Set Visit: “Terminator Salvation”

It is the wee hours of the morning in the warm desert landscape of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Wearing heavy, large lift boots, a backpack and wielding an automatic weapon that would give Rambo an inferiority complex, the somewhat primitive T-600 Terminator (Skynet’s early humanoid model) scouts the perimeter looking for any signs of human presence.

His steps are lumbering and loud, almost like a robotic version of Frankenstein. As his head mechanically turns from side to side, the familiar glowing red eyes look right at me. I must admit, the look gave me goosebumps whilst simultaneously exciting the geeky little boy inside me. Sure, I know its all fake and this is just a movie set, but you try look into the glowing red eyes of a giant Terminator after watching these movies for your entire life and see if you don’t crack just a bit.

We’ve been on the set of Terminator Salvation for an entire day’s shoot and, during that time, we’ve been led by various tour guides, from the Warner Bros. publicists to Production Designer Martin Lang and, finally, Director McG, whose enthusiasm for the project is unmistakable, a self-proclaimed Terminator fanatic. As part of a group of press invited the New Mexico set last summer of the latest installment in the fabled Terminator franchise, we have been sworn to secrecy. Now, as the May 22nd release draws near, we can finally brag about our day spent on the post-Judgement Day landscape and report our findings.

Salvation picks up after the events of Terminator 3. Three movies and a TV series have revolved heavily around a eventual future where machines have taken control and John Connor is leading the resistance to victory over the machines. Now, we finally get to see the events of that future as the focus of its own film. John Connor is fully grown, allowing Christian Bale to step into the shoes previously worn by Edward Furlong in T2, Nick Stahl in T3 and Thomas Dekker on TV’s Sarah Connor Chronicles.

McG says that Bale, who came to the New Mexico set directly from shooting Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, took control of the John Connor role from the start and knew exactly where to take the character. “When you see what Christian’s doing with Connor,” says the director, “he’s just sort of a no bullshit guy who takes the clippers and cuts his hair and, at the same time, is very pragmatic and very much about the task at hand.”

“Bale doesn’t fuck around,” adds McG, defending the new Terminator film and the skepticism it has received. “He doesn’t sign up for things unless he believes 100 percent. He’s already Bruce Wayne, he doesn’t need to be John Connor. He believes in what the picture can be or he wouldn’t be here.”

Salvation goes back to the beginning, bringing to life elements that have been referenced or hinted at in the previous films. “This movie has a lot to do with the becoming of the T-800,” McG says of the most famous Cyberdyne Systems model, which happens to bear a striking resemblance to California Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The T-600 is just bigger and nastier. Its designed to look like it came from a Soviet tank company. Imagine your first Mac. Now you have a Macbook Air [and] its leaner, faster, more memory. Technology is more and more in a smaller, more efficient space.”

That T-600 of which the director speaks is also the focus of the day’s shoot. At this point, if you’ve seen any of the trailers for Salvation or read anything about it, you probably already know the secret of Sam Worthington’s Marcus Wright character. If not, be warned as you read on. The scene involves Worthington infiltrating the Skynet exterior while avoiding the watchful red eyes of a lumbering T-600. When he is spotted, he gets a frightening surprise. “This is exterior Skynet,” says McG. “We have Marcus coming into this world. He’s trying to swear that he’s a man. He comes upon the gun turrets of Skynet and they lock onto him and then they stand down. Nobody’s bothering him because he’s being recognized as a machine. Then there’s this moment where he’s delighted that he’s not dead, but he’s [also] broken-hearted.”

Aware of the ease of detecting the T-600 models, part of the Salvation story line revolves around Skynet’s plans to advance their cyborg model into a less detectable, ’80s body building-style model. “They are collecting the humans for their skin and their hair to put on top of the T-800,” says production designer Martin Lang. The humans are collected by Harvester bots and placed into an internment camp where they await a gruesome fate whereby the machines will literally tear them to bits for their parts.

The post-apocalyptic world of Salvation is indeed a grim one and matching the dramatic feel of the story with the proper look is another crucial element to pulling off this challenging project. By employing a mixture of practical and digital effects work, McG and co. hope to achieve a balance that will please audiences who have been imagining the future world of Terminator for over two decades.

“McG is really keen on not making this a futuristic Logan’s Run kind of thing but rather a dirty, oily reality,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Charlie Gibson. “we’re working closely with Stan Winston [studios] to create these hybrid characters that are part Stan Winston suits and part digital. We’ve taken that philosophy for all the effects in the movie to try to keep it from becoming sterile like a Star Wars movie, for example. Those films got a little bit too virtual for our tastes.”

“This movie is an allegory for what it means to be human,” says McG. “But nobody signs up for a Terminator movie to go to graduate class. I think the Wachowski’s did it best on the first Matrix. That picture can be enjoyed by audiences, but at the same time you can spend four years in school discussing the deeper meanings of the picture. The film posits the question of, ‘Where does society begin and end?'”

Throughout the course of our visit, McG bounces back and forth between the shoot and speaking to press. As the night’s last shot drew near in the wake of multiple rehearsals, tension is palpable. The scene will culminate with a tractor going through the wall, meaning they get one chance to get it right and any mistakes means lost days and increased budget.

McG watches another rehearsal where the T-600 takes a few more heavy steps before glaring into the camera. Everything seems right, but McG would rather play it safe. “All right, let’s rehearse again,” he shouts to the crew. “we’re going to have to get lucky with the beat between Brian (the T-600) and Marcus.”

When the scene does come off, its flawless. The crew applauds and the director appears relieved, smiling as he congratulations Worthington and crew on another successful day.

We’ll have more from the set this week including a full interview with McG and a chat with Terminator Salvation’s cast.