Twist of Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate director Tim Miller discusses David Fincher, James Cameron and female action heroes in an exclusive chat with Letterboxd.

The reason that they choose to pick up a gun or punch someone in the face or fight for their lives is usually different than the reasons you’d find for a man.” —⁠Tim Miller

Tim Miller is here to save the Terminator franchise. Like many of us, Miller (the director of Deadpool) is a massive fan of the first two films, and not so much of the last three.

Miller’s new film, Terminator: Dark Fate, positions itself as a direct sequel to the iconic Terminator 2: Judgment Day and ignores all the films made subsequent to that 1991 classic. The connection is strengthened by the participation of James Cameron (director and co-writer of the 1984 original and Judgment Day), who has a story credit on Dark Fate, and Linda Hamilton, who returns to play Sarah Connor for the first time since 1991.

In the new film, Connor is one of two people—alongside Mackenzie Davis’s augmented future soldier Grace—attempting to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) from the super-advanced Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna). Dani is a young Mexican woman fated to play a critical role in a future war between humans and machines (specifically, an artificial intelligence called Legion).

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.

Although Connor prevented Judgment Day in T2, something similar eventually transpired in the future, once again pitting humanity against a seemingly insurmountable artificial intelligence threat. Arnold Schwarzenegger also shows up as an aged T-800, and the film has fun with his presence.

A few weeks back, the Alamo Drafthouse treated audiences who thought they were going to see T2 with a surprise screening of Dark Fate. “This is the third film I’ve always wanted…” was the reaction from Letterboxd member CJSFilms. “Changed the story enough without completely jumping the shark and had some great new characters along with amazing work to the older ones.”

“Part of me can’t really believe I liked it so much, but it’s the truth,” said azureblueworld.

Miller recently spoke with us about Dark Fate, as well as answering some questions about his life in film.

Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.
Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.

It’s relatively rare in action cinema to have three female protagonists. What do you think that brings to Terminator: Dark Fate?
Tim Miller: I think it brings a lot, both in the making of it and in the film itself, because from a plot standpoint, you don’t often have enough stories where women are in these action roles. The reason that they choose to pick up a gun or punch someone in the face or fight for their lives is usually different than the reasons you’d find for a man. You don’t often find a woman killing people for vengeance or these typically macho things. So, I find those reasons much more interesting. This is why I love Sarah Connor. This is a woman who is fighting to protect her child and there is no more powerful imperative than that. So we have all of that and you have Grace coming back from the future. We really didn’t play too much upon it, but Grace is Dani’s surrogate child. She finds her in the ruin when she’s twelve and raises her. So the idea of a mother having to send her daughter back for the fate of humanity is pretty powerful and it’s not the usual male-centric reasons for doing shit like that.

Then, because we had John Connor, the whole male as the savior of humanity thing has been done. But secondly, I just feel like Dani would be a different kind of leader. I always used the analogy of yes, she’s tough and she’s a great leader, but she’s more Obama than Patton in my mind.

Mackenzie Davis is amazing in this movie. What kind of thinking went into the conception of her character, Grace?
I remember the moment very clearly because my favorite author of all time, Joe Abercrombie, who writes fantasy not sci-fi, primarily, although his Shattered Sea books are sort of post-apocalyptic. Joe was in the writers’ room, I love him. He’s a great English author. If you haven’t read him, do. We were talking about how there’s always this trilogy of characters: there’s the protector, the hunter and the prey in Terminator movies. We were talking about the protector, and Joe said, “What if it’s this female super soldier who comes back from the future, and she’s all fucked up and scarred and she has to take a lot of drugs because she’s been enhanced with stolen Legion technology?” It wasn’t Legion at that time, it was stolen advanced AI technology adapted for humans and she was kind of a machine fighter. And she has to take these drugs all the time because they amp up her immune system, and jack up her reflexes and things like that. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s fucking cool’. Everybody else did, too.

And Mackenzie plays her with so much humanity, which is why I really did not want to get the obvious casting takes for that role. They would show me some actors who were super accomplished martial artists or fighters or things like that. I knew that she would be, in many ways, the heart of the movie. I mean Sarah, of course, is the heart of the movie ultimately, but for so long in this film, Sarah is emotionless. She’s a terminator, you know? She’s fucked up. And Mackenzie had to be this person [for whom] you could really identify with her mission and her humanity.

Director Tim Miller and Linda Hamilton on the set of Terminator: Dark Fate.
Director Tim Miller and Linda Hamilton on the set of Terminator: Dark Fate.

What movies did you watch to prepare for making Terminator: Dark Fate?
I watched all of the Terminator movies—good and bad—again, of course. I watch Aliens all the time. Then I watched Alien again, too. Because I think Terminator has moments of tension, for sure. [Alien³ director] David Fincher’s favorite moment in Terminator: Dark Fate, oddly, was the shots of Gabriel [Luna] walking around Carl’s house after they’ve left, in this creepy sort of home invasion moment. So I think Terminator’s always had a horror element to it.

