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William Wisher Jr, Head Writer of Terminator 2

Screenwriter looks back on the action classic, out in a new 4K Blu-ray

Dec 26, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Throughout his career, William Wisher Jr. has left an undeniable mark in film as a writer, producer, and actor thanks to his attention to detail and ability to create interesting characters on the page through screenplays and scripts. Among his many major achievements, Wisher is best known for is his work with the Terminator franchise. In 1984, he got catapulted into the public’s eye with The Terminator. The film quickly became a smash hit and featured stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.

Years later, Wisher was promoted to head writer to work on the movie’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which was directed by James Cameron. When the film was released in 1991, it marked a major advancement in technology in the form of CG.

Lately, interest has picked back up in the Terminator franchise. A new Terminator film that reunites Cameron, Hamilton and Schwarzenegger was just announced for release in 2019. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Terminator 2, the film has gotten a makeover – first this summer as theatrical 3D release and this week as a 4K Ultra HD DVD.

We talked to Wisher about the rerelease and his role with the film.

Joshua M. Miller [Under the Radar]: Terminator 2 was a big technological achievement when it came out. How do you feel about the film coming out now in 3D and 4K?

Wisher: I’m really happy that Jim Cameron decided to convert it to 3D and 4K. And I’ll tell you why. Because it would not have been rereleased to a whole new generation of audiences had he not done that. People would have just watched it on television like they’ve always done for the last 25 years. So by doing this conversion, it’s created this event status which warrants a rerelease. I’m really happy about it. People should see it on the big screen.

It’s amazing that it’s able to continue to break new ground all these years later.

Yes, in a way. It was a real groundbreaker when we made it. And even before this 3D conversion, if you had seen it a year or two ago on say Blu-Ray on a widescreen TV, it is remarkable how well the effects still hold up. It doesn’t look dated and doesn’t look silly. It’s still pretty magical when you watch it and pretty impressive. But we were careful about the effects we chose to put in the screenplay. And we were checking with ILM as we were writing it, saying “Hey we want to do this. Can you do that?” And they always said “Sure.” Even though I suspect there were times that they weren’t sure. But they always said, “yes we can, put that in.” And they did a remarkable job. I think the 3D version will enhance what was already done. I think the effects are going to play even better now than it did when it was already released.

You worked as a writer on the first Terminator movie but on the second one you got bumped up to head writer. What did it mean to have that call up?

It was awesome. I was thrilled. It’s still one of my favorite films I ever worked on. Jim Cameron wrote the treatment for Terminator 1 and sold the project on that. A treatment is like a short story version of a screen play. His ran close to 50 pages. And he made the deal to make a film out of it. When it came time to writing the screenplay, he asked me if I would take certain sets of scenes and flesh them out from the treatment into screenplay form and I said “sure.” And I did that.

We were friends before that happened. We met when we were teenagers and I’ve known him all this time. So, seven years after the first Terminator, they were able to write a big check and bring all of the rights and bring them all together and get them ready to make a sequel. So, Jim called me up and said “Hey, Terminator 2 is a go.” But it was behind schedule. Because as often happens certainly with big films is you work backwards from a release date. And the release date was July 4th, 1991. I think it was spring of 1990. So, we had to write the script very quickly.

Because he and I knew that universe better than anyone else and the time frame was very tight, he said “let’s do it together.” So, when we sat down to do Terminator 2, there was no preconceived notion of what it would be. We had to figure out what would be a good reason to make this movie. All that came together rather quickly, including turning Arnold from this villain – who by that time was very famous as the villain by that time, the character I mean – and flip it and turn him into the good guy. Some other things we figured were where would we find Sarah Connor and all of that. All that happened in short order and we realized “OK, now we have something.” We have a different movie and enough surprises and twists that this is really worth making. And we just knocked the screenplay out in about six and a half weeks front to back.

I imagine making it with a different tone than the first one was exciting for you a writer.

It was. We tried to keep a lot of the dark gothic tone from the first one but I think we put more humor in the second one as well. And that’s a thing I like to put in an action film. But it was it was really being able to play out the storylines of these characters of where they would they be seven to ten years after the original. I found that to be exciting.

As well as the fact that in 1983 when The Terminator was being made, there really wasn’t any CGI, computer generated imagery. It was just coming online by the time we were doing T2. Jim had put CG into The Abyss a few years earlier so he was familiar with and liked it. And so did I. It gave us options visually. And also story wise. In T2 that wouldn’t have been available several years earlier. It was one of those lucky things. We were very hard but we had some luck. Some things existed that didn’t before and we made use of them and it really helped us to craft a sequel that I think is as good if not better than the original, which is rare and hardly ever happens. I’m very proud of T2.

How do you feel about Terminator 2 being at the forefront of films that used CGI to create immense cinematic worlds?

We weren’t the tip of the spear but very close to it. So, it wasn’t the first time CG had been used in a film. But I think it was the first time it was used to such advantage not only in terms of visuals but story wise.

