By Tim Pelan
James Cameron’s spy thriller/comedy True Lies (1994) came along at a time when the James Bond series was in hiatus. EON’s parent company Danjaq and MGM/UA’s new owner Qintex were in dispute, forcing a six-year break until Goldeneye, and a new actor in the role. The last entry at the time, 1989’s Licence to Kill starring Timothy Dalton, whilst currently enjoying a renaissance amongst Bond aficionados (it made Empire magazine’s no. 3 spot in the July 2019 issue “The Ranking” feature) was an anomaly back then—more “Lethal Weapon” than “shaken, not stirred.” Even the score by Michael Kamen screamed to be let out of the formulaic straightjacket. “One critic complained that it was no longer a film six-year-olds could go to,” Dalton told Nick de Semlyen for the June 2012 issue of Empire. “Well, Bond movies, when they opened in the ’60s, were not for six-year-olds. They were grown-up adventures.” You could say James Cameron took that thought and ran with it—after Arnold Schwarzenegger brought 1991 French spy farce La Totale! to his attention, they set about making an American James Bond, with the notion, “[Arnold] was dealing with [the idea] of, ‘I’m a husband and I’m a father, but I’m also this icon of masculinity.’ He related to it as, ‘What if James Bond had to go home to his wife and family?’” And what if that “icon of masculinity” was tortured by mistaken cuckolded pride, creepily surveilling his wife and unwittingly drawing her into his secret R-rated world of danger, glamour and blood bagged thrills?
It was a time when big dumb action movies could be just that, before the shadow of 9-11 (it memorably has Curtis and Arnie kiss after their travails whilst a nuclear explosion far out to sea mushrooms behind them). There was certainly a lull of a few years before wholesale citywide destruction became the norm again. And I guess back then the arguably misogynistic sub-plot (hey, it came from a French farce, it must be sophisticated, right?) and the non-specific Arab antagonists (just to be sure we’re not offending anyone, Arnie’s side-kick twice removed Faisal, played by Grant Heslov, is also Arabic) were short cuts to the comedy and action beats. There was no room for nuance when you have your star (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Omega agent Harry Tasker) piloting a Harrier jump jet beneath a dangling daughter-in-peril and launching Art Malik’s bad guy Salim Abu Aziz through a building entangled on a missile, blowing up a chopper full of henchmen on the other side of the building, whilst quipping, “You’re fired.”
That makes it sound as if any appreciation of True Lies has to be half-hearted. And for sure, it has its problems and taint of #MeToo legacy abuse. It is too long, especially that sub-plot with Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), Harry Tasker’s wife being manipulated by him. The scene where a shadowed and voice disguised Harry (How can she not know it’s him?) asks her to dance sexily for him is saved by Curtis’ great comedic chops. When Helen slips and falls, an opportune accidental ad-lib from Curtis, she picks herself up like nothing happened, and our laughter breaks the tension. Arnold the actor, and Harry the husband, instinctively lean forward to help her, then stop when she carries on. Helen does stand up to disguised Harry during interrogation and, albeit clumsily, earns her Omega stripes in the climactic takedown. Also, talk of the film has been overshadowed by the recent horrible revelation by then child star Eliza Dushku (Harry’s daughter Dana) of sexual assault during filming. Thankfully Cameron and his stars came out squarely in support of Dushku.
But if one can look back at True Lies with a detached view, does it hold up as an action-adventure? I feel it does. When John Wick Parabellum rips you off (the horse and motorbike chase), and Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout rest room rumpus seeks to top yours, where Harry bashes a bad guy’s head with an electric hand dryer, smashes someone face—first into a urinal, and dodges AK-47 fire in toilet stalls, you know you’ve still got it. Arnie’s Harry Tasker is an agent of OMEGA, run by the Nick Fury-esque Director Trilby (played by Charlton Heston, the only actor Cameron thought could intimidate Arnie). He leads a double life as a boring “computer salesman,” always traveling to “conferences,” to protect and fool his friends and family. However, when Harry begins to suspect his wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) is having an affair with the mysterious “Simon” (Bill Paxton as an oily used car salesman conversely pretending to be a spy and seducing a gullible Helen, tired of Harry’s neglect, into helping him in his “cover”), this preoccupation threatens to overshadow his focus on his current mission to stop a terrorist arms dealer, Malik’s Aziz, from detonating a nuclear weapon in the Florida Keys. Throughout, Harry’s main man, Albert ‘Gib’ Gibson (Tom Arnold), quips and equips him with the gadgets and headspace to complete the task at hand (“I thought it was something serious!”). It says something when Tom Arnold isn’t the most annoying thing in your film—he’s actually quite good in this. His relaying of his own character’s divorce woes was inspired by his actual divorce from Roseanne Barr—“She took the ice cube trays! What kind of sick bitch takes the ice cube trays?” My favorite moment of his is when he takes cover in a street shootout behind a thin pole, bullets sparking off it all around his clearly visible frame.
Harry ticks all the Bond boxes in the opening set-up, a black-tie event at a typical movie villain’s palatial shindig, armed goons patrolling the grounds. Arnie wears a tux and does the tango with Tia Carrere’s Juno Skinner, a femme fatale frontwoman for the villains’ plan to smuggle a nuke into America via various antiquities. “I sent [Arnold] the script,” Cameron told Yahoo Entertainment, “and in the margin I put an arrow next to the tango and wrote, ‘This is your most dangerous stunt.’ I think he took it to heart, because he did learn how to tango!” (We mostly seem him from the upper torso though—Carrere does all the fancy flicks and kicks.) When he has to make like an oak and leave, the action rivals any James Bond gags, Harry sliding backwards down a snowy slope, plugging guards on snowmobiles, also clapping two guard dogs’ heads together and stunning them (“Stay.”).
