The Unseen Story

Cameron was working as a model maker and art director for B-movie king Roger Corman when he had the fever-wracked nightmare that would become Terminator: a metal man emerging out of a fire, as though the fire had burned his skin off and revealed his true nature.

An artist, Cameron made detailed sketches of his dream when he woke up, and shared them with another Corman assistant Gale Anne Hurd. The two hatched an idea to shoot the film in the streets of Los Angeles with a low budget, using all the tricks they’d learned from Corman, but while several studios liked the script, no one was interested in letting the unknown Cameron direct it. Eventually, two other former Corman assistants who had gone on to work for Orion pictures, helped them get a deal.

Determined to bring his vision to life, Cameron left nothing to chance and insisted that every detail be perfect. He and special effects whiz Stan Winston formed an immediate and lifelong friendship and creative partnership. Armed with Cameron’s sketches, the two would scour junkyards for machine bits to help Winston build the Terminator suit just so. Then Cameron, Winston and his team would work late coming up with new materials and new processes to ensure that the robot matched Cameron’s vision.

That drive only intensified when it came time to shoot. Cameron scoured the streets of LA to find areas with mercury vapor lights — not only because he had no electrical budget, but also because he wanted the film to have a blue, steely, dangerous nighttime feel to it. The laser-sight gun he had envisioned didn’t exist yet, so he enlisted a gun expert to create both functioning and non-functioning versions. Shooting wrapped in a grueling 44 days and then Cameron and Hurd invested $40,000 of their own money into post-production shots. In one case, Cameron knew he wanted a shot of the Terminator’s boot outside a glass door that he hadn’t gotten. He had a production assistant wrap his shoe with black paper tape and stand next to a glass door, and Cameron got the shot with a handheld. It was a tiny glimpse of a boot, but Cameron wanted it and it’s in the final cut of the film.

Although Orion executives hated the film, they released it as Cameron wanted it. They did nothing to promote or market the film, but it was hugely popular and continues to be, more than 20 years later.