McG Interview, Terminator Salvation

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We go head to head to fight the future with McG, Director of Terminator Salvation! We sat down with McG to talk about his new film, Terminator Salvation, at the Roadshow Screening at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Hollywood. The film stars Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, and Anton Yelchin and is planned to be the first in a 3-film story arc set in the post-Judgment Day world if all goes well at the box office. Terminator Salvation was shot on location in Taos, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, New Mexico and is currently in post production at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. It’s slated for a Memorial Day release.

McG told us, “It just gets me thinking about what went into the making of this movie and why. I always say in fairness I wasn’t interested in making another Terminator picture. I wasn’t a huge fan of the third one and I subscribe to what James Cameron said which was the story was told at the end of the second one. I didn’t really want to do it but then I heard the take on the picture was the post-Judgment Day so therefore there’s the prospect of making a movie that takes place during that period that was only ever alluded to ever so briefly in the earlier pictures and that peaked my interest.”

The film starts present day where we meet a guy who’s been condemned to death. It’s really a becoming story about a guy discovering the value of human life, about a kid discovering what it means to be a hero, and about Connor learning that he is indeed not just a high school photographer that got bit by a spider. McG didn’t like the initial script very much but he saw promise in it especially if he found the right actor to play John Connor.

“In order for this to be something real, I would have to protect the film with a great John Connor. Given your choice of anybody out there, who would be the most credible, best John Connor out there that could take us into this new world? To me, the choice was really simple. It was Christian Bale.” McG met Bale in London while he was shooting The Dark Knight to try to convince him to star in the film. Bale told him if he could ever get it to a point where, with no special effects, no surround sound, no bullshit, just screening it could just really engage the audience, then they would have something to talk about.

McG accepted the challenge and talked to Jonah Nolan about the prospect of what this movie could be and they started working on the story and finally got it to a place where Christian could agree to be a part of the film. McG found himself in a spot where he had Jonah Nolan writing the picture, Christian Bale starring in the picture as John Connor, and he figured it was really gaining momentum. That’s when he decided to talk to Jim Cameron who he understood wasn’t crazy about the third picture.

McG explains, “I didn’t want to take on an undertaking of this magnitude with him not feeling good about what we were up to. I’ve got too much respect for what he did and what Schwartznegger did and it would just be a drag to make a Terminator movie if those guys didn’t like what you were doing.” So, McG went down to Avatar and talked to Jim who told him he wasn’t in favor of what he was planning to do but if he still intended to proceed, he preferred that he make a good film. He asked McG what his take was on the movie. McG told him that the reason this story was worth telling was because it happened after Judgment Day and he explained what he planned to do to make it original including the film stock that he was going to invent and the lenses he was going to use to shoot that would make it stand out from other films that had been made. Like Cameron had done with Alien, McG felt he could honor the original material and continue to tell the story to get everybody excited. Their conversation inspired McG to pursue making the film.

Next, McG spoke to Stan Winston, who created the original Terminators, the Queen Bee in Alien, Predator, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and is a legend in the film industry. “We started talking about creating a T600,” he explained. “I told him I really wanted to build it and I want it to look like a Russian tank by way of something mean and nasty, you know, that dirty future, sort of that Geiger patina that you would see in Alien pictures. Sadly, Stan passed during the making of this movie. It’s my intention to dedicate this film to his memory because he’s provided so much to all of us filmmakers.”

McG describes Bale’s work in the film, “Bale will do these scenes where there’s 2 and 3 pages of dialogue and he will be so in tune with his instrument. He will choose where to breathe, where to blink, choices of inflection, choices of physicality. It’s just stunning to watch this guy do his thing and I think therein lies the respect of the film. You look at Christian and every thing he does comes from a place of taking the source material very, very seriously.”

McG screened four very cool sequences from the film for us. He has shown footage from the film in Europe as well as in New York last week, but he told us that what we were about to see was from a new reel and had material that hadn’t seen before. He explained that we would see things that are not complete including animatics and places where the visual effects aren’t done, that he would like our reactions, would listen to what we had to say about it, and take it back to the editing room where he would continue working on it. McG told us, “Look, we’re just going to put it all out there and be real honest and respect the fan base and if we can do that, then just maybe we can pull this off.”

