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Peter Sagal – After James Cameron Had Lunch With the Terminator, the World Changed Forever

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The Oscars are upon us, and James Cameron, after a ten year break in which he invented a bunch of new filmmaking technologies — and we presume arranged his piles of cash into interesting works of abstract sculpture — will once again walk into the Academy Awards ceremony daring anybody to vote against the most successful movie of all time. As they say, once is happenstance, twice is just showing off.

What’s fun to contemplate is that Avatar, or Titanic, or pretty much anything else he’s ever done never would have happened without a fateful lunch in a Los Angeles restaurant one afternoon in 1983 — a lunch that changed filmmaking and politics and led to the minting of more money than the founding of the actual National Mint.

Cameron, then a young director trying to break out of the low budget grind-house action flick world, was trying to get a chance to direct his own science fiction script called The Terminator, and he was pitching Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder turned second-tier movie star, on the idea of playing the hero. And then either Arnold or Cameron — accounts differ — had what was the greatest and most consequential idea of their respective lives: Schwarzenegger should instead play the villain.

As Cameron himself admits, the idea made no sense. If the hyper-intelligent evil machines of the future were going to create a killer cyborg to infiltrate the rebel human population, why would they make it look like a steroidal freakazoid with arms the size of culverts? And further – just to be petty – if the cyborg can imitate any human voice, why would it speak in a flat affectless Austrian accent?

Instead, Cameron’s Terminator had always been conceived as a blank everyman, terrifying not because of his physical presence but despite it. He had hoped the role would be played by his friend Lance Henrikson, who once showed up at the offices of a production company in character, with his ill-fitting “stolen” clothes and blank eyes, just to demonstrate how eerie he could be. It didn’t work, although the secretaries were freaked out.

But beyond getting the movie made, and making it a hit, Schwarzenegger actually found his own perfect role: one in which his limited skills as an actor played to the character’s advantage. His inability to express human emotion — if you don’t believe me, watch his “love scenes” with Sandahl Bergman in Conan the Barbarian — seems right for once, as is the strange way he leverages his bulk through a room. No highly trained professional actor, through technique and preparation, could have appeared as artificial as Schwarzenegger did just by showing up on set.

I read a huge amount of science fiction growing up, so for me the genre felt more real, sometimes, than real life, and my complaint about the scifi movies of my youth was how artificial it all looked… all the clean white surfaces and jumpsuits seemed self-consciously ridiculous and dorky. So one of my favorite scenes in The Terminator is a surprisingly quiet one.  Michale Biehn, as the hero Kyle Reese, is being held at the police station, and a psychologist, played by the perfectly smarmy Earl Boen, is explaining to the cops why Reese’s story of being a lone man from the future, unable to bring any “ray-guns” or high technology with him, is a perfect psychopathic fantasy: he can’t prove who he is, so therefore he doesn’t have to. What’s genius about it is that it’s also a great scenario for a low-budget action picture.

Cameron’s scenario (and yes, we know it was stolen from Harlan Ellison, shut up) allowed him to concentrate his minimal FX budget on the a few establishing shots of the future, and of course Stan Winston’s stop-motion killer robot skeleton in the final sequence. In the rest of the movie, he’s like his hero, Reese,  improvising with whatever cars, guns, streets and fire he can find in 1984 Los Angeles. For me, the result proved that sc-fi didn’t have to be dorky, and instead established a gritty, blood and bone approach that would come to dominate the genre… as well as setting a new standard for kinetic action movies.

Thus: with the huge success of The Terminator Cameron became an action auteur, never having to improvise with a low budget again. And along the way to Titanic and Avatar, with Terminator 2 he was able to depict a battle between Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and something like his original conception, an affectless, murderous everyman (played by Robert Patrick) whose blandness makes him even more terrifying.

And Schwarzenegger, having found the role he was born to play — an implacable, inhuman killer with a machine gun — played it again and again, sternly gunning down whole rooms of men until he leveraged his global fame and money into a successful run to be Governor of California. And even Lance Henriksen finally got to play a cyborg, in Cameron’s Aliens. He was pretty creepy, too.

Not bad work for a day’s lunch.

Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, heard by 3 million listeners each week, via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He’s also a playwright and once, without meaning to, wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.

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