On June 16, 2008 I had the opportunity to visit the set of Terminator Salvation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Back then it was still called “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins” and it was also before the trailers had hit. Nobody knew much about the project and honestly, nobody was quite sure what to expect. Being a major “Terminator” fan myself, I was quite interested in seeing what they had in store for us.
In the 100-degree heat of the summer, we headed to the nearby Albuquerque Studios which was within sight of the airport. As we entered the brand new studio, I began seeing signs of Judgment Day here and there a dirty Huey helicopter hull, a dismantled Jeep, and other things. We passed a cattle trailer that was high up on a steel frame. The significance of this would become quite apparent later. We then neared the office for the production.
Signs everywhere read “Project Angel” the cover name for the project as well as the name for the program that spawns the Terminator cyborgs and Skynet in the film. We were ushered into security where we were issued visitor badges for the set visit. The badges were quite cool on their own. They had a lenticular 3-D image of a Terminator skeleton. When you turned it, a red heart, glowing eyes, and a brain were revealed. Again, “Project Angel” was emblazoned on the badge.
We were introduced to production designer Martin Laing. Laing had actually worked on many of James Cameron’s other projects including Titanic, Battle Angel and Avatar. Laing led us up an elevator to the art department. As the doors opened we were faced with a huge movie poster image of a Terminator face… but with a few minor differences from the T-800 we’re used to. This was the T-700 which was a dark silver color and it had double helixes reflecting in its eyes an important symbol as we discovered later. There was also a prominent bullet hole in the forehead on the Terminator. On the bottom was the logo of the film. I asked if this was the official movie poster and was told it was not. It was still impressive.
We were led into a conference room that was lined wall-to-wall with production art images. Every robot and vehicle in the film was shown on the wall. I did my best to take it all in as Laing spoke. He told us, “We tried to change things up a little bit in the same way that Warner Brothers took Batman and really turned the franchise on its head and made it really dark and really cool.” We saw the “Hydrobot,” a snake-like aquatic terminator that’s reminiscent of Doc Ock’s tentacles in Spider-Man 2. We saw the Hydrobot in attack mode, prowl mode, and coil attack mode. There was also an impressive image showing the Hydrobot impaling a helicopter pilot through the mouth with some sort of stabbing weapon.
Continuing to look around the room, I saw a poster showing comparisons between the various Terminator models the traditional T-800, the new T-700 (which looks almost the same, only darker and is 6′ 9″ tall), and the over 7 foot tall T-600 (the one Kyle Reese mentions is ‘easy to spot’ in the first film).
Laing told us, “So in the same way that you take your Mac Powerbook, your Mac laptop from 10 years ago and it was this thick and it has been getting smaller and smaller and smaller and thinner, it’s the same way with this world. So we’ve had to reverse engineer from the T-800 from the James Cameron movies all the way to where we are today. So it’s the same process. They still want to look like humans because they’re going out searching for the humans, trying to kill them. But in the same way that your Mac was big, it’s just too large. Then over a period of time they get smaller from the T-600 which is a huge guy who’s about 7′ 3″ all the way through to the T-700 who is 6′ 9″ and then down through Marcus into the silver guy (T-800).”
Laing continued, “As it says in the story, yes they could actually spot these guys ’cause the skin was really bad and they’re rubber faced. And even the 700′s, they weren’t a very good match. So that’s why in this movie we’re in right now they’re collecting the humans, and they’re collecting humans for their skin and their hair which is what Kyle tells Sarah Connor in Terminator 1. They’re collecting for their skin and their hair to then put on top of this T-800 to make him into the Arnold (Schwarzenegger) figure which we see later on.”
