Tim Miller should feel confident. Nearly 20 years after founding Blur Studio, the animation company known for cinematic video game cutscenes and mind-bending CG sequences, he’s directing and producing Hollywood movies. Deadpool put him in demand. He and David Fincher made Love, Death, and Robots for Netflix. He’s producing the Sonic the Hedgehog movie for his Blur colleague Jeff Fowler, and committed to getting it right.
When I speak to Miller over the phone, he’s preparing to unveil his next directorial effort: Terminator: Dark Fate, a direct continuation to 1991’s Judgment Day that, in true Terminator fashion, undoes any and all timelines established in previous sequels. James Cameron is on board as a producer. Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor, starring alongside up-and-comers Mackenzie Davis, as robotically enhanced future soldier Grace, and Natalia Reyes, the Terminator’s latest target. A new T-800 means Arnold Schwarzenegger “is back,” too. The pieces are there, but Miller expresses some anxiety about the whole thing.
“There’s a lot of ennui around being the sixth version of a movie in the franchise,” he tells me, “but I really hope that people will be surprised.”
Dark Fate is a genuine surprise. Long assumed to be Arnold’s franchise, the movie asserts Hamilton as the heart and soul of Terminator. Her one-liners are fire, but her arc, as a survivor and fighter, hits hard. Miller wraps timely social themes and run-and-gun action around the star in a way that helps Dark Fate standout from both the misfires and Cameron’s original films.
In anticipation of the Nov. 1 release, I spoke to Miller about the origins of the story, getting into the nitty gritty of the sci-fi, and how worked with Hamilton to reinvent Sarah Connor for a new era.
[Ed. note: this post contains general plot and scene descriptions for Terminator: Dark Fate that some may consider spoilers.]
Polygon: The film has a few credited screenwriters, and of course James Cameron is back as in a producer role, so when did you get involved with the project? Which aspect of the movie helped you connect to the material?
Tim Miller: The easy answer for that one is Linda Hamilton. That’s, to me, the thing that makes it all work.
But I was actually in from the very beginning. [Producer] David Ellison had seen Deadpool. Actually he’d seen an early cut because I was going to do something else with him and we both are sci-fi nerds so we talked about Terminator at some later point, like after Deadpool 2. When that didn’t happen, Terminator got pushed to the front of the queue. I believe that David had talked to Jim, but there was a lot of stuff around the rights and all that other stuff. So Jim wasn’t even a definite when I started talking to David, then it all came together sort of after that.
Just to clarify that the writers, the story stuff, was really this team effort where first we had novelists. Again, I’m a sci-fi nerd, so I wanted to bring in novelists to some really broad-swab world-building. Five guys came in and Jim came in for a couple days of brainstorming.
Joe Abercrombie, who writes my favorite books of all time, the First Law books. He’s more fantasy, but I know Joe, he’s wonderful. Greg Bear was there. Warren Ellis was there. Neal Asher was there. Neal Stephenson was there. That was pretty cool.
So we did that for the initial brainstorming, and then we came out of there with a bunch of ideas and brought screenwriters in. The plan was to sort of have an idea for three movies. So we brought in three writers — or four, because David Goyer works with a guy named Justin Rhodes as a partner. So it was David and him, Josh Friedman, and Chuck Eglee. You know, it’s weird because it looks like — and in this would be a warning sign to me too, if I was just your average moviegoer — but it looks like “holy shit, there’s a lot of writers on that fucking thing, so beware!” But it really was a story that we all broke. David Goyer wrote a draft, and then David had go on to do other projects and Billy Ray pretty much rewrote it from scratch with me. I wrote all the action, and then Billy, who’s great with character, Billy handled all that stuff.
You directed second unit [action] for Thor: The Dark World for Alan Taylor, who also directed Terminator: Genisys. Do you have any relationship with him? Did you talk about his experience before going into your own Terminator sequel?
You know, I met Alan once in passing for about 10 minutes. And then I went and did my thing and worked with one of the editors, Kevin [Feige], and Craig [Kyle]. So I didn’t talk to him. I had heard enough — I’m also friends with Laeta Kalogridis who wrote that script and is a huge Terminator fan. And, of course, David Ellison told stories, too. But I watched all those movies, and there were a lot of times in the writer’s room where an idea would come up and David Ellison, who was there for all of the writer’s room stuff all day, every day, David would say, “Oh yeah, we did that in Genisys.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I forgot.” “Oh yeah, we did that in Genisys.” “Oh yeah, I fucking forgot.” It had a lot of interesting ideas in it.
