I don’t know if the camera’s going to catch it, but even if there are 350 guerrilla fighters in the future, I always design hoping that, if you’re an obsessive fan and you freeze frame on the movie, that you will see something nobody else has seen. I look at them all as individuals. We have the core group of fighters, and that’s the John Connors and the Kyle Reeces of the world, they wear sophisticated armour that’s supposed to be for plasma hits.”

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On the topic of plasma hits, prop master Diana Burton took us through some of the weapons we’ll see in Terminator Genisys future war.

“The Endoskeletons don’t care about design,” Burton tells us, hefting one of the imposing-looking guns wielded by Skynet’s army. “They only care about function. This is the most utilitarian example of a gun I think a machine would build. That’s what this represents. They don’t need sights, they can shoot from the hip.”

The resistance, on the other hand, have a far less high-tech arsenal of weapons to choose from. They’ve had to retrofit old guns, like the AK-47, with plasma technology – just like their armor, their weapons have been assembled from what they’ve managed to salvage or steal.

You can expect some more familiar weapons to turn up in the movie, too. Weapons master Perry Lou tells us that the mini-gun, made famous in Terminator 2, will make a return in “Two separate scenes” in Genisys. “One is in the armory,” he tells us, “one is in the future war battle scene.”

Ah yes, the armory. This is one of the sets we’re shown around during our visit, and it’s a T-800’s paradise. The concrete walls are bristling with familiar guns, all mounted on racks. One of them is the grenade launcher from Terminator 2.

The armory really does look like concrete, right up until you touch it and realise that it’s warm – actually wood with a coating of plaster on top. “Something happened here,” a Paramount publicist tells us, and she’s not kidding. There are bullet holes all over the walls and a big crater, as though something – probably built by Skynet – rudely barged in with some high explosives.

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Another set we’re allowed to see is described as “the server maze” – a coolly industrial structure with suspended catwalks and bright lights running vertically down the walls. Imagine a sleeker, more shiny version of the factory at the end of The Terminator, and you’re some way there.

Later on, we see a scene being shot against this very backdrop. In it, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 leads Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese along one of the catwalks. The T-800 throws down a heavy-looking sports bag, and Sarah shares out the contents. We can’t tell what she’s handing out, exactly – they’re black, slim things that look like iPad cases. Hard drives? Bombs, perhaps? We don’t know for sure.

Nor did we know – at least at the time – why Schwarzenegger’s seen fighting Jason Clarke’s John Connor in another scene. When we ask Clarke about this later on, he’s understandably cagey about it. “He and I have a little difference of opinion at a certain point,” Clarke he says, evasively. “There’s a point where he and I don’t really see eye to eye…”

The future’s not set

Since that set visit last summer, the wraps have gradually come off Terminator Genisys‘ secretive production. A quick glance at the trailers will give you a better idea of the new threats Sarah Connor and Kyle Reece will face, and how they manage to hark back to the earlier Terminator movies while also putting a new spin on familiar characters.

What was clear from our time with the film’s cast and crewwas that, after the disappointment of 2009’s Terminator Salvation, Genisys is intended as a return to the spirit of the two Terminator entries created by James Cameron – specifically Terminator 2, with its thrilling chases and eye-popping special effects.

“James Cameron did a wonderful job directing the first two movies – they’re perfect movies as far as the two of us are concerned,” Ellison says. “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.”

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We’ll be running our full interviews with the cast and crew of Terminator Genisys over the coming weeks.