For instance, T-1000, the liquid-metal man, really wouldn’t have been possible in the same way without CG. What we wanted to create in T2 since we were making Arnold “the good guy,” we wanted the bad guy to not be either another Arnold, a bigger Arnold or something like that. We wanted him to be something brand new and unique. In fact, the opposite of the T-800. If you think of the T-800 as the ultimate in hardened technology, then we went to the opposite end of that. And the T-1000 became soft technology and every bit of formidable of foe but the opposite of the T-800.

We immediately realized that would be interesting. It was interesting to us so we figured it would be interesting to other people. And CGI made that possible. It was a happy intersection of a lot of things, including the visual use of CG and also being able to take a look at a piece of material and figure out how to flip everything on its ear and make a different kind of story out of it.

Can you talk more about the process of putting together the screenplay with James?

We wrote a treatment for it initially. And expanded it into a screenplay. So, what happened was we sat down in the same room on day one and on one computer and keyboard, we took turns typing. And we talked the whole movie through. We invented it in that room in real time. When we finished the treatment, we cut it in half and he took one-half and I took the other half and traded halves and glued it back together and went over it one last time.

So, I don’t think so much of what I brought to it or he brought to it. Because the truth is that we were inventing it together. He’d have an idea and I would expand on that, and I’d have an idea and Jim would want to put a twist on that. We just did that together. It really is a collaboration as opposed to two guys bringing separate things to the same party and then gluing them together. That’s not how it worked. We invented it side-by-side.

Going back to the T-1000, Robert Patrick recently mentioned in an interview that he was cast as the villain after Billy Idol injured his leg in a motorcycle crash. Did you have to adjust the writing when someone new comes in?

Sometimes you do depending on the film and actor and so forth. None of that happened on Terminator 2. In fact, once Jim and I finished the screenplay, there really were no revisions after that. There were some things we filmed and cut from the original theatrical release but the script was intact. Partly that’s due to Jim Cameron. He was directing it and knew what he liked. Once we got it down on paper he didn’t decide to second-guess it and rework it. He shot what we both wrote.

The thing about Robert Patrick, I remember the day that he got cast. I went over to Lightstorm Entertainment to visit Jim and have a chat as we were in preproduction at that point. I didn’t realize it but he was reading for the T-1000 that day. And when I walked into the Lightstorm lobby, I saw this young man who I didn’t know. But it was Robert Patrick sitting in a chair waiting to go in and have a meeting or call-back with him. I remember looking at him and thinking “Oh that’s him. That’s the guy.” I introduced myself briefly and said I was going to see Jim and I’ll talk to you in a little while. I went in to see Jim Cameron and I said “Jim, the T-1000 is sitting in the lobby.” And he laughed and said, “I know. I’m putting him in the film and he’s about to hear that he’s cast.” And I said, “the guy’s perfect.” So, we were lucky to find him.

We were lucky in a lot of the casting in that film. Jim was able to find actors who were perfect for the roles they were playing. Linda Hamilton and Robert Patrick worked for about six months with a personal trainer named Uzi Gal, who was an Israeli. He got them into amazing physical condition. Which you can really see in the film. Especially with Linda. She just looked so chiseled and buff. And with the way the T-1000 moved and behaved and could run so fast, if you ask Robert Patrick he’ll tell you that he gave him all this skill set. Everybody worked really hard to make that film what it is today.

What does it mean to see the film’s story still resonate with people these days?

It makes me very happy. I’ve always considered Terminator 2 one of the finest films I’ve been lucky enough to work on. It’s had a profound effect on in both tone and visuals and a lot of other ways with subsequent films. That fact that it’s still popular is just very pleasing. And I’m really happy that Jim Cameron has decided to make a 3D version of it. Because if he hadn’t done that there really wouldn’t been a good reason for anyone to rerelease it wide in theaters. Because of that there’s a whole new generation of people who have either never seen the film or who have only seen it on television. Because of the 3D conversion, they are going to see it on a big wide screen which is the best way to see any film. I’m really happy that all of this is coming together now.

How do you think your time on Terminator 2 influenced your work since then?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. Every time you work on a film, they all have unique challenges and everything is a learning experience. My approach with anything I’ve worked on always starts with the characters. And everything else is secondary to that. Or enhances that. So, my approach to film making or film writing has always been character oriented. We got to do some wonderful new things with the character of Sarah Connor and the Terminator and young John Connor. How has it influenced my work since? I feel others are in a better position to judge than I ever will be. Because I’m inside of it. But it was a tremendous learning experience. I also picked up some technical knowledge because of the number of effects in the film. I picked up some technical knowledge of how that all works that I didn’t have before then. So, I learned a lot. And working with Jim Cameron is always a pleasure to write with. You have to understand that we’ve known each other since we were teenagers so we both kind of learned how to write together growing up. When it time to do this film, we had a lot of similar language and navigational gear, if you will, towards what makes a good script and what makes engaging characters. So, we had a very similar work process. We were able to go very quickly and to create what we did in very smooth and fun way.


Terminator 2: Judgment Day is available now in a new 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack from Lionsgate Home Video.


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