Interview: McG Talks Terminator: Salvation

Terminator is back, and this time it's sans Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, kind of. More on that later. In Terminator Salvation, the action moves into the future, post-Judgment Day, and Christian Bale takes over the role of human messiah John Connor. At his side: A cyborg with a soul in the form of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), his daddy in the first Terminator.

I sat down with director McG recently to discuss resurrecting the franchise. Much to my astonishment, he proved to be affable, overly articulate about his process, and self-deprecating. I'm now having a hard time hating him for the two Charlie's Angels movies he gave us, especially its god-awful sequel.

Cole Haddon: A lot was made of the fact that this is the first Terminator movie not to be R-rated. Many felt a PG-13 movie would live up to the intensity of the earlier installments. What do you have to say about that?

McG: From day one we were given the OK to shoot the movie we wanted to shoot. We talked to [everyone at Warner Bros. and Sony], and they said, "If it's an R, it's an R." We said, "We're just going to make the movie we want to make." And it just became clear that the things that would take it to an R or an NC-17 would be, "Oh, there goes the arm and now the blood is squirting on my face." And that wasn't in the service of the characters or the story. And, ultimately, we were able to make exactly the film we wanted to make without any compromise whatsoever, and it [just so] happened to garner the rating it got.

Look at The Dark Knight. That's a compromise-free picture. And ratings, it's just never really been a concern to us and it is what it is. And, truthfully, I'm pleased because I know when I was 14, 15 years old, I wouldn't want a guy busting my chops keeping me from seeing the movie that I ultimately wanted to see. The elements that would have taken it to R just ended up feeling gratuitous in the editing room. There's a topless scene with Moon Bloodgood. I was trying to echo that scene in Witness where Kelly McGillis turns and says, "I'm not ashamed," to Harrison Ford. But it just felt like, "Oh, there's the genre stunt of the good-looking girl taking her top off." It felt counterproductive in the spirit of what we were looking to achieve on a storytelling level. So away you go.

CH: You met with Terminator creator Jim Cameron about the movie. Can you talk about that experience?

McG: I had to go down and talk to Jim Cameron about it, and he said, "Why do you feel this story's worth telling?" I said, "That's an excellent point. I think that the fact that this takes place in a world after Judgment Day is a great point of entry for the passionate to stay involved in the story." And he sort of nodded, and said, "O, that's interesting. Tell me a little bit more about this, that, the other." And he ultimately went on to share the story of how he felt following the great Ridley Scott with Alien, and people said, "Who the [expletive] does this guy Jim Cameron think he is?'" He did what, Piranha 2 at the time? And he just thought, "Well, I think I can honor what Ridley did, and I think I can go further." I think everybody at this table is glad he made Aliens, and I would never be so bold again as to say, "We've done it!" But the idea was the first three pictures are contemporary pictures with terminators coming back in time and our film takes place during that dark age that was never thoroughly explored between Judgment Day and 2029, which is the first known point of the T800 coming back. And here we see how Skynet, through farming human beings, is building towards that realistic-looking T800 -- just like we went through a lot of lab rats to get to a polio vaccine.

CH: Did Cameron give you his blessing? There was some confusion in the media about that.

McG: No. I think the nature of that was just I went around saying we went down there looking for his blessing, and then it came out that he gave us his blessing. He never gave me his blessing. He said, "I reserve the right to like or not like your movie like any movie fan." I said, "I reserve the right to like or not like [your next movie] Avatar like any movie fan." And we sort of giggled, and away we went. It was never egregious, but yes, he hadn't read the script. He didn't know what was going on and he just said, "Hey man, I'd rather you guys made a good movie than a bad movie, but I'm not going to sit there and tub-thump for you guys and tell the world how excited I am about this new idea." And that's only fair, and that just made me want to drill down that much more deeply and make sure that we populate the film with the most talented people from Stan Winston to Christian Bale.

CH: Is it true that changes to the script were made to expand the role of John Connor for Bale? From what I understand, Connor was actually more of a cameo originally.

McG: What can you do then when you go in and say, "Hey Christian, I want you to play [this character] Marcus," and he says, "I want to play Connor." [Then] you say, "Maybe we need to go back and make this a little bit more of a two-hander." Listen, filmmaking is always about being nimble and adapting and doing what's right, and you never stop working on the script and you never stop working on the film. And my style is a style of doing a great deal of listening.

CH: Terminator Salvation features a lot of traditional effects. CG seems to be kept to a relative minimum, in fact, compared to what one would have expected. Can you discuss the philosophy you used?

McG: It's a very militant philosophy when it comes to that. I'm very passionate about that. I think that human beings that spend a lot of time looking at physics, you just understand what that pen's going to do when dropped. And I think we can all smell the CG component in these films and you immediately are taken out of the picture. So we wanted to go to great lengths to go to the one and only Stan Winston, who passed in the making of this picture -- and we've dedicated it to his memory -- to build all the robots and all the machines of Skynet to the best of our ability. We wanted to do as much as possible in-camera so you get that level of physics and that level of response, and most particularly you really get the performance you're looking for when you're not stuck telling an actor, "Oh the tennis ball is the robot. Be afraid." That's terrible. I want a seven-foot piece of Soviet tank machinery where if you punch up against that thing, it's going to hurt your hand. And when the red eyes glow and the puppeteers from Winston Studios do this and smack you, it brings a better performance out of Sam Worthington and out of Christian Bale and everybody else who's interacting in the film. So it was absolutely critical to build as much as was humanly possible. And then when you have to extend in a CG capacity, sure, go for it. But films that take place purely in a CG environment, I find they just feel animated and I detach as a viewer, so I'm less interested in that respect.

**Slight spoiler ahead ...**

CH: Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a brief cameo thanks to the magic of CGI. Permission he gave only a month before the final cut was finished. If you'd received that permission earlier, might his scene as a T800 terminator have gone on longer?

McG: I didn't want the scene to go on. I just wanted it to be a tip of the cap. There are a great many elements in the film that are designed to be respectful of the passionate fan and that being the number one moment. And you'll notice the door flies off and Connor goes down on his back and he shoots the machine gun up the chest of the T800. And if we were unsuccessful in getting the likeness of Schwarzenegger, we were just going to have the machine gun having blown his face off. And it would have been the endoskeleton, you know, the skull idea, and it would have been nearly as satisfactory. And in the end I think the Governor's very pleased with what we did and the manner in which it was handled. So I think that's a nice moment in the movie when that shows up.