True Lies is actually a wonderful marriage of stunts with seamless digital compositing, practical on location mock-ups, miniatures, and subtle use of early CG effects. The long shot of the villain’s lakeside chateau beneath the Swiss Alps is a digital composite, blending a mansion from Newport, Rhode Island, water shot in Nevada, and a digital matte painting of the Alps. The compositing was done by Digital Domain, an effects house created by James Cameron. The shot is richly saturated with color and unnaturally brightly illuminated across the Alps, lake, and chateau. Kevin Mack, a visual effects supervisor for Digital Domain on the film, knew that “movie magic” would look better than a real photographic exposure of the scene. “If a photographer exposed for the lights in the chateau, the Alps would film too dark, and, conversely, if one exposed for the Alps in, say, bright moonlight, the lights in the chateau would burn out. The chateau and the Alps could not be lit so they’d both expose as brightly as they do in the image.” The painted light effects in the shot are a very subtle digital manipulation. Nights were one of the things that swung it for Cameron’s choice of DoP on True Lies, Russell Carpenter—the film was a big step up for him. The director recalled to American Cinematographer, “I remember liking his nights. Some cinematographers say nights need to be dark. I believe you use cues like color temperature to show that it’s night, but you open it up and see into the shadows. That was Russ’ instinct as well. I looked at some of his films and saw a lot of nice photography, and it just made sense.”
Digital Domain was described by Cinefex back then in its 59th issue feature on the film as a “start-up” company. The film contained a mere 100 digital and traditional visual effects shots. Today Digital Domain is a major player in the effects field, completing some 3000 shots in Avengers: Endgame. In True Lies Jamie Lee Curtis was persuaded to hang from a helicopter after transferring from the sunroof of a limo over the Seven Mile Bridge in Florida on her birthday—she asked her director where he would be during all of this. Cameron replied, “Hanging out the door filming you with a hand-held camera.” Challenge made, she gamely accepted. The stunt was performed when the limousine and helicopter accelerated together to a speed of 70 mph. Today most likely a stunt double would do it with a digitally composited replication of her face superimposed. The film’s visual effects team (John Bruno, Thomas L. Fisher, Jacques Stroweis and Patrick McClung) were nominated for an Academy Award for their work, beaten by Forrest Gump. The bridge was replicated in miniature form for the spectacular destruction by Harrier missile strike on the bad guys’ vehicles.
One stunt that had a hairy Harry moment was when Arnie, on horseback, chases Art Malik (or his double) on a motorbike through a ritzy hotel lobby, up a glass elevator, and out on to the roof, where Malik’s Aziz launches on the bike across the gulf of buildings into a rooftop pool. Harry attempts to do the same with the police horse before it gets cold feet and stops dead at the roof’s edge, sending Harry flying over its neck and gently bidding it to back up whilst he grips the reins for dear life. In actuality, the horse got spooked by a camera boom and started rearing up near the edge of a very steep drop. Arnold managed to slip off the horse in time, and a stunt man pulled him to safety.
Cameron’s legendary pushing of the envelope as usual extended to the average workday on the shoot. Again, according to American Cinematographer, “The shoot’s logistical demands would have tested Patton himself, and call sheets often resembled inventories for a second invasion of Normandy (‘When you see Harrier jets and helicopters listed under ‘equipment,’ you know it’s going to be a tough day,’ Carpenter (the DoP) chuckles).” Cameron loves his filming as war metaphors. At one point the Florida shoot took 12 straight days without a break. “The Florida shoot was probably our low point,” Cameron recalled, “because it was right before Christmas and everybody wanted to go home for the holiday. It was absolute, flat-out, turbo-charged filmmaking. We all flew back together, and it was like coming back from a war. But in January, everybody came back to work with this weird feeling of being the platoon that had been through hell and survived. There was a sense of bonding, and the shoot was cake from that point on.”
The spectacular climax of the movie is the aforementioned Harrier sequence, where Harry commandeers the VTOL jet to rescue Dana from the pursuing Aziz across a high rise rooftop crane arm, eliminating the bad guys and gently descending with his plucky daughter grasping the fuselage. A lot of elements married together here. A 47-foot replica of a Harrier jet was made with fiberglass material and fixed to a metal frame, then mounted on a motion control platform. The platform simulated the moves of the jet and could turn a 60-degree angle in any direction, as directed by computer. Oh by the way—this was actually on top of the 30-story building to capture real-world lighting and atmospheric effects. The pre-programmed movements gave Cameron freedom to focus on his actors’ performances. Green screen in a safer studio environment (actually a converted aircraft hanger) was used for riskier moves, such as Malik leaping from the crane to the plane. The green screen studio shots were necessary for any shots looking below the aircraft. The motion control rig was moved wholesale indoors for these, and VFX shots added the landscape below. Once the actors had done their bit, the VFX artists started adding the backplates, and heat ripple effects to the VTOL jets.
The craftiest effect though is when the Harrier lands. ILM VFX artist Todd Vaziri often posts entertaining and illuminating VFX threads on Twitter, and has his own blog post as well. Here he discusses the Harrier descent, and how it doesn’t cheat the audience:
“If I were in charge, I’d create a Visual Effects Hall of Fame, an early inductee would be this shot from True Lies (1994). The denouement of an enormous, spectacle-filled action scene is deceptively simple—a classic ‘you think you know what you’re seeing but you don’t.’
