Friday, October 9, 2009

How to Beat a Twice-Dead Horse

In early 2001, I was playing pinball at Mike's house when Jonathan Mostow called. The game was "Funhouse," and I was reluctant to give up a pretty good third ball and take the phone. Between the bells and flipper flips, I heard Mike say, "Really? Terminator 3?"

Mostow and Ferris had been roommates in college. Jon had worked with us on a number of projects over the years, most stillborn. We'd written his second movie, a low-budgeter badly retitled "Flight of Black Angel." But now he'd been approached to direct "Rise of the Machines," and he wanted us to take a look at the script with an eye toward a rewrite.

The original "Terminator" was lean and mean, a juiced rip-off of "Westworld" and Harlan Ellison, unapologetically B and delightfully paradoxical. As I walked back to my car from the theatre at Fairfax and Beverly in 1984, I immediately generated a parody story in which a nun travels back in time to Jesus on the cross, in order to Accu-jack him, impregnate herself, and give birth to a demigod.

Eight years later I stood in line at the Cinerama Dome for the opening night of "T2: Judgment Day." For all the cool digital morphs, the movie was a sprawling mess, bloated and self-important. On multiple levels, it was a betrayal of the original. I couldn't stand it.

The idea of a third installment with a new director struck me as sleazy and a little sad. The two Terminators had come to be seen as sacred works of genius, fueling the cult of James Cameron. Lines like, "I'll be back" and "Hasta la vista, baby" were permanently enshrined in pop culture. Put some other dude behind the camera, throw in new writers and skip any involvement from the King of the World? The world would line up to hate you.

The script Jon sent was a flat, fanboy retread of the second film, with another nice-guy Arnold and a female terminator even sillier than the liquid metal man, along with a slew of smarmy callback gags. John Connor was a slick dick of a Silicon Valley CEO, which in 2001 already felt dated. Sarah Connor remained an angry outsider, alienated from her son. It ended with nukes landing by the Washington Monument but failing to go boom.

Still, it was hard to pass up at least a meeting. I'd started in the business writing low-budget crap for Roger Corman, but in the early 90's I'd gone through some important life moment and vowed from that point on only to write movies I'd actually go see. This meant either original work or assignments that genuinely interested me. No comic books, no TV show adaptations, no rewrites, no sequels. No cops, no doctors, no lawyers. But since "The Game" finally got made in 1997, Mike and I'd had a dismal few years. We'd created a TV show, only to have it run into the ground by a pair of loathsome show-runners. We'd written three spec scripts in a row that we'd sold to studios, but each had gotten stepped on and taken away from us, dying in development hell, never to be made. Mostow had been attached to the last of these; I think his guilt over its demise helped lead to the "T3" approach.

The producers had offices in a grafittied single-story building in Santa Monica. The pair in charge had foreign accents, Ferraris and elaborate facial hair. Their underlings were more familiar development types, although one had almost sued me over rights to that last spec script of ours. This braintrust had decided on a series of givens: Arnold had to play a good terminator (again), the bad terminator had to be a female (robots have genders?), John Connor had to be a successful executive (and not Eddy Furlong). These were potentially fatal handicaps, but we still managed to come up with some ideas. Trusting Mostow's recommendation more than seemed wise, they said sure, here's a deal, go write a first draft.

Arnold shows up and tries to kill rich, smug John Connor. A female terminator, a nanotech assemblage of micro-bots, strives to protect him. Yet it turns out Arnold was sent by the Resistance-- and the nano-chick is Skynet's most nefarious creation of all. See, after the first two pairs of terminators were sent back from 2029 for the first two movies, JC revealed himself to be evil-- a Skynet deep-cover agent. He destroyed/will destroy the human resistance from within. This is all because the female nano-terminator supposedly defending him actually infects him in the present day, with a nanobot that bores deep into his brain. So after Connor betrays humanity in 2032, his mortified wife Kate sends Arnold back to kill John Connor in 2003. (Sarah Connor is already dead of cancer, by the way.) In the film's action, the Arnold terminator fails, nano-bitch kills true love Kate-- but Judgment Day seems to have been prevented yet again (although Connor still has a scrap of Skynet inside his head, the-end-or-is-it?). This script was, admittedly, pretty insane, trippy and multiversive. We were out to conjure some of the dizzy absurdity of the first Terminator. I was happy with the script.

