The Terminator Shot: Alan Taylor on Recreating the Original Film
The idea of a reboot – usually – is to strike out anew with fresh ideas applied to old and familiar stories. And while that’s basically what’s happening in Alan Taylor’s twisty-turny Terminator Genisys, he also has to spend most of the film recreating classic scenes and shots from James Cameron’s original The Terminator. In the film Kyle Reese goes back in time, as he always does, to save Sarah Connor but discovers that due to a jumble in the time stream she can save herself now, thank you very much, and has teamed up with a friendly Terminator who helps them both prevent Judgment Day (again).
It’s a curious combination of homage and revisionism that made Alan Taylor’s job a little unusual on the set of Terminator Genisys, and we talked about it at great length over the phone on the weekend before the film’s U.S. release. What follows are his thoughts on James Cameron’s iconic style of filmmaking, why it’s probably better than the way movies are shot today, and how he would have felt if Cameron didn’t like what Taylor had done to the series (which, it turns out, that James Cameron liked very much).
CraveOnline: I love talking to people at the end of a long press junket…
Alan Taylor: [Laughs.] Because we get punchy and we start to say things we shouldn’t say.
That’s part of it, but also I get to ask the question, “What is the most common question you got asked today?”
“What is the most challenging part about relaunching a franchise like Terminator?” It’s one of those questions that’s repetitive, and yet it’s vague, so that was one of the ones that was going around a lot. And there were a lot of questions about the Arnold on Arnold fight, which I’m only too happy to talk about because I really love that scene, but it does tend to be many versions of the same question.
Let me ask you this question: one of the things I was most fascinated about from the perspective of your job, was how much you had to recreate scenes and locales from the original Terminator.
Can you tell me about that process, and if there was anything particularly interesting or difficult about it?
That was relatively fun. You’re securely in the hands of homage, where you’re saying, okay, this looks just right if you move the camera one inch to the right. It’s more curatorial, what you’re doing, so it was relatively easy. We made it a little bit harder on ourselves by not having access to Griffith Park. We shot the bulk of our Griffith Park material in the Orleans, and yet we’re trying frame by frame to recreate the original scene as it was shot in that location. So we had to get kind of artful about how to do that. But that was fun.
The stuff that got a bit more challenging, but also creatively fulfilling, was not the literal quotes… which are fun to do and fun to watch, it’s great to be in an audience when Kyle puts his Nikes on, you hear laughter because people have a fond recollection of exactly that moment happening 30 years ago… but the more creatively fun stuff was just trying to carry the feeling or the look or the camera style or the lighting style of the Cameron films into the body of our movie. Once we took a wild turn into our new story, just trying to keep the same sort of graphic quality alive in the movie.
So you were actually trying to shoot the film like James Cameron would have, especially at the beginning, but all throughout?
Yeah, I wouldn’t put it that literally. I would say that certainly the homage scenes – in ’84, Griffith Park, the alleyway and the department store – those were literally frame by frame recreations but beyond that we wanted to be steeped in the way he shot, particularly, T2. Kramer Morgenthau, the DP, and I watched that a few times and created a kind of Look Book from the movie because there are some elements in the way he shot it that I just found really yummy, and thought had to have a part in the Terminator universe. The very graphic wides, they’re really well composed. These frames that are definitely strong vanishing points, where your eyes are really drawn to the center. He’d get this really forceful style of shooting. It’s not that he didn’t move the camera a lot, it’s more of a really powerful composition and really efficient storytelling. I was trying to learn from a master who had a certain vocabulary.
I love this, because usually when people are trying to take over a new franchise they are very eager to put their own stamp on it. What did you learn from trying to evoke another filmmaker’s style?
It’s funny, I’d liked Cameron’s films and I’d seen them before, but I hadn’t really studied them before so it was actually fun to go back and study T1 and T2 and my admiration for them grew, and I felt like this is where the vocabulary for this mythology started. It makes sense that we try to speak in the same language. So I don’t feel like I devolved into it, I wanted to avail myself of it. I wanted to serve it. I wanted to respect it. Certainly there are scenes and images and things like that, that I felt like were more me or that I was bringing into it that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, but a part of this whole enterprise was just to immerse ourselves in what we loved about those movie.