The first sequence was a 30-second bumper which introduces us to the film’s main characters:  Kyle Reese (Yelchin), Marcus (Worthington), and John Connor (Bale) in the post-apocalyptic world of 2018 after Skynet has destroyed much of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. Next, we saw an extended action sequence that features a young Kyle Reese accompanied by Marcus and a young girl. They encounter fellow survivors, members of the Resistance, while searching for food and supplies at an abandoned gas station, then come under attack by a giant Harvester robot. The third sequence takes place at the midpoint of the movie as it accelerates into the third act and was shot on a lake that was built out in the desert in New Mexico. Connor’s helicopter is attacked by aquatic Hydrobot Robots that live in the water, and he is forced to strike a Faustian bargain with what appears to be a machine which is against every instinct he has. Finally, we viewed an extended trailer that revealed McG’s exciting, epic vision of the Terminator world.

McG explained that the sequences featured temporary visual effects and to presume the best will come from ILM. That said, they still conveyed the exciting look, scale and intensity of the film and elicited an enthusiastic response from the press.

McG used specially developed film stock which gave the film a striking, high contrast, gritty patina to underscore the post-apocalyptic look and feel of this dark post-Judgment Day world. He explained how he wanted to achieve a very different look for the picture, “We went and got a dense stock from Kodak, a film that they don’t make any longer, and I deliberately subjected it to a bunch of heat so we’d damage the film. And then I went to Panavision and did a lot of experimentation. Their state of the art lenses are called Primo lenses and I wanted one of their old lenses called Ultra-Speed lenses which have flares and flaws and different qualities. Most importantly, when we shot the film, we processed it with 3 times as much silver as you would traditionally process a color stock – all in the interest of creating this other world patina which was the result of talking to people at Cal Tech and studying Chernobyl and discussing what the world would look, smell and taste like in a post-apocalyptic capacity. I wanted this world to have a really tactile sense and a patina of difficulty and duress.”

We asked McG about using the IMAX format, but he told us, “It wasn’t conducive to shoot it in an IMAX format but we’re going to bump it up to IMAX because it holds up very nicely and looks and sounds that much more impactful. But we did not – which was one price we had to pay for making those choices we made – we didn’t shoot in that format.”

McG explained that he sees this as an opportunity to expand the Terminator universe while honoring its legacy and keeping the fans excited. McG’s producer, Joel Michaels, who was in the audience, confirmed that Linda Hamilton who played the original Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s 1984 Terminator will provide the voice over narration which will open and close the film. In the original Terminator, Sarah recorded tapes for her son warning him about what it would take to win the war which McG evokes during the final sequence that was screened for us where Bale delivers the memorable line: “Something’s changed. This is not the future my Mother told me about.”

McG also told us that Danny Elfman’s music for the movie will take its inspiration from Brad Fiedel’s original Terminator score. He elaborated, “We were talking about using Brad but it would have felt like a continuation and what I didn’t want was a continuation in this picture, meaning first one – Schwartznegger, second one is the T1000, third one is the TX girl, and the fourth one’s a tranny. We needed to do something different. So, I think the best way to do that is to use the material that Brad has written but get a guy like Danny to ingest it, redefine it, and do his take on it. So, Brad will indeed be honored, but Danny is doing the sound.

McG also spoke to Gustavo Santaolalla who did the delicate guitar sounds from Babel and Brokeback Mountain. “I wanted those analog sounds to be the sound of the Resistance, instruments that could sound like they could survive a nuclear holocaust. And then I wanted those sounds to segue into a more mechanical sound for the machines, and I wanted Tom York from Radio Head to do that. At that time, Danny Elfman surfaced and he talked to me about the intimate understanding of how delicate human flesh is and how that should have a sound and how tough and unforgiving a machine is. We went to his haunted house and he’s got all these funky prosthetic limbs from the turn of the century and crazy stories to tell, and with a little luck, he’ll be providing a sonic landscape that both services those quiet emotional moments and the fact that this film isn’t just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, trailer, trailer, trailer, but also really long, involved, human connected scenes. But then, of course, that Wagner idea, that John Williams idea of big march, triumph sound.

