Monday, 26 October 2020

Approaching the Sequel: Syd Field Interviews James Cameron

(Terminator 2: Directed by James Cameron)

James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada. He started out pursuing a career in physics but ultimately chose to follow his ambition of becoming a filmmaker. While working as a truck driver he wrote scripts in his spare time.

Xenogenesis was Cameron's debut short film. On the back of its science fiction premise, he was able to land a position with New World Pictures, the production company owned by acclaimed B-movie director Roger Corman. While at New World, Cameron worked on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Piranha II: The Spawning (1987).  

In 1984, Cameron scored a huge success as the director of The Terminator (1984), a compelling story of a time-traveling robot from the future (memorably played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) hunting down the resistance leader in a conflict between human beings and machines. This was followed by Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), starring Sigourney Weaver, which became a critical and commercial success for Cameron.

While working on The Abyss (1989), Cameron encountered a number of setbacks. It was an arduous process to get to the set for the film. It took its toll on the actors and crew, who spent days filming on an enormous underwater set. Although audiences and reviewers were underwhelmed by the premise of scuba divers who discover aliens while retrieving a U.S. Navy submarine, the film did surprisingly well at the box office. Although the visual effects were outstanding, the film didn't win an anticipated Oscar. 

After helping create Kathryn Bigelow's action thriller, Point Break, Cameron got back on track by directing another blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The picture broke new records with its visual effects, bringing in more than $200 million at the box office. 

Cameron also wrote and directed the 1994 movie True Lies, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, grossing over $378 million globally and winning two Oscars for its visual effects. 

Cameron next conceived the idea for Titanic, a movie about star-crossed lovers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) stranded onboard the doomed Titanic ocean liner. The film received critical praise and went on to make over $1 billion dollars at the box office, and was nominated for 14 Academy Awards. During his work on the film, Cameron won three Oscars for his work as director, for the editing of the film, and for best picture.

In 1992, screenwriting teacher and author Syd Field approached writer-director James Cameron for an interview. The following excerpt is from the discussion on the origins of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

He paused for a moment, took a sip of coffee, and said that ‘from a writing standpoint, the things that interested me the most were the characters. When I was writing Ripley for Aliens there were certain things known about her and her experience, but then we lost track of her. In the sequel I was picking her up at a later point and seeing what the effects of those earlier traumas were. With Ripley there was a discontinuity of time, but experientially it was continuous for her because she just went to sleep, and when she woke up, time had gone by.

‘It was much different, much more interesting with Sarah. I had to backfill those intervening nine years, so I had to find efficient ways of dramatically evoking what had happened to her. The tricky part was having it all make sense to a member of the audience who didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the first film. Basically, I had a character popping onto the screen in a certain way, and therefore had to create a back story for that character. I told myself I had to write the script just like there had never been a first film. The sequel had to be a story about someone who encountered something nobody else believes, like the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Kevin McCarthy swears he’s seen something shocking, and nobody believes him; then he starts telling the story.

‘In Terminator 2, the first time we meet Sarah, she’s locked up in a mental institution, but the real question is, is she crazy? The advantage of a sequel is that you can play games you can’t play in the original. For example, I know the audience knows the Terminator is real. So they’re not going to think she’s crazy. But the question still remains: Is she crazy? Has the past ordeal made her nuts? I wanted to push her character very far.

‘The strange thing that happened in the wake of the film is that a lot of people made the mistake of thinking I was presenting Sarah Connor as a role model for women. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wanted people to invest in her emotionally, to feel sorry for her, because she had been through such hell. And people made a straight-line extrapolation from Ripley to Sarah.

‘They’re very different characters. Ripley’s been through a trauma, but she has certain innate characteristics of leadership and wisdom under fire; she’s a true hero. Sarah’s not really a hero. She’s an ordinary person who’s been put under extreme pressure, and that makes her warped and twisted, yet strengthened, in a sad way. It’s like you don’t want this to happen to her. The initial image of her had a big scar running down the side of her face, and we actually did makeup tests with scars, but it would have been a real nightmare to deal with a scar like that in production on a day-to-day basis. I really wanted her to look like Tom Beringer in Platoon (Oliver Stone). And Linda was up for it, because the last thing she had done was play Beauty in Beauty and the Beast for three years. It’s a tribute to her as an actor that she was able to pull off that severity without the help of any makeup whatsoever.’

In theater the main ingredient of modern tragedy is an ordinary person who is in an extraordinary circumstance; the situation creates the potential for tragedy. Sarah Connor is no hero; she’s an ordinary person who just happens to be placed in extraordinary circumstances. The situation has the potential for tragedy, but in this case, the Terminator, the Schwarzenegger ‘character,’ becomes the hero.

