Movie Article

'The Terminator': An Oral History

The cast and crew remember the film that launched a $1.4 billion franchise and cemented their place in pop culture forever

Image credit: Everett Collection

The Terminator

Thirty years ago, a killing machine from 2029 — assuming the form of an Austrian bodybuilder — arrived with a lethal directive to alter the future. That he certainly did. The Terminator, made for $6.4 million by a couple of young disciples of B-movie king Roger Corman, became one of the defining sci-fi films of all time. Despite grossing $38 million, it grew into a phenomenon, spawning a five-film franchise that's taken in $1.4 billion to date and securing a place on the National Film Registry.

The movie launched the career of James Cameron, who went on to direct the top two box office earners of all time, Avatar and Titanic. It also boosted Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose monotone delivery and muscle-bound swagger made a cyborg assassin the height of cool. The actor, now filming next summer's Terminator: Genesis in New Orleans, took a break to reminisce about his most indelible role. Settling for a landline call after four failed attempts to FaceTime — the former California governor's favorite mode of communication — Schwarzenegger quipped, ''Obviously we need James Cameron to provide the technology to link us.'' His Terminator comrades also shared their memories via phone — just like it was 1984.

1 DEATH-METAL NIGHTMARE

It all started in 1981 with a dream. Cameron, then a 26-year-old model maker and art director for Corman, was in Rome attempting to get his name off the ignominious Piranha II: The Spawning, a low-rent horror sequel he had directed for five days before being fired.

JAMES CAMERON (director-coscreenwriter)
Nightmares are a business asset; that's the way I look at it. I was sick, I was broke, I had a high fever, and I had a dream about this metal death figure coming out of a fire. And the implication was that it had been stripped of its skin by the fire and exposed for what it really was. When I have some particularly vivid image, I'll draw it or I'll write some notes, and that goes on to this day.

Returning to Los Angeles, Cameron showed his sketches to Gale Anne Hurd, a 26-year-old Corman assistant. She would soon become, in succession, Cameron's writing partner, producer, wife, and ex-wife.

CAMERON
Gale was working for Roger on a movie called Humanoids From the Deep, and they were doing reshoots of some teenagers in a pup tent getting raped by slimy creatures from the swamp. She was young and supersmart. I showed her what I was working on, and she thought it was pretty cool.

GALE ANNE HURD (producer-coscreenwriter)
He told me about the dream he had of the metal endoskeleton, and the whole story came together as a result of that stirring image.

CAMERON
We both were committed to the same principle. It could be shot out in the streets of L.A., cheaply, guerrilla-style.

HURD
We had what we called a script-ment. It was 40 pages, single-spaced typed. We batted ideas back and forth and always kept in mind that if we wanted to not only sell this script but produce and direct, it had to be at a budget level that wasn't intimidating to investors.

Crucial to both Cameron and Hurd was the idea of a strong heroine — hence Sarah Connor, a 19-year-old waitress who is targeted by the Terminator because she will give birth to a future rebel leader.

HURD
There's a tradition of male characters who go to war, who are in the boxing ring, who rise to be the corporate titan, you name it. But Jim has always found women to be the more compelling parts to write.

CAMERON
People think that I was a typical male director who was brought to task by a strong female producer and forced to do these themes. But they have connected the dots in the wrong way. My respect for strong women is what attracted me to Gale. It's what made me want to work with her. Ultimately, it's what made me want to be married to her. When we went into [1989's] The Abyss, we were already divorced but we still wanted to work together because we knew how strong the creative partnership was.

Once they had a full script, Hurd and Cameron shopped it around to studios, eventually getting it to Orion Pictures and two allies from their Corman days.

CAMERON
It was pretty clear that the studios were only interested in buying the script; they were not interested in me as a filmmaker. I was actually worse than a first-time director because I had directed a little bit on Piranha II and it was a piece of garbage.

FRANCES DOEL (Orion creative executive)
One of the senior Orion partners in New York said, ''But I don't understand these comic-book pictures.'' He was a very cultured gentleman. But I was interested in having a female character who was active, not simply somebody's girlfriend.

BARBARA BOYLE (Orion's executive VP of production)
I completely loved the script. When we finally pitched it to [Orion president] Mike Medavoy, Gale and I did all the talking. I had this whole yap, saying it's about taking control of the present to influence what will happen in the future.

2 HERTZ RENT-A-STAR

Orion chief Mike Medavoy agreed to finance the film, but on one condition: It needed a major star.

