In the Summer of 1984, one of the most recognizable staples of the Science Fiction genre was released. It was a low budget movie, directed by a first-time filmmaker that would forever etch its name in the History books, which would spawn one of the best sequels of all time; rivaling with such cinematic landmarks as The Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back, and would also pave the way for one of the most brilliant filmmakers of the Century; James Cameron.
The story of how this movie came to be, and those who made it possible, is remarkable in and of itself.
Jim Cameron was an up and coming art designer who’d been taken under the wing of Roger Corman. He quickly worked his way up from Matte Painting artist to Set Designer when his help was needed to finish the movie Battle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman (1980). It was during that time that he met Gale Anne Hurd, who at the time was an Assistant Producer in the Roger Corman Company. She was impressed by how sure of himself and authoritative he already was, and knew that it wouldn’t be long before Cameron got his first gig as director.
It was during his time in Rome while shooting the movie Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981), that he had a nightmare in which a Cyborg was coming out of the flames trying to kill someone. That image stuck with him; and shortly after he’d gone back to the States, and started writing a story around that dream; a story that would soon turn into the first draft of a screenplay. The story revolved around a Cyborg, The Terminator; that comes from a Future in which the Machines have taken over, and is here to ensure that the leader of the Human Resistance, who will eventually lead them to final victory over the Machines, is never born. The Machine has targeted the mother of said Future Resistance Leader; Sarah Connor. Unbeknownst to her, The Resistance has sent a warrior to protect Sarah. A soldier from another time who will do whatever is necessary to protect her.
With this draft in hand, and with the help of Gale Anne Hurd as producer, they went around the Studios looking for someone to finance the movie. They got turned down by every Studio, but managed to slip the script to a couple of producers who worked for Orion, who read it and really liked it. Being Cameron the rookie director that he was at the time, though; the producers weren’t willing to throw much money into the proyect, and Cameron would have to make do with a budget of $6.5 million. Casting the right people for the parts, though, wouldn’t be easy.
The perfect Terminator
In its original conception, Cameron had conceived The Terminator as a non-descript cyborg who could blend in easily in a crowd and thus, be better prepared to acquire his target, as no one would see him coming.
The first actor that Cameron had in mind was Lance Henriksen, with whom he had previously worked in Piranha 2: The Spawning. The actor even worked in the mannerisms of the Cyborg, and even showed up at the Orion offices characterized as The Terminator. Unfortunately for him, in order to get the movie going, Cameron had to cast a known actor for the main role. As it turns out, Henriksen would end up playing the role of Detective Hal Vukovich along with actor Paul Winfield who plays Lt. Draxler, the police officers who take Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese under custody after their first encounter with The Terminator. Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Austrian actor and bodybuilder had had great success with Conan the Barbarian, John Milius (1982), and when first given the script, he thought he was being offered the role of Kyle Reese, the human soldier from the Future who has to protect Sarah. As he was reading the script, he realized that the role he felt the most identified with was that of The Terminator. In a fateful lunch meeting he had with Cameron, he explained to him that he wanted to play the role of The Terminator, which suited Cameron just fine, as he never thought Arnold as the right fit for Kyle Reese to begin with, and resented the fact that the Studio would meddle in his casting of the main role. This would turn out to be the best casting decision he made for the entire movie.
The mother and the Protector
For the roles of both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, two relatively unknown actors were chosen for the parts. Cameron immediately liked Linda Hamilton, as the actress was possessed of both a vulnerable, but at the same time, fierce quality that would have to come out at the end of the movie as part of her character arc. As for Michael Biehn, he was chosen basically on the same basis. At the time he auditioned for the role, he’d been working for a part in a Theater play of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and had to audition twice as the first time around he’d read his lines with a Southern accent that he’d been working on for the play.
The Monster Puppeteer
With the cast in place, it was time to go looking for the right technical crew that would help Cameron bring about his vision. The first make-up artist who was contacted by the Studio was Dick Smith, who would win an Oscar for the make-up of Amadeus, Milos Forman, in the same year. Upon reading the script and seeing the storyboards that Cameron had drawn for the movie, he immediately saw that he wasn’t the right person for the project, and recommended his friend Stan Winston for the job. Winston ended up bringing a lot to the table; not only making different sized models of the Terminator’s Endoskeleton, but also helping with the use of life size puppets cast in the likeness of Schwarzenegger, that could be remotely controlled, stop-animation for the most challenging scenes in which the Endoskeleton has to be shown moving, and developing a special type of make-up for Arnold that absolutely helps sell the illusion that under his skin there is a mechanical being. In addition to this, Fantasy II Effects were brought in to help with the building of all the different miniatures and in camera effects used for the Future War sequence in the prologue. All of the Hunter Killer Tanks along with the miniature Endoskeletons and the ravaged futuristic landscapes were recreated in a Soundstage using a mixture of miniatures, Stop-Motion, wires and Forced Perspective, using generous amounts of smoke and lighting to sell the illusion of depth. All of these shots would be later used as back proyection in combination with the live footage of the actors running around in a life size recreation of the desolated futuristic war zone.
The movie was shot all around Los Angeles, mostly at night, and in most cases, without any shooting permits. The cast and crew would have to get in, shoot the scene, and get out before being detained by the police. Having such a shoe-string budget forced the crew to come up with some very imaginative solutions for the tight schedule; like shooting in some very dangerous areas of the city, and even dressing up a former restaurant as a night club for the scenes that take place inside and out of the Tech-Noir night club. The dressing was so realistic and well done, that people thought it was a real night club!!.
The final touch
To top it all off, Cameron wanted to find a composer that would faithfully recreate the spirit of his movie. After receiving numerous samples from different composers, he settled on Brad Fiedel, a composer of electronic music that was the perfect fit for the project. He envisioned the beat of the soundtrack as that akin to the beating heart of a machine, and the constant and relentless use of percussion for the action set pieces, though sometimes repetitive, perfectly recreated the nightmarish mechanical world that Cameron had envisioned in his dream.
Critical and financial reception
Even though the movie was poorly marketed, it immediately gained an audience, and a very warm critical reception. The critics praised its very imaginative use of special effects, story and its gritty and grimy vision of a future ruled by the machines. It made over $78 million worldwide, and gained even more legs when it came out in Home Video.
Cameron’s debut feature is a very solid one for a first-time director. His bleak vision of a future in which A.I has taken control, and was left of Humanity are forced to hide underground, is one of the most desolate recreations of a dystopian future ever seen onscreen. The main cast do a terrific job, making their characters absolutely believable, and grounded. Schwarzenegger is terrifying as The Terminator. He really sells the notion of a relentless, pitiless, unstoppable machine, that will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Scenes like the first encounter and shootout in the Tech-Noir club, and the ensuing car chase through the streets of LA, ending in an underground car park; during which Reese reveals to Sarah what The Terminator is, his objective, and why he is there to protect her, is brilliantly executed. The editing is very tight. No dead spaces, hardly any time to breath. There’s the obligatory love story, which is by the way, beautifully handled and acted. Cameron doesn’t give the audience time to rest in their laurels; the protagonists, and by extension the audience, are always in a state of trepidation. Brad Fiedel’s music helps heighten this sensation. The practical and visual effects are excellent, considering what small a budget they had to work with. All in all, a masterful example of what can be achieved with very little money and tons of imagination. A Sci-fi movie that helped reinvigorate the genre, and a very auspicious start for a notable filmmaker.
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