I dropped by the Sunset Boulevard office of director McG yesterday to chat about “Terminator Salvation.” I asked him about the late addition of a digitial-image cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie but he just grinned. “I can’t give away all of the surprises.” He told me he was headed to the Lakers’ playoff game against Houston with the California governor in a few hours (that didn’t end so well for the home team) a tidbit that left me wondering if the politician is already sizing up his post-Sacramento prospects in Hollywood, although it’s not entirely clear that’s his next career aspiration. Whether the old star is back on board for good, I see big things ahead for “Terminator.” You can read about my visit to the set in this extended version of a story that appeared in last Sunday’s Summer Sneaks issue of the Los Angeles Times. (The one in print was trimmed for space issues.)
Reporting from Albuquerque, N.M.
Director McG had a bit of sage advice last year for a visitor to the set of “Terminator Salvation,” which had set up shop in a vast hangar at Kirtland Air Force Base here. “If you go too far that way,” he said, pointing across the tarmac, “someone will shoot you.”
Knowing the boundaries and risking sniper fire — those are pretty good metaphors for anyone daring enough to add a new installment to the killer-robot franchise without either signature star Arnold Schwarzenegger or director James Cameron listed in the credits.
“Terminator Salvation” will arrive in theaters May 21 with new faces and a darker ethos than the earlier films in the series, but it is a companion piece to them, a pure sequel — or is that prequel? It’s difficult to say with a franchise that skips through time like some sort of “Back to the Future” with a body count.
This time around the stars are an unmasked Christian Bale, who is coming off the staggering success of “The Dark Knight,” and Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, who, in an intriguing bit of Hollywood linkage, will star in Cameron’s eagerly anticipated 3-D epic “Avatar” at the end of the year.
The year is 2018 and mankind is being snuffed out by the malevolent machines of SkyNet. The man who is destined to lead the human resistance, John Connor (Bale), is now an adult but is struggling with his legacy and the suspicions of his ragged compatriots. He also is staggered when he meets Marcus Wright (Worthington), whose last memory is of being a death row prisoner before the apocalyptic attacks of SkyNet. Wright turns out to be a SkyNet-created cyborg model, but one that does not match the prophecies that have guided Connor his entire life. The distrusting pair set off on a quest to find answers and the path leads to Dr. Serena Kogen (Helena Bonham-Carter) and an ending that “will shock everyone,” McG promises. The cast also features hip-hop star Common, Moon Bloodgoode, Anton Yelchin and Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of filmmaker Ron Howard.
For former music video director McG (his birth name is Joseph McGinty Nichol, he grew up with the nickname) the film is a chance to establish himself in the special-effects blockbuster sector after directing films such as the glossy “Charlie’s Angels” and the plane-crash/football melodrama “We Are Marshall.” If this film clicks as Warner Bros. expects, McG will have a film franchise as well as his considerable success as a television producer with shows such as “Supernatural” and “Chuck,” as well as the four-year run of “The O.C.“
“I do believe this a great opportunity for me,” McG said, “and we have a story to tell, state-of-the-art special effects and in Christian Bale nothing less than the most credible and intense action star in the world.”
Intense is right. Bale became an internet sensation in February when an extended audio recording of an especially colorful on-set rant was posted on TMZ. Some people laughed while others recoiled at his vicious language and — after it was spoofed, turned into T-shirts and club mixes, debated and decried — a subdued Bale went on local rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) to offer an apology and urge people not to punish the movie for the actions of its star.
“I’m asking people,” Bale said, “please do not allow my one-time lapse in judgment, my incredibly embarrassing meltdown, to overshadow this movie and to have all of those people’s hard work go to waste.”
The audio rant seems like a long time ago now, so it’s hard to imagine it will undermine “Terminator Salvation” on opening week, but the movie has other challenges.
The defining screen memories of the first three “Terminator” films are the implacable and usually monosyllabic Schwarzenegger behind sunglasses and an oozing, shape-shifting robot portrayed with shark-sleekness by Robert Patrick.
The first two films in the franchise were loud and proud with director Cameron (“Titanic,” “Aliens”) delivering perhaps the best time-travel movies ever made — and some surprisingly soulful moments amid the artful explosions.
“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” in 2003 was directed by Jonathan Mostow (“U-571”) and had a tacked-on feel to many fans but still pulled in $150 million at the box office and an impressive $283 million overseas, an indication that Schwarzenegger was still a viable Hollywood export in this decade.
McG said he was initially skeptical about the need for another “Terminator” film. At the Kirtland hangar, during a break from filming an intense scene with arguing resistance commanders, he said the third “Terminator” film left him cold and he wasn’t eager to tamper with the legacy of Cameron’s sci-fi classics.
“Sequels that match or meet the first film are hard to pull off, still, I think,” McG said. “I know I made a substandard one with the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ sequel and I wasn’t eager to make another one that followed someone else’s movies.”
The script by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, though, took the characters into dark, unexpected directions and, unlike the previous three films, this one is set entirely in a grim, soul-crushing future. The director cited Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” as an influence on the ashen, post-apocalyptic world of Connor (John Hillcoat’s adaptation of that novel, by the way, is scheduled to reach the screen in October) and he noted that “Mad Max” and the just-finished television series “Battlestar Galactica” also have themes and settings that dovetail with this new chapter of “Terminator.”
McG saw the first two “Terminator” films as a youngster in Newport Beach and he was swept up by the story of the first one and the “game-changing” special effects of its sequel. So it’s no surprise he went directly to Cameron “to kiss the ring” and then set up a special early screening for Schwarzenegger, whose last starring role before his Sacramento adventure was “Terminator 3.”
The politician was not overwhelmed and told The Times: “I wasn’t sure who the Terminator was. I don’t know if there is one or if he’s the star or the hero. These are the things that determine the success and how strong the movie will be.”
McG urged the politician to wait until the film was closer to final form. Then, just last month, the giddy politician confirmed that he had given the movie his best-possible blessing: His visage will appear on screen, thanks to some CGI special effects. McG predicted something similar last year in New Mexico as he pointed toward his resistance fighters: “We’re going to win people over when they see what we have here. We’re bringing credibility back to ‘Terminator’.”
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Christian Bale photo by WireImage. “Terminator Salvation” images courtesy of Warner Bros.