TERMINATOR GENISYS – Set Visit

New Orleans – July 16 & 17

During a classic warm Louisiana summer afternoon we visit the shoot in New Orleans of Terminator Genisys, in what used to be a Lowe’s Home Improvement store and now is one of the best sound stages in the country.

The first people we encounter on the set of such a highly anticipated film are producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg, who explain to us the fascinating journey of bringing this project to fruition. “Since the day we found out that the rights to the Terminator franchise were going to become available it was something we wanted to be a part of,” recalls Ellison with a humble smile of satisfaction. “And during a series of conversations between me and my sister Megan we went into the bidding war – as there always is when something like this happens – and were the fortunate ones to be able to win it!”

“This movie opens in the future,” he continues, “It’s something that James Cameron teased in his first two movies of the series but wasn’t really ever able to get to. And then we see John Connor sending Kyle Reese back to save Sarah Connor. But what’s important to know about Terminator Genisys is that it’s not a traditional sequel, prequel or remake; it is a complete re-imagining of the Terminator universe based on the Cameron source material!”

This way Terminator Genisys is a stand-alone first part of a trilogy that respects the original source material and the whole Terminator universe, but at the same time gives both the fans of the franchise and the newcomers into that fascinating world a lot more. “And if you have seen a Terminator movie before, and specifically the first two that we revere, there is going to be something a little extra special for you,” affirms producer Dana Goldberg. “To me both Terminator 1 and Terminator 2 are perfect movies,” concurs David Ellison. “They have redefined the way summer blockbusters are told all the way to this day. I think it’s safe to say that everybody on this set really worships those movies. And we didn’t want to just remake what Cameron did beautifully, but take that incredible world he created and update it to our reason to exist today. So our film is reverential to the cannons that have been established, although it also veers off into a very different direction.”

Alan Taylor was the filmmaker finally chosen to direct the movie and veer it into the new direction Ellison was referring to. We caught the director in-between takes and asked him about the reasons he decided to embark on this thrilling project. “I had just come off my first big movie experience with Thor: The Dark World and had mixed feelings in many ways about getting involved in another large production,” he confessed; “but I couldn’t say, ‘No’ to Terminator Genisys. First of all I was drawn to the themes that were already very strong in Cameron’s first two movies, even though they were big budget action films, as they were very pressing and still relevant today in regards to what it means to be human.”

In reading Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script, Taylor soon realized the possibilities the story offered to respect James Cameron’s original vision and also come up with something exciting and new. “When I read the script I was attracted by how different it was to the original movies, but similar in that the focus was on the importance of the relationships between the characters, even in the context of this huge battle across time.”

Lussier was also present during the shoot in New Orleans, and we had an opportunity to talk to him about the challenges of getting such a complex and rich script right. “It was an intimidating world to step into and at the same time a great honor because it has been an amazing experience to find the right voices to all these characters.”

Another key element of the plot has to do with the time-travelling element of the story, which in Patrick Lussier’s words takes us now everywhere. “Terminator Genisys is a time travel movie! It is its own film that at the same time is very much in the world created three decades ago by James Cameron, and time-travelling and all the possibilities it offers has a lot to do with it. This is the Holy Grail of stories, so you feel the weight of characters like John Connor, Kyle Reese, Sarah Connor and the Terminator, and you desperately want to do them justice. I didn’t just want to write an action science-fiction movie but find the emotional heart: what was that then – being born out of the Cold War ­– and what is it now with our addiction to technology.”

In that sense it was very important to establish the right look for Terminator Genisys. Director of photography Kramer Morgenthau admitted to be inspired by the first Terminator movies, while diving into the whole history of science-fiction movies and especially films like Blade Runner, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other iconic titles too. One wonders if the different time zones that appear in the story influenced his work. “Definitely!” he admits. “Color pallets change as the story evolves. There are different shifts in time, and each one has a specific look.”

Morgenthau is not new to working with director Alan Taylor. “I have been collaborating with Alan a lot over the past four years. We worked together on Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World and now Terminator Genisys. And, as we have similar approaches to the esthetic of our vision, it’s like jazz with him because we just riff off each other.”