It nearly got us fired. Thanks to Mostow's desperate lobbying on our behalf, we were given a few weeks for one last chance. To hell with integrity. Mike and I worked frantically to cobble together what was wanted, namely a far more predictable script. A typically good Arnold saves a down-and-out JC from a Swiss-Army knife terminatrix, etc. It felt safe, expected, paint-by-numbers. We quickly realized the only possible saving grace, the one thing that could begin to justify the film's existence, would be to end the world in the last scenes-- and so return the franchise to the fatalistic integrity of the original "Terminator." I never imagined this would fly.

The "development process" involved the usual dumbing and watering down, cutting for budget, gutting character moments, turning anything shaded into black and white. We were told to throw back in elements from the script we were first handed, such as "She'll be back" and stupid sunglasses. We refused to write in a Chili's endorsement, though we suggested "I'll be baby-back, baby-back, baby-back ribs." Another writer came in at the last minute and threw in a few more clunky lines and cringe-worthy moments. The shoot had some near-disasters, including a major part recast after a week of filming, and a budget shortfall that required a cash loan from Schwarzenegger. Mostow actually shot plates for a time bubble arriving in the fallout shelter with yet another Arnold to avert Judgment Day at the last second, just in case focus groups demanded it.

When I saw the finished product, I was pretty bummed. The casting choices were dubious, the look too brightly-lit and TV-ish, the campy comedic bits painful to watch. Subtleties that somehow survived development were sacrificed to overly-aggressive editing. Incredibly, the movie did keep our ending. Critics were kinder to "T3" than I'd expected, and while the domestic box office was middling, it did well overseas.

A friend who worked at "The Tonight Show" invited me and Mike on the night Arnold appeared to promote the film. "My writuhs!" he barked in the dressing room. He seemed enthusiastic about a remake of "Westworld" that Warner Bros. had hired us to write for him. Then, a few weeks later, he announced his candidacy for governor of California.

Talk about played-out. We'd brought the franchise to a close, made a trilogy out of it. Now the star was running the state. Nonetheless, near the end of 2003 the producers called: "So what about a fourth movie?"

My instinctive reaction, "No fucking way." However, Mike was building a house and really needed the money. I grudgingly agreed to a few paid meetings to conceptualize a new story, but our lawyer maintained a mutual escape clause before committing to a script.

The meetings were surprisingly interesting. The producers called in futurists and officials from DARPA, our conversations covered the possible nature of machine consciousness, potential goals of Skynet, the ways in which human soldiers were soon to be enhanced with electronics. We soon hit on the idea of a hybrid main character-- a machine driven by a human brain. Glory be, we wouldn't be forced to write a 115-page time-travelling chase scene.

We wrote our first draft of "Terminator 4: Salvation" in early 2004. It focused on a death-row prisoner named Marcus Wright. He climbs out of the mud years later, after Judgment Day, when a Resistance assault on a Skynet facility accidentally activates him. As far as he can tell, he's in hell. Marcus hooks up with a couple of kids, a little girl named Star and Kyle Reese, the hero of the first movie and eventual father to John Connor. They bond, dodging aerostats and plastic-skinned terminators, cannibals, mutant dogs and irradiated areas, scrambling to find food and ammunition. Marcus talks about what put him in prison, the murder of a cop who was beating on his younger brother. In one of my favorite scenes, the three hide in a decimated motel, where the atheist Marcus finds a Gideon's bible and reads to the illiterate kids. They're far more interested in a Yellow Pages, the idea that you could pick up a phone and order a pizza or a bouquet of flowers.