I love movies that have heroes. Movies like Gladiator and Blade Runner are some of my favorites. Gladiator has the heroic element of the person who’s been beaten down but refuses to lose, [that’s] definitely in Terminator movies. Blade Runner has the element of the hero who gets their ass handed to them every time, but keeps getting back up and I feel like that’s kind of what happens in these chase scenes where you can never defeat a terminator. You get your ass kicked but somehow you manage to get away and fight another day until eventually something else defeats them.

I have less of a broad spectrum of movie-watching. I read a lot and that’s where a lot of my love of sci-fi comes from. I tend to—like I think a lot of nerds—you have your favorites and it’s hard to get out of that rut because it’s so not often that good stuff comes around that you can put on that list of favorites.

Gabriel Luna and friend in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.
Gabriel Luna and friend in a scene from Terminator: Dark Fate.

Was there a particular film that, when you saw it, made you say, “Okay, I’m doing this. I’m gonna make movies”?
Aliens. The thing that Jim does so much and so well is really gives the characters a sense of reality, that they feel grounded and what I love about his movies also is the writing always feels very organic to me. In too many movies, you can feel that the writer or the director made a decision on what way to move the story based on a plot [point], rather than it coming organically from the characters. In Jim’s movies, you never feel that. In fact, when I met him I was surprised because I thought [he] must write forward from character instead of having some pre-ordained idea of where it’s going to end up. And he said, “No, oh no. I think of: ‘Oh, man. I want to see this big fucking action scene and then I work into it’.” But I guess the magic comes in the fact that you don’t feel that.

He mentioned the flying scene in Avatar, which I loved, which is this falling-in-love scene when they’re learning to fly. I said, “But you have this great falling-in-love scene.” He goes, “I just wanted to do a really great scene of them flying around Pandora in these cool, swooping camera moves and this bad-ass flight sequence. And then it became the falling-in-love sequence.” So that was the surprise for me and a little bit of insight into Jim’s magic.

How many times would you say you’ve seen Aliens?
Oh fuck, 50 plus, easy.

What’s the sexiest film you’ve ever seen?
The sexiest? 9½ Weeks.

What film do you have fond memories of watching with your parents?
Poseidon Adventure, the original. I remember Gene Hackman. I remember Shelley Winters’ death where she was the Olympic swimmer who gained too much weight, but she managed to save everybody. Then I remember Gene Hackman jumping out over the fire to turn off that big knob to cut the steam off so everybody else could escape and then dropping into the fire. Heroes. Always heroes sacrificing. I love it.

What classic are you embarrassed to say you haven’t seen?
Citizen Kane. That’s easy.

What filmmaker, living or dead, do you envy or admire the most?
David Fincher, who I’m lucky enough to call a friend. David hasn’t made a bad movie ever.

What’s it like working with him [the pair collaborated on the Netflix sci-fi anthology series Love Death + Robots]?
David’s great with me. He’s much more trouble if you’re an executive who tries to fuck with him. I couldn’t tell you why, to this day, that he and I are friends because I’m so messy and he’s so precise, but he’s been so helpful to me as a friend and as a mentor over the years that I can’t underestimate the value of it. He’s the funniest, smartest guy in the room wherever he is.

Tim Miller on the set of Terminator: Dark Fate.
Tim Miller on the set of Terminator: Dark Fate.

He’s kind of enigmatic. I love how seemingly quiet he is. He doesn’t put a huge amount of himself out there.
Well, that’s in contrast to how quiet he’s not when he’s one-on-one or in a meeting, because he loves to talk. He puts on a show and his knowledge of film and filmmaking is so encyclopedic that you really just kind of sit back and watch. When we were pitching Heavy Metal, which was pretty much Love, Death + Robots before it was Love, Death + Robots, we pitched probably 100 times. It was always really great for me to sit back and watch him work, because back then it was pre-Deadpool and nobody really paid attention to me in the room. So I got a front-row seat to watching David work and especially watching him work in the Hollywood system, which is a unique and interesting system.

What’s a film you wish you had made?
Saving Private Ryan. Again, I’m such a one-dimensional filmmaker. It all comes back to heroism. The fact that all of them could sacrifice for this mother that they don’t know, where they imagine her hearing this news of all of her sons being dead. That’s really who they sacrifice themselves for because they don’t know Ryan, he’s just another guy. It’s a powerful message about humanity that I thought was great. Tom Hanks is just, he’s the most amazing combination of strong and vulnerable, which I find really interesting in a hero. That’s very human, you know?

If you were forced to remake any classic, what would you choose?
I’m very interested to see what Denis Villeneuve does with Dune because it’s a great book and they’ve never managed to make a good movie out of it.

Terminator: Dark Fate’ is in theaters now. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.


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