In context: we’ve just been through an outrageous action sequence involving a Harrier jet, a crane at the top of a skyscraper and missiles. Lots of quick cutting, action and chaos. After all the havoc, a 19-second long shot of our heroes landing on the ground is a welcome relief.
The shot design: a fancy fighter jet is landing with the camera at a safe distance, slowly dollying forward. The camera move is modest. There’s nothing obvious to subconsciously telegraph to the audience that there are any camera tricks or visual effects used in the shot.
The shot continues: the heat ripple and flying debris feel natural and not over the top. The police car in the foreground physically shields us from the jet, giving us a slight sense of security, even when the jet bumps into it. Again, the camera is being conservative… until the jet lands. The audience is fully expecting a cut to a close-up of Schwarzenegger emerging from the cockpit (rather than revealing the real pilot), but it doesn’t cut. The camera moves closer to reveal Schwarzenegger was in the cockpit the whole time.
Arnold sat in the cockpit of a 7,000 lb fake Harrier jet constructed by the production, which was lowered via a single cable attached to a crane. That’s really Schwarzenegger and Eliza Dushku in the shot. The bump of the police car adds fantastic verisimilitude.
The wire was erased digitally, and the spinning turbines are *not* CG, but are tracked footage of a real Harrier intake.”
True Lies indeed!
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: James Cameron’s screenplay for True Lies [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. For those interested, you can see a 35mm print in NYC Friday, January 3—Saturday, January 4, 2020. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Iron Jim, by John H. Richardson, from Premiere Magazine, August 1994.
By February the town was starting to talk—James Cameron was at it again. When he made The Abyss he went over budget and over schedule, missing his release date by four weeks. When he made Terminator 2: Judgment Day he broke budget records and kept three editors working frantically to make a July 1 release. This time he wasn’t just pushing the envelope—he was ripping it to shreds, he was vaporizing it. He’d been shooting True Lies for five months and counting. Word around town put the budget at $120 million. “They say he’s totally out of his mind,” said one rival filmmaker, “spending more money than anybody ever spent in the history of man.”
With Cameron anything is possible. Fired from his first film, he broke into the editing room and cut the film back to his original vision. That was before the runaway success of the two Terminators and Aliens gave him imperial power. Nowadays he directs his crew through a bank of speakers pitched to concert volume: “That’s exactly what I don’t want,” he booms. If they mess up, he says, “That’s okay, I’ve worked with children before.” The crews respond by printing up T-shirts with semi-jokey slogans: “You can’t scare me—I work for Jim Cameron.” And when it comes to showdowns with movie studios, Cameron is a master. T2 co-producer B. J. Rack recalls the first screening they held for executives of Carolco Pictures: “Jim was mixing the soundtrack, and I had a bad feeling—I said, Are you going to be ready?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah’—and he made them wait. Until 4 A.M. The audacity! And they waited—they were sleeping on the floor.”
But reports from the True Lies set were full of superlatives. Cameron had reinvented special effects on The Abyss and T2. Now, armed with his own personal computer-effects studio, Digital Domain, he was once again creating—in the words of editor Mark Goldblatt—“eyepopping, mind-blowing visuals.” He was shooting a Harrier jet attack on a Miami high-rise that looked so real even Marine pilots wouldn’t be able to tell the hardware from the software. And there was a chase scene on Florida’s Seven-Mile Bridge that made the stuff in The French Connection look like bumper cars. “It’s a huge movie,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, once again Cameron’s star. “It’s T2-type of action, but even more creative—things you’ve never seen before.”
The production was immense—the head of the studios in Santa Clarita where True Lies was partly shot said Cameron probably picked a facility thirty miles outside of L.A. because no studio in the city had enough parking. Cameron’s traveling circus was dogged by protests from Florida to Rhode Island. In Newport the city council had to call a special vote to grant True Lies an exemption from the city’s noise code. Local activist Maureen O’Neil complained to the press, “I don’t particularly want my neighborhood simulating Sarajevo.”
But all of the whispers, even the nastiest, were tinged with awe. The studio behind Wyatt Earp was intimidated enough to change its release date and leave a little space between the western and True Lies, even with Kevin Costner playing Earp. As one envious young producer put it: “They say it’s going to be the Holy Grail of action pictures.”
James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Canada, a town just north of Niagara Falls. His father was an electrical engineer who worked for a paper mill. He was a strict disciplinarian and Cameron grew up hating to be told what to do, so he became a master builder and told otherkids what to do. They constructed rafts, slot cars, go-carts, rockets, forts, boats, a catapult that hurled boulders so large they made craters when they landed. On one occasion they built a submersible “sea lab” and sent mice deep under the Niagara River. When a neighbor stole some of Jim’s toys, Jim and his brother, Mike, sawed through the branches that held up his tree house. Hospitalization was required.
Cameron’s mother was an artist and encouraged him to paint; she helped get his work shown in a local gallery when he was a teenager. His mother inspired the sympathy for independent women that marks all of Cameron’s work. “I always felt this frustration that she was chained to the house by the kids,” he says.
When he was around fifteen, Cameron saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I saw it ten times because I couldn’t comprehend how they did that stuff,” he says. He started building models and experimenting with 16mm film. At night he would lie in bed, listen to “really bad music,” and visualize space battles. After a stint at Fullerton College (“I didn’t know if I wanted to be a scientist or an artist”), in California, he dropped out and married a waitress. He drove a truck for the local school district and lived in a little house with a yappy little dog.