Soon they get a Jeep to run, and hear John Connor on the radio. At a gas station the kids get grabbed by a Harvester and are dropped in a Skynet transport, Marcus tries and fails to save them in a prolonged action sequence almost identical to the finished film. He hooks up with a hot A-10 pilot, she takes him back to a missile silo base where he steps on a mine and is revealed to be a robot. The Resistance wants to dissect him. Blair helps him escape, he gets napalmed by a chopper, then saves the pilot from some hydrobots. He makes his way back into Skynet to save the kids and find out why he was re-made a monster.

The dynamics of the war with the machines seemed dull to us, as did John Connor, whom we kept a peripheral character. JC wrestles with that darn fate of his, swinging between delusions of grandeur and self-doubt, convinced he can't be killed since he's been told when he's going to die. Marcus' existence throws him for a loop (although they don't meet in person until the end of the film). Kate from "T3" makes brief appearances, trying not to be too irritated by her neurotic spouse while she deals with her post-apocalyptic pregnancy. We did a handful of rewrites, sticking to the same basic story.

We never had a solid third act in any of our drafts. The producers and Mostow were very focused on "What does Skynet want?" and felt we needed to get into the computer system's motivations. This always felt kind of dumb, on the level of, "would an alien say that?" By definition, if it's alien it's beyond human understanding. We tried one version where Skynet had projected human extinction, and destroyed the world in order to save it, via semi-immortal hybrids. Because the bombed-out environment gets so oppressive, the director wanted a clean, suburban, colorful place where hybrids dwell in a Prozacked state of bliss, connected to the larger computer awareness. It all verged on the goofy, as we wrote it we knew it had to change.

The one thing we did have was a strong ending. Connor is fatally wounded during the attack on the Skynet complex. He gives Kyle Reese the Polaroid of Sarah Connor. As he's dying, he asks Marcus to become him-- resistance doctors can reskin Marcus' mangled frame and alter his voice. After all, it's Marcus who understands Skynet, he's the one who connected to its machine mind. The symbol of John Connor, the icon of a savior, is infinitely more important than the man. In essence, JC himself becomes the terminator.

We turned in our last draft in September, 2005, confident no one would ever make the movie. No Arnold, gigantic budget, risky story-- at least it had been fun to write. I followed in the trades as MGM got involved and detached, lawsuits threatened, some new company named Halcyon obtained the rights. Then, during the Writers' Guild strike in late 2007, McG and Christian Bale got attached. We learned that one of the producers was planning to call us in for a rewrite meeting with McG the moment the strike was over. I made myself watch the second "Charlie's Angels" and "We are Marshall." Uh-oh.

When the strike did end in March 2008, this meeting was scheduled, cancelled and rescheduled, then cancelled again. I could read the writing on the wall, and let one of the producers know that I knew we were toast. He denied this vigorously. In a few days I read in Variety that Paul Haggis was hired to rewrite "Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins," perhaps the most retarded movie title I'd ever heard. I never found out who was responsible for that.

Mike Ferris went to Comic-Con in the summer of 2008 and saw McG stand up on stage to introduce "the writer," now Jonathan Nolan from "Batman." Rodman Flender, who'd attended the convention with Mike, turned to him and said, "Didn't you do this?" Nope, McG made no mention of us (or the parade of other A-list writers hired in our wake).

The only other contact we received during production came from McG's producing partner late in the summer. She asked if we wanted to write and direct a $6 million "companion feature" exploring the backstories of Kyle and Star. This was to shoot in the footsteps of T4, using the same rigs and actors. We would have six weeks to write a script and prep for production. While we had this woman on the phone, we asked what had been done to our script-- she outlined some of the changes, such as inflating John Connor's part and getting rid of the cannibals (Cormac McCarthy's The Road had been published after we'd written our drafts.) "Did you keep our ending?" "Oh, yes, we love the ending." It was bizarre to be tossed the bone of directing a little crap movie to piggy-back our own behemoth blockbuster. How awkward would it be, watching other writers rework our script while we waited for shots to finish so we could use the leftover props? What would happen when "TS:TFB" didn't make its day? Mike and I discussed the idea for ten minutes, then told our agents to pass on the job. Not surprisingly, this "featurette" never happened.