McG plans to screen the film for Gov. Schwarznegger and hinted that Schwarznegger would appear in the film in some form as a respectful homage to his earlier involvement in the franchise – possibly even as a T800 Terminator Cyborg. “I spoke to Schwarznegger. We’ll be showing him the film shortly. We’ve got a lot to talk to him about in regard to the role he plays in this. This is a new idea with new Terminators and new language, but he’s such a fundamental part of it. The degree to which he’ll be a part of our film is… You’ve got to be respectful of the seat that he’s in right now. He’s a big part of it. He does wish us well and I look forward to showing him the movie.”

McG also talked about the film’s technology. “One of the fun things about this movie was the becoming of the technology. You only ever know the T800 from 2029 which is embodied by Schwarznegger going back in time doing his thing and, of course, the Robert Patrick character, T1000, etc. And like anything in technology – your car, your computer, your cell phone – it starts big and clunky and slow and gets leaner and faster and meaner all the while. This is what Kyle Reese was talking about when he says the T600s were easy to spot.  Basically, what this movie is about is the becoming of the T800. It’s ahead of schedule and that’s a problem. If that thing gets out, it’s curtains for humanity.”

“It was fun in this movie to talk about the hunter-killers that Jim had established, the transports that take people to Skynet. The movie takes a look at Skynet indeed. The moto-terminators that operate on the roads, the Harvestors that collect the people to do the research that leads to the photorealistic T800. Just like we had to kill a lot of lab rats to get to a polio vaccine, we’re the lab rats in this Terminator idea. I love a story where ‘that which makes us great will be our undoing.’ And technology, now more than ever, we’re so dependent on it, it’s so in the interest of progress. But, also, is the genie out of the bottle and is the subject matter that we’re exploring science fiction after all?”

We asked McG if there are variations on terminators that we haven’t seen. He tolds us, “The whole point is this, it’s the R&D that got us there. It’s a fundamental military construct that we need submarines under the water, we need tanks on the ground, we need big planes to move people around in the sky, we need little fighter jets. Skynet’s the same way. They’re trying to achieve their objective, they’re trying to eradicate humanity. The whole notion is the machine became conscious and decided that we were an expense so they’re trying to get rid of us and will do it by any means necessary. So we also get into the exploration of the T800 but I can’t talk about the way the T800 looks. That’s an interesting thing and T800 is a big part of the mythology. So you see the T600s, you see what we’ve got with the T700, the T1s, the hunter-killers, that Cameron put into motion, the big robot that you saw there collecting people is called the harvester. I wanted that opportunity to explore all that. Who doesn’t want some hardware worship?”

We asked McG if he was aiming for a particular rating. He responded, “We want to make the best film possible. We just don’t care about the rating. We don’t aim for the rating and we’ve been given the freedom by the head of the studio to just make the best picture possible. That’s very, very freeing. We’re just going to make the movie.” We also inquired about the film’s length which McG told us might be “a little north of 2 hours.” Again, he was not aiming for a particular length. “The movie will be the correct length to have the maximum impact and give you something to think about as you exit the theater.”

McG is very enthusiastic about Terminator Salvation. “I just want the film to speak for itself and be completely transparent and you will have an understanding of what it is because at the end of the day I’m a fan who wants to see order restored in the Terminator idea. Let’s go back to those days when we were kids and the big movies were indeed the best movies. Iron Man did it this year, The Dark Knight did it this year, and I think it’s wonderful when we can make movies that are designed to be seen by a lot of people without any artistic compromise.”

As to the film’s surprise ending, McG cautioned us, “Don’t believe the hype about the ending. The only person who knows what the ending is, is me. We’re keeping it under wraps. It’s an elliptical ending that will keep people guessing.

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