We go toe to toe with the latest Terminator.
Rising up from the plateau of the Albuquerque desert is the burned remnants of a concrete highway overpass, and on the ledge, a figure is about to jump. Dressed in a black bomber jacket and combat boots, with weaponry slung about his waist, he hesitates for a second and then plummets head first to the ground. He's Christian Bale, and he's the newest Terminator.
"Hey, Christian, that looked great!" The voice belongs to a tall figure in a Penguin shirt, black shorts, and a white Stetson, hidden from the desert heat in a makeshift tent. McG watches the action from behind several monitors but also keeps an eagle eye on the set towering above him. "Did you see me start to spin though?" laughs Bale, before downing a bottle of red Vitamin Water.
Bale is hoisted on wires to the top of the set for yet another take, this time joined by a few members of his heavily armed resistance group. The atmosphere on the set seems to shift subtly, a palpable sense of tension rising as set medics gather around.
"Standby!" A low hissing noise is audible. "Everyone got what they need? Picture's up! Fire in the hole! We are rolling... 3-2-1. Action!" Just as Bale tosses a bag over the ledge, a massive explosion blasts the actors from the edge of the concrete structure. Chips of wood, charcoal and other debris scatter over the set in a brown rainstorm. The acrid odor that follows the explosion is quickly replaced the unmistakable smell of... sewage. A cleaning service, blissfully blind to the fact that one of 2009's most expensive and highly anticipated films is shooting a key action sequence, has just cleaned out the set's portable toilets. A mind-numbing stench settles over the set, and actors and crew flee in all directions, covering their noses.
Back in the editing room, McG, the maverick director perhaps best known for the 2000's big screen version of Charlie's Angels, is unable to contain his passion for Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, aka T4. McG freely reveals innumerous crucial plot points of the story and describes in detail how the movie, slated to be the first in a reboot of the series, opens.
"You start with storyboards," he says. "I want Connor to run up and get into his chopper. He thinks there is a pilot [in the helicopter]. He touches him on the shoulder. He falls out dead. One single shot to the head. He realizes it is the mark of a Terminator. Connor is proficient [in flying]. He gets in and takes off in his helicopter. Through the window we see the body of the communication outpost below and it implodes before it explodes like all those nuclear test films [from the 1960s] that we all saw. The shock wave hits his helicopter. He goes into a flat spin, but ultimately lands. The camera stays fixed inside the cockpit, and we stay with him as he crawls out. We shift to a steadicam and go with him, arch around until we see the body of the cloud of the explosion behind him, and we register his grief. But before he can do anything about it, he is interrupted by the hand of the Terminator which he landed on on the way in. And then they battle in a way designed to replicate the Sarah Connor battle at the end of the first [Terminator film] — like mother, like son. He ultimately [destroys] it with it with a machine gun.
"The interesting thing about this movie is that Connor comes to be under suspicion. Command will look at him and say, 'How come you keep coming through these things alive? And you know so much about the machines? What is that all about?' And they point a finger at him while the audience is realizing..." and here McG's voice is raised to an indignant shout: "... that is fucking John Connor! If anybody is on the side of humanity, it is this guy!' One thing I learned from Amy Pascal at Sony," he muses, "is make sure your hero deserves all the credit in the world and gets none. And that is John Connor."
And in T4, John Connor is Christian Bale, arguably Hollywood's most sought-after male lead for both action and drama. The film plots John Connor's early rise as leader of the Tech-Com human resistance against Skynet after their destruction of much of humanity in a devastating nuclear holocaust. "He is extremely focused," says McG of the Batman franchise star. "He is deeply in tune with his instrument. He diets judiciously. He is very methodical and well prepared. He asks a great many questions. We work on the script day and night."
But the film is not exclusively centered on John Connor. Much screen time will be dedicated to developing the parallel history of Marcus Wright, a member of the resistance who befriends Connor but who is later revealed to be a decommissioned Terminator. Wright has no memory of his past: his earliest recollection is of being on death row. It is up to Connor to figure out if Wright, who did not figure in the prophecy handed down to him by his mother, is someone from the past or perhaps sent from the future.
For the role of Marcus Wright, McG picked little known Australian actor Sam Worthington, who first drew the attention of international critics for his nuanced performance in the indie flick Somersault. That led to other roles and eventually the coveted male lead in James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar. Cameron, who directed the first two Terminator films, vetted Worthington as the ideal choice for Marcus Wright, but the main recommendation came from a fellow actor from Down Under.
"I just wanted a guy who you could hit with a shovel and it would look like he could shake it off," says McG, "I find that a great many of today's young male actors are pussies. They are waify, and they are all sort of heroin chic. Sam is a fundamentally tough guy from Western Australia. He's a no-tears kind of guy. Truthfully, it was an email I got from Russell Crowe that said, 'You won't be sorry if you cast this guy.'"
For Worthington, the movie is about beginnings: "How did John Connor become John Connor? In this one he is not the general, the leader as such, as yet. He is working his way up the ranks. How did Kyle Reese become Kyle Reese, the Michael Biehn that we know from the first one?" Worthington was sent the script and wanted to play the role but was cautious about stepping into a franchise that had been created by the director that had just cast him in his biggest movie role to date, by the man who will make him a star of the future. "I wanted [Jim's] blessing to be honest, getting into something as big as this and after working with him for so long. It is his baby. I did not want to do it if it were a crap move."
The weight of taking on the mantle to continue one of the most successful and beloved sci-fi series in cinema history is not lost on Worthington: "It's a big thing. The movie has got a lot of history, and a lot of people love it. You just don't want to fuck it up, to be honest. So that is what keeps going on in my head... We hound McG all the time to try and get this story right because you read all about [if there] should be another one. What is the point of us making another one? We've got The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Why are we doing T4? So, what do we want to say? Yeah, it is a big popcorn movie, but what are we trying to say on a deeper level?"
Aside from the pressures of living up to the past and communicating the sociopolitical message of the film, the sheer physicality of the part is also taxing. "We have torn many muscles," says Worthington. "I was doing a fight scene. The guy was a dead weight, and as I pulled him off I just tore all my intercostal muscles. But you just pump yourself full of painkillers and keep going. Then get another bruise and worry about that."
The new installment in the series will be the first not to star Arnold Schwarzenegger or Linda Hamilton, although the director does hint that the now Governor of California may have a "special appearance" in the picture. McG, who says he spoke with Schwarzenegger about the Terminator character, says he was "very supportive" of T4. But, jokes McG, "He was mad at us for not shooting in California!"