'Terminator' Director on Linda Hamilton's Key Moment and John Connor's Secret Role

TERMINATOR DARK FATE- Linda Hamilton - Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures Publicity-H 2019
Skydance Productions and Paramount Pictures
'Dark Fate' filmmaker Tim Miller weighs in on the first time audiences see Sarah Connor onscreen ("it was really hard for Linda to do this scene") and the conversations surrounding John's storyline ("You'd think it was probably a controversial decision, but it really wasn't").

[The end of this story contains a spoiler for Terminator: Dark Fate]

When Tim Miller was handed the keys to the Terminator kingdom, series creator James Cameron also handed him something else. It was a list of action scenes Cameron has wanted to do over the years, but never has. "They were just his little personal list of 'cool shit I'd like to see some day,' " Miller tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Cameron's list was in good hands. Coming up with "cool shit" has been Miller's job for decades as a visual effects artist. Miller rose to prominence as a director three years ago when he helmed his first feature, the raunchy comic book movie Deadpool, which became the top R-rated film of all time (recently dethroned by Joker). With Dark Fate, Miller continues the Terminator story with original star Linda Hamilton back as Sarah Connor for the first time since 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. 

Hamilton was hesitant to come back to the series after so many years away from the spotlight. She was particularly nervous about the key shot in which audiences would see Connor onscreen for the first time in 28 years. It had to be perfect. Hamilton trained hard with a military adviser to nail the moment, which required her to step out of truck firing round after round at a Terminator (Gabriel Luna) — all with a rocket launcher on her back. Only after she nailed the shot — filmed early in the production schedule — did she really relax into the role.

In addition to Sarah Connor, Dark Fate features her son John Connor — the leader of the human resistance in a future that will never happen. Fans were surprised when Cameron announced at Comic-Con that Edward Furlong, who played John in T2 and has fallen out of the public eye after personal and legal issues, would be back. John, it turns out, is an integral part of the film, but in a way that may surprise audiences.

In a conversation with THR, Miller reveals the thought process behind John Connor's role, shares the Dark Fate action sequence he originally intended for Deadpool and discusses charting a new course with with Arnold Schwarzenegger and series newcomers Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes.

You wrote the Dark Fate action sequences yourself. What's your philosophy for surprising audiences who are used to seeing big action scenes?

I love stacking the deck against the good guys and then figuring a way out. They don't have any guns? Well, what do they have? They have a fucking old truck. What would be in an old truck? Well, there would be some tools. And then you go, "Well she's [Davis' Grace] a super soldier, so she could probably throw something hard enough to smash it through a brick wall." [Dark Fate writer] Josh Friedman said, "I always think of it like you are running a simulation of a character in your head. It's really the simulation that you're transcribing. It's not necessarily you writing it, it's the simulation dictating what the character would do and say and there's always this sort of disconnect when you read it later and you're not running the simulation. It feels like it happened to somebody else. It's weird, but it's accurately what I feel when I'm writing.

How much do your ideas for action sequences carry over from movie to movie? For instance, does an idea that didn't make the cut for Deadpool seep into Dark Fate?

It happens a little bit. At the beginning of this process, Jim handed us all this list of disconnected ideas for action scenes. One of them kind of turned into the underwater Humvee scene. He had always wanted to do this action scene where a car fell through the ice in a river and was washed along the river underneath the ice. That was the genesis of the dam scene. It was pretty cool to get this list of, "What if a tank drove down main street and then went through a mall?" All these ideas from Jim Cameron that he always wanted to see that were not connected to anything in particular. They were just his little personal list of "cool shit I'd like to see some day."

How many action ideas did you get far along with that never made it into Dark Fate?

I had one bit that we did in pre-vis, but we cut. That highway sequence was twice as long as it is in the movie. There was a whole other sequence, where after the truck wreck, the Rev-9 goes after them. It kills a cop, who comes to investigate the burned truck, and then goes after them, and then catches up to them on a motorcycle. I wanted to do this sequence in Deadpool. Originally, I had a motorcycle chase where Deadpool is on a motorcycle. The way I wrote it in [Dark Fate] — is [The Rev-9, split into two figures] are chasing after the ladies and they shoot the motorcycle and the motorcycle is wrecking, but the Rev-9 jumps off right before the rocket hits the motorcycle and lands on the back of a flatbed truck, runs along the truck, jumps off the top of the cab, and lands on top of their car. We pre-vised it and it was cool, but everybody was like "OK, this scene is fucking crazy as it is. You've got to cut some shit, Tim." 

But now you have Jim Cameron's list of awesome scenes for the future.

I won't steal Jim's list for another movie though. (Laughs.).

The first shot of Linda Hamilton back as Sarah Connor is arguably the most important shot in the film. Where in the shooting schedule did that fall? Had Linda been shooting for awhile so she was comfortable in Sarah's skin once again?

Originally, the first time I wrote that, it was just the automatic shotgun. It wasn't the bazooka. As I'm writing it, I'm like, "Man, it's cool but it's not quite satisfying enough." So Jim originally wanted to use the same shotgun they used in T2, and I thought, that's not going to be big enough. Then we went to the automatic shotgun. Then when we got down to this confrontation between two Terminators, we thought, "OK, I need something else to take care of the second one." We did the rocket launcher.

