Interview: Skydance Heads David Ellison and Dana Goldberg Talk Future of Terminator, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Top Gun 2 and More
Posted on Friday, June 26th, 2015 by Peter Sciretta
You probably don’t know Skydance Productions yet, but you probably should. The company is making a major play to become the next Legendary Pictures or Marvel Entertainment, and they already are making the next installments of a number of major franchises on both the big and small screens. Their portfoilo of brands include Terminator, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, World War Z, Jack Reacher, Top Gun, GI Joe and much more.
When I was in Berlin Germany this past week to cover the Terminator Genisys premiere, I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Skydance Productions CEO David Ellison and Chief Creative Officer Dana Goldberg to talk about their company and what they are planning for the future. This extensive roundtable interview was conducted over the course of an hour alongside three of my colleagues. Over the course of the interview we talked about a number of topics, including:
- How Skydance Productions came about
- Why they decided to plan a trilogy of new Terminator films before the release of Terminator Genisys
- How will the planned new Terminator tv series connect with the new films, will it be cable or network show?
- Terminator Genisys: Did they ever consider brining back Edward Furlong as John Connor? How did they recreate young Arnold Schwarzenegger? CG vs. Practicle effects in the new film
- What kind of television series are they developing?
- What will the Three Days of the Condor tv series be about?
- Steve Jobs was Ellison’s personal mentor since childhood, find out how Jobs and Pixar influenced the creation of Skydance.
- Star Trek 3: Is the movie going to be titled Star Trek Beyond? When does shooting start and where are they filming? What is director Justin Lin and screenwriter Simon Pegg bringing to the sequel?
- Will they be producing a new Star Trek tv series? What is preventing a new show from happening?
- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: The film test screened even higher than Ghost Protocol. How do get insurance for Tom Cruise‘s crazy stunts? How did changing the release date impact getting that movie to the screen? Did Star Wars: Rogue One cause any title drama? Was any of the movie filmed in IMAX?
- Top Gun 2: David Ellison’s history flying aerobatics, What is the sequel about? Will Tom Cruise be in the new film? How will modern technology and 3D change the dogfights?
- Rebecca Ferguson will be a breakout star in MI5 and Skydance is already considering her for another one of their films
- Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: What will the sequel be about?
- How did James Cameron see Terminator Genisys? Was he paid for his endorsement in any way?
- And some brief words on World War Z 2.
All this and more, after the jump.
Skydance Interview From The Terminator Genisys World Premiere Junket
Before we get to the interview, lets first give you some background on the interview subjects:
- David Ellison is the son of billionaire Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison, and brother of indie uber producer Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, Her, Spring Breakers, The Master). He had a role in the 2008 film Flyboys but decided he would be better fitted overseeing production. He served as a producer on The Coen Brothers’ True Grit and has since founded his own production company Skydance which has a coproduction deal with Paramount to produce big blockbuster movies based on successful geek franchises.
- Dana Goldberg is Skydance’s Chief Creative Officer, and she has a long history in the film business, overseeing The Matrix trilogy and Ocean’s Eleven series at Village Roadshow and also executive producing films like the Oscar-Winning Happy Feet and Sherlock Holmes.
Okay, here is the full interview transcript:
QUESTION: Let’s start at the beginning: how did Skydance come about?
DAVID ELLISON: Really you’d have to go all the way back to 2010. It’s very fortunate we’re making this movie. I’ll never forget seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day with my mom when I was eight years old, and way too young to be going to see an R-rated movie, and it changed my life. It’s what made me want to make movies, and James Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. To give you an idea of how big of a fan my family was, my mother actually got into the shape that Linda Hamilton was in in that movie, and I have pictures that can prove it. She could pretty much demolish me for way too late in my life, which is embarrassing. Really, it was films like Jurassic Park and The Empire Strikes Back and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the original Matrix that are the movies that I loved and it became very clear early on from trying to break into the business that the only way we’d be able to make the types of movies we wanted to—which are action/adventure/science fiction/fantasy films—was to have a company that could support that. Then I was fortunate enough to meet Dana and the company would not be what it is without all the amazing work that she’s brought to it.
And you worked on the Matrix films.
DANA GOLDBERG: I did.
Do you like sci-fi?
GOLDBERG: I love sci-fi. One of my all-time favorite films—and I would say the original but I don’t even acknowledge that there was another one—is The Day The Earth Stood Still. I love science fiction because science fiction can take you to a whole other world but is also typically a comment on the world that you’re actually living in. To be able to make those kinds of movies and to be able to make big, fun movies that have real characters and that are smart and have heart, but that a worldwide audience can go to and escape and have a good time with, I mean that’s fun. You get up every day to enjoy doing that.
One of the things that I think Skydance has a position of strength in is that there’s an inner circle that is not large. One of the things with Marvel is they have a very small inner circle and can facilitate their vision to the screen without much manipulation from outside notes and voices. Can you talk about that inner circle and who’s on it and how that may be a position of strength?
