Don’t Read the Script, Take the Job
In March of 1982, James Cameron found himself in Rome with a bone to pick with the Italian production company that had fired him off of his first directing job. The movie was Piranha II: The Spawning. Cameron had been working for Roger Corman’s production company New World Pictures as a kind of jack of all trades at the time with the goal of eventually taking the reins as director on a full fledged production. When the offer for Piranha II came up, Cameron heeded the Corman motto: “don’t read the script, take the job.”
The producer on Piranha II was a guy named Ovidio Assonitis (The Visitor). Assonitis had a deal with Warner Brothers that provided him financial backing for his pictures on the stipulation that he hire American directors. So that’s what he did. He hired them, and then made up some bullshit reason to fire them so he could fill the movies with as much tits, ass, and gore as he wanted.
Cameron didn’t know any of this, and when he was fired 5 days into the shoot due to claims by the production company that his footage was unusable, he wasn’t pleased. “That bothered me more than getting fired, because it spoke to the whole issue of whether I could be a director or not,” Cameron said.
That bothered me more than getting fired, because it spoke to the whole issue of whether I could be a director or not.
Cameron hadn’t seen any of the footage he’d produced, and eventually the self doubt gave way to anger. So he bought a one-way ticket to Rome, confronted Assonitis, and demanded to see the footage.
And after agreeing to meet with the young director, Assonitis showed Cameron the rough cut of the film. The footage was bad. A bunch of stuff that was not in Cameron’s shooting script (scenes of topless women, mostly) had been added in, and the film was basically unrecognizable to Cameron.
But he was still unsatisfied.
So he hatched a new plan. He would break into the editing suite and tinker with the film to prove his footage worked.
So he did.
Whether or not Cameron’s tinkering improved the film is probably up for debate, but it gave Cameron a renewed confidence that he could, in fact, direct.
But there was still a problem. He was broke, and because he’d only booked a one-way flight to Rome, Cameron was stranded in the Eternal City. To make matters worse, he had come down with a bad case of the flu.
Death Rendered in Steel
James Cameron thought he was dying.
He’d fallen into bed the night before with a fever of 102, shivering with chills. In the morning, he recalled a dream he’d had in the night, and the image of “something really horrific” had seared itself into his brain. So he did what any extremely ill person would do: he got out of bed and began to sketch the nightmare image.
That sketch would go on to become one of the most recognizable pieces of pop culture imagery ever put to film: the Terminator. Or, as Cameron put it: “death rendered in steel”.
As soon as Cameron was stateside (he borrowed the money for airfare from his father), he began working to flesh out the story that had begun to grow in his mind around the metallic endoskeleton from his dream. But Cameron had learned a valuable lesson from his experience on Piranha II: Next time he found himself in the director’s chair, he’d be in control of whatever found its way onto the screen, for better or worse.
Once Cameron had a treatment, his partner and future ex-wife Gale Anne Hurd began to shop it around to different Hollywood production companies. With no real credits to his name, Cameron knew he’d have to make The Terminator on a budget. The problem was, the concept screamed big budget. But he was determined to realize the dream he’d had that night he thought he was dying in a seedy Rome pensione. So he resolved to shoot on location in Los Angeles; keep the focus on an ordinary, relatable character; and keep the scenes of post apocalyptic future L.A. to a bare minimum.
Cameron’s first agent never got a chance to be his actual agent. His friend and fellow screen writer Randall Frakes had recently landed representation and offered to introduce Cameron to the guy. So Cameron, wanting to get his foot in the door somewhere, met with the agent and pitched him The Terminator. The agent was not impressed.
“Bad idea, bad idea. Do something else.”
Needless to say, Cameron didn’t heed this advice, and the two parted ways.
I’d Buy That For a Dollar!
James Cameron was eager to get his killer cyborg movie made. So eager that he struck an infamous deal with producer and friend Gale Anne Hurd: he sold her the rights to The Terminator for one dollar on the stipulation that Cameron would direct. Cameron’s stock within Hollywood couldn’t get any lower. Not only did he have almost no credits to his name, he had been fired from the one piece of trash that was credited to his name. Hurd’s production credits were scant as well. Hurd recalls “There was interest in getting rid of both of us, so [getting The Terminator made] was a big leap.”
