In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have worked: Terminator 2: Judgment Day was bankrolled by star-obsessed distributors, conceived in desperation with a looming deadline, produced using technology no one had yet mastered, and completed just days before it was set to open. Yet even today, it remains a miracle of ingenuity, hard work, and, of course, deep, deep pockets. But with great risk comes the opportunity for greater reward, and the now-defunct production giant Carolco shepherded James Cameron’s film to the finish line and into box office glory. T2 earned a then-record $52 million over its opening weekend—albeit not before breaking the record for what was then the most expensive movie production of all time with its reported $102 million price tag.
It’s also a brilliant expansion of the world that Cameron created for the original The Terminator—a sci-fi slasher film that became part of a parable for the dehumanizing influence of technology, while ironically using groundbreaking visual effects to bring its story to life. T2 reunited the original film’s stars in a new context, and helped Cameron created a franchise for the ages. Which is exactly why so many filmmakers (four and counting) have attempted to revive it for new adventures, and to examine new details within this rich mythology. To commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, we're taking a look back at the extraordinary choices and circumstances that aligned—sometimes by force—in order to deliver what would become one most dynamic and enduring sequels of all time.
1. James Cameron sold the rights to The Terminator for $1.
In order to make a deal to get the original movie made, Cameron sold the rights to The Terminator for a whopping $1—and he didn’t regret it. When the idea of making a sequel came up—and even before Cameron was approached about shooting it—Carolco shelled out $15 million to liberate the property from its original distributor at the behest of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was interested in revisiting the character.
2. James Cameron wasn't initially sold on the idea of a sequel to The Terminator, but the company gave him 6 million good reasons to change his mind.
When Carolco first reached out to Cameron to develop Terminator 2, he told them he wasn’t interested. He changed his mind when they offered him $6 million to direct.
3. James Cameron agreed to make a sequel to The Terminator, with no idea about what he was going to do.
Even after the original The Terminator grossed $78 million against a $7 million budget, Cameron had moved on and never developed ideas for a sequel. So when he did sign on to make the sequel, he called up William Wisher—who had received an “additional dialogue” credit on the script for the first film—and the two of them hashed out the rough details for what would become T2. In a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Wisher recalled the screenwriting process being a pretty quick and painless one.
4. James Cameron and his team had less than two years to complete Terminator 2.
Immediately after signing on to make the film, Cameron's own judgment day was looming: Carolco founder Mario Kassar announced that the film would be released in 1991, over the Fourth of July weekend, which gave Cameron, Wisher, and a crew he had not even begun to assemble approximately 20 months to finish T2.
5. The T-1000 was partly inspired by James Cameron's The Abyss.
Cameron credits ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren for the idea of the T-1000. It was Muren who suggested that they could build on the ideas utilized in Cameron’s The Abyss and create e a computer generated character that would be made of “liquid metal” instead of water, a choice that eliminated one hurdle (transparency) only to absorb another (reflectiveness).
In The Ringer's T2 oral history, Cameron recalled that Fox distribution head Tom Sherak bristled when he realized that the studio had bankrolled a big-budget flop with The Abyss so that someone else could make a bigger hit: “He said, ‘Who would have known that we made a $60 million movie that was just a test run for Terminator 2?'"
6. Arnold Schwarzenegger hated the Terminator 2 script.
Cameron finished his first draft of T2 just in time for Carolco to debut its upcoming slate for the following summer at a huge industry event. While flying there, Schwarzenegger read the script for the first time—and he was not pleased. Aside from sorting through arcane terminology like mimetic polyalloy, the action star was baffled to discover that he wasn’t killing anybody in the film. Nevertheless, Cameron reassured him that the switch would delight audiences by catching them off-guard. And either way, he would have plenty of unforgettable moments. "Arnold HATED it," Cameron told The Guardian. "He even tried to talk me out of it! But I said: 'No, this is what we’re doing, it’s really cool.' And along the way, he saw the wisdom of it."
7. Linda Hamilton would only agree to reprise her role as Sarah Connor under one condition.
When Cameron reached out to Linda Hamilton to reprise her role, he told The Ringer that she said she'd agree under one condition: "So she said, 'Yeah, in principle, I’m in, but I want to be crazy.' I said, 'Well, what do you mean, crazy? How crazy?' She said, 'Crazy, like I’ve been driven crazy.' I said, 'Like you’re in an insane asylum, like you’re institutionalized?' She said, 'Yeah, sure. Let me play crazy. Let me go nuts.' I said, 'All right. Well, you’re going to get my version of nuts,' and she said, 'All right. I’m down.'" That decision, that Connor had been driven crazy about her knowledge of the future, ultimately deepened the complexity of the film's family dynamics. Cameron was still married to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow when he began working on T2, though the couple divorced in 1991, the same year the film was released. Cameron and Hamilton subsequently began dating; they had a daughter together in 1993 and eventually married in 1997, but called it quits in 1999.