That was another major problem Cameron had to confront in the sequel. ‘There’s a strange history that happened with the first film,’ he explains. ‘A year or two after The Terminator came out, people remembered the film fondly. They remembered Schwarzenegger from the other roles he had played, like Commando or Predator (Jim Thomas, John Thomas), where he was running around with a machine gun in his hand, spraying bullets everywhere, like he had in The Terminator. But there was this curious blurring of distinction that he was the bad guy in The Terminator.

‘That made me very nervous,’ he says. ‘I knew the ‘bad guy being the hero’ could get me into some pretty dangerous territory, morally and ethically. I absolutely refused to do another film where Arnold Schwarzenegger kicks in the door and shoots everybody in sight and then walks away,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I thought there must be a way to deflect this image of bad guy as hero, and use what’s great about the character. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I thought the only way to deal with it would be to address the moral issues head-on.’

For the screenwriter, the challenge is to find a way to deal with this situation so it springs out of the story context and is based on the reaction of character. The dramatic need, the dramatic function of the Terminator is to terminate, to kill anybody or anything that gets in its way. Because he is a cyborg, a computer, he cannot change his nature; only a human or another robot can change the program. So to change the bad guy into a good guy requires changing the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the action. Cameron had to find a way to change the context yet keep Terminator’s dramatic need intact.

‘The key was the kid,’ Cameron explains. ‘Because it’s never really explained why John Connor has such a strong moral template.

‘For me, John was pushed by the situation where he sees the Terminator almost shoot the guy in the parking lot. I think everybody invents their own moral code for themselves, and it usually happens in your teens based on what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen in the world, what you’ve read, and your own inherent makeup.’

John Connor intuitively knows what’s right ‘but can’t articulate it,’ Cameron continued. ‘John says, ‘You can’t go around killing people,’ and the Terminator says, ‘Why not?’ And the kid can’t answer the question. He gets into a kind of ethical, philosophical question that could go on and on. But all he says is, ‘You just can’t.’

‘I thought the best way to deal with this was not be coy about it and hope it slides by, but to tackle it head-on, make this a story about why you can’t kill people,’ continued Cameron.

He paused a moment, stared at the blinking light on the telephone. ‘What is it that makes us human?’ he asked. ‘Part of what makes us human is our moral code. But what is it that distinguishes us from a hypothetical machine that looks and acts like a human being but is not?

‘Essentially you’ve got a character associated with being the quintessential killing machine; that is his purpose in life. Devoid of any emotion, remorse, or any kind of human social code, he suddenly finds himself in the strangest dilemma of his career. He can’t kill anybody, and he doesn’t even know why. He’s got to figure it out. He’s got to, because he’s half human. And he figures it out at the end. The Tin Man gets his heart. ‘Once I clicked into that, I saw what the whole movie was going to be about.’

Every screenwriter knows that there are four major elements that make up the visual dynamics of screen character. One, the main character or characters must embody a strong dramatic need.

Dramatic need is what your main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the screenplay. What drives your character through the obstacles of the story line, through the conflicts of plot? In the case of Sarah Connor, John Connor, and the Terminator, the dramatic need is to destroy the future by destroying the one vital computer chip that will determine that future. To destroy that computer chip they will have to destroy the creator of that chip, Miles Dyson, along with the manufacturing entity, Cyberdyne. They will also have to destroy the Terminator 1000, sent back from the past to protect the future. It is this dramatic need that pushes the entire story line through to its completion.

In some screenplays a character’s dramatic need will remain constant throughout the entire story, as it does in Terminator 2. In other screenplays, the dramatic need will change based on the function of the story. In Witness, for example, the dramatic need of John Book changes after Plot Point I. The same thing happens in Thelma and Louise. If the dramatic need of the character changes, it usually will occur after the Plot Point at the end of Act I.

The second element that makes good character is a strong point of view, the way your character views the world. Point of view is really a belief system. ‘I believe in God,’ for example, is a point of view. So is ‘I don’t believe in God.’ So is ‘I don’t know whether there is a God.’ All these are belief systems.

What we believe to be true is true. For Sarah, nothing can alter her belief that the future is already here. On August 29, 1997, the nuclear holocaust will be unleashed and sweep across the planet like some wild wind destroying everything in its path. That we know from The Terminator. This inevitability defines Sarah’s point of view and motivates everything she does.

The third thing that makes good character is attitude – a manner, or an opinion. People express their attitudes, or their opinions, and then act on them: Dr. Silberman has the opinion that Sarah Connor is loony and acts on that. And he’s not ready to change that opinion, no matter what she says or does, at least not for another six months of her incarceration.

The fourth component that makes good character is change: Does the character change during the course of the screenplay? If so, how does he or she change, and what is the change? Can you trace this character arc from beginning to end?

