'Terminator' Composer on the 'Dark Fate' Moment Arnold Schwarzenegger Vetoed

Terminator Dark Fate_Tom Holkenborg_Inset - Publicity - H 2019
Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Junkie XL recalls the nostalgic take the actor felt rang false and weighs in on paying tribute to the past while infusing it with something new.

Earlier this week, composer Tom Holkenborg was feeling a little nervous. The premiere for his latest film, Terminator: Dark Fate, had just been canceled due to wildfires raging in the Los Angeles area, and as he sat down for an interview in his Tarzana, California, studio with The Hollywood Reporter, he noted the chat might have to be cut short, should he get a text alerting him the fires were coming that way. Luckily, that text never came.

Holkenborg, also known as Junkie XL, has become one of the more more prolific names in film scoring working today. In the past four years, he's written music for Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Mortal Engines and Alita: Battle Angel.

Dark Fate allowed Holkenborg to reteam with his Deadpool director Tim Miller and gave the composer a front-row seat to the debates that went into crafting the film. Nostalgia was heavy in the air on set, which saw Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger share scenes together for the first time since 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The creative team worked to find the right balance between fan service and charting something new.

Schwarzenegger himself vetoed a moment in the script that would have called for his T-800 to don sunglasses that have become synonymous with the character.

“In the script, Arnold walks up to the mirror in the leather jacket and picks up the sunglasses and puts them on,” Holkenborg tells THR. “Arnold was very clear that he didn’t think the T-800 would do that.”

Miller shot the scene both ways, but in the theatrical cut, Schwarzenegger leaves the sunglasses behind per the actor's note.

Terminator Dark Fate opens in Mexico City, where protagonist Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) lives with her father and brother. Prior to being hunted by the Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna), the film establishes Dani’s life at home and at the auto plant where she works. 

“I actually infused the main terminator theme with Spanish guitars to highlight Dani’s heritage,” Holkenborg says. “I added Mariachi trumpets that play countermelody to the theme.”

Dani must go on the run with a powerful trio led by franchise veteran Sarah Connor (Hamilton) and newcomer Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an augmented human soldier from the future. Holkenborg found particular joy in working on Hamilton’s return. “She has so much life in her face, and her arrival in the film is epic,” the composer says. “It was a very challenging scene because the music rolls out the red carpet for her in this case.”

Holkenborg spent roughly a year working on the film’s score and he kept coming back to the music for Sarah Connor’s cinematic return.

“We tried a lot of things. We tried the main Terminator theme but it didn’t quite work,” Holkenborg says. “We eventually settled on a rough, almost bluesy riff on the bass guitar that I played with a lot of distortion.

Holkenborg finished that particular cue just eight weeks before the film’s release date.

Another challenge for the composer was crafting the musical language of the Rev-9.

“The Rev-9 is a combination of a synthesizer bass line accompanied with brass and strings that bend up,” Holkenborg says. “I coupled that with very threatening sound design, and that became the Rev-9’s fingerprint.”

One of the film’s major action set pieces takes place in an immigration detention center. While watching the inmates escape, Holkenborg was drawn to the blaring prison alarm. “I asked them for the alarm sound and they said, ‘Why?’” Holkenborg recalls with a laugh. “I told them it should be part of the music and when I delivered that cue with the alarm imbedded, that’s what they used for the scene in the film.”

Terminator: Dark Fate is billed as the direct follow up to T2: Judgment Day, and Holkenborg spent a lot of time studying the first two films.

“It’s interesting that the Terminator theme plays in the main titles, but very rarely throughout the films. The score was more percussion and sound design based,” Holkenborg says. “I wanted the music of Dark Fate to be an homage to composer Brad Fiedel’s original work, but also the natural progression of this story over the last 25 years.”

Most of Holkenborg’s conversations were directly with director Miller on the score, with him occasionally getting notes from producer and series creator James Cameron.

“With Tim, he loves things to be on the minimal side at best, so the orchestra takes a backseat to the sound design and percussion,” Holkenborg says. “The trick is to then find ways to make the music emotional and talk to the audience.”

When it came time to score the pivotal moment in the climax confrontation, Holkenborg disagreed with the temp music that the team had used.

“They had temp action music, mostly my work from Mad Max: Fury Road, all the way until the end,” Holkenborg says. “I said that we need to approach this scene in a completely emotional way, and ultimately they said, ‘Show us.’”

Holkenborg subtly used the orchestra and reduced the tempo in the emotional moments leading up to the climax.

“Using Arnold’s theme in adagio was really the crowning moment, and everybody was instantly sold on it," Holkenborg says.

Holkenborg considers himself a full-contact composer, meaning that he not only writes the score but also performs much of the instrumentation.

“On this film, I was able to record cello, bass, electric guitar, bass guitar, Spanish guitars and percussion,” Holkenborg says. “That’s the moment when the stress leaves you and you’re just having fun with the music.”

Like most fans, Holkenborg prefers the extended cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day over the initial theatrical release. When asked if fans could expect an extended cut of Dark Fate, he puts the onus on the film’s box office. “A lot of the shortened scenes would require heavy visual effects investments to make them cinema-worthy,” Holkenborg says. “Particularly the cuts made to the climax.”

The first cut of Dark Fate was three-and-a-half hours, he notes.

“There’s certainly a lot more that could be added back,” Holkenborg says. “However, the theatrical cut is very much the same film, we’ve just reduced several scenes … specifically when we first meet Arnold’s Terminator, and numerous action sequences. … I think the climax was twice as long originally.”

Several jokes were also left on the cutting-room floor. The film’s storyline wades into illegal immigration, a hotly contest political issue in the United States. At one time, the film had Davis’ Grace cracking a “wall” joke that was a direct reference to President Donald Trump. Ultimately, the line was scrapped from the film. However, Schwarzenegger has a Texas firearms one-liner that remains, though there were questions over whether it would be kept in following an Aug. 3 shooting in El Paso, Texas.

“There was a fairly long-running conversation about cutting the Texas gun reference,” Holkenborg recalls. “I was asked about it and I didn’t feel that there was any correlation between our film and [the El Paso shooting], and I knew the line would get a lot of laughs.”

Take a look at his scoring process, below.