CAMERON
Medavoy came to me and Gale and he said, ''Are you sitting down? You must sit down. I want O.J. Simpson for the Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the good guy, whatever his name is.''

MIKE MEDAVOY
That did come out of my mouth. At the time, O.J. Simpson had one of those commercials for Hertz where he jumped over a counter and ran to get a rental car. It was all of that athletic stuff, which I thought the Terminator should have.

CAMERON
Gale and I just looked at each other and thought, ''You've got to be f---ing kidding me.'' Mind you, this was before O.J. was actually a killer. We might have reconsidered after he had killed his wife. [Laughs] This was when everybody loved him, and ironically that was part of the problem — he was this likable, goofy, kind of innocent guy. [Laughs] Plus, frankly I wasn't interested in an African-American man chasing around a white girl with a knife. It just felt wrong. [In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; a civil court later awarded a judgment against him for their wrongful deaths.]

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (The Terminator)
Mike Medavoy came up to me at a screening and told me that they already had the Terminator cast with O.J. Simpson, but they would like me to play Kyle Reese. And he told me I should go meet with the guy who's going to direct it.

CAMERON
The Arnold thing was harder to deal with, because he had just come out with Conan the Barbarian, so I had to think of a way to torpedo the idea. I was walking out to meet Arnold for lunch to discuss Reese, and the last thing I said to my roommate was ''Do I owe you any money? Because I have to go pick a fight with Conan.''

SCHWARZENEGGER
I could visualize very clearly what the Terminator should look like. And so when I met Cameron to talk about Kyle Reese, I gave him all these points: This is what you should do with the Terminator, this is how the Terminator should act.

CAMERON
I went to lunch to pull ''creative differences,'' but I actually liked him. I was studying him at the restaurant, just watching the light from the window on his face and thinking, ''Holy crap, what a face! Forget the Reese thing. Arnold would make a hell of a Terminator.''

SCHWARZENEGGER
I said, ''No, no, no — look, the guy has 17 lines.'' I didn't want to do that. I was building my career, being a leading man and not being a villain. But Cameron said that he'd shoot it in such a way that all the evil stuff that I do will be totally excused by audiences because I'm a cool machine. And so cool that some of the people will cheer.

CAMERON
We didn't change a line of dialogue. I didn't change my storyboards, but all of a sudden he was this big formidable guy — a human bulldozer, like a panzer tank. Originally, the Terminator was supposed to be this anonymous guy in the crowd, you know, the killer could be anybody. Arnold stands out in a crowd. But it gave the film power in a way I hadn't anticipated.

3 MASTER PLASTER

TV actress Linda Hamilton was chosen to play Sarah Connor, and Michael Biehn (The Fan) was cast as Kyle Reese, who also comes from the future to guard Sarah. For the integral F/X work, Hurd enlisted Stan Winston, with whom Cameron would work until Winston's death in 2008. First they had to create the machine look of the title character.

JOHN ROSENGRANT (special effects)
Doing the full-body life cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger — wow, that took a lot of plaster bandage.

SHANE MAHAN (special effects)
I took the head cast of Arnold and sculpted it down. It was kind of a reverse forensics study, and the result is that the metal skull incorporates Arnold's cheekbones, brow lines, and jawline.

TOM WOODRUFF JR. (special effects)
I ended up sculpting the spine around a casting of my wrist and forearm because I was puppeteering the head for close-ups. For all the shots at the end when the Terminator is getting pounded by a lead pipe by Michael Biehn, it was my hand in there also getting pummeled. At one point, I lost the feeling in my fingers, and later that year Cameron sent me a Christmas card that said, ''Merry Christmas. Hope the feeling comes back to your fingers someday.''

4 BLUE STEEL

Filming began in March 1984 in L.A., with most of the shooting done at night to keep costs down.

CAMERON
We looked for streets that had mercury-vapor lights, because I knew we were going to need available lighting. We didn't have any time, and we didn't have the electrical budget. Even when we did interiors, we did them at night.

BOYLE
Nighttime, inexpensive, guerrilla filmmaking — it was so typically Corman in its execution.

CAMERON
[Cinematographer] Adam Greenberg had a thick Polish accent and he would say [imitating the accent], ''There is nothing here! How I expose the negative?'' And he'd just throw up his hands.

SCHWARZENEGGER
Jim was always aware of that blue look, giving the movie the look of steel at all times — that night look, chilly look, the kind of look that made you say, ''I don't want to be stuck there.''

