By Iain Blair
He said he’d be back, and he meant it. Thirty-five years after he first arrived to menace the world in the 1984 classic The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger has returned as the implacable killing machine in Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest installment of the long-running franchise.
And he’s not alone in his return. Terminator: Dark Fate also reunites the film’s producer and co-writer James Cameron with original franchise star Linda Hamilton for the first time in 28 years in a new sequel that picks up where Terminator 2: Judgment Day left off.
When the film begins, more than two decades have passed since Sarah Connor (Hamilton) prevented Judgment Day, changed the future and re-wrote the fate of the human race. Now, Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) is living a simple life in Mexico City with her brother (Diego Boneta) and father when a highly advanced and deadly new Terminator — a Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) — travels back through time to hunt and kill her. Dani’s survival depends on her joining forces with two warriors: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier from the future, and a battle-hardened Sarah Connor. As the Rev-9 ruthlessly destroys everything and everyone in its path on the hunt for Dani, the three are led to a T-800 (Schwarzenegger) from Sarah’s past that might be their last best hope.
To helm all the on-screen mayhem, black humor and visual effects, Cameron handpicked Tim Miller, whose credits include the global blockbuster Deadpool, one of the highest grossing R-rated films of all time (it grossed close to $800 million). Miller then assembled a close-knit team of collaborators that included director of photography Ken Seng (Deadpool, Project X), editor Julian Clarke (Deadpool, District 9) and visual effects supervisor Eric Barba (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Oblivion).
I recently talked to Miller about making the film, its cutting-edge VFX, the workflow and his love of editing and post.
How daunting was it when James Cameron picked you to direct this?
I think there’s something wrong with me because I don’t really feel fear as normal people do. It just manifests as a sense of responsibility, and with this I knew I’d never measure up to Jim’s movies but felt I could do a good job. Jim was never going to tell this story, and I wanted to see it, so it just became more about the weight of that sense of responsibility, but not in a debilitating way. I felt pretty confident I could carry this off. But later, the big anxiety was not to let down Linda Hamilton. Before I knew her, it wasn’t a thing, but later, once I got to know her I really felt I couldn’t mess it up (laughs).
This is still Cameron’s baby even though he handed over the directing to you. How hands-on was he?
He was busy with Avatar, but he was there for a lot of the early meetings and was very involved with the writing and ideas, which was very helpful thematically. But he wasn’t overbearing on all that. Then later when we shot, he wanted to write a few of the key scenes, which he did, and then in the edit he was in and out, but he never came into my edit room. He’d give notes and let us get on with it.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
A continuation of Sarah’s story. I never felt it was John’s story to me. It was always about a mother’s love for a son, and I felt like there was a real opportunity here. And that that story hadn’t been told — partly because the other sequels never had Linda. Once she wanted to come back, it was always the best possible story. No one else could be her or Arnold’s character.
Any surprises working with them?
Before we shot, people were telling me, “You got to be ready, we can’t mess around. When Arnold walks on set you’d better be rolling!” Sure enough, when he walked on he’d go, “And…” (Laughs) He really likes to joke around. With Linda — and the other actors — it was a love-fest. They’re both such nice, down-to-earth people, and I like a collegial atmosphere. I’m not a screamer. I’m very prepared, and I feel if you just show up on time, you’re already ahead of the game as a director.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
They were all different for each big action set piece, and fitting it all into a schedule was tough, as we had a crazy amount of VFX. The C-5 plane sequence was far and away the biggest challenge to do and [SFX supervisor] Neil Corbould and his team designed and constructed all the effects rigs for the movie. The C-5 set was incredible, with two revolving sets, one vertical and one horizontal. It was so big you could put a bus in it, and it was able to rotate 360 degrees and tilt in either direction at the same time.
You just can’t simulate that reality of zero gravity on the actors. And then after we got it all in camera, which took weeks, our VFX guy Eric Barba finished it off. The other big one was the whole underwater scene, where the Humvee falls over the top of a dam and goes underwater as it’s swept down a river. For that, we put the Humvee on a giant scissor lift that could take it all the way under, so the water rushes in and fills it up. It’s really safe to do, but it feels frighteningly realistic for the actors.