ELLISON: Yeah, absolutely, and really that philosophy was really derived from Pixar. One of my many mentors was Steve Jobs and I literally got to see Pixar built from the ground up when I was a kid. And that creative process they have over there is exactly what you said. Those rooms are unbelievable. They have a group of tremendous filmmakers that are all incredibly honest with one another about exactly what they think, which allows them to really elevate the work. It was that case of 1+1=100 in their case. And for us we have a really tight-knit group of people in the company. On Terminator [Genisys], it was really Dana, myself, Laeta Kalogridis, and Patrick Lussier, and then obviously Alan [Taylor] as he came into it. That was really a phenomenal group. Chris McQuarrie is somebody who we’ve worked with multiple times over and over and over again, and we cannot wait for people to see the next Mission: Impossible [Rogue Nation]. It is a phenomenal, phenomenal movie. We’ve had an amazing relationship with J.J. Abrams, we’re making our 3rd and 4th movie together, and the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s franchise is something that we feel the tremendous pressure of living up to that legacy, and very much hope that the movie does that for audiences when they get to see it next year.
GOLDBERG: Something we talked about, I think maybe in our second meeting, when we sat down to talk about David’s vision for the company and what I was looking for in a company was that one of the true markers of success is actually working with the same people over and over again because it means it worked. Obviously, there’s financial success, which the audience tells you loud and clear whether or not they liked your movies and your TV shows, but you know that when you’re working with that same group of people over and over again, it’s because the experience was a good one, and typically it means not only that the movies work but you enjoy the process. You have a creative process that works with one another, and what’s really nice is you develop a shorthand. You have all of the people that David just named and there are also other writers that fit in that category, but it’s a lot of fun because those are the people you can fight like hell with over creative and no one takes it personally.
Now you two have made quite a few films together so I assume that you have quite a good system in place and how to play to each other’s strengths. Can you tell us how that works in something like Terminator?
ELLISON: Absolutely. One is we’re really blunt with each other [laughs]. If Dana thinks something is a bad idea, she’s not shy to share that information and neither am I, and nor is anybody that we work with. And on Terminator, the process began with Laeta and Patrick. When our offices were still at Paramount, we had a room that was dedicated solely to Terminator. And we sat in the room for about eight to ten hours a day and threw the movie up on white boards for a month, and would put the film up there, every single scene, and we’d rip it down and start over and we’d say ‘this isn’t working, let’s try this.’ And then we’d do pages and issues would come up through that and it was really that incredibly collaborative process with the four of us spending every waking moment together that is really what gave birth to what we always call ‘The July Draft’, which was we finally had a screenplay that we said ‘this is it, this is the movie we really wanna make.’ The film is, with some very small differences, very much what that draft was.
When you were in that room breaking down the story, it’s obviously come about that the optimistic goal will be to make a trilogy of films. How much did you realize ‘we have a big story here, we can do a trilogy’ in that room?
ELLISON: Right now, the audience is 100% going to decide if there is another movie, but we’re wanting to hopefully plan for the success and plan for the future. My favorite trilogies of all time—I think me and Dana share that—are the Star Wars trilogy and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And those two have one thing in common which was they were all written prior to shooting a frame of the first movie. They knew they were going to, so you weren’t having to figure it out as you go along. Obviously there are very successful examples of that, The Dark Knight being one that is unbelievable, but we wanted to know where we were heading. We spent a lot of time breaking that down, and we do know what the last line of the third movie is, should we be lucky enough to get to make it.
Any titles as well yet, or are you still waiting to see?
ELLISON: Titles? No.
GOLDBERG: No, we don’t. The thing that’s really important to know is that it wasn’t done because we were taking it for granted that we were going to get to a second and third movie. It really was done because it helps inform who the characters are in this movie. In really being able to understand these people so well that you would have to sit and talk about what were their lives like in the portion of the film that we didn’t see. We’ve had I can’t even tell you how many…I don’t want to say hours because it’ll wind up being days and/or weeks of conversation about ‘what did pops and Sarah [Connor] do in the interim between when she was nine years old to when we see them enter our film?’ That’s not in the movie. But for us to really understand who these characters were, we and Laeta and Patrick felt it was really crucial for all of us to be on the same page, that again we were sort of rowing the boat in the same direction. So to that end, it was important to know at the end of this movie, with everything that has happened to them, what would be the logical next step for these people? So again, really it’s important to us for everyone to know that Terminator Genisys is a standalone film. You’re not gonna walk out of this theater and feel cheated and think we left you dangling and now you have to wait for the next movie. Do we want you to want a next movie? Of course we do. Are there questions in this movie that don’t get answered? Yes, that’s absolutely true, but they’re not questions that keep you from enjoying this film, and that was really, really important to all of us.
When I was watching Terminator 2 the other day after I’d seen this film, that relationship between guardian Terminator and the little girl and that one image of him saving her could have been a movie on its own, kind of like a redo of T2. Was there ever a draft that was that?
