Even fully aware of the old trope that “movie trailers give the whole plot away,” watching the latest Terminator: Genisys trailer was, let’s say, still very surprising. (The trailer gives a pretty major reveal away. If you haven’t seen the trailer, this is your warning that, below in this interview, the details of that trailer are discussed.) Also surprised by this trailer was Terminator: Genisys director Alan Taylor, who certainly directed the movie in a way where we aren’t supposed to know that detail right away. Taylor was also surprised by those now infamous Entertainment Weekly photos, which received pretty much universal scorn and/or mockery on the Internet. Taylor admits that the marketing of Terminator: Genisys has been an “interesting lesson.”
Taylor – who has directed numerous episodes of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men (including its premiere episode) – had a sort of trial by fire with his first major big budget studio movie, Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, which he admits now wasn’t a pleasant experience. (Anytime the phrase, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone” is used, that’s a pretty good sign something did not go well.)
In Terminator: Genisys (which we reviewed here), Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) travels back in time to 1984 on what he thinks is a mission to rescue Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from the original Terminator (a young Arnold Schwarzenegger). But, when Reese arrives, everything is not what he expects, as the original timeline has now been erased, and it’s Sarah Connor, along with an aged Terminator (present-day Schwarzenegger), who must rescue him. Ahead, Taylor talks about his frustration with the audience now knowing just who Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor are running from and why humor is so important to this story. He also explains just what happened that made Thor: The Dark World a negative experience that, again, he wouldn’t wish on anyone.
While watching Terminator: Genisys, I wish I didn’t know what was given away in the trailer.
Yeah, it’s funny; I certainly directed those scenes with the intention that no one would know. One of my favorite moments – and I think Jason Clarke did a great job with it – is when he walks into the hospital in 2017 and everything from there until the turn, you’re supposed to think, Oh man, this is great.
John Connor is there to save the day, then it becomes a nice moment.
I can’t agree with you more. I know there was kind of a challenging calculus going on in the heads of those who market this thing to decide that this was the right thing to do. I think they felt like they had to send a strong message to a very wary audience that there was something new, that this was going to new territory. They were concerned that people were misperceiving this as kind of a reboot, and none of us wanted to reboot two perfect movies by James Cameron. I think they felt they had to do something game-changing in how the film was being perceived.
Were you consulted before that trailer was released?
I had a few heads ups and a few unpleasant conversations where I squawked about this or that [laughs].
You mentioned wary audiences, and there are people who feel we just went though this not too long ago with Terminator: Salvation, a movie that starred a popular actor, Christian Bale.
I know! Yeah, I think there are people out there who love that movie. And I will never trash another movie directed by anybody else, ever, because I know how hard it is to direct. So, I wouldn’t presume. But, for me, it was a fundamental in that I didn’t go along with moving the whole thing into the future. I know there are people who love the future war and think it’s really cool, but for me, the Terminator movies are always about the here and now, a very real world experience where something awesome and abominable comes smashing in, and we have to contend with it and that’s what makes them cool.
I think having Sarah Connor around is important to the dynamic in these movies.
It’s these core characters that were created in the first one that are the ones that I think are fun to explore and riff on and delve into. Partly because of the inversion in John Connor, we got to explore John Connor’s character with a great actor as both the savior of mankind and the threat to mankind. We got to sort of go into what that character represents in a fun way… and, yes, I wish it were experienced in the theater for the first time.
There’s a lot of humor in this movie, at least compared to Salvation. Which was surprising after those Entertainment Weekly photos with the characters all firing weapons and screaming, you see that and think, Well, this looks dour.
[Laughs] I know. I hope everybody understands that was EW doing what it was going to do. I was surprised they went off and did that and we didn’t see it until it was on the cover and we thought, What the…?
You had a few surprises before this movie came out.
Yeah. And almost all of them to do with marketing. It’s been an interesting lesson in what a challenge there is in doing it right.
There’s a lot going on in this plot that involves multiple time jumps. But the characters react with humor, which makes it easier to accept.
Yeah, there are a couple of fun moments when J.K. Simmons says, “I know whatever you’re doing has to be really complicated.” Then Sarah says, “We are here to save the world.” Then he says, “I can work with that.” That’s sort of the tone that we take a few times. One of my favorite moments, Arnold has the densest, most loaded expositional line about time travel ever where he says, “It’s possible that you stepped into a time displacement machine during a nexus moment in a quantum field.” And he finishes the line, and Kyle looks at Sarah and says, “Can you make him stop talking like that? Is there a switch or something?”
Arnold is the Doc Brown of this movie.
And the great thing is, if he says it, people go, “Oh, okay.”
“Of course he knows, he’s a robot.”
You have to have humor going along with that or you’re going to sink because that’s a lot of exposition to have to live with.
Do you like the Back to the Future Part II comparisons? It feels to me more like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek in that it goes back to the old timeline and starts a new timeline.
Yeah, it flips the timeline and enjoys it, and assumes the audience is sophisticated enough in the sort of storytelling hijinks to go along with that ride. And I think the humor is absolutely critical. It’s a trick that Marvel is really good at; to take something seriously, then make fun of it, then take it seriously again.
When I spoke to you for Thor: The Dark World, I got the underlying tone that it wasn’t the greatest experience for you making that movie.
They were very different. I’ve done two and I’ve learned that you don’t make a $170 million movie with someone else’s money and not have to collaborate a lot. The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie. So, that is something I hope never to repeat and don’t wish upon anybody else. This was not like that. The story we started telling is essentially the story we finished and are bringing out into the world. But there was a lot of collaboration, as there is going to be on something this big.
With Thor: The Dark World, I did get the impression you were promoting a movie that you didn’t think was the movie you made.
[Laughs] I’m hoping I wasn’t that candid?
I was reading in-between the lines.
Okay, well, you’re probably good at reading body language over the phone. I’m not good at hiding stuff like that.
You seem happier this time.
The finished movie has a lot more in common with what we started with, so that’s great. The experience of making it with this cast, shooting in New Orleans, was quite fun, despite the grueling schedule. But, yeah, if we were to have drinks somewhere, I have plenty to complain about. We’ll do that next time.
So, would you do another Terminator?
I think everyone is sort of waiting to see what’s going to happen.
So, you’d be open to it?
[Laughs] I get to defer that question until later.
In this movie, Arnold fights a version of himself from 1984 and it looks great. Is that the future? New movies with younger versions of actors? Because it happens in Ant-Man, too.
It’s an incredible challenge. And we’re getting there. Tron: Legacy tried to do it with Jeff Bridges, and it wasn’t quite there yet. We, down to the wire, did not know if we were going to get it done because it’s still right that the edge of what’s possible with visual effects. Yeah, I’m sure it will become – after this and after Ant-Man — I’m sure it will become more and more doable. I’m also afraid of what happens when you get a movie starring a perfect blend of Mel Gibson and Cary Grant, where you sort of create your syn-thespian and what does directing consist of at that point and how much will become animation. That stuff freaks me out.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.