In a bold move, Cameron actually used the footage he’d shot of Piranha II to convince John Daly of Hemdale Film Corporation that he was a capable director. Surprisingly, Daly agreed that Cameron’s footage was noticeably better than the rest of the film. With a foot in the door at the small production house, Cameron next set his sights on convincing Daly that he had already found his Terminator.
They were about 15 seconds from calling the police.
To do this, he enlisted help from his Terminator: Lance Henriksen. According to Hollywood legend, Henriksen, dressed in a torn shirt, a leather jacket, and motorcycle boots, kicked in the door at Hemdale and, in an intimidating voice, demanded of the receptionist “Is Jim here?”
Henriksen had improvised by putting the gold foil wrapper from a pack of cigarettes over his front teeth, which must have been quite a sight. After barking his question at the receptionist, he calmly sat down in the waiting room and stared straight ahead until Cameron arrived about 15 minutes later. “They were about 15 seconds from calling the police” William Wisher, friend of Cameron’s and co-writer on The Terminator said.
But it got them in the door, and Cameron cemented a deal with Hemdale to back the picture. Hurd landed additional funding from Orion by using her connections to slip Cameron’s script to Orion’s senior VP of production, Mike Medavoy. Medavoy recognized the quality of the script and that it could be shot relatively inexpensively. Hurd secured a third partner in HBO, which claimed the TV rights. Between the three sources, Hurd managed to secure $4 million for Cameron’s The Terminator.
It was a cheap FX movie.
“It was a cheap FX movie,” Cameron says of the film’s initial budget.
And it was.
The Terminator’s worldwide gross was $78 million against a final budget of $6.4 million. That’s a success by any standard—even today’s. But the story didn’t end there. That cheap FX movie spawned a $2 billion dollar franchise that continues even today. It may be dragging itself along by one arm like the T-800 from the first film, but it’s yet to find a hydraulic press big enough to stamp the life completely out of it.
What The Terminator Means to Us
You have to forswear all other paths…Be a director. Pick up a camera and shoot something.
By now, Cameron’s The Terminator is as inseparable from 80s pop culture as Rubik’s Cubes and Weird Al Jankovich. It’s hard to imagine the decade, let alone cinema, without the chrome monster Cameron dreamed of that feverish night in Rome, Italy. But it could easily have never happened.
James Cameron didn’t stumble into directing. He didn’t see one movie as a kid and decide it would be pretty neat to try to make one himself. The man is that rare specimen of person who can think like an engineer and an artist. He knows how to make things. He can envision. He can draw. He can write. And he can direct. But above all else, he can do. He is driven to do. To make.
After the failure of Piranha II, Cameron could have gotten discouraged, become cynical, and given up his dream of directing. He could have gone back to work for Roger Corman. He was broke and sleeping on his friend Randall Frake’s couch in the Valley. He had every incentive to just take work anywhere and get back on his feet. But he had a vision, and he had to see it through. And…he was willing to problem solve and work within whatever budget he was given to make it happen.
I think Cameron’s…gumption explains at least some of what is missing from movies today. So many of the movies we revere today were a struggle to get made. Productions were fraught with difficulties. Directors had mental breakdowns (Coppola on Apocalypse Now, George Lucas on Star Wars). Injuries and accidents happened all the time (Schwarzenegger was famously hurt while trying to outrun a pack of not quite tame dogs while filming Conan the Barbarian. When he came up bleeding after a take, director John Milius applauded the sense of realism it brought the scene.) Some film shoots were simply miserable due to weather conditions (Blade Runner, now counted as one of the best sci-fi films ever made, was not a happy production. The movie was shot mostly at night and in artificial rain, and the film crew so despised the conditions and director Ridley Scott, that they nearly mutinied multiple times.)