8. James Cameron did not want the T-1000 to look anything like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Cameron wanted a different physical type to play the T-1000 as a contrast to Schwarzenegger’s hulking silhouette, which is what led to the casting of Robert Patrick. "It was just one of those moments when everything came together at the right time," Patrick told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
9. James Cameron wanted Billy Idol to play the T-1000.
Cameron briefly considered casting Billy Idol as the villainous android because he liked his look. But before he or anyone else could get too far down the road with that idea, Idol got into a bad motorcycle crash. "Unfortunately, he got into a motorcycle accident and busted up his leg, so he wasn’t able to physically do what the role demanded,” Patrick told The Hollywood Reporter.
10. Edward Furlong was plucked from obscurity to star in Terminator 2.
After searching through too many practiced young performers who Cameron said had been trained "to be perky in family settings and sell cereal," casting director Mali Finn discovered Edward Furlong at the Pasadena Boys and Girls Club. Though he held no aspirations to act, she coached him through three auditions before Cameron hired him.
11. James Cameron wrote Edward Furlong's character into the film while tripping on ecstasy—and listening to Sting.
Cameron admitted to The Ringer that he wrote Edward Furlong's character into the script while in an altered state of mind: "I remember sitting there once, high on E, writing notes for Terminator, and I was struck by Sting's song, that 'I hope the Russians love their children, too.' And I thought, 'You know what? The idea of a nuclear war is just so antithetical to life itself.' That’s where the kid came from."
12. The visual effects for Terminator 2 cost more than the original film's entire budget.
Because Cameron storyboarded every shot in the film, production ran relatively smoothly, although he eventually (perhaps inevitably) went over budget. The cost of the 42 computer-generated visual effects in the film exceeded the entire budget of the original Terminator. Altogether, the budget for the sequel was about three times the original film. Muren and the team at ILM scanned Patrick’s face and body, and asked him to perform some of the movements in character as the T-1000, such as rising from the floor underneath a sheet, which became a loose guide for animators to follow and embellish.
13. Two sets of twins were used in sequences where the T-1000 transforms into another character.
Don and Dan Stanton play the asylum guard and his doppelgänger during Sarah’s rescue from Pescadero, and Hamilton's twin sister, Leslie Hamilton Gearren, played the away-from-camera version of Sarah when the T-1000 impersonates her. Additionally, she played Linda’s double in a scene cut from the theatrical edition where Sarah and John reboot the T-800. For the shot, Cameron had to create the reverse space in a mirror, and she mimicked her sister’s movements.
14. James Cameron shot the canal chase while riding in a motorcycle sidecar.
The canal chase was shot deep in the San Fernando Valley, requiring production to divert a man-made river in order to create the proper continuity. Schwarzenegger’s stunt double Peter Kent actually performed the Harley jump, and the production refitted a series of Harley Fat Boy motorcycles to achieve the right effect when it landed, although ultimately it was guided to the bottom of the canal by cables and not actually by jumping. Meanwhile, Cameron operated the camera himself for the chase sequence while riding in the sidecar of another motorcycle.
15. Terminator 2 is known for its groundbreaking visual effects, but there were a lot of practical effects, too.
Despite its use of groundbreaking CGI, many of the film’s sequences were accomplished practically, thanks to Stan Winston’s models, miniatures, and elaborate prosthetics. For the “nuclear nightmare” sequence, VFX artists (and brothers) Robert and Dennis Skotak built a large-scale cityscape of Los Angeles and then used air mortars to knock over the buildings, which were just a few feet tall.
16. Terminator 2's final chase scene required a full 10 miles of electric cables for lighting.
The final chase sequence was shot on the Los Angeles-Long Beach Terminal Island freeway, requiring 10 miles of electric cables to adequately light the road and the vehicles. A helicopter was actually flown underneath an overpass for one of the sequence’s most gobsmacking shots.
17. Terminator 2 originally had a different ending.
Multiple endings were shot for the film, including a more meditative finale with Sarah (played by Hamilton in old age makeup) visiting her son John, who is now a politician in a future that never knew the war of the machines. Test audiences balked, but after initially resisting their feedback, Cameron eventually used some extra footage of empty blacktop from a shot at the beginning of Act Three and asked Hamilton to remotely record the voiceover that now ends the film.
18. James Cameron finished editing T2 just a few hours before the final prints were struck.
After completing production, the race was on to finish the film. Cameron said he completed the final cut, including all visual effects and microscopic polishes, about three hours from when prints were being struck to go out to theaters across the globe.
19. Terminator 2 essentially made its money back before it even premiered.
Despite its budget-busting price tag, Terminator 2 largely recouped its costs before the film even opened: Worldwide rights were sold for $65 million, video rights for $10 million, and television rights for $7 million. Still, it was at the time the most expensive film ever produced (without adjusting for inflation).
20. Several versions of T2 have been released, but James Cameron has a favorite.
Terminator 2 eventually grossed $205 million in the United States and $520 million worldwide, producing a television series and four sequels with various direct and indirect connections to its mythology. It was nominated for six Oscars and won four, for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects. Two extended cuts premiered on home video, but Cameron prefers the theatrical edition.