I wasn’t yet old enough to see The Terminator when it came out in theaters 30 years ago this week. My childish brain simply wouldn’t have been able to process the sheer awesomeness taking place onscreen. (That, and my parents would have probably gotten some dirty looks from other theatergoers had they taken me.) I do remember seeing Terminator 2: Judgement Day in the theater in 1991, though — it was the first rated R movie I saw in the theater and its special effects and action sequences blew my mind like a T-1000 that had just taken a shotgun blast to the head. The story of two terminators fighting over John Connor was actually supposed to be original film, but filming it the way James Cameron envisioned simply wasn’t possible in 1984. More on that later though. To understand how The Terminator and T-1000 came to exist and spawn one of the biggest sci-fi franchises in movie history, we need to start at the beginning. And the beginning was a low-budget sequel to a film that was a ripoff of Jaws — Piranha II.
After directing a small indie film called Xenogenesis in 1978 and working as a production assistant on Rock and Roll High School in 1979, James Cameron flew to Italy in 1981 to work as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning. When complications on the set arose over director Miller Drake’s direction, Drake was fired and James Cameron was moved into the director’s chair, though he had little power as he had to verify his day-to-day activities with producer, Ovidio G. Assonitis. While the experience wasn’t a pleasant one, Cameron said it proved to him that he could direct a big-budget film.
“I was hired by a very unscrupulous producer. He put me with an Italian crew who spoke no English then fired me a couple of weeks into the shoot and took over directing. Turns out, he’d done that on his two previous films.
“He wouldn’t show me a foot of film that I’d shot, so I went in and ran the film for myself. I made a few changes – I don’t know if the editor ever noticed – and it was fine. So I thought, ‘I actually can do this. I just fell in with a pack of thieves and wackos.’ I also realized nobody would hire me after that experience. I’d have to create my own thing to direct again.”
At the time, many of James Cameron’s contemporaries were doing horror films, and the director wanted to do his own take on the slasher movie. Cameron’s inspiration for his own sci-fi horror story came during the release of Piranha II in Rome, when the director had a nightmare about a chrome torso emerging from an explosion and dragging itself with kitchen knives across the floor towards him. When Cameron awoke from the terrible dream he grabbed some hotel stationery and began sketching out this metallic assassin, as ideas about its story came rushing into his head. At last, James Cameron had the vision for his own slasher movie.
“My contemporaries were all doing slasher-horror movies,” Cameron once said. “John Carpenter was the guy I idolized the most. He made Halloween for $30,000 or something. That was everyone’s break-in dream, to do a stylish horror movie. It was a very slasher film type image. And it really was the launching pad for the story.”
During the rest of his time in Italy, Cameron obsessed over the metallic torso in his dream, and when he returned home to California he began fleshing out the story for this indestructible entity that would stop at nothing to complete its mission: to kill. The young director would pull influences from his favorite science fiction films like Road Warrior, The Driver, and certain episodes of The Outer Limits to create this bleak world with an even bleaker future ahead. Writing the script was a lonely and tiresome process for Cameron “every thought, every gesture is judged directly, and it’s very hard to get started and stay focused,” he said. To help with the writing process, he roped in his friend Bill Wisher to help, particularly the scenes involving Sarah Connor and the police department. The two had developed a friendship over a similar interest in science fiction novels and because Wisher lived fifty miles away, they would communicate their script parts by Wisher reading what he had written and Cameron recording the phone call to transcribe later. Not as convenient as email, but the script got finished.
That initial script that Cameron and Wisher wrote leaned heavily towards what would later be T2, with two cyborgs from the future battling it out in 1984 Los Angeles. The only problem was that Cameron knew he wanted one of the cyborgs to be as close to invincible as possible and composed out of liquid metal, and the technology to make this happen simply wasn’t available at the time. The director was conceptualizing film elements of the future that weren’t yet even possible, and his liquid metal terminator would have to sit on the bench until the technology caught up — which it finally did for his 1989 film, The Abyss.