A new Terminator film came out yesterday and James Cameron is happy to talk about it. There’s a good reason for that: After years of letting others steer the Terminator franchise — a tangled rights dispute helped keep him away, to say nothing of Cameron’s work on other projects — Cameron has returned to the series as an executive producer for Terminator: Dark Fate. His name is on the posters and in the credits, and consequently, he’s out doing interviews to promote it. And though Cameron never visited the set, he took a hand in shaping the story and advised on the editing process.
He is, in other words, fully endorsing the latest entry, after giving later-rescinded thumbs up (or staying silent about) the preceding three sequels. In the moment, Cameron had nice things to say about Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; recommended Sam Worthington for Terminator: Salvation; and gave a full-throated recommendation to Terminator: Genisys. Then he walked back all that praise.
So why should we believe him now? And does the fact that he has real skin in the game this time make his endorsement mean more, or less?
That’s not as easy a question to answer as it might seem, just as it’s not always easy to take any director endorsing another’s work at face value. Filmmaking is an art, but also a business, and kind words can sometimes be part of behind-the-scenes power games even when they don’t appear to be. Cameron has retroactively explained his praise of the Cameron-less sequels as being a gesture of support for their star (and his friend) Arnold Schwarzenegger. But keeping the Terminator franchise alive has also served his interests in the long run, as evidenced by that fact that it’s drifted back into his creative control. A dead franchise couldn’t do that, after all.
Yet it’s best not to be too cynical — about Cameron and Terminator movies or any filmmaker who decides to promote the work of another, either by blurb or a more substantial investment. In the first instance, it’s easy to argue that the Terminator franchise needs Cameron more than Cameron needs the Terminator franchise; he’s been doing just fine without it and is keeping busy filming roughly 18 sequels to Avatar at once. Signing onto Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t an act of charity, but it’s not like Cameron was wanting for work or money, either. When Cameron says he came back because he was excited by the opportunity to take the world he created — and which created his career — “back to basics,” it’s probably best to believe him. And when Cameron refers to Terminator: Dark Fate as a film “forged in fire,” where differing points of view with director Tim Miller resulted in “blood” that’s “still being scrubbed off the walls from those creative battles,” as he did in a recent Collider interview, it’s probably best to believe that, too.
More often, however, endorsements come from a less conflicted, if not always financially disinterested place. The past three decades of film would look different, for instance, if James L. Brooks didn’t take an interest in young filmmakers. Previously a teen writer for Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe enjoyed tremendous success adapting his non-fiction book Fast Times at Ridgemont High into a screenplay for Amy Heckerling. Their collaboration became one of the defining films of the 1980s, but Crowe’s next screenplay, a sort-of follow-up called The Wild Life directed by Art Linson, didn’t make as deep an impression. Cameron spent the next few years being mentored by Brooks as he worked on the film that would become Say Anything….
“We’d sit in his office and talk for hours,” Crowe told Interview in 2011. “I’d say something like, ‘My sister, I wish she’d just learn to decide to be in a good mood and then just be in a good mood.’ He would say, ‘That you should write.’ I’d go, ‘What? What did I say?’ He’d go, ‘That’s what you should write, because that’s your voice.’” At Brooks’ suggestion, Crowe even wrote a novella from the perspective of Diane Court, the character later to played by Ione Skye. When six directors turned down the project, Brooks pushed Crowe to make it as his directorial debut.
During this period, Brooks also collaborated closely with producer Polly Platt who, a few years later, would help bring a short film called Bottle Rocket to his attention, which in turn led to the film of the same name, which in turn led to the career of Wes Anderson. More recently, Brooks executive produced the 2016 film The Edge of Seventeen, writer Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut. A modest success, it should have been a bigger hit, since Craig has the kind of wit, empathetic skills and filmmaking instinct that suggests that, like Crowe and Anderson, she’ll be around for a long time. In other words, Brooks can still spot talent, even if it takes the rest of the world a while to catch up.
None of these are, of course, acts of charity. Brooks’ Gracie Films is very much in the business of making films that make money, and the film industry is a place where the line between being a mensch and being a smart early investor can be fuzzy. Even so, an established director signing on as a producer can make the difference between a film getting made and getting noticed, or fading away. Spike Lee’s name on Tales from the Hood, The Best Man and Love & Basketball all helped assure they’d be taken seriously in a business where black and female filmmakers often struggle to get attention. Having the name of one of America’s greatest filmmakers attached to your film is no guarantee of success, but it certainly open doors.
And sometimes it’s just that — a name. Jonathan Demme has no official credit on Adam Leon’s great, too-little-seen 2012 film Gimme the Loot, but it hit theaters with the words “Jonathan Demme Presents” above the title, a sweet act of endorsement.
Similarly, since 1990, Martin Scorsese has racked up a long list of credits as producer or executive producer that includes such notable movies as The Grifters, Grace of My Heart and You Can Count on Me. (And, well, The Snowman.) In the last two years year alone he’s worked on Kent Jones’ remarkable Diane, the well-liked Happy as Lazzaro, the upcoming Uncut Gems and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, the lattermost the result of years spent admiring Hogg’s work. The Scorsese stamp of approval can help shine a spotlight on films while also providing some protection for their vision: Watching Diane, it’s easy to imagine an edges-sanded-off version that another producer might have forced on a first-time director, even one as steeped in film as Jones, a longtime critic and programmer. The version we got suggests no one made any compromises.
There can be a downside — and a bit of dark side — to filmmakers endorsing filmmakers, however, even when it’s only behind the scenes. Approached to direct the film that would become Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brad Bird instead pointed producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy toward a pre-Jurassic World Colin Trevorrow, later announced as the director of the third sequel in the franchise’s Disney era. Bird’s selling point — “there is this guy that reminds me of me” — still receives scrutiny and scorn whenever criticism of Lucasfilm’s non-existent track record with female directors flares up. Sometimes you get Scorsese and Lee lifting up, respectively, Hogg and Gina Prince-Bythewood: Other times you get recommendations that perpetuate a closed system designed to elevate more of the same. (Trevorrow later departed the project after he and Lucasfilm “mutually parted ways.”)
More often than not, however, it’s worth taking a director’s endorsement of another’s work seriously. Most realize that their name means something, even if meaning something can cut both ways. Early in his career, Quentin Tarantino dedicated interview after interview to talking up influences both classic, like Howard Hawks, and contemporary, like John Woo, and his enthusiasm led others to seek out their films. But Tarantino’s name on the posters for Pulp Fiction collaborator Roger Avary’s 1994 directorial debut Killing Zoe disappointed fans drawn by the unrealistic expectation that it would be an extension of Tarantino’s work.
Still, that same name, via Tarantino’s short-lived but vital Rolling Thunder Pictures imprint, also helped introduce the West to Japanese great Takeshi Kitano via his stylish, mournful yakuza drama Sonatine, and to Hong Kong master Wong Kar-Wai via his incredible Chungking Express.
Tarantino gave each the nudge they needed to reach moviegoers who might otherwise never have seen them, in the process making the film world a better place. That’s the best possible outcome when one director decides to co-sign the work of another — even if he or she has something to gain from any success those kind words might inspire.