Then he saw Star Wars. “I was pissed off,” he recalls. “I wanted to make that movie. That’s when I got busy.” Really busy. He haunted the USC library, reading doctoral dissertations on optical printing, front projection, and rear projection. “All I was interested in was visual effects,” he says. “I didn’t know who Humphrey Bogart was.” He started buying lenses and taking them apart to find out how they worked. He built his own dolly track, fooled around with beam splitters—all in the living room of his little suburban house. “My wife thought I was crazy,” he says. “The guy who used to like to smoke dope and go to the river and drink beer and drive fast cars, all of a sudden had gone psychotic on her. She was afraid of me.”
Armed with some models he had made with the help of two friends, Cameron obtained an interview at Roger Corman’s New World Films: “I figured I’d get in there and then I’d spread like a virus.” Which is exactly what happened. “Three weeks after I started I had my own department, I was hiring people,” Cameron recalls. “And everybody else that worked there just hated me.”
After about two years with Corman, Cameron got his first shot at directing. The movie was Piranha II: The Spawning. He arrived on the set in Jamaica to find a crew that only spoke Italian and a production so poorly prepared and underfinanced that there wasn’t even a costume for one of the stars, Lance Henriksen. At dinner one night, he and Henriksen bought the uniform right off their waiter. To make sure there were enough rubber piranhas, Cameron stayed up late every night making them himself. “I remember thinking, Who is this guy?” Henriksen recalls.
Cameron found himself under constant attack by the film’s principal producer, an Italian named Ovidio G. Assonitis. He refused to show the director dailies but told him, “‘It’s shit, nothing cuts,’” Cameron says. Cameron kept brooding about the film. Was it true the footage didn’t cut? Finally he flew to Rome and confronted Assonitis in his office. According to Cameron, “He sat behind the desk with a letter opener in his hand, like he was afraid I was going to jump over the desk.” (Assonitis could not be reached for comment.)
That night, Cameron went back and used a credit card to break into the editing room. “So here I am,” he recalls. “I’m looking at all these boxes and I see the word fine, which is Italian for ‘end,’ so I figure these must be the trims. I teach myself how to run the Cinemonta, which is their version of KEM, and I just start recutting the picture.” He went back night after night, until the film was the way he wanted it. Ultimately, Cameron took away a lesson he would never forget: “It made me mistrustful of other people who have creative power on a film,” he says. “Very mistrustful.”
And that’s when Jim Cameron started to become Jim Cameron. Alone in Rome, feeling “pissed off and alienated” and so broke he survived by stealing complimentary breakfast rolls left on trays in the hallways of his hotel, he got sick with the flu. He had been playing with an idea about a robot hit man from the future. Now, waking one night from a fever dream, he saw him, like a snapshot. Later he “drew a sketch of half a Terminator, which looked very much like the final one, crawling after a girl who was injured and couldn’t get up and run,” Cameron says. “He had a kitchen knife and he pulled himself over the floor with it, dragging his broken arm. I thought that was a really horrific image.”
When he got back to L.A., Cameron told his agent his idea about a robot hit man. The agent said, “Bad idea, bad idea. Do something else.” Instead he fired the agent. He began writing. Wisely, he anchored the sci-fi with human details taken from his own life. He gave his heroine, eventually played by Linda Hamilton, his first wife’s job, turning the Bob’s Big Boy where she had worked into Bob’s Big Buns, and later even cast her yappy little dog. When the script was finished he sold Gale Anne Hurd the rights for one dollar—and the promise that she would never let anyone else direct it.
The Terminator—with Cameron attached to direct—was turned down by all the major studios. Finally, when John Daly’s Hemdale got interested, Cameron talked Henriksen into pitching the project in costume. “I went to Hemdale with gold foil from a Vantage pack over my teeth and a cut on my head, and kicked the door open,” Henriksen says. Daly bit, captured by “the script, the drawings, and by Jim’s complete passion for the project,” he says. Orion Pictures bought the distribution rights. At first, Cameron focused on finding someone to play Kyle Reese, the good guy who crosses time to save the world. “The Terminator was not given much attention,” says Daly. “He was just a robot.” Then Orion executive Mike Medavoy ran into Arnold Schwarzenegger at a party. “He told me about The Terminator and said it didn’t have a leading man, so I read the script with that in mind,” Schwarzenegger remembers. Cameron was skeptical. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll meet him,’” says actor Michael Biehn, who was eventually cast as Reese, “but if you have Arnold play Reese you’re going to need King Kong for the Terminator.”
When they met, Schwarzenegger and Cameron hit it off. Schwarzenegger kept drifting back to the Terminator. “I kept saying he had to be able to change the weapons blindfolded, and shoot without blinking his eyes, and how he should walk and look with his head tilted forward,” says Schwarzenegger. “Then Jim said, ‘You should play the Terminator.’ I was, ‘Oh, I came for the other thing.’” Cameron whipped out a pencil and started drawing. Schwarzenegger was impressed: “You could almost act off the drawing—the coldness of the character.”
All of his friends and advisers told Schwarzenegger not to do it, the conventional wisdom being that it was career suicide to play a villain. Finally, Schwarzenegger decided to ignore his advisers. “I ended up thinking, I’ll give it a shot, because this is so well written and the guy is so determined.”
But Schwarzenegger had a commitment to do Conan the Destroyer and wouldn’t be free for four months. So Cameron signed on to write Rambo: First Blood Part II and Aliens simultaneously—while also doing rewrites of The Terminator. With a calculator, he divided the amount of time he had by the number of pages he had to write and spent the next four months jumping between three different desks, putting on different music for each script. When he wasn’t writing, he was prepping The Terminator, happily showing off his plans to everyone involved. “He was almost childlike,” Biehn says, “like a kid in a candy store.”
