Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland revisits James Cameron’s commentary track for Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Well, it’s the beginning of September, and the Summer days of giant robots and even bigger explosions is now behind us. We here at Film School Rejects don’t want the Summer movie season to be over just yet, so we’re going back to one of the biggest Summer movies of our collective childhood for this week’s Commentary Commentary. The master of giant budget films, James Cameron, is just the person to take us back, too.
This week, we’re going into Cameron’s mind to see what he has to say about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not the director’s biggest movie but definitely the blockbuster that put him on the Summer map. Even better, it features Arnold Schwarzenegger in his least expendable role yet. Let’s not forget the quips, either. So say, “Hasta la vista, baby,” to the intro and let’s get into the good stuff. Here they are, all 42 things we learned listening to James Cameron and co-writer William Wisher talk about Terminator 2.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
commentators: James Cameron (writer, director), William Wisher Jr. (co-writer)
- “Parts of LA actually look like this now,” says Cameron about the post-nuke Los Angeles we see in the film’s pre-credit sequence. Wisher notes seeing LA destroyed like it is in the film is very personal imagery.
- The battle at the beginning of the film was planned to be shot by the second unit, but they were running into issues getting the shots they needed. Cameron left the editing room and shot the entire sequence in one night. He notes shooting it all in one night gave the scene an energy it otherwise wouldn’t have achieved. Cameron also made a billion dollars that night, not uncommon for the King Midas director.
- Cameron showed the older John Connor early in Terminator 2, because he liked the idea of bookending his stories with a character we’ve heard about before and are now seeing for the first time. He notes he used the same technique with Titanic.
- The fireball over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s credit was shot at 300 frames per second. “We almost burned the building down,” Cameron adds. I’m sure that was neither the first nor last time for the director.
- “We call this Term-o-vision,” says Cameron when the first POV shot from the Terminator’s perspective is seen, “because we’re clever that way.”
- Cameron points out that the bar Schwarzenegger enters near the beginning of the film is across the street from where Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The director notes that, on the same video of King getting beaten, the person who shot it had footage of the crew shooting Terminator 2 from a week prior to the beating. There’s no word whether or not anyone has done a commentary of THAT video. “I actually think it has an interesting resonance to this film, because the bad guy is a cop in this movie,” adds Cameron.
- The director got into a debate with his editors about using George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” for when the Terminator appears decked out in his new leather outfit. The song had been used in a couple of films already around that same time. Cameron’s response to it being overly used was that it was “cool.”
- Wisher recalls the initial phone call with Cameron wherein the director said he had good news and bad news. The good news was they were making Terminator 2. The bad news was they were already behind schedule. The script for the film was written over the course of a few months. The years of playing What If…? between The Terminator and Terminator 2 allowed them to get the script out quickly.
- “We did digital willie removal in this shot,” says Cameron when a naked Robert Patrick shows up. The director notes the effect wasn’t complete, and Patrick’s…”rise of the machines” could somewhat be seen on the home video format of the film. Cameron notes he wants his willie removal money back, since the job didn’t get done.
- The main discussion when Cameron and Wisher got together to punch out the film’s screenplay was who would be playing the bad guy. An idea of having Sarah and John fight the T-800 again was quickly dropped. They also bounced around the idea of having two Arnolds, one good and the other bad.
- When Cameron asked Edward Furlong during the audition for John Connor if he had ever done any acting, the young actor replied he had appeared in home movies his father had shot. Funnily enough, that’s the same response he gives in auditions now. Furlong burn!
- Cameron and Wisher both point out how impressive Linda Hamilton is in the film, both in terms of her acting ability and how she transformed her body from the first film to the second. Both Cameron and Hamilton became frustrated while promoting the film, as everyone was talking about her physical presence instead of her acting. “I think she’s a complete character, and the physicality was part of it,” says Cameron, “People didn’t know how to cope with the other part of it that she had created, somebody as dark and desolate in their soul as she is in this film and yet as capable and resourceful as she is, they didn’t know how to process it.” Wisher points out that it’s a curse of being in a movie with action scenes. He also notes Hamilton “scared the shit” out of him.
- “The paranoia of both of these films is something very near and dear to my heart,” says Cameron explaining that he has feared nuclear annihilation ever since seeing footage of nuclear explosions as a child. He wrote his own fears into the Sarah Connor character and how she reacts to knowing the end of the world is fast approaching.