You’re your own filmmaker, you tell stories your own way. At some point was there a particular moment or scene in which you felt like you were in conflict with it? Were you like, “Yeah, but I’D shoot it like this?”
[Laughs.] No, I guess I was arrogant enough and selective enough that what was doing was taking the things that I loved from what I saw, and it always felt like it was being true to my impulses while I was selectively drawing on [Cameron]’s, if you know what I mean. I think one reason I responded as much as I did to the style in which he shot T2 was the things that I find in my own approach to [filmmaking], doing Game of Thrones or even back in the more small-scale stuff like Mad Men and The Sopranos. I always loved using graphic, strong, composed wide shots as a way to tell the story. Too often in TV and too often in contemporary movies things are sort of covered in closeups when we cover it, and you don’t stand back and really get a graphic impact.
I was really admiring what he did in T2, partially because it felt like, hey, that’s what I try to do! That’s what I think is something worth hanging onto. And there were times when obviously we felt like we were flipping through frames of T2, going “How would you approach this scene?” And the scene tells you how to shoot it. You just try and echo what feels like a Terminator shot.
Tell me about a scene that you recreated, for a while at least, very closely with what would have been Bill Paxton’s character. I imagine that must have been really difficult to cast.
That was the funny thing. At the time we were very aware of it, because of the various people who come and go through T1, he’s a beloved actor who went on to have a really familiar, illustrious career. I was really lucky to work with him at one point [on Big Love], and he’s great. At one point I was thinking, could we? We could bring him back and sort of… use him up? It’s tempting but it wouldn’t make any fucking sense at all. We knew we wanted to have Arnold reprise the role. There’s a mythological sense to that. He’s off the factory assembly line, the T-800. There’s different models but he’s that model.
But knowing we were going going to recast Sarah and Kyle and Miles Dyson, all that stuff, it would be sort of glaring to have one non-Terminator guy show up who was the original guy. But we were all very aware of that. He was kind of there in spirit. And when we shot that scene I just figured, frankly, and I hope I don’t piss people off, but I wasn’t crazy about the tire tread tattoo and I wasn’t going to do that. [Laughs.] I knew if I was going to get in trouble for no tire tread tattoo I might as well just make it my own, so I just went with what I remember being punk culture from the ‘80s, because I loved that stuff when I was younger. My sister was really into it and she would smack me if I put a tire tread tattoo on somebody.
I know James Cameron said that he saw the film and really liked it. Have you talked to him about it at all? Did you get his feedback?
I know that way early on he was the guy that said, Arnold could be in this because if you think about it, it’s an endoskeleton with living human tissue so it’s going to age. He was the one who really seeded that idea. Beyond that he was not involved at all in the writing or the making of the movie. I had never actually met him. I knew that he was going to see the movie and I was pretty nervous about it. So I’m glad I wasn’t in the room while he was watching it because I would have been staring at the back of his head trying to read every little breath to see how he was thinking.
But I heard afterwards how he responded to it and was just hugely relieved and grateful. I mean, he said very generous, wonderful things. And then I was really grateful that he was willing to go public and say them out loud because there’s a huge fanbase out there that’s very protective of the first two films, and I think they were going to be pretty darned wary of what we were trying to do. And they probably still are but it was helpful to have the master come out say “Look, calm down, I’ve seen it, I embrace it.”
What do you think your reaction would have been if he had not liked it?
[Laughs.] I’m a pretty dour, negative person. Ask people who know me. So that’s totally what I expected and was prepared for. But it would have been rough because this film was made by a bunch of people who really, really admire those first two movies, so being told “Nah, you blew it” by the guy that we looked up to would have been hard to recover from. Not that everybody has the same tastes, and it’s all subjective, but that was one opinion that was going to carry a lot of weight. […] The other good thing about him, if you know anything about him, is that he can’t be bought off, he can’t be intimidated or manipulated, so if he’s going to say something it’s probably very likely that it’s pretty honest. So that helped too.