Next to this was a poster of another new character… and Terminator Marcus. We saw Marcus in various states of damage, each showing more of his endoskeleton underneath. Each level of damage had a hit associated with it claymore, missile silo, napalm, and Harvester attack. Another nearby poster showed how the skin, muscle, and organs fit on Marcus. It definitely made me wonder if we were going to see a Terminator endoskeleton covered in just muscle. Laing said, “Marcus is a hybrid.” Our host then interrupted him and said, “Can we keep the news about Marcus tight to the chest? Just talk about… he doesn’t know what he is.” Sufficiently warned, Laing continued, “Marcus doesn’t really know what he is. (laughs) Marcus goes through quite a few phases in the movie. Obviously he starts off quite clean with his black knickers on. Then he has a rendezvous with the Harvester where he has a good old fistfight on top of the Transporter. (He) gets knocked off of there so he gets very bruised. And then we go through a few other different looks of the guy towards the end of the movie. Obviously he starts off very clean, but then after being shot and chased and run through the trees and he’s been napalmed and everything, he goes through the ringer a bit but then comes out to live and fight another day. He actually has a brain and he has a heart. And he has muscles and he has skin. He can feel, he can touch, he can bleed, and he himself doesn’t actually know he’s a Terminator until two thirds of the way through the movie when it obviously becomes very apparent that he’s got metal bits underneath. But very different from the Terminators that we see (elsewhere).”
We were then introduced to a totally different addition to the Terminator world the Moto-Terminator. This is essentially a Ducati racing motorcycle decked out in black, some red lights, guns, and assorted Terminator parts. otably, there are no handlebars. This is one of two Moto-Terminators shot out of the enormous Harvester robot and they take part in an impressive chase with our heroes. Laing said, “During the fantastic chase on the road, these things actually get fired from the Harvester that’s trying to chase them and they do this wonderful cat and mouse chase all the way down the road and it finishes on this amazing suspension bridge where the truck goes over one edge and the bikes go over the other. But again we’re still using the same family, the same world of the Terminator. We actually stole the leg and hip joint from here because it’s still the same feeling. You still need the pistons. You still need all the bits and pieces that make a real engine work. So we were given some bikes from Ducati so we started with them as a basis and then we just built on it. And again, brought it into a dark, dark world.”
Nearby were pictures of other vehicles including a worn out Jeep (as we saw outside), a patched-together Huey helicopter (also seen outside), an A-10 jet (flown by the character Blair), and a massive tow-truck decked out with a plow on the front and a machine gun turret on the top.
Continuing the art department tour, we saw more robots including the Aerial HK (which looked like the head of the Queen from Aliens), a Transporter, an Aerostat, and the Harvester. Laing told us, “We have an Aerostat. Now these are like their patrol guys. These guys are sent out to search for the humans and then report those to the Harvesters who then go and pick them up. What actually happens is the signal is given away by the Aerostat. The Harvester will then come with the Transporter and in the same way that you herd cattle… you know you’re driving down the freeway and there’s very sad images of cattle going by and all you’re seeing is their eyes. It’s the same kind of thing here. We actually went out and we bought some cattle cars and we chopped them all up and we based our design of the Transporter on those cattle vehicles themselves. So they go out, collect the humans, bring them to Skynet where they then shred them of their skin and their hair and turn them into Arnold Schwarzeneggers.”
Also nearby were a variety of other robots including some Tripod robots, T-1′s (from “Terminator 3″), some that looked like Cylons from the new “Battlestar Galactica,” and others. As a fan of the robots, I was quite impressed with how the world of the Terminators was being broadened.
Martin then took us to another room that was filled with set models and ringed by a series of production art paintings. Martin began describing the beginning of the movie… then more… then more. Next thing I knew Martin had described nearly the entire film to us (minus the few surprises they’re holding back). In the interest of avoiding spoilers, you can click HERE to read the plot synopsis Martin gave us.
While chatting with Laing, he was asked if there would be any connections to the TV series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” He replied that there wasn’t and while they were fans of the series, there was no concern of crossover. When asked what the rating would be, he said they were going for PG-13, but it was still undecided (a point discussed by McG later in the evening). He indicated you wouldn’t see piles of skin from flayed humans.
