If there is a guiding ethos to the long-running Terminator series, it might be “no fate but what you make.” But what if your fate is in the hands of someone else? That was the dilemma faced by director Tim Miller while making Terminator: Dark Fate, which marks the return of brand mastermind James Cameron, who hasn’t been involved with the time-travel shenanigans of T-800 and the Connor family since 1991′s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While Dark Fate is Miller’s film – only his second feature after the filthy success of 2016′s Deadpool – Cameron has a story credit, served as producer and retained final cut.
Ahead of Dark Fate’s release this Friday, Miller sat down with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz in Toronto for a candid discussion about tears, fears and killer robots.
I saw you present the first footage of Dark Fate at CinemaCon earlier this spring; you were very emotional onstage.
I know, it’s quite embarrassing.
Well, I found it sincere, and much more so than any other filmmaker up there that week. How emotional has this experience been?
I put a lot into everything that I do, and I feel lucky and grateful all the time. And that’s when I get choked up – when I start saying thank you to the people who helped me. I just feel lucky all the time, so it’s hard not to cry.
Is that because you have an emotional attachment to the series itself?
I just cry. I cried when I thanked the crew on Deadpool. I’m crying when I’m behind the monitors filming. I can’t tell you why. And I do love this franchise – it’s an emotionally potent story about a mother protecting her son. I think there are many people who feel as much as I do, and maybe they just have better self-possession. But I still watch this movie and cry. Sometimes, it’s because, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that worked.”
You directed second-unit action on the opening of Thor: The Dark World for Alan Taylor, who then went on to direct Terminator: Genisys. Did you talk with him about Dark Fate before signing on?
Small world. I didn’t, though, because I don’t really know him. Even though I worked on the first three minutes of Thor, I spoke to him once, and it wasn’t even about the movie. I am good friends with Laeta Kalogridis, though, who wrote Genisys, so I knew how the whole experience went down. And it didn’t sound like it was a lot of fun for everybody.
So hearing that it was not a fun experience, you weren’t wary of coming on to another Terminator movie?
No, because I thought that the reasons it wasn’t such a pleasant experience were not things that would apply to me. I was scared for a different kind of reason. You know: You don’t want to mess with Jim Cameron. And with Linda [Hamilton], you don’t want to disappoint her, either. She saw the movie last night for the first time, and I only realized at the end of the screening how tense I was, because my jaw muscles were aching. I was lucky she liked it, and didn’t kill me when the lights went up.
You’re in a unique situation with Hamilton here; other than Dante’s Peak, she hasn’t really headlined a movie this big since T2, which was directed by her husband at the time, who is now your producer. Is there a natural tension there that needs to be worked through?
No, because Jim and Linda’s relationship is cordial, but there’s no her going to him above me. That would never happen. And she’s wonderful – she and Natalia [Reyes] and Mackenzie [Davis] fell in love on-set. And I’m always on-set talking to people, because I want to have this really good atmosphere. I’m not a screamer. I like everyone to have a good time. And I want to hear you, because I don’t feel like I have to win all the time.
On the question of collaboration, what was it like working with Cameron?
Because I’m not king? He has final cut. He shared it with David Ellison at Skydance. But really that means that Jim has final cut.
He gave an interview recently where he said that “the blood is still being scrubbed off the walls”...
Yes, an apt metaphor. Look, Jim is the smartest guy in the room, always, but that doesn’t mean he’s always right. And I don’t believe that I’m always right, and I think that’s a benefit for a filmmaker because it invites a level of critique in the process. There are so many good ideas in the film that are not mine, and there are so many bad ideas that I would’ve pursued if somebody didn’t feel enough freedom to say, “Tim, this isn’t working.” That’s the way I work. Jim is more autocratic, and more power to him. Who’s been more successful than James Cameron? I can’t argue with that. But I felt like I knew the characters in this movie, and I felt that I knew this movie. And you know, he wasn’t there on the day. He wasn’t involved, he didn’t go to the sets, he doesn’t know the dynamic of these scenes in the balance.
So anyway, we had some disagreements. And sometimes, he let me have it and sometimes he didn’t. I probably would’ve changed more the [Skynet-like] Legion story that’s in the future to be something more different than what we had in T2. It’s a negotiation. On his end it’s, “How beaten down do you want the filmmaker to feel?” and on my end it’s, “How bad do I want the process to be?” But I always listen, and if it’s a good idea, I take it. Why not listen to everybody’s good idea? But it’s tough to put your heart and soul into something for two years and care deeply about a point and not get to do it. I’m not sure I want to put myself in that position again. But that said, I’m very proud of the movie.
Looking at the credits of Dark Fate, there are five writers credited with the story, including Jim, plus Billy Ray’s credit is added to the actual screenplay. For the average moviegoer, that number of writers is kind of a warning sign. Can you break it down?
I understand that, but it’s not true in this case. What that translates to is that we’re hoping to start a new arc of multiple films. [Producers] wanted to simultaneously work on that whole universe, so our screenwriters’ room was full of writers. David Goyer and Justin Rhodes were going to write the first one, Josh Friedman was going to do the second one, and Charles Eglee was going to write the third. But they wisely wanted everyone in the room to talk together about the full arc of things. Contract-wise, it works, because they were in the room when we broke the story for this whole thing.
Then, Justin and David wrote a first draft of the script, and it didn’t quite work. We brought in Billy and he did a page-one rewrite. But we kept the general arc of the story, and we kept the action beats because we’d all agreed on what the set-pieces would be, and I’d been doing previsualization. In Goyer’s case, he didn’t really follow my action, which was problematic. But Billy was like, “I love this action, give it to me, and I’ll make the characters sing.” To me, it feels like the script is 2½ writers: Billy and I, and then Jim wrote a few specific scenes, like the house where we meet T-800. So it’s not as messy and chaotic as you might think.
On the topic of world-building, this is a direct sequel to T2. Which means it erases the other three movies and TV series [Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles] from continuity. What do you say to the fans who invested time in that universe?
Sorry? I don’t know what else you can say. You have to make room on the stage for new characters, and that’s going to piss people off. But to me, it was always Sarah Connor’s story, and those other movies explored the John Connor story quite extensively. Maybe some people like the story of John. But I like Sarah better.
This interview has been condensed and edited
Terminator: Dark Fate opens Nov. 1.
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