How did you talk to Linda about making Sarah Connor’s return meaningful? She became an emblem for the “strong female character” after Terminator: Judgment Day, but so often over the last 30 years, Hollywood’s understanding of strength has revealed itself to be surface level.
We talked about this with the ladies a lot, and Natalia actually said, in another context, being strong doesn’t mean you have to be masculine. And so there was a lot of that thinking with both her and Mackenzie’s character. To be a strong woman, you don’t have to act like a man.
For Linda’s character, originally, she was a little more Rooster Cogburn than she actually ended up being in the movie. Two things happened: One, there was a lot of chemistry between these three actors. They really loved each other off screen. And so that started to creep into it. Then there was an inherent illogic to Sarah fighting [with everyone]. They all had the sort of same agenda.
Aside from Dani, the primary arc in the movie is Sarah. She’s [basically] a Terminator when we come into the movie. Grief has made her want to be an emotionless killing machine. And at the end of the movie, she’s allowing herself to care again, she comes back to humanity. Her shriveled heart has blossomed again. That was the journey, but we just didn’t want to make it unwatchable. It’s unpleasant to watch people being unpleasant. So we tried to split the difference and I think we did. I think Sarah is tough, but it’s not uncomfortable to watch.
Was it challenging to find a new side of Arnold’s Terminator performance? This is not the same T-800 we see in Judgment Day, of course, but he is a familiar robot.
Not really. I would say Arnold is a really wonderful actor and he knew his character. It required very little coaching from me. He understood that he would never be completely human, but you can imagine like where that T-800 got in two days of sort of being around humans in T2, and Arnold’s been around in this movie for 20-plus years. So you can imagine he did a lot of learning there. I think he split the line very well.
He says a line to Linda, “I used to think that having feelings was in a disadvantage. It isn’t.” And it’s really interesting because he feels like he knows what it is to be human, but knows he cannot be human. I thought he played it well.
The Comic-Con crowd went wild when you announced the film would earn an R. Did the rating give you any particular freedom? The slicing blade hands in this movie are particularly effective, and maybe an R gives you the latitude to push the effect.
As you probably know, the difference between PG-13 and R is that the blades can go in PG-13, they just can’t come out, and the blood is not going to be there. While we shot, it was not planned to be R — at at best it was a dual release. So I knew that I was going to add the blade hands in post[-production] and the blood was all going to be added in post, not because of a rating issue, but because that’s the most efficient way to do it. We were always gonna push it right up to the edge.
And you know, personally … only a few times if you look at Deadpool, did we really kind of step over the line. I’m not a big fan of like slo-mo bodies being split open my blades right in front of camera, and I wouldn’t have done that had we been R right from the start. However, once we decided to go R, I kind of let myself cut loose. Like a scene with Mackenzie being dragged into the hallway, and she’s just covered in blood — that was shot in the reshoots after we’d decided to go R and we could really fuck her up. So anyway, it was really just like the cuffs were off. I got lots of F-bombs in the dialogue during the shoot because I wanted to, like I said, at the very least, do an R-cut of the movie that would be released either simultaneously or sometime in the future.
You founded Blur, a visual effects studio which became well known for video game cutscenes and animation-heavy sequences in movies. Were there specific moments in the film where your background in animation came in handy?
I didn’t do a lot of live-action/CG visual effects in the past. Blur does mostly game stuff, and we did some of the stuff in Deadpool for sure. And in this movie we did the Dragonfly sequence, which is the future flash-forward stuff where we’re Grace is fighting. I proudly say it’s one of my favorite scenes. But I think where it makes a difference is that I’m comfortable with visual effects. In post, it really becomes more of my vision because I can interact with the visual effects artists in a very direct way. When I make a note, I know how bad it’s going to fuck things up or whether it can help them.
Gabriel Luna’s Terminator can liquify, bud off, reform, and barely be killed. The visual logic has limitless possibilities, but maybe that makes your job tougher. What moment in the film helped you understand what you wanted to accomplish with villain?
There are a lot of them and I was really happy with the way our R&D shot for Gabe forming into the liquid Terminator was not the first time he did it. It’s after the car crash when he kills Dani’s brother Diego and he’s reforming. I very much wanted a kind of a logical, fractal way where it’s formed as a central stem and then sort of spread out from there because ultimately, he had to be sort of like a hollow chocolate Easter egg bunny with reinforced structures. If you still-framed some of the shots where he’s forming, you’ll see that he’s kind of empty inside. The visual metaphor was intended.
