It’s been 30 years since James Cameron made his name with a futuristic sci-fi actioner starring ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, inspired by his own nightmare vision of a murderous mecha-skeleton. Shot for $5.6 million in 1984, The Terminator changed everything for Cameron and his fellow Roger Corman disciple and producer Gale Anne Hurd. The two have since carved their own influential paths – Cameron with Aliens, Titanic, and his $2.7 billion Avatar franchise, Hurd with AMC’s ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead. And they’re still proving that original ideas can be profitable in spite of Hollywood’s “fear-based” decision-making, while keeping a polite distance from the Terminator: Genisys that’s coming in 2015 like a T-800 from the future.
Cameron isn’t directly involved in Genisys, the reboot starring Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese. But he did give producer David Ellison friendly advice on how to integrate a now-67-year-old Schwarzenegger into the film.
“I wasn’t interested in producing it or working on it actively, but I did want to put in a good word for Arnold,” Cameron told me this week when he turned up to LA’s Egyptian Theatre with Hurd for The Terminator‘s 30th anniversary. “I pointed out that the outer covering (of the Terminator) was actually not synthetic, that it was organic and therefore could age. You could theoretically have a Terminator that was sent back in time, missed his target, and ended up just kind of living on in society. Because he is a learning computer and has a brain as a central processor he could actually become more human as he went along without getting discovered.”
He read the script by his Battle Angel screenwriter and Avatar EP Laeta Kalogridis, but won’t dish on what he really thinks of the reboot. “It’s not my problem, that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “It’s like being a grandparent and the kids come over then you can send them back. I think the chain’s been broken by the films in between. When I walked away from it I had to do it with the sense that I can’t invest in this emotionally anymore. If it’s not good, it doesn’t really bother me personally.”
Still: “Original ideas are rare in mainstream filmmaking,” lamented Cameron to the American Cinematheque crowd. It’s no coincidence he’s in early prep on multiple sequels to Avatar, the biggest and most successful gamble of his career. “There has to be some underlying IP in order to gather enough momentum for studio executives to make decisions the way they make decisions, which is fear-based,” he said, drawing cheers from the SRO audience. “They have to fear making the movie less than not making it. The moment they’re afraid the guy across the street will make the movie and they’ll look stupid – that’s when they’ll make the film. There’s no sense of ‘I want to make this movie, I believe in this movie.’”
Cameron’s lean and mean Terminator fought its share of uphill battles before and after filming. “Ninety-nine people rejected The Terminator,” said Hurd. “All you need is the 100th to say yes.” Even when Orion Pictures and Hemdale Pictures said yes, Cameron and Hurd had to stand their ground, like when Orion head Mike Medavoy insisted they cast two guys he’d met at a party: O.J. Simpson as the T-800 opposite Schwarzenegger as Kyle Reese. “I think I was on my knees retching,” Cameron recalled. He met with Arnold anyway and cast him after a meeting when the cash-strapped filmmaker forgot his wallet (“I didn’t have any money, so why would I need an ATM card?”) and the Conan star paid for lunch.
The rest was history – kinda. “The head of marketing for Orion Pictures at the time told us it’s not a science fiction film – it’s a down and dirty action exploitation film that’ll come and go in one week,” said Cameron. The studio was scared to show it to critics lest it not make it to a second weekend. After a single press screening, The Terminator opened at #1 with $4 million in 1984 dollars.
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“If The Terminator were made now, it would be very difficult to get made,” Hurd told me. “What great films share is that they’re character-driven. The plot revolves around choices the characters make, and the characters propel us into the story. Audiences respond to that. Studios, unfortunately, are not taking the same kinds of risks. If something doesn’t already exist as a successful book or comic book or game, it’s very hard to get original films made.”
Hurd followed The Terminator with Aliens, producing for Cameron what would become one of the best sequels of all time. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day arguably also holds that honor.) “One of the hardest things was working in England in a place that was not receptive to a female producer,” said Cameron. “It was horrific for me and it was twice as bad for Gale,” who was asked, How can a little girl produce a big movie like this?
A lot’s changed for Hurd since then. Over 30 features as producer or exec producer followed, including Alien Nation, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Armageddon, two Hulks, and two Punisher comic book movies. In 2010 she launched The Walking Dead with Frank Darabont, shepherding the Emmy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated uberviolent zombie drama to television – which is where she’s staying for the time being.
“People didn’t think horror would be anything more than a niche that would never break out to appeal to wide audiences (on television),” she told me. “The Walking Dead was a gamechanger. But the message hasn’t necessarily gotten through to people who program at networks, which is that it’s not the zombies that people are following, it’s the characters.” Typical network notes are “Less character, more boom,” according to Hurd, but her cable overlords at AMC surprised by letting The Walking Dead take its time to unfold.
Now that The Walking Dead is dominating going into its fifth season, will it amble its way onto the big screen? “Right now we’ve got our hands full – we’ve got what we call the Mothership and the companion series that we’ll be working on a pilot for,” said Hurd. “That’s a lot of Walking Dead and we don’t want to overexpose it. There are already novels and video games and comic books. I think if there is a time and a place for a movie, it’ll happen. But we just can’t look at it as commerce. There has to be a story that works and a reason to do it as opposed to just looking at it as dollar signs.”
Cameron, who must’ve kicked himself for selling the original Terminator rights for $1 years ago, could buy them back again in 2019. For now, his mind is on Pandora – but he doesn’t count out the possibility that someone someday could remake Avatar, either: “With Avatar I have a whole world and the people and critters in it to shepherd, but it’s not an infinite world. Beyond that, it’s open season. I’ll be dead by then and some young punk can redo it.”