Laing continued by showing us little models of the sets for the opening scene crater, the underground flooded tunnel with T-100, Serena’s testing lab and prison cells, the Transporter, the Skynet facility cat and mouse chase between Marcus and the T-600′s, Griffith Park Observatory, the Gas Station, Blair’s parachute on the electrical tower, and the silo top and bottom (where Marcus is imprisoned). One model said “Mutant Forest,” but I don’t know if that meant mutants inhabited it or if the trees were mutated. We’ll see.
Laing actually had high praise for Shane Hurlbut, the Director of Photography that was the target of Christian Bale’s much publicized rant: “We had them running across and machine gunning through and helicopters flying over the top where he eventually makes it over to these wonderful x-braces, jumps over the top, and makes his way to the river where the helicopter crashes and the Hydrobot comes through. It’s great. It’s really, really exciting. And it was all shot at night. And just the way that the DP did this. There’s a DP called Shane Hurlbut who’s fantastic. He’s really, really good. He’s doing this thing called the Oz process, and the Oz process is this amazing thing where they actually take the film and put it in three baths of silver so it has three layers of silver on the actual negative more than it would do normally. So it desaturates all the color and brings you this wonderful, rich, post-apocalyptic feel. It’s stunning. He’s an amazing guy. He’s doing a fantastic job which… again, we’re all working as a family and it all sort of comes together. But within this nighttime as they’re running out through the Oz process, it makes it look really eerie and scary.”
As we left the art room, I saw in one of the offices a T-shirt that said “McTerminator” and featured an image of the director, McG, with half a Terminator face.
Martin then took us down to the sound stage to see some of the sets. We saw a set of the underground missile silo bunker. It was old, dirty, and filled with water. Laing mentioned that they were originally going to film in Hungary and they did a lot of scouting in Cold War bunkers. When the location changed to New Mexico, they still used those bunkers for inspiration. On one wall there was a sign that said “United States Strategic Command” and the name “Colonel Sizemore Wing Commander” was on it. Troy Sizemore is one of the art directors. At the end of a fake concrete tunnel with rusty pipes was a medical facility. X-ray viewers, anatomy charts, lights, and other medical equipment lined the walls. At this location the true nature of Marcus would be revealed to the humans and John Connor.
The tour continued and we saw the set for another underwater tunnel where Blair and Marcus would be surprised by a T-100 that rises up out of the water. It was in the process of being torn down and replaced by a submarine set. We then moved on to see a set for the missile silo where Marcus would be suspended over after being captured by the humans. Next was the set for Serena’s lab, a clean and clinical testing ground for the cyborgs compared to every other set in the film. This was still being built and wouldn’t be ready for use for quite a while.
Martin then took us to the set for the remains of the Griffith Observatory. There, the dome for the telescope was shattered and plants overgrew the building… including some new red plants that sprung up in LA after the nuclear holocaust. On the set were children’s toys, a couch, a bed, and other items scrounged by a young Kyle Reese and the little girl, Star. Laing mentioned that they took measurements from the actual locations for building the sets.
The tour continued and we saw real world robot arms that were being stored for use later. They were loaned to the production by Fanuc and ABB. (No flaying of humans was done by these robots, of course. Just construction of T-800′s.) Nearby was the jail cell set where we are first introduced to Marcus. It featured real bars on the cell that gave a satisfying ‘clank’ when closed. Around the corner was the execution chamber that featured a table and plenty of straps. It certainly gave a few press members the willies. As we returned outside to the desert heat we saw the truck used in the chase with the Moto-Terminators, the helicopters, and the Jeep. Martin mentioned that the production would be continuing till September 7, another 2 and a half months.
As we concluded our tour, we walked through the prop shop. Weapons and other goodies were spread throughout it, but on a workbench was one of the signature objects from the series – a Terminator skull. Being a Terminator geek, it was quite a thrill to hold one in my hands. Surprisingly, this one was made of rubber. It was also darker, an indication it belonged to a T-700. Laing told us that in a scene when the characters fall out of Serena’s lab into the Terminator factory, they land on a pile of these skulls (hence the rubber). As they look over, the skull’s eyes light up. Laing tried to get it to light up, but had no luck. He told us that the original Terminator had teeth based on a cast of Schwarzenegger when he was in his 20′s. Stan Winston’s company kept the molds and were still using them, but Laing wouldn’t say if they were being used to make a new younger Arnie now for Terminator Salvation.
