If television’s new golden age has a go-to director, it may very well be Alan Taylor. The filmmaker has been part of some of the most arresting TV shows of the last 20 years, working on everything from Sex and the City and Homicide, to The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. It’s given him the opportunity to take on small, tightly focused character dramas, comedies, as well as epic fantasy and adventure — a diverse skillset uniquely suited for today’s style of Hollywood blockbuster.
After making that leap two years ago with Thor: The Dark World, Taylor is back with Terminator Genisys, but despite his resume the director is refreshingly candid about the challenges of stepping into a universe as fraught with fan baggage as Terminator. “It’s had a tough entry into the marketplace, because there was a very wary fanbase from the first two movies saying, ‘Wait, we kind of hated the last two, so what are you trying to give us?’” he admits. That’s been tempered somewhat by Terminator creator James Cameron recently coming out in support of the new movie, he says, but “it’s still touch and go whether it’s going to be embraced or not.”
Given how heavily Genisys leans on Cameron’s 1984 original — to the point of recreating specific sequences and even shots — it’s an apt endorsement. I chatted with Taylor about how he created those reconstructed sequences from scratch, what it takes to build a digital Arnold Schwarzenegger, and what fans can expect next in the Terminator franchise.
Bryan Bishop: Unlike the last two Terminator sequels, Genisys is a film that is very aware it’s part of a legacy — not just narratively, but visually, as well. Was making this feel part of Cameron’s universe something you were focused on going in?
Alan Taylor: Yeah. I mean, some of it was very overt. We were sort of having nerd fun recreating [moments] scene by scene, frame by frame, and Kramer Morgenthau, our DP, was matching the lighting. Doing sort of a balance of matching the lighting of T1, which was a no-budget horror movie, to a big contemporary blockbuster, and trying to find a version of that [style] that serviced both. So that was just fun. And then beyond that he and I spent time looking at T2, and trying to sort of understand how it looked, and what choices Cameron made [directorially], and I came away with a few things I really admired. He’s a great action director, but it’s amazing how much he doesn’t move the camera. He does these wonderful huge-scale, composed wides, and then bam! — into these tight, intense close-ups. And I remember really loving the way he built scenes together. So I think there’s some effort to stay in that vocabulary in the movie, and beyond that it’s a very different story. So we were just telling the story.
I wanted to talk about recreating those scenes from the original. Did you use any pre-existing footage?
No, in fact.
Wow. That’s nuts.
I know, it’s so nuts. Our visual effects people have sort of been gnashing their teeth about this, knowing if they did a really perfect job, then they would be accused of doing just exactly what you said: of lifting material. Like, the best compliment would be a lawsuit from the people that owned the rights to the original material. But no, it’s actually illegal for us to use any of that stuff, and also it doesn’t hold up. The grain quality back then, when you put it up in IMAX in 2015, doesn’t really work. And very soon after the first encounter we go off into new territory anyway, so it’s all fresh storytelling.
But I think, certainly in our first trailer, one of the images that we released was very much a recreation of one of the frames from T1, and people thought we’d just lifted the frame. No, we went crazy! It was probably the hardest thing that we achieved, a synthespian that you can shoot in close up and still believe it’s a living, breathing human being.
What was the process of creating that young Arnold we saw. Was it a body double on set?
Yes, the seminal scene between the two of them, and that was Arnold as Guardian [the older Terminator], fighting Brett Azar, a body double with a seriously built-up physique. So they did the full scene, and we covered it as a normal scene. Then we had a full CGI body model for Arnold, and we mapped that onto Brett. And then we did face replacement, and short performance capture on Arnold for both characters, so we could map him on.
We shot the scene in the first week or two of production, and the last thing we finished — the last shot — came in a half an hour before we had to hand everything off [to the studio]. And the scary thing about those things is that when those shots aren’t quite there, they suck. I mean, there’s nothing worse than being that close, because it just looks like a dead-eyed zombie with fish skin. Until you cross a line where it’s actually looking human, you’re afraid you’re really going to fall on your face.
"There’s nothing worse than being that close, because it just looks like a dead-eyed zombie with fish skin."
You mentioned earlier about looking at Cameron’s style of shooting. Going into this as your second big feature, were there other references you looked at in terms of shooting the action sequences?
Hm. It’s funny, I’m never aware that I have a style, but I get accused of it occasionally. And not always pleasantly, but there is a way I like to shoot things. And it does match with that style that I thought I was seeing in Cameron’s T2, which is I don’t think people use composed wides enough. I think we get in, and we do herky-jerky camera on action and we don’t really step back and get a big epic picture and let that tell the story. So there are things I enjoy doing, but I enjoyed doing those things on Game of Thrones, too. So I was just trying to bring that into this world.
Beyond that, the things I’m most proud of and think that I put my stamp on most, is probably performance and old-fashioned stuff, like blocking a scene with six people who all have important things to say, and how they interact with each other. That stuff I still really enjoy. We have a scene that goes on forever in the hospital room. There’s like six people in the scene, and there are major, major plot points that have to be gotten through. I remember looking at the page and going, "Oh, god!" But I really like the scene! I mean, it helps that J.K. Simmons walks into it halfway through, because he helps everything, but it’s that old-fashioned kind of storytelling. I really enjoy characters in a room, talking.
What was it like working with Emilia Clarke on something outside of Game of Thrones?
The best thing was we had this huge comfort level, because I’d stood around in Malta with her semi-naked, holding ridiculous stuffed green toys for dragons, back before whether we knew whether it would work or not. So we’ve been through the trenches and feel safe with each other. I think I came into this sort of naively thinking "Oh, well she’s been the warrior queen, now she’ll just be a different kind of warrior queen." But it’s a completely different ballgame. She had to work so hard. Changing her hair color was part of the work, but doing the accent — that’s a constant thing you have to keep one eye on. And then weapons training, stunt training, physical training, all the stuff to get to where she could actually be a kinetic warrior in the trenches, not just someone standing off to the side giving orders, which is what she does in Game of Thrones quite a lot. So I think she really had to create this person. And it felt great, but it was touch and go, because again, it’s scary for me to step into Cameron’s shadow — it’s scary for her to step into Linda Hamilton’s shadow. And I think she is more well-adjusted than I am, so she had enough sense to sort of shirk it off, and say, "Okay, I’m not gonna watch that stuff, I’m not gonna think about it. I’m going to make my version of this story." And she did a great job.
This movie has been talked about as a starting point for a new trilogy. And the writers say they already know how they want the rest of the story to play out
There are other stories, and I know how they want to end the final one, and it’s a great idea. And there are questions that we are raising in this one that we don’t answer. Who sent Guardian back? We still don’t know that. So there are things yet to be explored.
And I imagine J.K. Simmons has to be part of those plans.
Yeah, and Dayo, who plays Danny Dyson, there are big things for him should it go forward. But it’s going to come down to if anybody goes to see this one. Then we’ll know.