'Terminator' Director Tim Miller Reflects on Box Office Trauma and James Cameron Fights: "I'm Processing"

US film director Tim Miller - Getty - H 2019
TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
The filmmaker has no plans to work with Cameron again, because he wants to retain control of his own films: "It has nothing to do with whatever trauma I have from the experience."

On the surface, Terminator: Dark Fate had a pedigree for success. Series creator James Cameron and star Linda Hamilton were back for the first time since 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Director Tim Miller was hot off his surprise hit Deadpool. And the film received the franchise's strongest reviews since T2 (a solid 71 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

But Dark Fate ultimately bombed, earning just $29 million in its Nov. 1 opening weekend. Three weeks later, Miller is opening up about what happened in a revealing interview with Kim Masters, host of KCRW's The Business and editor-at-large of The Hollywood Reporter.

"I'm sure we could write a book on why it didn't work," said Miller of Dark Fate. "I'm still not sure and I'm processing, but I'm very proud of the movie."

Industry observers have pointed to franchise fatigue as contributing to the failures of November movies like Dark Fate, Doctor Sleep and Charlie's Angels. Indeed, Dark Fate followed a string of so-so Terminator sequels, the baggage of which Miller felt while reading the reviews and reactions.

"The things they seemed to hate the most about the movie, were things I can't control. I can't control you didn't like Genysis or you felt betrayed by Terminator 4. I can't help that," said Miller.

Miller also addressed a head-turning quote from producer and co-writer Cameron, who said there were many creative battles on Dark Fate.

"The blood is still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles," Cameron told reporters in October. "This is a film that was forged in fire. But that’s the creative process, right?"

Miller acknowledges that there were plenty of creative battles on Dark Fate between him, Cameron and Skydance's David Ellison.

"Even though Jim is a producer and David Ellison is a producer and they technically have final cut and ultimate power, my name is still on it as director," said Miller. "Even if I'm going to lose the fight…I still feel this obligation to fight because that is what the director is supposed to do. Fight for the movie."

When it came time for Miller to show Cameron his director's cut, he was unsure what his producer would think.

"The lights come up, and there was a lot of stuff that I had cut that Jim thought was important and scenes we'd shot that we'd had disagreements on," said Miller. "But the lights come up and Jim says 'we've got a movie.'"

Miller noted that many of the disagreements came down to small lines that the director saw as "poetic and beautiful" but which Cameron didn't care for.

"I would fight for that line, because it was important to me. But does the audience really care? Probably not," said Miller. "As far as donnybrooks go, it's not that big of a deal."

Early in the development, Miller and Cameron disagreed on what should be happening in the future. Cameron wanted the humans to be winning — as in his first films — while Miller wanted the humans to be losing to Legion, the new version of Skynet.

"[I suggested] Legion is so powerful, the only way to beat it is going back in time and strangle it in the crib," recalls Miller. "Jim says, 'What's dramatic about the humans losing?' And I say, 'Well, what's dramatic about the humans winning and they just need to keep on winning?' I like a last stand. It's not his thing."

For Miller, part of the challenge with Dark Fate was being in a position where he did not have ultimate control as a director. That was part of the reason he opted not to return for Deadpool 2 after having creative differences with star Ryan Reynolds. ("It became clear that Ryan wanted to be in control of the franchise. You can work that way as a director, quite successfully, but I can't," Miller said.)

On Dark Fate he found himself in a situation where he did not have ultimate control, and Miller acknowledged he would not likely work with Cameron again for that reason.

"I can say no, but it has nothing to do with whatever trauma I have from the experience. It's more that I just don't want to be in a situation again where I don't have the control to do what I think is right," said Miller.

Still, Miller said that he and Cameron maintain a good relationship.

"I just got an email last week from Jim, who said, 'I know we clashed a little bit. I put it all down to two strong, creative people with differences of opinion and I think it made the movie better. I'll be back in L.A. in December. Let's go get a beer,'" recalled Miller.

For Skydance's Ellison, Dark Fate marked the second bomb in a matter of weeks following the disappointment of Gemini Man. Miller feels "horrible" for losing people money on Dark Fate, and he even took it upon himself to pick up the tab when he and Ellison had dinner this week.

"I bought dinner for the billionaire," Miller said, aware of the irony.

After a bomb, most directors might worry about being sent to director's jail, but Miller noted that he had a long career as a visual effects pro before directing; he will be fine no matter what. And it seems the door remains open with Ellison and Skydance.

Reflecting on his recent dinner with Ellison, Miller got  choked up when recounting one question the Skydance boss had for him: "What are we going to do next together?"

Miller's The Business interview is available to listen to here. The episode airs at 1:30 p.m. Monday on KCRW.

Nov. 23, 9 a.m.: A previous version misstated which year Terminator 2 opened. THR regrets the error.