We rarely hear stories like these anymore. Film shoots, when we hear about them at all, seem antiseptic and commercial, more like theme parks (Martin Scorsese said it first) than the dirty and sometimes dangerous laboratories for ideas they once were. Effects are plucked from brains and CGI’d with no consideration on the part of the filmmakers themselves for how those images might be realized. Budgets are massive. Budgets are nearing the GDP of small countries! No one seems willing (either the filmmakers themselves or the studios) to compromise on budget and scale in order to realize a vision. And as a result, we are stuck in a sort of cinematic Groundhog Day where every new thing is an old thing.
What The Terminator means to me is a bygone era of rogue filmmakers (including the production companies themselves) who were eager to make pictures, to tell stories, to skin some elbows, bruise some egos, even wager their reputations and possibly their whole careers to get some images up on a screen and in front of an audience.
We need some rogues and rebels of our own to remind us that art is a struggle very much worth the effort, pain, and sacrifice required to bring something great into the world.
Few movies exist within the zeitgeist as ubiquitously as The Terminator. James Cameron’s directorial debut is one of those movies that I feel like I’d seen a thousand times before the first time I actually sat down to watch. And once I did finally decide to watch, I realized why I felt this way. The film is made up of so many singularly immortal images. They exist as both pop culture iconography and cinematic poeticism.
My favorite thing about The Terminator is that it’s more of a slasher film than a sci-fi flick. It’s full of the gnarly kills and scare fake outs that we expect from the former. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character is a perfect movie monster, and the way Cameron uses his is damn near perfect. That’s not to say that the sci-fi aspects aren’t great themselves. The Terminator’s influence on how we tell and understand stories about time travel, post-apocalyptic futures, and our overbearing reliance on technology is still prevalent today.
This movie represents a master at the top of his game. It’s absurd to think that this is Cameron’s first film. It’s a movie that serves as a reminder of why love movies and what can be achieved through the medium. Like the legend of Sarah Connor, The Terminator will exist eternally – through the good and the bad. It will serve as a shining beacon. Giving us the hope to power through.
…or maybe it’ll just always be a badass film. A nostalgic trip down memory. Back to a time when movies genuinely excited us.
Taking the structure of a slasher but replacing the masked killer with an unstoppable killer robot, James Cameron accidentally created a new genre of film. The Terminator is most definitely a sci-fi movie but it’s also a sci-fi action movie that’s also a sci-fi horror film with a hint of a western. It’s an amalgamation of almost every genre save for musicals. It’s a one-of-a-kind Frankenstein creation that stands out from everything else that came out that year.
Cameron took his years of penny pinching he learned from Roger Corman and built his film around his budget. He made this thing for peanuts but somehow turned those peanuts into gold. He had such a small budget that the film was originally supposed to look a lot different. Everyone knows the role of the Terminator was originally supposed to be played by Lance Henriksen, but few know Sarah Conner was almost Lucinda Dickey. The script is so strong, it still could’ve succeeded with those actors, but getting Schwarzenegger at that time turned a potential B movie into a legit classic. It’s the role he was born to play, and Cameron knew exactly how to maximize his effectiveness. I’m not going to say he’s the reason the film is a success, but he is the reason it is now a franchise instead of an interesting one off.
The T-800 is about as iconic as it gets. He’s huge, instantly intimidating, and won’t stop hunting you. He can’t be reasoned with, bribed, or even stopped. You can run for a bit, and maybe hide somewhere secluded, but he will eventually find you. The only way to stop him is too kill him. In that regard, he’s most definitely the scariest slasher villain, because he’s not even human. Michael Myers reacts to pain. Jason and Freddy can and have been killed. But the Terminator is about as unstoppable a force as there is, and with apologies to Henriksen, only Schwarzenegger could’ve played him.
It’s an iconic role that, like Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, gets even better in the sequel. With this and T2, Cameron delivered one of the all time great one-two punches, but even if there was no sequel, The Terminator still hits hard enough to be a knockout punch.
What about you? What’s your experience with The Terminator? Any thoughts or tidbits you’d like to share?
Ian Nathan’s Terminator Vault was the primary source for the background information and quotes used in this article.