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Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

The Terminator at 35: Michael Biehn talks James Cameron and our Smartphone Overlords

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May 12, 2019

Kyle Reese: What day is it?

Policeman: 12, May, Thursday --

Kyle Reese: What year?

Today, in 2019, it's actually 35 years since future fighter Kyle Reese grilled a cop in that scene about where in time he had landed in James Cameron's seminal sci-fi time-travel film, The Terminator.

To celebrate the milestone, actor Michael Biehn joined moderator Stephen Farber for a Q&A following a 35th-anniversary screening of The Terminator at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles.

A veteran of three Cameron-directed box-office hits -- The TerminatorAliens, and The Abyss -- Biehn reminisced about a lot of things, including getting the gig, how his relationship with Cameron evolved, and how prescient The Terminator storyline was in predicting the rise of technology in our daily lives.

Terminator 35th Anniversary Screening

The Terminator 35th Anniversary Screening

Biehn started out by explaining how he originally came to the project as a typical audition from his agent. When he asked who was attached to the film, he was told James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, who were Roger Corman-trained, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom the actor knew as a Mr. Universe and Conan the Barbarian (1982).

"I wanted to work with De Niro, Pacino, and Nicholson, so I was like, 'Okay ... send me the script,'" he infused with the hesitancy he had at the time. "Anybody who tells you they read that script and knew right away it was going to be incredible is just totally full of s***. The script was good, but the idea that a man from the future was coming back to protect a young girl who works at Bob's Big Boy from a machine that is sent back from the future ... in anybody else's hand it could have been really stupid and really silly. But I knew I could play that character. ..."

That character was scrappy, tragic resistance fighter Kyle Reese, who saves Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the almost unstoppable Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, or T-800 (Schwarzenegger). Biehn says that in his career he's done a lot of real-world research to prepare for many of his characters, but for Reese he was a bit adrift for inspiration until he read a nonfiction book about the Warsaw ghettos. "There was a group of men and women that fought the Germans from the sewer systems," he details. "It took a while for the [Germans] to get them out of there. ... So, coming out of that mindframe of being a rat, and this incredible force is coming at you that you had no chance of ever stopping, I kept reading about their accounts and how it was all about survival. So that's what I based my character on, those fighters in Warsaw."

When asked about Reese's memorable naked introduction in an alleyway, Biehn clarified that his stuntman gets the credit for that painful landing. "One thing I will say about that is I didn’t land," he laughed. "A stuntman landed. That was one of the most amazing, difficult stunts, and I have been around a lot of action films. James had the camera wide and low, so the stuntman was laying on a board sideways, and he was naked. When [Jim] called action, he had to jump off and hit the cement. And it was not fake cement. It was the streets of L.A., and so it was a brutal thing. If you slow it down, you can see his body just shake and crumble. It wasn’t me, and to tell you the truth, the shot of me running away … I’ve never known if that was my ass or not."

Biehn said his belief in the film only started to take hold when the shoot was delayed for three months when Schwarzenegger went to fulfill his contract to make Red Sonja. Over those months, Biehn said he spent a lot of time with Cameron and at Stan Winston's studio watching the Terminator R&D come to life.

Right after production, Biehn remembers being called by Hurd to their office to see an edit of the now-iconic Tech Noir sequence. "Jim was there writing away, and he had a box of Cheetos," he laughed. "I walked into the room and watched him furiously writing away ... and I asked why he wasn't on a two-week vacation in Hawaii. And he said, 'Well, they are interested in doing a sequel to Alien, and I'm writing the treatment for Aliens, which is what I want my movie to be called.' So that's Jim Cameron. Everybody talks about Jim setting the bar high for everybody. If you are good, you want to match it."

Michael Biehn The Terminator Screening

Michael Biehn at The Terminator 35th Anniversary screening.

To this day, Biehn said he and Cameron have remained friends, both personally and professionally. In particular, the passing of their mutual friend, Bill Paxton, brought them together to mourn. He added that it was Paxton who initially introduced Biehn and Cameron at a screening in L.A., and not long after Biehn went in to read for Reese in The Terminator.

This year, James Cameron retained the rights to The Terminator franchise and is overseeing and producing the Nov. 1 sequel, Terminator: Dark Fate, which will see Linda Hamilton return to the franchise as an older Sarah Connor. Biehn said, "I guarantee you that from now on The Terminator franchise will be 'Oh, there's a new Terminator film? Let's go see it!'" He didn't speak to whether he would ever return to the franchise, as his last appearance as the character was in a dream sequence that didn't make it into the theatrical cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Lastly, when asked about how the last three decades have moved society closer and closer to the Skynet-esque future of human dependence on computers and technology that will ultimately bring our downfall, Biehn was his candid self: "I didn’t appreciate what Jim was doing with [The Terminator]. But right now people talk about global warming but nobody talks about artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our generation, said we better start putting up some guide rails because if we don’t, this thing could get out of control. Elon Musk has been saying for 10 years that we need some regulations or this will get out in front of us. It starts with that phone you’re all carrying," the actor said, pointing to the sea of smartphones in the room. "That’s the beginning of the end of the human race. I think it’s coming a lot faster than people realize. And I think if I live to be as old as my mother, I’ll be able to look back at this little talk that we had and say, 'See!'"

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