This is only my second movie, so I’m still learning, but the advantage is I’m really willing to listen to any advice from the smart people around me on set on how best to do all this stuff.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right from the start. I use previz a lot, as I come from that environment and I’m very comfortable with it, and that becomes the template for all of production to work from. Sometimes it’s too much of a template and treated like a bible, but I’m like, “Please keep thinking. Is there a better idea?” But it’s great to get everyone on the same page, so very early on you see what’s VFX, what’s live-action only, what’s a combination, and you can really plan your shoot. We did over 45 minutes of previz, along with storyboards. We did tons of postviz. My director’s cut had no blue/green at all. It was all postviz for every shot.
DP Ken Seng, who did Deadpool with you, shot it. Talk about how you collaborated on the look.
We didn’t really have time to plan shot lists that much since we moved so much and packed so much into every day. A lot of it was just instinctive run-and-gun, as the shoot was pretty grueling. We shot in Madrid and [other parts of] Spain, which doubled for Mexico. Then we did studio work in Budapest. The script was in flux a lot, and Jim wrote a few scenes that came in late, and I was constantly re-writing and tweaking dialogue and adjusting to the locations because there’s the location you think you’ll get and then the one you actually get.
Where did you post?
All at Blur, my company where we did Deadpool. The edit bays weren’t big enough for this though, so we spilled over into another building next door. That became Terminator HQ with the main edit bay and several assistant bays, plus all the VFX and compositing post teams. Blur also helped out with postviz and previz.
Do you like the post process?
I love post! I was an animator and VFX guy first, so it’s very natural to me, and I had a lot of the same team from Deadpool, which was great.
Talk about editing with Julian Clarke who cut Deadpool. How did that work?
It was the same set up. He’d be back here in LA cutting while we shot. He’s so fast; he’d be just one day behind me — I’ve never met anyone who works as hard. Then after the shoot, we’d edit all day and then I’d deal with VFX reviews for hours.
Can you talk about how Adobe Creative Cloud helped the post and VFX teams achieve their creative and technical goals?
I’m a big fan, and that started back on Deadpool as David Fincher was working closely with Adobe to make Premiere something that could beat Avid. We’re good friends — we’re doing our animated Netflix show Love, Death & Robots together — and he was like, “Dude, you gotta use this tool,” so we used it on Deadpool. It was still a little rocky on that one, but overall it was a great experience, and we knew we’d use it on this one. Adobe really helped refine it and the workflow, and it was a huge leap.
What were the big editing challenges?
(Laughs) We just shot too much movie. We had many discussions about cutting one or more of the action scenes, but in the end, we just took out some of the action from all of them, instead of cutting a particular set piece. But it’s tricky cutting stuff and still making it seamless, especially in a very heavily choreographed sequence like the C-5.
VFX plays a big role. How many were there?
Over 2,500 — a huge amount. The VFX on this were so huge it became a bit of a problem, to be honest.
How did you work with VFX supervisor Eric Barba.
He did a great job and oversaw all the vendors, including ILM, who did most of them. We tried to have them do all the character-based stuff, to keep it in one place, but in the end, we also had Digital Domain, Method, Blur, UPP, Cantina, and some others. We also brought on Jeff White from ILM since it was more than Eric could handle.
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
Tom Holkenborg, who scored Deadpool, did another great job. We also reteamed with sound design and mixer Craig Henighan and we did the mix at Fox. They’re both crucial in a film like this, but I’m the first to admit music’s not my strength. Luckily, Julian Clarke is excellent with that and very focused. He worked hard at pulling it all together. I love sound design and we talked about all the spotting, and Julian managed a lot of that too for me because I was so busy with the VFX.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
It’s huge, and we did it at Company 3 with Tim Stipan, who did Deadpool. I like to do a lot of reframing, adding camera shake and so on. It has a subtle but important effect on the overall film.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.