In discussing Terminator 2, Sarah ‘does not change that much,’ Cameron said, ‘although she goes through a kind of epiphany after she experiences her character crisis [the moment when she cannot kill Miles Dyson]. But her crisis happens relatively early in the story.’

But what if your character is a robot? If you consider the prospect of an emotional change occurring within a robot, you find there’s an immediate contradiction. A robot cannot change unless it has been reprogrammed by someone or something outside itself. In this case, as Cameron has mentioned, there will be a major change within the Terminator. At the beginning of the screenplay, Schwarzenegger’s dramatic need is simple: to protect and save John Connor. That is the first directive of the warrior machine, to preserve itself so it can function.

During the story there is a change in the Terminator’s ‘character,’ and his dramatic need changes to fit the moral beliefs of John Connor. And we know the Terminator cannot change his need, he ‘cannot self-terminate’; he needs John Connor to do that for him. This means that the Terminator has to disobey his own built-in program.

To do that, Cameron said, ‘he must make a command decision, and it is the only true act of free will that he has in the entire film.’

Wait a minute. A robot with free will? Even though that’s a contradiction, it’s the basic issue that concerned Cameron in approaching the sequel. If you look at the two films you’ll see there’s a thematic continuity that runs between them, because both deal with the conflict between destiny versus free will.

If these films are about anything, Cameron maintained, it’s an exploration of the eternal conflict between destiny and free will. How do you get that to work? I asked him.

Cameron took another sip of coffee, put down the cup, and asked, ‘At what point is everything we do in life preordained in some way?’ In other words, if we can go forward in time and look back on it, if we can jump around in time, then isn’t everything we do in our life already part of a movie that’s already been shot? Or is there a way you can change it? Can you get it to a certain point on the decision tree and then go the other way?

He paused for a moment, thinking. ‘Basically, what I did in Terminator 2 is say that everything is meant to be a certain way. At least to that point in time where they’re sending somebody back from that future. But can you grab that line of history like it’s a rope stretched between two points, and pull it out of the way? If you can pull it just a little bit before it rebounds, and cut it exactly at that moment, then you can change it and go in a different direction. Like catastrophe theory. If you do that you get a future that no longer exists at all, except in the memories of the people that are here now. They have a memory of a future that will never happen, which is curious, because it defies our Newtonian view of the world. But it is possible.

‘That became my point of departure,’ he said, smiling slightly. ‘It’s like the Terminator’s been born from the forehead of Zeus but he’s an anomaly in our time because he’s the only one who has memories of a time that will never exist. He becomes an integral part of the ongoing fabric of the world, and it’s his existence here that prevents that particular future from ever popping into existence. In a spiritual sense, it would be like a manifestation of God changing the path.’

I took a sip of coffee, and as I put down the cup I casually mentioned that there seemed to be a spiritual awareness creeping into the American screenplay. As we study the forces of destruction to our environment; sense the wanton violence raging throughout the land; experience the decay of the cities, the dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, the failure of the American Dream, the helplessness of the homeless, it seems we’re becoming more and more aware that a spiritual aspect is missing from our lives. There’s a longing to incorporate into our lives some kind of spiritual perspective about the moral order of the universe.

Cameron agreed, then continued, ‘There’s a million ways to look at all these different paradoxes and ellipses. As a matter of fact, in the first script I wrote a scene where Sarah is driving along, talking to herself on the tape machine, and she says, ‘But if you had done this then this would have happened, and if you did that then that would have happened and then you wouldn’t have even existed, and I could go crazy thinking about it. I just have to deal with what’s in front of me.’

‘Ultimately, it gets back to morality,’ Cameron concluded. ‘Because if the universe can’t be explained, if everything can’t be known, then we’ll never know what’s right or what’s wrong. We can only know what we feel is right and wrong, which is why I like the idea of the kid spontaneously creating a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s the same way in River’s Edge (Neal Jimenez) when the little kid is about to shoot his brother, and he suddenly realizes he can’t, you don’t do something like that. Even if nobody’s ever told him, he knows it.

‘As I got ready to write the screenplay,’ Cameron said, ‘I kept asking myself, What’s the real goal of this movie? Are we going to blow people away and get them all excited? Is that it? Or is there a way we can get them to really feel something? I thought it would be a real coup if we could get people to cry for a machine. If we could get people to cry for Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a robot, that would be terrific.

‘That was the fun of the whole thing. It wasn’t all the chases and special effects and all that stuff, though I get off on that on a day-to-day basis. I love sitting at the KEM [the editing machine] and making cuts and getting the action working, but when I look back I feel the real thrill was being able to contour a response that was totally opposite from what we got the first time. And to just have fun with that. To play against the expectations. You’ve got to do that in a sequel.’

And that’s where we begin.

– ‘Approaching the Sequel’ by Syd Field. From Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 90–97. 

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