We see that harmony in the scene that evolves in front of us, when John Connor, a robotics expert, talks about time travel. At the end of the shot we observe how he wanders where this will all take us…

Jason Clarke portrays the leader of the resistance against the machines that have taken over our world. In his words: “This film takes you inside the character of John Connor and shows the weight he has on his shoulder, being the chosen one and the messiah. It explores that and the choices he has to make – which are not always easy ones, as they can affect people he loves. He is a guy that has always had a lot of mystery about him, and that’s a great role to portray for an actor.”

“And I like that he is an enigma and a man that, when you take his big overall arc down and distill it, makes you realize that he is about basics and fundamentals,” he continues. “Connor is born out of the ashes and a need to fight, strive and survive – which is all entwined with the choices he has to make about the future.”

Fellow Australian actor Jai Courtney embodies Kyle Reese, another important character from James Cameron’s fertile imagination that will travel back in time to save John Connor’s mother Sarah from the Terminator sent to destroy her. “I didn’t know Jason before working on this, but we have a bunch of mutual friends and I was excited to meet him. It was cool! I have admired a lot of the work he has done in recent years.”

In regards to the plot, Courtney reminded us of the following: “There will be stuff that the fans of the franchise are familiar with, like times and places and characters, but this film is different because we are not just carrying on with what we already know. Things have shifted somewhat…”

And the same feeling is shared by British actress Emilia Clarke, the woman selected to embody Sarah Connor. “We are definitely paying homage to the original and to the incredible characters that James Cameron created, but the circumstances you find them in after a certain time within the movie are so incredibly different that it offers us the opportunity to explore other sides of these characters you already know.”

In that sense Matt Smith – who is not foreign to the genre after having portrayed Doctor Who for the BBC – admitted that, “I am just thrilled to be a part of this project! When they approached me and explained the scale of the storytelling I was excited, as I believe it’s going to set a new precedent. And I thought the script was very witty, which is important in this type of film. Being on the set is sort of like being on Doctor Who with the difference that everything here is taller and wider, and there is more green stuff!”

All of them were ecstatic with the opportunity of working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who returns to the Terminator franchise and to a character that has consolidated his career as one of the biggest movie stars of our time. “Arnold is just amazing!” exclaims Jason Clarke, “and it was great to meet him. He is very professional and has a good sense of humor. Being next to him – from the first rehearsals – put it all into perspective. Arnold is a joy to work with, and his part in this movie is very complex. And I love chatting and laughing with him in the makeup trailer! He is a very erudite man that can talk about anything: politics, cars, fashion, environment… Arnold Schwarzenegger has had an extraordinary life!”

And precisely after walking out of the makeup trailer Jason Clarke was referring to, screen legend Arnold Schwarzenegger sits on a couch in front of us to chat about this return to one of his most iconic roles. “Very few times, if any, can I remember the same person being involved in the same franchise for that long of a period,” recalls the Austrian-born actor.

“That’s over 30 years! And interestingly enough I have also recently been asked to come back to other characters I have done in the past like Conan the Barbarian. It’s just amazing and unusual at the same time to get asked to return to those roles you played so many years ago, but the truth is that it makes me feel very honored.” His presence is no less intimidating than when he first embraced the role, back in 1984. “Believe it or not I weigh the same and still fit into the same Terminator T-800 body mold!” he chuckles. “To be honest I think I have only gained a couple of inches on my waist from the first movie, but everything else was pretty much the same size…”

Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed us the qualities he believes have made this character of the T-800 so unique. “Terminator crashes through things and does whatever he wants. He feels no pain and nothing can get in his way. So I think that in a way he represents a lot of things that sometimes people wish they could just turn on or off at will like a switch. It’s a fantasy! We love his look on the screen and dream of having that kind of power.”

As expected, Terminator Genisys has a lot of action, and part of that already is present on Schwarzenegger’s face that, after undergoing the makeup process, reveals some battle scars from the endeavors his character goes through during the course of a movie that at the moment of our visit was two months into the scheduled three-month shoot in New Orleans. “As you get older it’s harder,” jokes the actor with the good humor that has always characterized him. “And not to say that I look the same as 30 years ago, but I have tried to stay in shape. The makeup is a process of about one and a half to two hours with different stages as the damage inflicted on my character gets worse and there is more deterioration going on.”