At the time of our visit, Stan Winston had died just a few days earlier. Laing was asked how this affected the production. “It came as a shock. I mean it did come as a shock to all of us that he died just this weekend. He has a great group of people behind him. John Rosengrant, who’s been with the company for 25 years, he’s been sort of the spearhead behind Stan for the last few years as Stan has been ill. So he’s just taking it in his stride. Obviously he’s very upset and it’s a very, very sad moment. But the Stan Winston guys are doing an amazing job and have managed to sort of hurdle it through which is great.”
All the press then loaded onto a bus shortly after and drove further onto the property of Albuquerque Studios. Just a short distance over the hill, we encountered the blown up 7-11 that the Harvester attacks. It’s hard to believe this location is within sight of Albuquerque because it looks so remote in the film. People with the production mentioned that when they blew it up, debris fell some distance away and caught a lot of people’s attention. Their close proximity to the airport was another issue to deal with when setting off explosions. The 7-11 was filled with burned debris, blown up cars, boats, mobile homes, and other signs of Armageddon.
We then drove into the heart of Albuquerque to the ‘Old Railyards.’ It’s hard to imagine that this location within sight of the freeway and various businesses doubled for post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, but that’s exactly what it did. The area was filled with concrete debris, shot-up cars, a destroyed bus, dead trees, and red plants that were indications of the radiation tainted city. Dozens of fake skeletons had been removed shortly before we got there, but the location was impressive as it was. This was the location where Marcus has his first encounter with a T-600 and is rescued by young Kyle Reese. On top of the building was a sign for the “Red Clown Toy Company,” the site of the showdown with the T-600. We were told the bullets for the T-600′s gun cost $1 each. Do that math as he’s firing.
We moved inside the railyard building into what was used for the set of the Skynet human stockades. Just a few days earlier they had filmed with 280 extras in the location. Robots herded the humans into pens here where they used to maintain trains. We walked through the pens into a Transporter that was still on the set. It was a modified cattle trailer. As we walked inside the pen, the walls were covered with brown… stuff. I thought they had failed to clean out the cattle trailer. But it turned out to be some odorless stuff that felt like sprayed on cardboard. Ah, the magic of Hollywood. Large foam spikes adorned the back of the trailer. Yes, it was a thrill yet again for a Terminator geek to be herded into the Skynet stockades.
We then hopped in the bus again and headed north of Albuquerque to Algadones on I-25. They were shooting that night at a power plant that doubled for Skynet’s fortress. Once arriving at the location for the shoot, we were herded into a tent where we met Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson (Watchmen, 300, Jonah Hex, Tron 2). On the tables in front of him were binders full of reference photos and costume drawings.
Wilkinson spoke to us about the idea behind the costumes: “For the project, McG gave us a really interesting brief. He really wanted the film to have a lot of credibility. And by that I think he means he wants to audience to feel like this story could really happen. It’s set in 2018. It’s not the distant far off future. It’s just around the corner. And we really want the audience to feel, watching the movie, that it’s not some far-fetched fantastical science fiction, but you could look at how we could get from where we are right now to the world that we’re representing in the movie. So to research the project, you can see I did a lot of research into historical episodes. Hiroshima, the Eastern European Crisis, the Middle East. Even way back to Auschwitz. Sort of moments in history that have had incredible meaning in the human psyche. Stories of displaced people. Post-apocalyptic tales.”
We were shown costumes for John Connor (which Christian Bale had a lot of input in), costumes for Blair, and costumes for Marcus. Wilkinson noted that Marcus’s leathers were a nod to Arnold’s leathers in previous movies. They actually took two leather jackets and stitched them together up the middle to make a single jacket. It was dubbed the “Frankenstein coat”.