ROSENGRANT
We were in downtown L.A. and Arnold went into a restaurant in full Terminator dress and said, ''I need a table for four, please,'' and the host guy freaked out.

MAHAN
Night shoots are tough in general, but especially when you're going at that speed.

LINDA HAMILTON (Sarah Connor)
We were working in the Kern's fruit factory, slick juice running on the floor, covering holes you couldn't see. And we had to work eight days in a row, and this was day nine. And I finally thought, ''This director is definitely rooting for the machines and not the people.''

WOODRUFF
Terminator was a grueling shoot. You hear all these stories about how sharp and critical Jim can be — all true, but all in an effort to make the best movie possible.

5 FEELING THE LOVE

In the summer of 1984, Cameron showed a rough cut of the movie to Orion executives. According to the director, the screening was ''disastrous.''

BOYLE
[Orion chairman] Arthur Krim said to me, ''You made exactly what I was afraid you'd make: an exploitation picture in the Corman style.''

HURD
They had such little faith in the movie that they didn't want to screen it for critics. And if you were Orion and you had Amadeus, which they had released five weeks before, and which did go on to win Best Picture, well, I can imagine them saying, Amadeus, The Terminator — which one doesn't fit?'' I can't blame them now, but at the time I was devastated when they didn't like it.

CAMERON
Mike Medavoy was very negative. He was pretty much the opposite of a helpful, supportive executive. He never understood the film. But after the movie came out, he was falling all over himself taking credit for it.

MEDAVOY
I don't remember that to be the case, but if he says so, then that's what he felt.

CAMERON
I was on a panel with Medavoy years later. And he's talking about how he supported young filmmakers and nurtured them. And he points down to me and says, ''Like Jim Cameron on The Terminator.'' And I laughed and said, ''Whoa, whoa, whoa, let me set the record straight. He didn't help me at all.'' And Mike laughed, and he thought I was kidding.

MEDAVOY
He got the freedom to make the movie he wanted to make. No less, no more. We didn't interfere with anything, we didn't make his life miserable, we didn't recut the movie. The fact that Jim gets angry because he feels he didn't get the love he deserved, that's a different issue.

6 FORGIVE JIM EVERYTHING

The Terminator hit theaters on Oct. 26, and audiences loved it. TIME named it one of the 10 best pictures of 1984, and it became the second-most-rented videocassette of 1985. Hurd and Cameron used their new clout to pitch Aliens to Twentieth Century Fox.

HURD
Success for us meant being able to make another movie. Anyone who doesn't feel that way should not be in the business.

CAMERON
Both of us really grew up fast on that film. We had so many battles to fight. We came out of it with a sense of confidence.

MICHAEL BIEHN (Kyle Reese)
I meet kids all the time who come up to me and say, ''My name is Kyle and my parents named me after you.''

HAMILTON
After I saw the finished film, I said, ''Oh my God, I forgive Jim Cameron for everything. The man's a genius.''

SCHWARZENEGGER
The Terminator was very important for me. The studios said they didn't want to cast me because of my accent. And Cameron came along and said, ''F---, if you wouldn't have this accent, if you wouldn't talk like a machine, I don't think we ever would have had a Terminator.'' He told everybody about how my accent was a huge plus.

7 ON THE HORIZON

The film's gorgeous, ominous final image features Sarah driving toward darkening clouds. Guerrilla filmmakers to their cores, Hurd and Cameron had to break some rules to get it.

HURD
We shot that final scene out in the middle of nowhere. My assistant doubled as Linda because Linda wasn't available. My mother's dog doubled as the dog. We added the mountains afterward, as well as the dark clouds. It was just Jim, myself, and a couple of other people. And we had to wait until the heat was just right so that we could get those heat ripples, because you couldn't add them the way you could easily now. Not a car had driven by us all day.

CAMERON
All of a sudden this dot appears on the horizon. We see this car coming down this desert road. It's a cop, and he pulls up and busts us.

HURD
The police officer said, ''I need to see your permit for filming here.'' And we didn't have one. We said, ''Oh, officer, we're making a UCLA student film. We didn't know you needed permits.'' And he said, "Okay, you're fine, just take the camera off the road." I don't know if that cop ever figured it out. [Laughs] Wherever he is, we thank him for not shutting us down.

Originally posted Jul 17, 2014 Published in issue #1321-1322 Jul 25, 2014 Order article reprints
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