- Cameron remembers having breakfast with Schwarzenegger to discuss Terminator 2. He told the actor right off that bat that, in this film, he wouldn’t be killing anyone. “But Jim,” Schwarzenegger responded, “I’m the Terminator.” It took some negotiating, but Cameron finally convinced Schwarzenegger that he couldn’t kill anyone. No word whether or not Cameron actually said, “Promise me you won’t kill anyone.”
- Both Cameron and Wisher realized early on that they wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret that Schwarzenegger was playing a good guy in the film. Nevertheless, they wrote the first part of the film as if the audience didn’t know, leaving ambiguity in Schwarzenegger and Patrick’s characters until it’s finally revealed about 30 minutes in.
- Cameron was nervous about the entire concept of the T-1000 early in the scriptwriting phase. He put a halt to writing the screenplay so he could check with ILM to see if the character could even be pulled off. If they could do this, why not a liquid man?
- The shot of Schwarzenegger exiting the mall on a motorcycle was actually done with the actor, but he didn’t make the turn fast enough. Cameron asked if they could redo the shot and make sure the turn goes quicker. “Not with me on it,” replied Schwarzenegger.
- The top of the semi’s cab getting ripped off by a low overpass wasn’t planned. They didn’t realize until the day of shooting the chase that the truck wouldn’t fit, and the idea of having the top get torn off was a quick solution to their problem. See, when something doesn’t fit, just start ripping pieces off until it does.
- The image of the T-1000 walking through flames away from the burning truck was the first image Cameron came up with for the film. Likewise, the first image he had for the first Terminator was the T-800’s endoskeleton walking through the flames of a burning truck.
- “He’s funny, but he’s never not threatening,” says Cameron about Schwarzenegger during the scene where John Connor is realizing the T-800 has to do whatever he says. “Well, look at him,” Wisher responds quickly.
- Production on Terminator 2 took about five months, in which time Edward Furlong’s voice changed due to puberty. He had to go in after production had wrapped to loop roughly half of his lines. Cameron points out you can hear his voice cracking and changing in certain scenes.
- For some scenes with the T-1000 duplicating a human, sets of twins were used. The first was with the overweight security guard at the hospital. The other involved Sarah Connor, and Linda Hamilton’s twin sister, Leslie, was brought in for the scene later in the steel mill. Leslie Hamilton was also used earlier in the film in a deleted surgery scene where Sarah sees her reflection.
- Hamilton trained with an Israeli commando in her preparation for the film. The commando, named Uzi Gal, trained the actress in weapons and self defense. Because anyone named Uzi should be the trainer and not the trainee. Anyone.
- Cameron finds a child pointing a gun “morally reprehensible,” even naming Stand By Me as a film he disproves of because it depicts children holding and aiming firearms. This edict is evident in Terminator 2, where Furlong only carries magazines of guns instead of the guns themselves. This decision also gives John Connor more of a feel as a “cerebral leader.”
- “I don’t like slow motion for action. I like slow motion for suspense,” says Cameron over the scene where Sarah Connor first encounters the T-800 of this film. He also explains that a dream sequence cut from the film was removed, because the nightmarish quality of this scene would be affected. “It watered us down,” he explains.
- Linda Hamilton has permanent damage in one ear because of the scene in the elevator with the T-800 firing a shotgun. Between takes, Hamilton used the restroom and removed her earplug. She forgot to put it back in before resuming the scene. Cameron notes that the shot that did the damage is still seen in the film.
- “I always thought of it as an East meets West concept,” says Cameron regarding the metallic T-800 versus the liquid-based T-1000. The director also notes the differences is akin to Karate versus Kung Fu. Think Ralph Macchio versus Jaden Smith.
- Originally, the Mexican who Sarah Connor takes them to was the leader of a militia, but Cameron felt it was too dark and heavy for that part of the film. The rest of the film covered that tone just fine.
- In the screenplay, the playful banter – high fives and such – between John and the T-800 was just written as Sarah watching as the boy and the robot play around. Cameron had Schwarzenegger and Furlong improvise some goofing around and kept it all for the final film.
- Cameron received a letter from a nuclear laboratory thanking him for Terminator 2 and for the most realistic depiction of a nuclear bomb going off they had ever seen. The director notes that it’s even more terrifying knowing how close he got it.
- Cameron feels that the real terror of both Terminator films is not in the idea of robots coming from the future to kill human beings, since that, to date, is unprecedented. What he’s more concerned with is humans turning on humans and what it takes for someone to essentially become a Terminator themselves, a concept seen with Sarah Connor in this film.
