It’s not very often that a film comes along that will launch the career of one of the most financially successful directors of the modern age of cinema. It’s even rarer that it will also make the star of the film a household name, especially with a name that was so difficult to pronounce, he had been told that he would never be a star because of it. But that is exactly what The Terminator did to James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The original idea came from a fever dream James Cameron had in March 1982. Cameron had collapsed onto his bed with a temperature of 102 degrees, and in his sleep he conjured up an image of a chrome skeleton emerging from fire, torn in half and dragging itself across the floor with a kitchen knife. Cameron sketched the image down and one of the first things he thought was how he hadn’t seen anything like that in a movie before. That image then inspired him to start writing a treatment, which was initially just called Terminator. Cameron wanted to appeal to the kids who go to the cinema to see a cool action film, but also the older academics who would think there was some sort of socio-political significance hidden behind all the action: An intelligent Sci-Fi Action film with a stylish slasher-movie edge to it.
Knowing full well that he wanted to direct the film, Cameron made sure to think about the concerns around budget when writing. He would not be able to create any huge action sequences that would take weeks to film; everything had to be condensed and smaller. And he had to consider the setting: a modern-day Earth, with a couple of scenes taking place in the future. Having worked in Special Effects before, Cameron had an understanding of what could be done for a small amount of money. He handwrote the 48-page treatment and took the pages to a local typist, who turned them into professional documents that could be taken to studios.
He wanted to take the idea of the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances to its most extreme. Thinking about who would be the most unlikely mother of the saviour of the human race: a 19-year-old waitress who works at Bob’s Big Boy. Cameron once described the concept as Hitchcock on steroids. Not only would it be high-concept sci-fi, with action and suspense, Cameron also injected a love story into the script. The man sent back to protect Sarah Connor is also in love with her and becomes the father of humanity’s saviour, John Connor.
With all these different layers to the script, it was unpleasant to see doors being closed in Cameron’s face at every turn. Even his potential agent told him it was a bad idea and he should do something else, so Cameron walked away from that agent rather than compromise his vision. In order to secure his goal as being the director, he sold the production rights of The Terminator to close friend Gale Anne Hurd’s new production company Pacific Western Productions for a single dollar. In the deal there was a clause written in that whatever deal was made with a studio, it would be Cameron who would direct. Several deals were offered by major studios on the condition that they cut Cameron out as director, but Hurd stood by her partner and refused even if it cost them a deal. Her deal with Cameron was more important, and she stood by it every step of the way.
Hemdale was a small production company formed by actor David Hemmings and his manager John Daly. Daly had been known to take a risk on new talent. He took a meeting with Cameron, who screened select scenes from Piranha II, the only scenes that he had actually directed. Cameron begged Daly to ignore the rest of the film and just look at those scenes. Cameron also felt he had already found his Terminator; his friend Lance Henriksen. Henriksen and Cameron had become close friends through Piranha II, and Cameron was certain that Henriksen would be the perfect person to portray The Terminator, which at this point was intended to be more chameleonic in design. Henriksen and Cameron came up with a perfect plan to convince the studio that he was the right choice for the role of The Terminator. Henriksen was to turn up early to a meeting dressed in a torn T-shirt, leather jacket and motorcycle boots, kick open the door and march through the Hemdale lobby up to the receptionist and ask “Is Jim here?” When she said no, he would sit and wait, staring into space. The plan was executed with one minor tweak: unbeknownst to Cameron, Henriksen took the gold foil from a cigarette packet and wrapped it over his teeth. In practice the plan went off smoothly, the receptionist was terrified and they were apparently about ten seconds away from calling the police when Cameron arrived. This little stunt impressed Daly, who saw Cameron immediately, and agreed to invest in The Terminator with Cameron as director.
Meanwhile, Gale Anne Hurd had approached Orion. Senior Vice President of Production, Mike Medavoy, read the script and loved it. He found the central character to be great and saw that it could be made on a low budget. Hurd would be responsible for brokering a deal between three parties for the budget: Orion, Hemdale and HBO, who had claimed the TV rights. The budget was set at $4 million, which adjusted for inflation would be just over $10 million today – very low budget for a Hollywood production. There were suggestions made by the investors to adjust the script, most of them ignored – including one to have Kyle Reese have a robot dog – however, HBO suggested making the love story aspect a more central part, which Cameron agreed was a good idea.
With the deal in place, they then set their sights on casting. Henriksen had been rejected by one of the producers who was overheard saying “I don’t care who you use for The Terminator, not him.” Henriksen would still appear in the film, only in the smaller role of Detective Vulkovich. O.J Simpson was originally suggested by Mike Medavoy, but Cameron didn’t like the idea. At some point Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name came up, but Cameron was under the impression that he was interested in playing the character of Kyle Reese, which would have been ridiculous. Cameron wanted to avoid being forced into casting Schwarzenegger as Reese, so he went into his meeting with the idea of irritating him to the point where he wouldn’t want to work with Cameron. The plan went out of the window as soon as they started talking. They talked about motorbikes, health and the business. Schwarzenegger started giving Cameron advice on the character of The Terminator: when using firearms, whoever plays the part should never look at the gun, when firing them they should never blink, and when speaking they should talk like a recording on a Dictaphone. Without him even knowing it, Schwarzenegger was selling Cameron on his being The Terminator. Towards the end of the meeting Cameron blurted out “You’ve got to play the Terminator.” Schwarzenegger was shocked, as he had been looking at it from the point of view that he would be playing Reese. After the meeting, Cameron drove up to Hemdale and went straight to John Daly’s office and told him that Schwarzenegger was perfect for the Terminator. Daly said to Cameron “If you like Arnold, we are going to get him.”