Like I said, I wrote all the action scenes myself. I would write them out as beat sheets and then we would pre-[visualize] them. We did a lot of pre-vis before the script was even finished. Then I’d hand those cheats to Billy and Billy would infuse them with character. I think you see that in our turbine fight where, I don’t think maybe the audience is aware of it — and maybe I could’ve done a better job of that — but at the turbine fight, you want to have Dani have a heroic role. She knows she’s a quarterback in the pocket. She knows that the Terminator has to come for her. So she’s always keeping her protectors between the Terminator and her so that they have to go through either the T-800 or Grace or Sarah and each time they do, they’re going to inflict some damage on that motherfucker. And so that’s kind of Dani’s strategy, to always sort of stay in the pocket and make him come at her and take damage. And the whole fight is designed with that in mind. If you watch the fight with that sort of strategic imperative, I think it makes sense.
The use of real locations and atmospheric effects really complements the CG in a way I rarely see. There was a lot of diesel smoke. The movie has a smell. It’s grimy.
But it doesn’t lack color! Especially the last sequence —it’s pretty colorful for me. I have a fear of color. I don’t know, [color] just somehow doesn’t feel as grim and serious. I have to force myself to do it most times. But our last sequence, with all the fire and electricity, is particularly beautiful.
The film grapples with immigration issues, societal fractures, technological doom, and a general inevitability to humanity’s demise. There’s hope, which makes it a Terminator movie, but are you channeling your own worries about America here?
I’m generally speaking more positively than Jim is about the future and about technology. I also think that the only way out is through. We’re not gonna stop it.
It’s funny, it kind of all came down to one night. Jim brought this artificial intelligence researcher in to speak with us because we’d been talking with all these prophets and he had met her and she was very smart. At the end of this discussion, Jim said, I think what really has to happen is that, before this thing gets out of control, we have to teach AI to be more human. And I thought, oh my God, we have to do the opposite.
Look at the choices that we’ve made as a species. I wouldn’t say that we have some kind of moral high ground when it comes to our place in the universe. We could certainly design a better system than ourselves if we were given a chance. And that’s what I mean by being a little more positive about the future. I don’t really think that AI will destroy us because I just don’t think it will care that much.
I do think about this stuff at night and I read a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction. Max Tegmark’s book, Human 3.0, probably has the best sort of spread of the eight possibilities for the evolution of AI. Seven of them aren’t good if that tells you anything.
But the worry in Dark Fate isn’t only about AI. Sarah, Grace, and Dani illegally cross the border and wind up in a detention center. That’s a pointed reference to make in 2019.
I tried to walk a line there because it’s a terrible situation, but I didn’t want to vilify border guards. They’re people doing a job. The system is the problem. And even the choice to do it really wasn’t a statement. It really was a function of us putting the story’s beginning in central Mexico and then traveling. It was just a natural evolution of the story rather than me saying or Jim saying or anybody saying, “Hey, we got to make a social comment here.” It was really just an interesting story. I didn’t want to vilify anybody. I have a lot of sympathy for immigrants and the whole process.
How wound up in the time travel logic did you get during the making of this film? The aftermath of each Terminator movie is filled with flowcharts. Do you expect the movie to click in to the established logic?
I’m a nerd but, but I never make the mistake of thinking the audience is all nerds, too. Sometimes Jim and I would would disagree with that [laughs], but I think we walked the line. Listen, there is an 11-page document that tells exactly what Grace is capable of and how she was made. I worked with a friend who loves science fiction. He’s not a real author, he’s a wannabe author — but he’s very smart gentleman. We actually figured out how Grace was made and what the process was like.
And for time travel, we had a lot of complexity to the theories, but it’s all really distilled down to one central idea, which is when you change the past, the way rolls forward and changes the future. There’s only one timeline. And, and that is the same one Sarah changed. She did something that hadn’t been done before. I always look at it as like a stream where a leaf may get caught in an eddy and stays there for a while and then eventually kind of breaks free and continues down the stream. This is another eddy, another story pocket, another whirlpool. So, but you don’t want to bore people with a lot of exposition around that. But the important thing to me as a filmmaker is that I have some kind of understanding, so I’m not just making up the rules.
The same with Gabe’s powers. I don’t want to be like, “Oh well now he can, you know, form a rail gun out of it.” Which is possible, and would be very cool, but you know, that’s some other movie.
You’re making your Terminator, in the end.
I really hope that people will give it a chance. I hope they’ll be surprised when they see it. I didn’t leave anything on the table. I gave it everything.
You got the T-800 to opine on the aesthetic value of drapes in this movie. That’s an accomplishment.
Arnold fucking loves this movie. He watched it twice before, but when he watched the final cut, he FaceTimed me and said, “Oh my God, the ending is so powerful. I cried.” So to make Arnold Schwarzenegger happy, that’s pretty cool.