Wilkinson offered some interesting trivia on the soldiers – “You see all of the fighters have an armband that goes around their bicep in a blood red color which makes them recognizable to each other. Yes, we’re all fighting on the same team. There’s lots of discussion about rank and levels of authority within the resistance and do we keep with the language that’s alive today in the US military? But we kind of decided our army’s like Che’s army, like brothers all in the pyramid structure. They’re all in the same rank. So the only thing signifying them is the simple armband.”
MOON BLOODGOOD, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD & ANTON YELCHIN
Soon after, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Anton Yelchin were ushered into the tent for interviews. Unfortunately Moon was suffering from a bit of cold, but she toughed it out to chat with us. We started out by asking them about their roles.
Moon Bloodgood: I play Blair Williams and I’m with the Resistance and I’m a pilot. What else? I have no scenes with Anton. (laughs) She’s like really hardcore and amazing.
Anton Yelchin: I play Kyle Reese and I spend the movie being him and doing things that he would do, being Kyle Reese. (laughs) Namely being John Connor’s father unwittingly at this point ’cause he’s a kid.
Bryce Dallas Howard: I play Kate Connor. I’m John Connor’s wife. Also a part of the beginnings of the Resistance. I’m also a physician. And I spend the movie admiring Christian Bale. (laughs) Yeah, not too hard… along with everyone else.
Bryce had actually just recently joined the cast on the set, so she was the newcomer of the group. It didn’t take Bryce long to establish her geek cred.
Howard: I was cast a week and a half ago. (laughs) Yeah, I just got here. I’ve only had like two days of shooting. But yeah, both of those days have taken place in the Outpost. And it’s been incredible because I’m a huge, massive, insane fan of the franchise. McG was like, “Are you familiar with the ‘Terminator’ franchise?” I’m like, “Am I familiar?” I’ve been following everything that’s been going on with this movie the last few years. So it’s been really incredible to kind of like immerse myself into this world and this crash course of they’ve envisioned the future to be like. Just speaking as a fan, I can’t imagine anyone being let down by what they’ve come up with.
Anton Yelchin was asked if it was a challenge playing the part of an established character like he did with Checkov in Star Trek. Bryce Dallas Howard was in the same boat with Kate Connor.
Yelchin: I think it’s great having that sort of wealth of material to work with and to see what you want to do with it and where you want to take it and what you want to repeat or maintain. What you want to change. It’s been really, really interesting and a lot of fun finding that person, finding Kyle Reese but 10 years younger. Because he’s such a complex character in the first one, and I think he becomes no less complex by being younger. Maybe even more so because of the conditions that he’s grown up in. I just think it’s really great because it’s interpreting a character as opposed to creating your own. But through interpreting you’re also creating your own character.
Howard: Yeah, I have a very sort of different situation from the character of Reese because you got to see this version of him when he’s older and it’s building the history whereas with Kate Connor I got to see when she was Kate Brewster and the origins of their love story. Honestly it’s great because my homework was done for me in this epic version of a film. So it gets me right in there ’cause I watched the third film and I know where her starting place is.
The actors were asked about what kind of preparation they did for their roles.
Yelchin: There’s a lot of prep based, I guess on the original movie. But there’s also just sort of practical prep like gun training and getting used to being around guns. (You didn’t already have that?) No. Actually before I came here I had this awful thing happen. It’s so messed up. I shot a bird. Like I found a BB gun and these birds were attacking our house and I was like, “I’m taking them down.” And I missed the first time so it was like this weird machismo thing like if you miss the first time you have to do it the second time no matter how immoral it is. And I shot this bird and my dog ate it alive. And it was the most disturbing thing I had ever seen. And I got here and I was like, “God, guns, man. Like it’s absurd.” Now I’m like NRA status right now. Running around with shotguns.
Bloodgood: Except I beat you.
Yelchin: Yeah yeah! Pitiful embarrassing story number 2. We were doing gun training and Moon and I were just sort of running around with the guns and playing tag.