The Terminator began shooting in February 1984. Cameron arrived on the set with the confidence of a seasoned pro. “He was like an encyclopedia of technology, and if a shot was a half inch off the way he visualized it, he would go crazy,” Schwarzenegger recalls. But he wasn’t just a gearhead; he won over the actors by giving them room to work. And he surprised everyone by demonstrating the stunts himself: “He would show it to you without any padding,” Schwarzenegger says. “He was totally mad.” One thing about Cameron was… different: He could be unusually blunt, especially about the kiss-ass culture of Hollywood. Mess with him and he’d saw off the branches under your tree house. “He’s not the kind of guy who will try to say things in a diplomatic way,” Schwarzenegger says. “If you do something right, he’ll say it was disastrous but probably a human being could do no better. If he was dealing with machines, they could do better. So you walk away going, ‘I guess he likes it.’”
Shortly before the movie was to be released, Cameron became disheartened by Orion’s attitude; in fact, he says the studio was outright dismissive. “The guy from Orion says, ‘When you have a down-and-dirty action thriller like this, it usually plays for two weeks—it usually drops by 50 percent the second weekend, and is gone by the third week,’” he recalls. Even after the picture opened at number one and got surprisingly good reviews, Cameron asserts, Orion refused to support it with a beefed-up ad campaign. “They treated me like a piece of dogshit,” Cameron says.
When The Terminator was in the theaters, another blow came from an unexpected quarter: Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison threatened to sue, claiming The Terminator had ripped off two episodes of The Outer Limits that he’d written, “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand,” as well as “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” an award-winning short story. Their plots concerned robots, time travel, altering the past to save humanity from a holocaust, and a future world where “machines are born to kill.” Gagged for many years by a secrecy clause, Ellison is now speaking about it for the first rime: “He got all my best stuff, but the wonderful thing is, he combined it in a new, fresh, and interesting way. I would have been very flattered—all he had to do was get on the phone.” Over Cameron’s objections—time travel and robots are common sci-fi themes, he says—Hemdale and Orion gave Ellison an “acknowledgment to the works of” credit and a cash settlement, telling Cameron that if he wanted to fight they’d back him. But if Ellison won, they’d sue Cameron. The director is still bitter: “I could’ve risked getting wiped out or I could let the guy have his fucking credit.”
But Cameron had made a classic. Schwarzenegger’s “steel reaper” is as compelling as a nightmare, and the love story between Biehn and Hamilton made it surprisingly popular with women. The film also displays a devilish wit unusual for an action film. Consider the scene, for example, in which the Terminator goes Un Chien Andalou one better by carving out part of his damaged eye—and then reaches up to fluff his hair. The result: The Terminator never stopped, gaining cult status on video and TV. “No matter what picture I did after that,” Schwarzenegger says, “people would say, ‘When are you going to do another Terminator?’”
Between pictures, Cameron played—and played hard. He went diving, flying, ballooning, anything that put a little space or speed between him and the ground. Everyone who knows Cameron has a story about him and fast cars. “I go to Jim’s party in my brand-new Acura NSX, and Jim looks at me and says, Nice car,’” says Henriksen. “When Jim says, ‘Nice car,’ that’s a challenge. So I said, ‘Jim, why don’t you take it for a spin?’ Jim takes it out for ten minutes, and when he comes back all the rubber on my back tires is gone.”
Fast planes are good too. Actor Bill Paxton tells of a time Cameron, shooting a video, lashed a camera to the wings of an ultralight plane, undid his seat belt to get a better grip, and pointed the plane straight down. “He goes into a three-thousand-foot dive and drops to three feet off the deck,” recalls Paxton. “I go, ‘My God, another couple of feet…’ “If you’re going to hang out with Jim,” he adds, “you better have your life insurance.”
And then, of course, there are the women. After working with her on a professional basis for four years, Cameron took Hurd for an evening at the Charthouse, in Malibu. Add beach and moonlight, and the working relationship became a romance—with a Cameronian twist, iron-man dates: “We went off-road on a four-wheel drive,” says Hurd, “took the hot-air balloon out, and a huge wind came up, and we ended up crash-landing. We went horseback riding, ice skating, we shot AK-47s out in the desert.” And that was all in one weekend. As the romance ripened, Cameron and Hurd would race each other to meetings, Hurd in her Porsche and Cameron in his new Corvette (purchased with his Terminator fee), talking on cellular phones and playing one of Cameron’s favorite games, ditch-’em. One day she’d try to shake him, the next he’d fly to shake her. “We’d be smoking down the freeway at 120 miles an hour,” Cameron says, “talking the whole time like nothing was happening.”
Later, Cameron would divorce Hurd and marry Kathryn Bigelow, director of Near Dark and Point Break and then divorce her and move in with Linda Hamilton—all formidable women much like the machaheroines of his movies. The director explains his string of wives by saying he picks women who don’t need him, so naturally one day they realize they don’t need him. Hurd says that when she was going through troubles, Cameron just gave her too much damn space. “He’s tough,” explains Mike Cameron, “and toughest on the people he cares about the most.” Cameron’s next two movies, Aliens and The Abyss, established his reputation as both a brilliant world-class director and a potentially out-of-control visionary-crackpot. With Aliens he started thinking really big. “I had been on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so I thought I’d seen the biggest set ever built,” says Henriksen. “Then I got to Aliens.”