And that was that (other than friends calling to ask if we were there to witness Bale's infamous meltdown). The Writers' Guild eventually sent us two boxes full of dozens of drafts from numerous subsequent writers. I was surprised at how little our work had changed-- mostly cosmetic stuff, adding more Connor, diluting ideas, an even more senseless ending… it seemed pretty clear we'd get a sole screen credit. As usual, this turned out to be a mixed blessing.

Mike and I were at last invited to see a rough cut on the Warners lot in March, 2009, a courtesy required by the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement. "Terminator Salvation" felt like an interminable trailer. It sure had action, but the characters were left on the cutting-room floor. McG got lucky casting Sam Worthington as Marcus (on James Cameron's advice), he was the best thing in the movie, but his story was given too little screen time. And, as we'd discovered in the writing, the John Connor character was a bore, despite the efforts of some of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood. Bale says "I'll be back" in an odd, irrelevant context. Digital Arnold was cute, otherwise the third act was a half-assed pastiche of the first three films-- freezing, melting, impaling, exploding batteries. Helena Bonham-Carter in the role of Skynet was an embarrassment.

Most depressing of all, our original ending was eliminated in favor of an al fresco heart transplant. Apparently our ending had been leaked months before on the internet, engendering such outrage from fan geeks that the chicken-hearted filmmakers killed it. But the lame "Take mine" sacrifice of Marcus meant that nothing had really happened in "T4," beyond a brush with death for John Connor. The movie had no reason to exist.

At the screening, Mike recognized McG from Comic-Con and introduced himself. We managed an awkward conversation outside. The guy enthused like a car salesman, occasionally muttering incongruently self-deprecating asides. He looked annoyed when I mentioned the mess of a third act. "We have to have lunch!" he barked as he back-pedaled across the lot, where he was almost run over by a passing golf cart.

We did a couple of interviews where we were asked the inevitable, "What was it like working with McG?" "Er, we wouldn't know…" No lunch. Instead, doing his PR for the movie, McNugget went out of his way to dis our work, talking of the injustice of our sole screen credit. Galling, yes, but understandable; he was desperate to associate "T4" with the success of "Batman" and not the uncoolness of "T3." At the press junket (another invitation mandated by our union), McG maintained his carny-barker persona, but played nice since he had to sit right next to us. The only crack in his fa├žade was a peculiar mention of how much he despised himself. But all the "journalists" wanted to hear about were Bale's psychosis and some unfortunate joke McG had made regarding Michael Bay's penis.

Still, when you walk the red (in this case black) carpet, you want to believe the movie you're about to see doesn't suck. The action was sure big, right? The washed-out, fly-blown look was appropriate. OK, a lot of it was lame (bandanas on robots?) and embarrassing (come on, the Hollywood sign?), and the last half plain didn't work, but… maybe no one would notice. You so want life to be good. You smile, shake hands, say "great work" and "thank you." On the way from the Chinese theatre to the party in a nearby parking lot, McG actually hugged me.

The movie was savaged by critics. I've become accustomed to such epithets as, "from the geniuses who brought you 'Catwoman,'" being blamed for lines and scenes I had nothing to do with, etc. [Here insert the perennial screenwriterly whine.] These things happen when you ignore your better self for a paycheck. I've likened what I do to designing shower heads for the gas chambers-- hey, it's a job, the genocide wasn't my idea.

Two weeks after "Salvation" came out, our agents called to say that the producers wanted to meet with us about a fifth Terminator. Was this some kind of joke? How humongous would the stick have to be to whomp this now fossilized equine? OK, I'll admit to a feeling of sweet vindication to see them come crawling back. Yet I knew the pleasure wouldn't last long in the face of the inevitable horror. Within hours, my fax machine was spitting out non-disclosure agreements, so the law prevents me from saying any more about this.