It wasn't too deep into filming. It had been a few weeks, but it was really hard for Linda to do this scene. Not because she's not super capable — she is — but if you look at it carefully, to have to get out of a car with that giant fucking shotgun. There's not a lot of room, and you have a rocket launcher strapped to your back, and you have to do that while looking cool. It really became this sort of logistical thing. Linda practiced it a lot with our military adviser. Linda is a perfectionist, so it had to be perfect. When that day was done, and she had performed it like a badass, take after take, machine-like precision, I really felt her relax into this role. And she's like, "OK, I fucking got this."  

Doing all that while looking cool has to be tough to do.

Unbelievably tough. Just getting out of the car was the major logistical thing. We ended up putting the strap of the rocket launcher on and we added the rocket launcher later in CG, because it's really impossible to get out of the car with all that gear on. Just the gun, too. That's one of the reasons we cut to the door already opening, because you can't open a door with a giant shotgun in your hand.There are all these little tricks of moviemaking. 

My proudest moment in all of Deadpool, oddly enough is where Ryan spins his katanas and puts them on the sheaths on his back. We were figuring out, "What are we going to do? Should we just take the blades off and use stubbies? I finally said, "I've got an idea, what if we film it in reverse?" Everyone goes, "Oh. Fuck." I filmed Ryan pulling the katanas out, and it worked. I did a little test on my iPhone. "It can't be this easy." We did it, and it worked. It was my proudest moment, I felt like a fucking genius.

Deadpool being rated R was considered a big risk. You made some concessions in terms of budget being lower to get that rating. While filming Dark Fate, you filmed options so that it could be R or PG-13. Did you make concessions on Dark Fate once it became apparent it would be R?

In hindsight, it was kind of the best of all possible worlds, because I covered myself for R, hoping that one way or another there was going to be an R-rated version of the movie. If it was not the main release, at least it would be an additional release. We had already talked about simultaneous release. They budgeted it like a PG-13 movie that was going to have a broader audience, and they didn't change that until pretty deep into post. It was well past my director's cut where the final decision had been made, so even had they wanted to … cut back on the expense, that ship had already sailed in terms of VFX, which was great.

I feel sort of tangentially responsible, because, Deadpool gave Fox the confidence to do Logan as an R, and then Logan made more money than the PG-13 versions of Wolverine. I think the conclusion that the studio came to … is certain stories or characters have an R-rating in their DNA. 

Plus, it isn't a Tim Miller movie without some F-bombs.

Honestly, it wasn't like I was forcing Linda to drop some F-bombs. You can't stop her from doing it. She cusses like a sailor in real life.

Do you know who ultimately made the call on the rating? Are you calling Paramount's Jim Giannopoulos or Skydance's David Ellison to get the OK?

I haven't reached anywhere near the power that I would need to make them make that decision if they thought they were going to lose money. The only real thing I influenced that that I had under my control, is I don't really feel like everybody knew how grim and gritty a movie we were making. I think everybody had this idea in their mind of this sort of T2 lightness. … At some point they realized we have a pretty grim and gritty film on our hands and I think that helped the R decision. Skydance, Paramount and Fox [which distributes Dark Fate internationally] are pretty much equal partners, so they sort of all had to agree. 

[To reiterate the warning at the top of the post, there is a spoiler below.]

How much did you debate John Connor's role in this film, and the decision to kill him off? Was there ever thought to have John be a bigger part of it?

You'd think it [killing John off] was probably a controversial decision, but it really wasn't. There was a lot of talk at the really early stages of should this new savior be someone who was connected to the Connors? Should it be John's daughter or something like that? Which I was always against, because I'm just not a fan of the Chosen One sort of movie as much as I am of a hero sort of rising to meet adversity, who could be an everyman or an everywoman. I identify with those people much more than I do with Neo in The Matrix or King Arthur or something like that. So I was all for this being some new person that wasn't connected to the Connors and had been chosen by the hand of fate.

We all knew a couple of things. One: Sarah Connor is not a happy character. She is best when she is driven and tragic and you need some rocket fuel for that. You can't have John be a 36-year-old accountant somewhere. And really, when you think about it, he could be sort of a pathetic figure as a man who had missed his moment in history and was relegated to this banal, ordinary existence, when in fact had Sarah not chosen to destroy Cyberdyne, he would be the leader of humanity. Nobody wants to see that. Secondly, [John's death], that's rocket fuel for Sarah. And lastly, you need to clear the stage for these new characters. They are not going to be able to have their moment, or come into their moment, with John hanging around. There's just no good way to do that. Everybody was in pretty strong agreement, and the way to start it, was really, you want to have this dramatic impact. You want to slap the audience in the face and say, "Wake up. This is going to be different." I feel like that accomplished that. I hate the violence of it. I hate the idea of a kid being shot, but the dramatic fuel that it gives the story is kind of undeniable.