- “We basically rented a building and blew it up,” says Cameron regarding the building standing in for Cyberdyne Systems. Entire sets were built inside the building used including a completely different third floor. Also about a thousand panes of glass were brought in for the sole purpose of getting smashed. He points out later that most of the damage done to the building itself was water damage after the sprinkler system turned on.
- The grenade launcher wouldn’t have worked as it does when the T-800 uses it to blow open a door. According to Cameron – actually his brother, a Marine who served in Desert Storm – the grenade would have to spin seven times before it arms. The distance the T-800 was from the door, the grenade would have bounced back and exploded behind him. “I didn’t know this at the time,” says Cameron.
- While we’re on the subject of weaponry, the minigun the T-800 uses to take out the police cars was modified to fire 2,000 rounds per minute. They’re usually made fire 6,000 rounds per minute. Cameron asked for the modification so you could see the blasts coming from the gun, as it’s usually just solid flash. Remember how it looked when Jesse Ventura used it in Predator? Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to look.
- As Cameron points out, Schwarzenegger never blinks in Terminator 2. It’s not something you think about, but it’s impressive Schwarzenegger was able to pull that feat off.
- British censors wanted to cut the scene where the T-800 shoots a bunch of SWAT members in the legs, as the IRA was notorious for kneecapping people. “The British just found that a whole lot less funny than we did,” says Cameron.
- Pulling off the shot where the camera follows behind the T-1000 in a helicopter chasing the three leads in a SWAT truck involved both helicopters – The one seen in the film and the one where Cameron and his crew were filming – swooping down to only feet off the road. Cameron calls it one of his most exhilarating moments as a director. That and the “king of the world” thing at the Oscars.
- The shot of the semi truck flipping over on its side required two takes, since during the first shot the truck flipped completely over crushing its cab. Cameron notes that the only thing that saved the lives of the two men inside was the roll cage they had installed. “Being ultra paranoid and ultra safe really pays off,” he adds.
- “What did you use for the liquid nitrogen,” asks Wisher. “Uh, liquid nitrogen,” responds Cameron, who explains there is no real way to simulate liquid nitrogen. He also notes that dealing with liquid nitrogen on set is like dealing with fire on set. The shots of Robert Patrick walking through it and getting doused was done with water.
- So many shots of the T-1000 in metallic form had to be pulled off in the film’s final scene that they ended using an actor dressed in a mylar suit for many of them.
- Cameron says on the commentary track, which was recorded in 2003, that he had just spoken with Schwarzenegger from the set of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Apparently Schwarzenegger had told him that he had thrown his shoulder out on the set of the new film. That should have been an indicator of a number of things.
- Cameron points out that Terminator 2 was a blockbuster, Summer film wherein the main character essentially kills himself, a big taboo in Hollywood, especially for blockbuster films. Cameron also notes that the same Summer this film came out, he produced another film where this basically happens. That other film was Point Break. The Summer of 1991 was awesome.
Best in Commentary
“The subtext of both Terminator films is the idea of nuclear destruction, and what are we gonna do about that. Is technology going to overwhelm us, or are we going to take control of it? Obviously, the core concept is fate versus free will and are we able to be the architects of our own destiny.” -James Cameron
“It’s the nuclear, nightmarish family from hell.” -William Wisher Jr. regarding the three, main characters
“I think I approached this when we began, at some point, it occurred to me that what we were doing here was It’s a Wonderful Life with guns.” -William Wisher Jr.
“The first film was about the evil guys in the future deciding that they could change their reality by killing one person in the past, and in this film, Sarah realizes she could change the future that she has lived in her mind for so long by killing one guy in the present.” -James Cameron
Terminator 2: Judgment Day isn’t the first James Cameron commentary we’ve covered in this column, but it’s definitely our second indication that any commentary track where the mega-budget director appears is sure to be a memorable one. The commentary here, along with co-writer William Wisher Jr, is packed with information and insight into how this milestone in Summer entertainment came to be. It’s the kind of film that could surely fill a dozen, separate commentary tracks with different information, but Cameron and Wisher Jr. do a great job loading this one down just fine.
There’s little fat on this track and dead air doesn’t even exist here. Cameron and Wisher Jr. keep at it, moving from subject to subject and providing nonstop details about everything involved in the film. Even over the end credits, they continue the discussion without even appearing to take a breath of air. The commentary track for Terminator 2 has to be considered one of the best just in terms of sheer velocity with which the information comes. Leave it to Cameron to make something as epic as Terminator 2 even more epic by gabbing about it.