Bloodgood: You had the shotgun and I had the Desert Eagle. I whooped his @$$ twice. We were in a warehouse and he was taking it all serious with the stunt guys or prop guys. And then you’re like, “OK Let’s go from across the warehouse.” I was like, “All right, OK.”
Yelchin: And I was being so hardcore, crawling around, trying to find the posture, the gun posture, like carrying the gun and sneaking around like Kyle Reese would sneak around like. And then I look up from the first box, I peek out for a second and Moon was right there. “Ahhhhh!” It was just like, “Wow, great.”
Bloodgood: He was like, “Never again.”
Yelchin: Yeah, I was so pissed.
Bloodgood: He couldn’t look at me for like…
Anton, being a fan of the “Terminator” films, was asked what it was like joining the franchise. Little did we know just how big a fan he was.
Yelchin: I’m really honored by it. Because I’ve watched the Terminator since I was a little kid. I wasn’t even around when the first one came out, but when the second one came out I was conscious of it and then I watched it. I had everything. I had the Terminator factory kit where you poured little chemicals in and made the Terminators. I had the action figures. I had the Arnold, like all four stages. (laughs) I was just way into the action figures. It was something that shaped massive amounts of my childhood.
Howard: I think also what’s for me, personally, just as an actress, what’s so exciting about this film is that there’s been this incredible history that was started by Linda Hamilton of kick @$$ women. To play a woman that can somehow… (To Moon) I know that your character obviously honors that as well, but can honor that legacy that she has created, I think it means a lot.
Bloodgood: It’s also McG, too. He really made it a point to make sure that the women were strong and not this cliché. He’s so involved into what we wear, how we look, and that we’re taken seriously as a physician, as a pilot. And the women are strong, but they’re also there to support the men. And it’s not like it’s just about the male heroes. There is this whole John Connor legacy, but I think when you see all the characters, there’s all these storylines interweaving with each other. And they all kind of come together. And I think they’ve really been clever about tying them in and telling the story of Kyle Reese , which is so interesting, and then John and Kate’s relationship and this new character, Marcus. I think you guys are gonna really be blown away by Sam. He’s really, really good. He just pops off the screen. And him and Christian together, it’s so cool.
Howard: It’s also this film in particular is really emotional. Just knowing McG’s work you know there’s gonna be so much action and it’s really going to be fulfilling on that level. But it’s really, really an emotional film. And because this is a movie about what’s happened to our humanity after Judgment Day, and I think just from the perspective of the female characters what’s exciting is that they are these kick ass women, but they also are completely in touch with their femininity and the strength that their femininity can generate. I love McG.
Bloodgood: I do too.
Anton was asked more about playing futuristic sci-fi characters of established characters and whether he was being pigeonholed.
Yelchin: No, I think both characters, like Chekov in “Star Trek” and then Kyle, they’re first of all totally different. Pretty much nothing in common except the future. Kyle is very complex in an incredible number of ways. That’s been so interesting to look at and learn from and experiment with. And then Chekov is totally different. All the sort of moral anxieties that come with Kyle Reese are not there in Chekov at all. So it’s exciting to play two totally different characters. And Chekov was sort of the same thing. I watched a bunch of the show and I was like, “Wow, there’s things that I can add to this. There’s things that I can use.” And so I guess it’s just exciting to take these beloved characters and make them your own and to grow with them. It affords you the opportunity to create multiple, multiple, multiple levels because you potentially have a franchise for however many movies, so you can create a layered character in one and add more layers in the next one.
We asked them about whether they were signed for multiple films, but the publicist jumped in and said they couldn’t answer that. Ah, well. Bryce then concluded with a comment on the pressure surrounding the film.
Howard: About the pressure and stuff like that. Something that I’ve just noticed, as I said I’ve literally just arrived, I was really struck by the amount of humility everyone has on set with this whole process and I think it’s because they do feel, it’s not a pressure but a responsibility, and I think that’s why we can’t answer about potential other films because it’s like we’re humble enough to know we have to make this as good as we possibly can on a day to day basis.