For "Terminator Salvation" director McG, whose film opens May 21, the key challenge for him was one of legitimacy. "It was demonstrating to the passionate fanbase that we take the source material very seriously," he told CBR News. "We aim to reinvigorate the Terminator franchise, because it's a great idea that was once science fiction, and now it's reality." According to the director, the ambivalence of humanity to its technology is now an everyday occurrence. "This idea seems to have a lot of teeth and everybody seems fascinated with the notion of that which makes us great can be our undoing."
McG believes such material can deliver more than just a summer action film. He continued, "I wanted to respect [the ideas] and do it in a way that's entertaining, but ultimately has enough there that you can talk about it a little bit further even after the credits been rolling."
The director first came to the project when he read a draft for a proposed "Terminator 4" by writers Michael Ferris and John Brancato. Both men wrote 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," in which they depicted the machine overmind Skynet going active and the destruction of human civilization, referred to in the films as "Judgment Day." It was a story point both men believed would never be filmed. "We never thought they'd let us blow up the world in the end of T3, honestly," Brancato admitted. "We walked into a meeting, and Mike and I talked about it and said this is the only reason for this movie to exist. If we don't do it, it's just a retread of T2. The thing we got to do is blow up the world, but of course, they won't let us." Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, producers of the second and third Terminator films, however, gave them the go ahead to depict Judgment Day.
"So then they let us blow up the world and said 'Now what do we do for the next movie?'" Ferris added. "We said, 'Ehhhh ... close the book on this franchise?'"
However, the idea of a Terminator film set entirely in the post-Apocalyptic machine era soon appealed to them. "People were intrigued by the little hints they got of the dark futuristic world," Brancato said. "I love post-Apocalyptic movies when they're done right. It was a great challenge to do something that was different from the 'Mad Max' films and the others that are out there." To Brancato, the appeal is not unlike a Western. "It's stripping the world of a lot of crap that's in the way. It gets to be very essential: what it is to be human? What it is to survive?"
These ideas appealed to director McG. "I'm here because of the script these guys put forward. That's the script that I read that sparked my idea. It was their take that got me excited," he revealed. "That's what I told [Terminator creator] Jim Cameron. He said, 'Why's this story worth telling?' I said, 'Because this explores the world after Judgment Day.'"
The Future War scenario freed the writers and McG from the established format of the first trilogy. "All three [previous] Terminator pictures are, indeed, present day pictures with Terminators coming back in time and [they are] chase movies," McG explained.
Writer Ferris added, "It's dark, but to reboot the franchise, there's nothing else you could do. The idea of a 'Terminator 4' where they go back to the Old West to kill the great-grandfather of John Connor or something would be insane."
In that initial script, Terminator Marcus Wright was the central figure. "He was the reason the whole movie existed," Brancato said. "[John] Connor was peripheral. His drama was addressed; we dealt with the idea of the guy dealing with an impossible fate; in the sense of himself as eventually the savior when he doesn't know how in the world he's going to do it, but our version, you spent just a few minutes with him."
It was the involvement of Christian Bale that brought John Connor closer to the film's core. "I went over to England and said, 'Hey Christian, I want you to play Marcus; it a great character,'" McG recalled. Mimicking Bale's voice, the director then said Bale's response: "I want to play Connor."
"A lot of the work was integrating him into scenes that were already written in our original concept and having that feel integral and sensible as opposed to grafted on just because there's a big star in the part," Brancato said of the subsequent rewrites. "I think that was what a lot of the rewriting was about."
While Ferris and Brancato are the credited screenwriters on the film, other writers came onboard to assist in folding the Connor character into a greater part of the action. One of the writers reportedly brought on was "Dark Knight" co-screenwriter Jonah Nolan. "[Michael and John] got busy and Christian had a great shorthand with Jonah," McG explained. The director said this is standard procedure in making major motion pictures. "Every film ever made sort of goes through this, that and the other. We were with [Paul] Haggis for awhile, ended up not having the greatest experience there. No problem! We were just very specific about what we were look for and Christian and I were spending a great deal of time together -- day and night -- trying to get the character right."
For McG, Bale is a crucial part in making the film work. "[Christian]'s a very serious guy. He means business. He's not interested in the Hollywood experience. He's only interested in the work. He drives around in an old pick-up truck, he has no assistant, he doesn't bullshit around in any capacity and he wants to be excellent," the director observed.
Asked about where he wants the series to go, McG offered a few hints. "I've arced out the stories of two and three," he revealed, suggesting the arrival of Time Travel technology would be a huge plot point. However, the director backed off on specifics. "I don't like that, the 'Oh, we presume the success will be such that people will want another picture.' I don't think that's fair, the people need to speak. We'll see if that happens. If it happens, we're very much ready for it. If it doesn't, we'll shrug and go about our business."
McG's primary concern is "Terminator Salvation." "We had to reinvigorate and reinvent [The Terminator] and I've made an inferior sequel myself in that second 'Charlie's Angels' picture," he admitted. "So it's hard to get out there and reinvigorate something and get people excited."
However, the director took a philosophical approach. "All movies are difficult. It's alchemy. You just keep working it until you get it to a place where you feel good about it and I'm very please about where we ended up with the picture."