With their lead cast, they moved onto casting the rest of the characters, and shooting was scheduled for the summer of 1983 in Toronto. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn were cast as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. Biehn almost didn’t get the role after his initial audition. He had unknowingly spoken with a more of a Southern accent after attending a 3-hour audition earlier that day for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They saw him again, this time without the Southern drawl, and he was cast. Cameron was particularly impressed with the way he handled the expositional dialogue and saw that he could convey the toughness but also the softer side of the character. Hamilton had a look that was classic Hollywood starlet but also had a defiance and intelligence about her. She fit the bill perfectly, and even though the shoot would prove to be taxing for Hamilton, getting frustrated, angry, tired, dirty and upset it would all ultimately inform her performance because those were all the things that Sarah Connor was going through herself.
At some point Dino de Laurentiis had found out about Schwarzenegger’s casting and rushed the Conan sequel into production, which delayed production on The Terminator for 9 months. However, they used the 9-month hiatus smartly. They were able to storyboard the entire film and make sure everything was as tightly prepped as possible. Biehn was taken to rifle ranges and would spend time practicing with firearms, he would also train in martial arts and hotwiring cars, and all the other skills his character would need to survive.
It’s impossible to talk about The Terminator without mentioning Stan Winston. Stan was instrumental in turning Cameron’s rough designs into an incredible and terrifying vision of the future. He was innovative in his designs and ideas and is seen to be the best special effects make-up artist of all time. Sadly he passed away in 2008 at the age of 62, but he left behind a legacy of unforgettable designs that still entertain, terrify and inspire people to this day.
Production finally started on the 8th February 1984, and the shoot would wrap on the 12th May. The majority of location shooting was done at night, which meant they had very little time to get the shots needed compared with day shooting. The film had a distinctive look to it because of the night shooting. For example, the scene where the Terminator arrives and kills the two punks (one of them an early role for Bill Paxton), has an incredible look to it. Use of shadow and lighting in the scene really maximises the imposing nature of the Terminator. Because the shots had to be captured as cheaply as they could, the shot of Kyle Reese arriving in the alley was achieved by having a stuntman lay across a piece of wood that was suspended 9 feet in the air, then he just rolled off the wood, hitting the actual concrete ground of the alley. Biehn commented about seeing the stuntman hit the concrete hard straight onto his shoulders, elbow and hips.
The Tech Noir nightclub was a recently closed restaurant, the art department did such a good job making it look like a real nightclub that on one night a queue of people started forming. The name was a little meta joke that Hurd and Cameron came up with – “Tech Noir” because the film itself is about the dark side of technology. The Tech Noir sequence was notable because it was the only time that Schwarzenegger, Hamilton and Biehn were on screen at the same time. The slow-motion sequence where the music fades out and turns to the score with the Terminator pulling out his gun and aiming it at Sarah’s head just before Reese intervenes is still incredible to this day. The editing, the music, the cinematography, the lighting, and the performances are all pitch perfect. The tension in that sequence is incredible, and it is one of my favourite sequences in the whole film. The action moves into an alley where the Terminator leaps onto Reese and Sarah’s car before punching through the glass. The mechanical arm they used to achieve this was so heavy that it was actually cheaper and easier to move the background to show that the car was moving.
The film itself feels very much like a continuous chase scene. Usually with expositional moments, the action stops while a character explains everything to the audience, but with The Terminator, all the exposition is carried out while the action is moving along. As they are speeding away from The Terminator, Reese is explaining about the future. There is further exposition later in the film in a stationary setting when Dr Silberman is brought in to question Reese, but the bulk of the exposition is told during the chase sequences.
The Terminator itself only has 21 minutes of screen time and 16 lines of dialogue, not including the overdubbed lines when he mimics a police officer and Sarah’s mother. The famous line “I’ll be back,” was actually argued about between Schwarzenegger and Cameron; Schwarzenegger felt that the Terminator would say “I will be back,” as it was more like what a machine would say, while Cameron insisted on “I’ll be back.” Another sequence gives the audience insight into how the Terminator’s processor works when he is in the hotel room and is given several responses to a question and selects the appropriate response. Schwarzenegger’s performance is very understated and subtle at times. When he scans the surroundings, you see the eyes move to the side as far as they can go and then the head moves allowing the eyes to keep moving. However, when it comes to the action, the Terminator becomes focused on its objective, only stopping to move obstacles out of the way. The shootout in the police station is the biggest action sequence in the film, and it is also telling of the character. The Terminator only kills people who are in its way; it doesn’t search out police officers to gun down in its quest to locate Sarah Connor. It took an entire week to shoot that sequence, with thousands of squibs going off.