The film provided Cameron with plenty of opportunities to hone his fighting skills. To begin with, Twentieth Century Fox didn’t want Hurd to produce Aliens. In one meeting, she recalls, “they basically said, ‘How can a little girl like you do a big movie like this?’” They won that battle and set off for England, where they had to contend with a scornful British crew that was convinced it was working on a crappy sequel to a great (British-directed) thriller. Cameron fired his cinematographer early on and Hurd threatened to fire others when a mutiny surfaced. The crew took to calling Cameron Grizzly Adams, and tea breaks were taken with metronomic regularity.
Fox wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the project—the studio thought its summer hit was going to be SpaceCamp. Instead, Aliens made $83 million and established Cameron as a hot director. It also showed a mind at work, with thematic passion and a mordant sense of humor (listen closely at the end of the credit roll for the slurp of that baby facehugger). Clearly, Cameron wasn’t just doing time on Planet Action—he wanted it all, and art too.
But it was The Abyss—which Cameroids call, probably accurately, the toughest shoot in film history—that showed just how obsessed Cameron really is. Inspired by a recurring nightmare of a vast wave rolling unstoppably toward shore, it is a wildly ambitious story that ranges from the troubled love of a man and woman to the nature of humanity and war, expressed through some of the most pregnant nautical metaphors since Herman Melville.
But the genius of The Abyss isn’t so much what’s onscreen (which is, alas, flawed) but what it took to get it there. With just four months of preproduction, Cameron and Hurd faced the task of building the largest underwater set ever constructed, a set so huge each section of it weighed forty tons. They found an abandoned nuclear plant and filled its two containment units with a total of 10 million gallons of water, designed a filtration system to keep the water clear, craned in a tarpaulin big enough to keep the water dark, and then began inventing underwater filming equipment. With Mike, who had spent the past fourteen years as an aeronautical engineer, Cameron worked on deciding what they needed for the “talking helmets,” farmed the assignment out, and turned to developing a “diver propulsion vehicle” for the cameras that eliminated the need for underwater cranes and dolly tracks. The Sea Wasp DPV earned the brothers the first of five patents they have been awarded so far on technical film equipment. They come up with ideas in the following way, Mike says: Jim dreams up his shot, figures out what he needs to execute it, then finds out if the thing exists. If it doesn’t, he tells Mike to make it. And when his brother says that from an engineering standpoint it can’t be done, “Jim says, ‘Don’t use the word engineer around me ever again.’”
The DPV done, Cameron decided to reinvent special effects, turning to Industrial Light & Magic to help create the “pseudopod” water creature; the effect took eight months to produce, but the process gave ILM a huge jump on the use of computer graphics for film, making movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day possible. Cameron wrote the script so that if the effect didn’t work, he could cut the movie without it. Filming underwater proved to be incredibly arduous. The water was so highly chlorinated that it burned skin and turned hair white. Even the mundane details were complicated—how does a script supervisor work underwater? (By covering each page in plastic.) How do you take a bathroom break underwater? (By peeing right in your wet suit.) The actors were stretched to the breaking point. When the camera ran out of film in the middle of her death scene, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio stormed off the set, screaming, “We are not animals!” Ed Harris tells (in The Abyss’s fascinating laserdisc special edition) of a day so hard, he burst into tears on the drive home. Neither actor would return calls for this story.
It was on The Abyss that Cameron began to get a reputation for abusing his crews. One crew member, who asked to remain anonymous, says: “He just has this tunnel vision to get what he wants done. His crew gets battered and he doesn’t care.” Cameron loyalists—and there are many—cope through black humor. “One of the Jim jokes on The Abyss,” says crew member Ed Marsh, “was, ‘I’m letting you breathe, what more do you want?’”
Cameron admits that he’s “very, very hard” on his crews—and he doesn’t apologize a bit. “If an NFL coach didn’t browbeat the guys and say, ‘You fucked up and you didn’t do this’… I mean, it’s perfectly acceptable in sports that mistakes and laziness should not be tolerated. If you’re working on a big movie, it must imply that you’re the best—you presented yourself as a varsity athlete. So fucking be one. That’s my philosophy.” Asked if he fires many people, Cameron gives a dry laugh. “I would never do anything as merciful as firing someone. For fucking up, you have to stay till the end.”
Cameron’s friends all talk about this side of him, alternately worrying over it and excusing it. They say that Cameron gets frustrated because he can do every job on a movie set better than anyone working for him. They say that he’s so passionate about his films that sometimes, when the budget simply can’t accept a shot he wants, he pays for it out of his own pocket. And they all say that no one works harder than Cameron himself—at least three people have described how, after a long day underwater, Cameron was required to spend an hour decompressing, and he would hang upside down to relieve the strain of the helmet and watch dailies underwater on a video monitor. (Paxton says that by the time the actor visited the Abyss set, Cameron had figured out how he could push the limits of the Navy dive tables and spend less time decompressing.) What’s striking, ultimately, is how tender and defensive people are about him. Mike Cameron probably puts it best: “I’ve been the recipient of a lot of his derogatory remarks, and it does hurt your feelings. But he really is a bighearted guy. The people who are close to him know that, and they just kind of tolerate the viciousness.” Maybe the reason they are so willing to forgive is that, as everyone says, Cameron’s furies are never personal. “His movies have an ego, and you don’t fuck with his movies,” says Biehn, “but hedoesn’t have an ego. When he throws a tantrum, it’s almost like the movie is throwing a tantrum.”
