‘Terminator: Dark Fate’s Tim Miller Writing Action Scenes and Building a Better Arnold
A lot of filmmakers I talk to are understandably circumspect in interviews. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, or piss off the wrong person, or reveal something that’s supposed to remain secret. A lot of the art of being interviewed is knowing what not to say. So they are tentative, even nervous. And it shows in what they say and how they say it.
No one would ever call Tim Miller nervous or tentative. The director of the franchise-reviving Terminator: Dark Fate — the first in more than 25 years to co-star Linda Hamilton and feature creative contributions from franchise creator James Cameron — answered my questions honestly and without hesitation. He told me stories about the production process. He admitted that they were still writing the screenplay even after they had decided on the action scenes for the movie. He revealed his reaction to a press screening that didn’t go at all how he planned. And he laid out exactly how he reads the opening of the movie and how it fits into the larger mythology of the franchise. (If you’re worried about spoilers, they’re marked below.)
It was a fun, frank, and illuminating conversation. I hope I get to talk to Miller again about another movie in the future.
I’m going to guess that if you’re making a Terminator at this point in your career, it’s because these characters mean a lot to you. Am I correct?
You are correct. Although your insinuation that I could do whatever I want, it’s not exactly true. I'd love it if it was that way, but no. One movie could be a fluke. It doesn’t give you absolute power. I'm still waiting for that absolute power. Maybe I'll get it. Maybe I'll never get it! I'm friends with David Fincher, and watching Jim [Cameron] ... everybody kneels to someone. It's funny. Anyway, sorry.
No, I appreciate that answer. So what is your relationship with Terminator?
Well, I’m a nerd and a fan of all things genre — except maybe horror, because it scares me. Sci-fi is my favorite. If it’s done well, I like nothing better than a science-fiction movie. It’s just so often not done well, and so you look at the genre, and there's a handful of films that really stand out as, you know, exceptionally well-done sci-fi films. And Terminator is right at the top of that list.
So I, like all the other nerds that feel the same way, probably just love it for that. So, yeah, the chance to do another one: Holy f—. What an opportunity, especially when you feel like it — to me it was always, it was always Sarah Connor's story and it was nobody's fault, because Linda wouldn't return to the franchise after the second one, but doing the other ones, as much as they were interesting takes on it, it was, it was never quite the same thing. Because to me, it was always her story.
I read that as part of the development process you brought a bunch of sci-fi writers together, and had them sit in a room and spitball ideas. And one of those writers was Warren Ellis, who is one of my absolute favorite comic book writers. I was curious if there’s any ideas in Dark Fate that you can point to as something he directly contributed?
Not really, unfortunately. I'm friends with Warren because I was briefly attached to Gravel [based on Ellis’ comic series of the same name] and we developed that together. And Warren was gonna write a story for us in Heavy Metal when we were doing that film, because I was a big Transmetropolitan fan. More than anything, I was an Authority fan. Him and Mark Miller? F—, I love that comic book. But I love Gravel, too. We actually had a really good script.
But Warren did not come to L,A,. All the other writers came to L.A., but he wouldn’t come. So I was a little disappointed because he was kind of the least present in the writers room for those two days because he was a voice on a conference call.
Everybody contributed. I loved all those guys. It was Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Neal Asher who’s just a f—ing idea factory. And Joe Abercrombie, whose First Law books are my favorite books of all time. Joe came up with the thing which is the most easily identifiable one that made it all the way through, which is Grace, Mackenzie Davis’ character. That was Joe's idea. I mean, I can remember that moment where he’s like “What if one of those soldiers came back and she was really f—ed up and she had all these scars all over her because she'd had these surgeries to make her a machine fighter and she had to take a lot of drugs to deal with the pain from those surgeries.” And that became Grace.
I know you took it upon yourself to write many of the action sequences in the film. What does an action sequence look like in a screenplay? Are the details left vague? How specific does it get?
Many people in the production team would say entirely too specific. We had sort of a f—ed up process, in that we had decided what these action set pieces were, but the script was still being written. So I wrote them so I could go off and do prep; I could start doing pre-vis and design and all that other s—.
I handed them to David Goyer, who really didn't follow them too well. [laughs] And then when we brought Billy Ray in to rewrite it, Billy was great because Billy's like “I don't wanna write this action s—. Tell me what you want. I really care about the characters.” So I had these very long beat sheets of the action, and then I just gave him the Billy, and Billy worked with them, and in some cases had some really great character ideas that required us to, you know, tweak s—, which we did.