ELLISON: At a point in time, there was a more expansive scene that really went into what Sarah Connor’s life was like with Guardian. It was finally something that—the script was much longer at that point in time. That is something we hope we get to explore either through television or comics. There have been countless pages written on what that story was like, but for this movie, we knew we wanted to do two things from the beginning. As Dana said, it had to be a standalone movie, but we also wanted to be incredibly respectful and reverential to the Cameron films. And at the same point in time, in our mind the best Terminator movies are always present day movies. They always take place in our world. And so for that, that obviously required going to the multiple different timelines, and really the “why now” for us was mankind’s relationship with technology, and how that’s shifted since Jim made the original movies.
Flash back to Judgment Day in the early 90s, that was when the IBM was first coming into people’s households and the internet was really an idea that people were pushing back on and rebelling against, and Hollywood was making movies like Hackers and The Net, which was these devices that everything’s being recorded on now are evil. Nothing could be further from the truth today. We line up in front of Apple stores to get the newest and latest and greatest phone or to get the new iWatch, and it allowed us to really posit a world where Skynet no longer needed to bang down your front door because you invited it into your daily lives. And Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors and really that whole notion of sleepwalking into a slave society without even realizing it seemed very relevant for what’s going on today at the forefront of the cutting edge. A.I. has never been more relevant. It was all of those things we wanted to focus on in this movie and allow us to do what great science-fiction does, which is hold up a mirror to what’s happening today and comment on it.
You guys created the T-3000. I believe that’s the model number?
GOLBDERG and ELLISON: Yes.
When you guys were brainstorming and coming up with stuff, how many future Terminator-type machines have you come up with, and how did you decide on this as the version you were going to use in this movie? Are you already thinking ‘we have the T-4000, but that’s for movie three’?
ELLISON: The T-3000, the John Connor Terminator was always the idea for this movie. Terminator movies promise groundbreaking special effects. James Cameron did that brilliantly with the mimetic poly Terminator in T2 and the thing we always loved about John Connor, and you guys have seen the movie, is that he is very much the personification of the theme in his character, both man and machine. For us, we went through…it has to be thousands of design iterations.
GOLDBERG: Oh yeah.
ELLISON: And had to really go off to Janek Sirrs and Shari Hanson. Janek obviously, he won the academy award for the visual effects in The Matrix, he did The Avengers and pretty much every big Marvel movie, and we were fortunate enough to pull him away, and the team at Double Negative. The character is built entirely in volume, so it’s truly built on a cellular level. The joke we always used when designing it was if this character is not breaking the render farm, we have not done our job properly. All of the internal luminosity you get when his hand gets shot through and you see it rebuilding the cellular structure and all of that detail, it’s thousands and thousands of tiny particles that actually make up John Connor. We knew that was the path we wanted to head down and it was a long design process but we’re very proud of it.
GOLDBERG: But here’s a fun fact for you. Yes, all of that is exactly true, and we spent countless weeks and weeks and weeks talking about the John Connor design, and then we realized while we were on a bus in New Orleans going to a location scout with Laeta and Patrick sitting there writing that we hadn’t given him his number yet. So it was the four of us on a bus heading to one of our many locations to just scout and finally Laeta was like ‘what’s his number? What is it?’ And that was the moment that we collectively decided it was going to be 3000.
ELLISON: That was what we were holding back, the John Connor reveal. We can’t push this on the call sheet. We can’t put this anywhere.
GOLDBERG: We just kept calling it John Connor, and we’re like, ‘Oh shit, we can’t do that, so we need a number.’ Of all the thoughts, that one was about [snaps] sixty seconds.
You also mentioned a TV show, and that’s something that we’ve been very curious about. What is the status of a Terminator TV show, and what do you envision in terms of the story it might tell?
ELLISON: It’s something that we’re developing as we speak. To speak kind of larger to that, one of the things we would love to do at Skydance—it’s a very lofty goal—is to build worlds across multiple mediums. And to me, I think everyone talks in Hollywood about franchises, ‘it’s a franchise business, it’s a franchise business’. I think that’s a slightly old-fashioned word, and I think it’s a world creation business. The dream for us would be to be able to obviously make films, television shows, we have a video game with Glu, comic books, and they all should be standalone experiences. If you just watch the movies or if you just watch a television show, it’s a complete experience. But if you are the kind of fans that we are over this material, and you watch all of it collectively, it all interweaves to feel like a larger universe that you can experience if you’re a huge fan of Terminator or any of the other franchises that we’re fortunate to work on, that’s really when you talk about the future of Skydance, one of the things that we really want to be a part of building.
When this was first reported, the Terminator thing, it was said that it was going to somehow directly tie into this movie in some way.
ELLISON: A little premature to be able to say, but I will say anything we do along those lines, it will absolutely have connective tissue. It would be a mistake and a little old-fashioned to have a television show and a movie, both based on something that actually don’t cross over in any way, shape, or form.
GOLDBERG: So we’re working on it, to answer your question.