Despite all the tension, Cameron still took time for his brand of fun. One person said he raced his Corvette around the underwater tank, though Cameron’s response to this anecdote was, “Not true, but a good idea.” However, there’s no doubt he continued his lifelong avocation of torturing his little brother—in this case, casting him as a drowned corpse. According to Mike, “He said, ‘You’re going to go down twenty-five feet, you’re going to open your eyes because dead men don’t close their eyes, we’re going to put a live crab in your mouth, and when it’s time to shoot we’ll tell you “Action” and you let the crab out of your mouth.’” They did five takes. “Two times, I had to crush the crab because Jim was taking too long setting the lights. I’m sure it was a sheer delight for him.”
After a frantic postproduction and many fights with the studio, The Abyss ended up a case of too much too late. Its biggest problem was the ending—or, rather, the endings. There were at least three, each more extreme than the previous one, until it practically exploded with its own ambition, and all the really great stuff—the magical pseudopod, the unbelievably intense love-death sequence, Ed Harris’s powerful final descent—was snuffed out by a burst of Message. In the end, The Abyss made only $54 million and got mixed to negative reviews. Hollywood snickered.
Seven years after the release of The Terminator, it was finally time to make T2. Cameron had been toying with the idea almost since the first movie wrapped. “Arnold and I were talking about making another picture,” says Cameron. “I said, Well, I’m not going to make the same film. You’re going to be a good guy.’ He thought it was kind of a wacky idea, but he liked it.” Cameron had also dreamed up the shape-shifter idea for the T-1000, but it hadn’t been technically possible until The Abyss. The real problem was making the deal—there was bad blood between Schwarzenegger and Hemdale’s John Daly. Ultimately, Hemdale got into financial trouble at the same time that Carolco’s high-rolling Mario Kassar was pursuing Schwarzenegger. “I said [to Kassar], Hemdale has no money,’” Schwarzenegger recalls. “‘Go for it right now, and we’ll do it [for Carolco].’” Once the deal was in place, Cameron sat down and started writing.
Again the scope of the film was vast—for the night-freeway chase scene, the production was caught short when its cabling was stolen and had to rent every electrical cable it could get its hands on to light four miles of freeway. The T-1000 effect cost $5.5 million and took eight months of work for three and a half minutes of screen time. Despite the tech-heavy nature of the movie, Cameron hit the set determined to get the acting just right. Schwarzenegger says, “He worked harder on the different emotions, talked us through it more, insisted on rehearsing.” But he was still doing whatever it took to get the shot he wanted. For the scene in which a helicopter flies below an underpass, Cameron felt that the shot had to be done twice to get both forward and rear angles.
But the budget—which reportedly started in the $70 million range—was soaring. Carolco executives called Schwarzenegger for help. “They said, ‘We hope we have your support.’ I would say, ‘There’s no way.’” One of the sequences Carolco wanted cut, Schwarzenegger says, was the roadhouse scene, in which his character gets introduced. “Only a studio guy would cut a scene like that out.”
Meanwhile, Cameron and Carolco fought over the ending. Cameron’s ending (which can be seen on one version of the laserdisc) puts Hamilton in age makeup many years in the future. Carolco demanded a screening, and, as Kassar flew to George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in a helicopter through a storm, Cameron started the screening without him. Afterward he snatched up the preview cards and refused to show them to Kassar. But the viewers all said the same thing: Lose the ending. Finally, Cameron relented, and the existing ending was added. The result, of course, was one of the biggest hits of all time, a commercial and artistic success.
Like the others, T2 spawned its own crew T-shirt: TERMINATOR 3–NOT WITH ME. After T2, Cameron put together a $500 million deal that would give him total power over his films, even ownership of the negative. He also started a company called Digital Domain, based on an idea he got driving in his car—it would “domesticate the highfalutin digital effect,” so that even realism-oriented filmmakers could use it. If you wanted a house in the middle of a cornfield, you could grow the corn right in the computer. Cameron called up ILM whiz Scott Ross, who said computers couldn’t do that yet. Cameron replied: “I know. We’ll make it happen.” IBM pitched in the money, and now Digital Domain is working on Interview with the Vampire, providing miniatures, mattes, composites, morphing, and even digital enhancement of special effects makeup. Cameron was also having a baby with Linda Hamilton and working on a script for his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. Then Schwarzenegger called him up and said, “I have the picture you have to do next.”
The film Schwarzenegger had in mind was a French film called La Totale!, a comedy about a man who pretends to be a boring joe when really he’s a secret agent. The problem is, he’s done such a good job of pretending that his wife is nearly ready to leave him. Cameron liked it and wrote a script, only to find his shiny new self-financing deal freezing up when he couldn’t get any completion-bond company to insure him. After some wrangling, Fox and Cameron agreed to an acceptable budget and Fox put up more cash.
Then the studio threw out the numbers. “Once we got into the logistical problems, we knew we weren’t going to make that schedule,” says Jon Landau, Fox’s senior vice-president of feature production. The actors were prepared. “When you make a deal with Jim’s company, they don’t hire you with an out date,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who signed on as Schwarzenegger’s wife. It was made very clear to me in an unspoken way that I shouldn’t be making plans for the last day of the movie.” Filming began during a heat wave last year. Working at the Santa Clarita studios, the crew started with interior scenes between Curtis and Schwarzenegger.
“[The first scene] was just two people getting ready for work, that wonderful dance that married people do, where they’re oblivious to each other,” says Curtis. For three weeks they established the relationship, shooting in a simple and linear way. Then the action started. “It’s not the ordinary scenes you see with car crashes,” says Schwarzenegger. “Imagine riding a horse through a hotel lobby and into an elevator, going up the elevator with the horse and people in tuxedos and dresses, then going on to the roof.”