For me, I write very detailed beat sheets of the action so that they can do that. And then Billy does his thing, and then I would often come back in the script and kind of add a little bit more. Because, again, the script becomes this document that everybody's following. So I didn't want anybody to go “Oh, hold on a second. What do you mean she puts on the autopilot and runs downstairs and hangs there for a beat?” which is a lot of stuff that needs preproduction planning. Whereas Billy might write “Grace hurries downstairs to save Danny. She sees her and, and goes to her.” I would explain just exactly how she goes to her, what she's doing, you know, all that other s—.
Where did the name of the new Terminator, the Rev9, come from?
That one was David Goyer’s. I was a little concerned it was too much like a RAV4.
But Jim really liked it. He thought it sounded sexy. So that’s what it became.
How surreal is it to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton as the Terminator and Sarah Connor? I would imagine it might be kind of weird to tell Arnold “Actually, I think the Terminator would do it like this.”
Yeah but, you know, maybe this is just me — and them — they're not sticky actors to work with. Arnold is so funny and a good guy, and Linda is so warm and loving. She says right off the bat, “My only goal is to make the director happy.” We had a couple of disagreements in the first week, but they were not bad. And then the rest of the whole shoot was a just a giant f—ing love fest.
I feel like in TV, where directors come in for an episode and the characters are being played by an actor for two years, they may say “Shut the f— up. You're just visiting here. I know this character.” I never got that. I mean, at best, I got from Arnold “I think maybe I shouldn't show this much emotion,” or “Maybe I should show a little more emotion.” But they were always in the form of a question.
I'm one of those directors who likes to discuss s— with the actors. I don't see them as meat puppets. I see them as people who have knowledge about their characters that's valuable to the movie. So there's always a healthy discussion of “Where would I stand, what would I do? I don't think my character would say that,” sort of a thing. And I don't mind it.
[NOTE: There are some SPOILERS for the basic plot of Terminator: Dark Fate in these next two answers.]
It was great seeing Linda Hamilton back, and I agree — until I saw the movie, I guess I did not realize just how much The Terminator was her story. In terms of Arnold, though — because I always find him so fascinating in everything he does — I did like his parts of the previous sequels. How hard was it to come up with this variation on the Terminator? Because it is such a different version of that character.
I would say that it wasn’t tricky at all because, again, you set up the initial conditions and then you run a simulation of what these characters were like. We knew pretty early on that the way we were going to start the film was with John's death and then that Terminator sort of walking off into the sunset. Jim had already established these parameters of what happens to Terminators. They just keep learning. So we kind of knew what it was. We had some differences of opinions on what he evolved into, but it was always something kind of like this, which we thought made it super interesting. And it just like the evolution of Sarah's character could only happen with this span of time between the second and third movie.
It allowed us to do things with Arnold's character that really allowed him to evolve in an interesting way. And I feel the same way as you do about Arnold in this franchise, even if I didn't love the other movies as much as maybe I should, as the first two. You always enjoy seeing his character — so much so I'll tell you a quick funny little story. You’ve seen the movie, so you know he kills John [Connor, played by Edward Furlong] in the opening scene and then when they come to him in the cabin, the writers and me and all the actors kind of saw this moment as this horrific moment. The killer of her son walks out and Sarah hears it and it’s filmed and played that way. You think it's this huge f—ing dramatic moment. Then Arnold walks out at the first preview and the audience begins cheering. And I could not have been more surprised, because I'm going, “Here's the child killer coming back,” and the audience is cheering. I'm like “What the f—? This is crazy!” Their love for him overwhelmed his character backstory. It’s crazy.”
That Terminator that kills John and then becomes Carl, I don’t think it’s spelled out in the film: Do we know how long he wandered around before he found him? Is it written down somewhere officially how many Terminators Skynet sent back and at what points in time?
There were definitely more of them. We called them “slow bullets” that Skynet fired. Again, it was kind of implicit in the films that Jim did, that these creatures exist. We only talked about a few of them, but it even says “Skynet sent several Terminators back” in the second movie. So I figured that this Arnold had only been around, based on his youth, less than a year or so looking for John. And then Sarah references killing several other Terminators. There's some dialogue we cut out that suggests that she killed even more. We didn't go into it in the movie, but in my own mind, the way the story was structured was Sarah had killed a bunch of these Terminators but this is the first time that something that wasn't from Skynet came through. I really wanted a moment where Sarah could explore that idea. Like, that every time it's been a T-800 or a T-1000 that she’s killed, this time it was something different.
Nobody will probably notice it but in the opening scene where Grace's time bubble shows up, that car that almost gets the crashed into it is Sarah's truck. And so I also wanted to imply that Sarah was going to kill Grace and just didn't get a chance to take the shot.
Terminator: Dark Fate is in theaters now.
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