Walking through the set we come across all kinds of eye candy for any fan of the franchise like a broken Terminator endoskeleton half-popping out of a dumpster that we learn has suffered an acid death, as well as some cool weapons of many different sizes and firepower – used by both humans and robots – and different costumes created for the shoot by Susan Matheson.

“My background is in theatre and opera”, explains the South African costume designer, “but part of the reason I became interested in cinema was precisely because of the movies The Terminator and Mad Max, which inspired me to say, ‘Oh, you can really do interesting things in film!’ So the opportunity to work on Terminator Genisys, even though it may sound as a cliché, was a real fantasy costume job for me because I’ve always been a fan of the franchise. This is the genre that I enjoy watching. I am an obsessive science-fiction fan!”

“I started my work by thinking how could I honor James Cameron’s vision and also still bring something new that at the same time was absolutely rooted in the history of the franchise,” Matheson, who recreated the iconic Nike sneakers worn by Kyle Reese in the first film for Genisys, says while she walks us through some of her designs that are hanging on mannequins. They include a worn-out military outfit with a bullet-proof vest that has the initials J. C. on the right arm standing for John Connor, a female uniform probably belonging to his mother Sarah and a taller one we imagine was made for Kyle Reese.

“One of the things I noticed while preparing all the post-apocalyptic scenes that take place during our movie in Los Angeles – when looking carefully at all the guerilla rag-tag fighters – was that there was no mention of Los Angeles in the way people dress, but the truth is that if there were an apocalypse right now and you were stuck with the clothes you are wearing and had to scavenge through the dirt and the rubble of a lost civilization for clothing you would have to take it from that civilization! And that was an element I thought was missing from the previous films that I believed I could contribute to; so, I started looking at Los Angeles culture and music and all the different ethnic groups of the time to integrate those elements into the costumes.”

True to her word, Matheson opens a folder to show us how a California license plate was attached to an outfit to be the guard for an arm or even pieces of rubber tires used as amour! “The problem is that modern tires have steel in them,” she reveals with a laugh, “so imagine cutting through that with a knife! In the end we had to find older ones that we could actually manipulate…”

Prop masters Diana Butler and Harry Lu worked closely with Susan Matheson to come up with all the props that populate the movie. “One of the first things I did on the project was to get together with Harry and think of the different weapons we would need,” Butler remembers. “All of the ones you see are new!” It is easy to distinguish those used by the robots from the ones that belong to the humans by the mere size of them. “Yes, the approach to creating the endoskeleton weapons was very different to making the ones used by Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese or John Connor…”

A heavy plasma gun of simple but menacing features and huge dimensions lying harmlessly on a table clearly belongs to a Terminator. Holding it made us think of the empowerment Schwarzenegger was talking about when he explained the undeniable appeal these powerful robots have to the public. Like kids in a futuristic candy store, we admire the work and artistry put into the design of the guns and imagine the entertaining challenge it must have been for the prop masters to come up with all these weapons of various shapes, nature and power while we hold John Connor’s weapon – that somewhat resembles an AK-47 – in our hands. “Our cooperation was great,” admits Lu. “Just brainstorming how we would make them was fun. And they look so cool!”

While we observe on set some long travelling shots taken through underground tunnels full of rubble for another scene in the movie we have a last chance to chat with director Alan Taylor about the core of the story. “We are running around in different time frames,” he stresses, “but it constantly comes down to the complicated relationships.” An opinion shared by Emilia Clarke when she says, “The great thing about Terminator Genisys is that while it is on such an epic scale, as some of the scenes that we have are massive, the heart of it is this beautiful story about relationships.”

Asked about what it was like to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a Terminator the director was very clear: “Arnold is wonderful and takes direction really well. Obviously he has the role completely down, but it is amazing the way he has stepped into this and shown us how much human is mixed with the machine.”

Finally, before leaving the set we meet Nasa, a small pit bull/terrier mix rescue dog that was rescued by the filmmakers and adopted by Alan Taylor after finding him on his way to shooting an important scene at the facilities that NASA have in Louisiana and that has quickly become the mascot of the production. Abandoned on the side of the road after losing his family in a car accident, his happy – evidenced by the constant wagging of his tail and a permanent smile on his black and white patched face – rebirth into the Terminator Genisys family is a good omen for a movie with the great expectations of bringing a new exciting life to this popular franchise.