And that was the easy stuff—in Miami, Cameron shot the Harrier jet. “The first time I saw that, my jaw dropped,” says Curtis. “They took a real Harrier jet and mounted it on top of a hydraulic—it looked like an upside-down spider, with all these legs moving up and down. They were up there for three weeks, with every piece of equipment—a Technocrane, a Lenny arm, a Powerpad. It’s outrageous what he did. And it went flawlessly.”
Then on to the massive limo-and-helicopter chase on Florida’s Seven-Mile Bridge, which took weeks to film. Cameron asked Curtis to perform the final stunt herself. It involved hanging from a wire under a moving helicopter a hundred feet off the water. “Will you be there?” she asked. “I’ll be shooting you,” he said. So up they went, the director acting as his own cameraman, “hanging out of the helicopter door with nothing but the Seven-Mile Bridge and lots of water and manta rays underneath him.”
As the scope of the film expanded, so did the stress. To keep things moving, Cameron ordered the troops around like Patton—via those speakers. The crew dubbed him Mr. Microphone. “People who would screw up constantly would hear about it in a very direct manner,” says Tom Arnold, who plays Schwarzenegger’s sidekick.
Occasionally, Cameron went too far even for Schwarzenegger. One day, he said that anyone who went to the bathroom could just keep walking—and he wasn’t kidding. “That’s over the top,” Schwarzenegger admits. “He would rather pee in his pants than leave the scene when things are clicking. But an electrician doesn’t feel as dedicated as he does.” But again, Cameron’s fanaticism inspired his troops. Says Schwarzenegger: “There was one thing that blew me away about the guy—there was a particular action scene that required a weapon to be fired in a very tight area. I asked Jim about it, and he said, ‘Well, we’ll find out if it’s safe.’ And he gets in this area and has the weapons guy fire it past his face a couple of times—the fact is, he has balls, man. He’ll do anything.”
Filming was endless—True Lies shot so long that Paxton worked on it for a while, went off and played the lead in another movie, and came back to shoot some more. Tia Carrere, who plays an art dealer, signed on for seven or eight weeks’ work and ended up cashing checks for seven months. “It kept going and going, like the Energizer bunny,” she says. Cameron admits to 130 shooting days, give or take a few, but add second unit and the occasional unofficial first unit and it’s anyone’s guess; the rumor is 180 days. (Cameron insists that True Lies isn’t the most expensive picture in history—Spartacus was, he says, “adjusted for today’s dollars.”) “Fox was sweating bullets, just like Mario did,” says one insider. “But what could they do? They want more pictures from him, plus the dailies were great.”
Finally, in March, Fox announces that principal photography is finished. A week later, in a small editing room in Santa Monica, Cameron watches a shot of fingers fumbling for an electronic bug. He turns to his editor. “Cut to it with the fingers already on the bug, so she’s not fumbling. If it doesn’t cut smoothly, then play with it some more.” Cameron jumps to another editing room, then another. Despite a deadline so tight that within a few days he’ll end up pushing his release date two weeks, Cameron seems relaxed, even happy. He jokes that “all my available RAM is taken up by True Lies dailies,” but he seems confident about the movie, and he has even managed to keep things going with Linda Hamilton since she moved out with their baby daughter during preproduction. “Maybe that’s what it takes,” he says. “We’re both pretty happy with the arrangement for right now. And the baby is outstanding, beautiful—total engineer.” He shows a one-sheet he came up with for True Lies—a hand grenade with a wedding ring for a firing pin. The tag line reads, “Even perfect marriages have their blow-ups.” Suddenly it all comes clear: Cameron is probably the only person in the world who can make gearhead action-romances that aren’t just sincere, they’re autobiographical.
Cameron and his editor watch Schwarzenegger in a tender moment, trying to break through his teenage daughter’s shell. “She’s very subtle,” Cameron says. “She’s listening to what he’s saying, but she’s not going to blurt out, ‘Oh, Daddy.’ That’s excellent, let’s go to Six. I like her in Four too.”
Then it’s off to dailies—yes, despite the wrap announcement, Cameron is still shooting. In a few days Schwarzenegger—already at work full-time on another movie—will quietly slip out to shoot one last scene. Maybe the last. “I called [Cameron] a perfectionist once,” says Tom Arnold. “And he said, ‘No, I’m a greatist. I only want to do it until it’s great.’”
An inside look at the making of the modern day spy classic, True Lies. This is hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis and features interviews with the cast and producer.
RUSSELL CARPENTER, ASC
When James Cameron hired Russell Carpenter, ASC to shoot the feature True Lies, it was the cinematographer’s first shot at a massive-budget, tech-heavy science-fiction project, though nobody could say Carpenter hadn’t paid his dues. Having worked his way up from low- to modestly budgeted horror films like Pet Sematary II, Critters 2, The Lawnmower Man and others, the spy thriller starring a peak-of-his-popularity Arnold Schwarzenegger was a great leap in Carpenter’s evolution. The enormous success of True Lies paved the way to Cameron and Carpenter’s feature reteaming for Titanic—which earned Carpenter the Best Cinematography Oscar—and to more than 20 features that followed, including The Negotiator; Shallow Hal; and a small Indian film called Parched, which the cinematographer is quite proud of. It’s been a long road, filled with surprising ups and downs, but to hear Carpenter and his colleagues tell it, he’s always loved the work. —Russell Carpenter, ASC: Passion for the Craft
James Cameron interview on directing (1999).
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of James Cameron’s True Lies. Photographed by Zade Rosenthal & Mark Stetson © Twentieth Century Fox, Lightstorm Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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