James Cameron Spills His Secrets About How To Make A Great Sequel

By June 2, 2014

The Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex Film Festival took place this weekend in Hollywood, and I was able to attend a couple of the biggest events at the festival. I’ve already written about last night’s conversation with Sigourney Weaver about the legacy of Alien and how she wants to reprise her role as Ripley in a new movie, but on Saturday night, there was an even more prominent guest at the festival: writer/director James Cameron. Between screenings of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron spoke about how he came up with the story for these films, the evolution of Sarah Connor, his writing process on the Avatar sequels, and more.

I’ll have further write-ups from this discussion coming later today, but speaking of sequels, one of the most interesting bits of conversation came during the fan Q&A portion of the evening, when a fan basically asked Cameron if he could reveal the secret of how he’s been able to make two incredible sequels so far in his career that live up to or surpass the original films in the series:

The first sequel I wrote was Aliens, so I was really just thinking like a fan. ‘What do I want to see?’ I also had a lot of elements for other science fiction scripts and stories that I had been writing that happened to graft into it nicely, so I had a bunch of things just lying around. I think the trick to a sequel is you have to surprise and reinvent, but the surprises have to be positive not negative surprises – negative surprises being disappointments – and they have to be something that’s obvious after the fact but not obvious before the fact. And that’s a really tricky formula to hit. You have to be true to the characters. Like, I think Aliens is – I had no skin in the game with Alien whatsoever. I could have killed off Ripley and just told my own story and just use the title, but that didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to honor her character. She was the only survivor, so I had her and the cat to work with. But David Fincher, and I love his film, but when he came on Alien 3, he basically killed off all the characters that you rooted for so hard, and as a fan, I wouldn’t have liked that. So I think you’ve got to honor the characters that already exist – whether they’re your characters or somebody else’s. You shouldn’t be making the movie if you don’t love the first one or the prior one enough to be there. I would say from a filmmaker’s perspective, that should be rule number one.

Sounds like Cameron isn’t actually too happy with the decisions Fincher and his team made in Alien 3. But that film was notoriously plagued with tons of problems (including having to rewrite the screenplay on the fly while filming), so it’s tough to put too much of the blame on Fincher himself for those decisions. Cameron’s point is a good one, though: if you don’t love the first movie, you shouldn’t make the sequel. At the very least, that should allow for some passion to come across in the final product.

Arnold Terminator big

Cameron continued his advice on how to make a great sequel:

Writing a sequel, you’ve got to continue the story, continue the characters, but you’ve got to swerve in a crazy direction and it has to make complete sense when you’re watching it. Terminator 2 is, I think, a good example of that in principle, because flipping the most cold-blooded killer in the world into a hero that – spoiler alert – you cry for at the end of the film…I told everybody, ‘The end of Terminator 2 is Shane.‘ They said, ‘What?’ Arnold said, ‘What?’ Actually, one of the funniest moments on Terminator 2 was I gave the script to Arnold…he said, ‘OK, Jim, the script is pretty good, but I don’t kill anybody.’ I said, ‘I know, I know. That’s the whole point!’ He said, ‘But I’m the Terminator. [Laughter] Everybody wants me to kick in the door and machine gun everyone inside.’ I said, ‘I know! They’ll never see this one coming!’ [Laughter] I explained to him how I thought it would work, and he said, ‘You really think this will work?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘OK. You’re the boss.’ And then there’s this long pause, and he said, ‘But wait a minute. Before John reprograms me, I can kill people then.’ And I said, ‘OK Clarence Darrow, you got me on that one. But no! He’s got to be a hero. Don’t you want to be a hero?’ [Cameron impersonates Arnold begrudgingly agreeing with him.] ‘OK.’

The character reversal in Terminator 2 is one of sci-fi’s greatest moments, and watching those two films together without considering the sequels that have followed, it’s truly amazing what Cameron was able to accomplish here. The first Terminator movie was shot for around 6 million dollars, and Terminator 2 was the most expensive film of all time when it was released, so you might think that there would be a disconnect between them with such an increased budget and the studio notes that might come along with that. But it was a different time back then and Cameron’s vision clearly won out, and we’re left with one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of science fiction. Let’s hope Cameron applies these techniques to Avatar 2, 3, and 4 as he heads into production on those in the months ahead.

What do you think about Cameron’s advice about sequels? Have any thoughts on Alien 3? Let us know below!

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.