James Cameron Pushed True Lies' Budget To The Limit

Sometimes the best world record to have is one that cannot be broken. As the first movie to have a nine-figure production budget ($100 million), James Cameron's 1994 "True Lies" has earned one such record. Given the movie's solid $365 million global box office take and the fact that Cameron's subsequent films repeatedly overtook its title as the most expensive ever made, "True Lies" can ultimately wear its budget as a badge of honor. Still, a closer look suggests a price tag of $100 million may not have been needed for a goofy American adaptation of the 1991 French spy comedy, "La Totale!"

At the time that "True Lies" was released, James Cameron had already exhibited a tendency towards expensive filmmaking. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" — the sequel to his 1984 breakout feature film — had taken the record three years earlier with a budget that has been debated, but falls close to $100 million. Before that, Cameron's 1986 "Aliens" went over 20th Century Fox's budget by $2 million for a total cost of $17.5 million, but more than made up for it by bringing in greater than 10 times its budget, with $183 million at the worldwide box office. 

In contrast to Cameron's visionary sci-fi works that preceded, the more traditional action-comedy that is "True Lies" likely did not demand that he again outdo his previous films on spending — but as the director said himself, "the money is up there on the screen."

Where did the budget go?

From the script phase, Cameron and his collaborators knew that "True Lies" would be an expensive film to produce, with ambitious special effects packed throughout its 144-minute run time. The opening ballroom sequence saturated with background actors (and repeated again at the end of the movie) is impressive and shows clear investment in set design and spectacle. The third act of the movie is a full-on indulgence of visual displays featuring multiple explosions (and costing $2 to $3 million in 1994 to blow up one miniature bridge). Other sequences involve a $33-million military aircraft, which the Marine Corps charged $20,000 per hour at the time to use and which the production team recreated in the form of a 46-foot replica.

One stunt sequence demanded Arnold Schwarzenegger sit in the Harrier Jump Jet replica for hours at a time hanging from a 120-foot-tall crane, while another had Jamie Lee Curtis dangling on a 250-foot cable above water (she reportedly enjoyed her stunts more than her male counterpart). Though these scenes were no doubt costly to produce, the expenses for "True Lies" did not always go where you would expect.

Nickles and dimes

In a 1994 LA media interview a couple weeks before "True Lies" came out, James Cameron shared details on his inclination to make even the most diminutive digital alterations to scenes. For example, Cameron artificially transferred a close-up of Eliza Dushku, who plays the 12-year-old daughter of Schwarzenegger and Curtis' characters, Harry and Ellen Tasker, from one scene to another, and changed the shirt she was wearing. To clarify what the audience is seeing in another scene, Cameron's effects team added computer-generated burning ashes to a shot when Harry's friend and coworker, played by Tom Arnold, spots the villain of the film (Art Malik) smoking a cigarette in his rearview mirror.

Other costly changes were made to solve problems that emerged in filming, such as when a model truck did not cartwheel and explode as it fell off a bridge during a third-act special effects shot, and Cameron instead added a CGI truck and explosion onto standalone B-roll of the bridge. When all was said and done, Cameron explained his spending:

"I added 40 shots. There are no limitations to what you can do. Only money."

New records

After "True Lies," James Cameron continued to be one of Hollywood's biggest spenders. In 1996, Cameron broke the cost per frame record on what else but an amusement park ride at Universal Studios called "Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time." The ride featured a 12-minute short film directed by Cameron, starring Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, and consuming $24 million of the ride's $60 million budget. Cameron's next hit, "Titanic," famously cost $200 million and sounded studio alarms before becoming the first movie to earn $1 billion.

Cameron may have started the trend of spending big dollars on Hollywood blockbusters, but today, $100 million or more has become standard. By 2009, even with its $237 million budget, James Cameron's "Avatar" came in at a lower cost than other productions around the time, namely the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. That said, Cameron could always take back the industry record on future "Avatar" franchise entries.

As Disney finances Cameron's vision for "Avatar," which came packaged with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the studio has also given the go-ahead to a new series based on "True Lies" coming to Disney+ in early 2023. With a proper "True Lies 2" unlikely to happen, this is the best fans of the 1994 film can probably expect.

At the time of its release, Cameron commented that with all the money spent on visual effects, the "True Lies" scene audiences most enjoyed was the striptease Curtis performs during what she believes is a secret spy mission. He joked, "I could have saved a lot of money." Let's hope the new series takes this lesson and invests as much in developing its female characters as it does in action set pieces.