The last big sequence in the film is the tanker chase through the streets of Los Angeles, culminating in the tanker explosion. The tanker explosion was actually a miniature, as the location that they shot the initial photography was close to an LAPD armoury so they couldn’t blow up the tanker for real. A 1/6 miniature was created and filled with 42 separate charges. Each charge would be set off individually starting at the back of the truck heading towards the cab to give a more realistic representation of how it would explode. The truck was pulled with piano wire and shot at 120 frames per second. On the first take the front axle was ripped from the model but the explosives had already been ignited, so they had to build and prep another model in just three days.
The finale was shot in a Jelly Factory in the City of Industry in Los Angeles. The finale almost didn’t happen, as Mike Medavoy had seen a rough cut and told Cameron that once the truck exploded the film was over. Cameron stood his ground and told Medavoy that he was going to finish the film. The stop motion Terminator model was used for full length shots of the Terminator limping after Sarah and Reese, and they had built an upper torso that they could use for close up shots. The upper torso was attached to a member of the crew’s shoulders and they would walk around with the camera keeping them out of shot. This helped the finale as the stop motion animation was not fantastic due to the limited budget.
Once principal photography had been completed, they realised that they missed some necessary inserts, so there were a lot of guerrilla film making techniques employed to get the shots they required. One shot was of the Terminator stealing a car; this was achieved with Schwarzenegger being driven in the back of a van to the location and the car placed nearby. The camera was set up quickly ,and Schwarzenegger got out of the van, walked up to the car, punched the glass out, got into the car and drove off. But the wildest story was that of the final shot of Sarah driving off down the road in the desert. They had no permits to shoot, and it was a desolate highway. No cars had come or gone in the entire time they were there setting up the shot, and they were just about to start shooting, when a small dot of a car appeared on the horizon: a police car. The officer pulled over to see what was happening and asked to see their shooting permit. Gene Warren Jr, an effects worker for Fantasy II, had brought his son to help out, and he thought quickly and explained to the officer that he and his friends were helping his son with a student film. The officer asked them to move the camera from off the road and then said he would hold traffic for them.
The shoot was completed, and editing was well underway. The only ingredient that was remaining was the score. Brad Fiedel, one of the composers brought in to look at the film, got so engrossed in it that he actually yelled out at one moment towards the end “If he gets up one more time, I’m leaving.” He thought at that point he had blown his chance to work on the film, but Cameron and Fiedel worked closely together, with Cameron giving Fiedel input on the score. Fiedel created a score that was very chilling and a repeating beat whenever the Terminator was around that represented its heartbeat. On top of these elements, he also composed one of the most iconic themes of all time: the theme for The Terminator is recognisable instantly to most people, and it is a wonderful composition.
There was a small screening for critics before the film had a general release, hoping to drum up some support for the film. The critic screening worked, and all the critics that attended loved it. It had a limited advertisement budget which Orion spent on the first week, hoping to recoup their costs and make a small profit. They didn’t expect the whirlwind that would come. It opened on the 26th October 1984, taking the number one spot and making back its budget in the first weekend. It stayed at number one for three weeks, getting by through word of mouth alone because of the poor advertising campaign that didn’t sell the film for what it actually was. The film made $38.3 million at the US Box Office and went on to make a further $50 million abroad, it was a critical and financial hit. The film made a household name out of Arnold Schwarzenegger and cemented James Cameron’s position as a talented writer and director. He used the clout he had got from The Terminator to direct the script he had written for a sequel to Alien. Despite the success, Cameron still feels that the film could have done better if Orion had pushed it more.
I love The Terminator; I am in the minority that prefers it over the sequel. I think that it is an incredible achievement of technical mastery and smart storytelling. Yes, some of the effects don’t hold up well today, but when you consider the shoestring budget they had, it’s hard to not be impressed with how they did work out. There were so many clever work-arounds implemented to get the shots they needed, from an off-screen person blowing cigarette smoke across the frame in the shot of the Terminator’s death, to them spray painting a pair of brown boots black for an insert. The experimentation that was done to get what they needed is proof that you don’t need a $100 million budget to make a great film as long as you surround yourself with skilled people who know their craft and have a good story with interesting characters. While Terminator 2 is seen by many to be a marvel of Special Effects work, The Terminator, to me, will always be the better film, because I just think that amongst other things it is a tightly-edited masterpiece with a wonderful story and incredible performances. Schwarzenegger is chilling in the lead, and I wish that he would play more villains, because he excels in The Terminator. The real stand out for me, though, is the evolution of Sarah Connor: you see her go from the helpless damsel to the tough strong woman she could be.
Matt is a huge film and TV buff who studied film and moving image production at university. In his spare time he enjoys reading comics and books, the occasional gaming session and writing novels.