Written by Dylan Callaghan
Arnold might not be back (he’s busy trying to figure out why he wanted to be Governor), but the franchise he made famous is. Terminator Salvation is a freshly redrawn and somewhat unexpected fourth installment in the iconic series about a time-traveling cyborg, a doomed human race, and a hyper powerful computer network that doesn’t much like people.
John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, the writing team responsible for the jauntily apocalyptic Terminator: Rise of the Machines, were tapped to pen this new chapter -- one designed not only to continue the saga but also launch an entirely new trilogy.
Accomplished sci-fi action scribes, the two are a smart, endearingly nerdy and very funny team that is clearly past the no-look phase. Their humor is surprising until you learn where they met, on The Harvard Lampoon. Though they didn’t have any designs on writing scripts together, they eventually began writing separately and showing each other their work. As Brancato recalls, “We both thought, Well, this guy’s pretty good, he just needs a collaborator.”
They found success in the action thriller genre with 1991’s The Game. Since then they’ve penned a stream of action sci-fi films, including Primeval and The Net.
The two spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about their own surprise at the decision to make this new Terminator and how, after some initial befuddlement, they hit on a new way forward with the franchise.
When you guys were working on Rise of the Machines, did you have any idea that a fourth film was in the works?
John D. Brancato: I think Mike and I both thought it was a trilogy -- we were trying to end the series.
Michael Ferris: It did seem like we were closing the book on the whole thing with that movie. When they started positing doing a fourth one, it was sort of obvious you had to go post-apocalyptic, but it was also clearly changing the whole nature of the franchise.
John D. Brancato: When [the studio] first came to us after 3 and said, “Well, how about imagining a new trilogy -- going a whole new direction?” it was not obvious what we were going to do. We scratched our heads for a while and did a lot of research on emerging technologies.
So your initial reaction was a bit befuddled?
Photo: © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures
Christian Bale and Sam Worthingtonin Terminator Salvation.
John D. Brancato: I would say befuddlement was involved.
Michael Ferris: Skeptical might be the word. We were happy to bang out another script, but it felt like it was just going to be a writing exercise. It’s hard to imagine it without Schwarzenegger in a major role and…
John D. Brancato: So we took a completely different approach. This movie is not a relentless chase scene.
When did the befuddlement go away and when did you know it was going to work? What was element that broke this new story for you?
John D. Brancato: I think we needed a whole new way in -- a whole new franchise character and a whole different approach to telling the story. We wanted to take a character from our world, the present day, and deposit him in this post-apocalyptic nightmare. We wanted him waking up to this and not knowing where he is -- if he’s alive or in hell -- and then reveal the world through his eyes.
That’s really what enables this story to unfold -- that we have this character that starts out on death row, about to receive a lethal injection and then wakes up in a new world 20 years later and tries to make heads or tales of it.
Michael Ferris: From there the fun thing to think about is what is Skynet’s ultimate agenda? Beyond just wanting to destroy man, what is this sentient computer network ultimately after? That’s something that really wasn’t addressed in any of the first three movies.
So was this script a bit of a slog?
John D. Brancato: Once we broke the back of the story, the writing actually went very quickly. The first draft went quickly.
Michael Ferris: And in earlier drafts we did pay a little more lip service to the things that people are familiar with from the previous movie -- the origins of the time travel technology and of the liquid metal technology and a lot of stuff just fell by the wayside for budgetary or time reasons. It’s always tempting to try to jam in everything you can.
With a script like this that’s not only an existing franchise but a sci-fi actioner, do you ever worry that the story is going to get bogged down in all that technology stuff?
Michael Ferris: That’s what the editing room is for. You just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.
John D. Brancato: We did maintain focus on the character’s internal dilemmas as much as possible and the technology was just there to create new jeopardy and not to be a star in itself. We did throw in a lot of new Terminator technology. There are now Hydrobots and Harvesters and all kinds of crazy crap being thrown at our characters, but it doesn’t really occupy the center of the movie. The dilemma of our main character Marcus is to discover who and what he is and why, and then for Connor to finally make contact with this own father -- those are the two main threads. It’s pretty much a two-hander between John Connor and Marcus Wright.
Tell me about this Marcus Wright character.
John D. Brancato: Marcus Wright emerges from this initial battle sequence, and it becomes clear that he’s a human being within a mechanical body.
He’s the one that’s on death row at the film’s open?
Michael Ferris: Yes, exactly. It’s clear that he’s been subject to all sorts of bizarre Skynet-influenced experiments. The main question of the movie becomes, whose side is he on?
So this hybrid character is what got this script really going for you?
John D. Brancato: Yes, exactly. His body was donated to science and science did all sorts of weird shit to him.
Now that this is finished do you feel like you got this new rebirth started the way you wanted to?
John D. Brancato: I think this is a much more original film. It’s no longer a slave to the first two films in the franchise the way the third one sort of had to be. This one enabled us to reinvent.
Michael Ferris: I’m actually pretty proud of both films. They each served different purposes. The third one pushes a lot of buttons from the first two, and it plays a little lighter in tone, despite the apocalyptic finale.
This one is much more relentless. The tone is that of a kick-ass war movie, you know, a Blackhawk Down or something like that. It’s a lot grimmer. It’s a whole new feel for the franchise.