The Movie Waffler Interview - TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Production Designer Sonja Klaus | The Movie Waffler

Interview - TERMINATOR: DARK FATE Production Designer Sonja Klaus

sonja klaus
Production designer Sonja Klaus on bringing a killer from the future into the world of today.

terminator dark fate

Legacy Meets Modernity

“The thing you notice with James Cameron, when you properly look at his movies,” says award-winning production designer Sonja Klaus, “is just how much they are about how things look. All his shots are very detailed. There’s one I always remember in T2, where the camera starts on a desk, then shows the room, then goes along a corridor. All the way down the corridor, you can see the glass in the windows, how the glass actually fits into the windows, and the bars and the drips on the outside. He’s very involved in texture and light, the dark and shade and drama. And then you look at what Tim Miller does. Deadpool was brilliant. I loved Deadpool’s apartment in particular, all the clutter. It’s brilliantly realised. Like Cameron, Tim has an incredible eye for visuals. Detail is key for him, too.”

On board with the project from the beginning, Klaus watched Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in preparation, not that the homework was required. “For one,” she says, “I love those movies so much that I’d never consider watching them to be ‘homework’, but also, the brief wasn’t to copy anything that had been done before. Yes, this movie is a direct continuation from those first two movies, but it was also made very clear that while this should feel like part of that world, it should also evolve it.” As such, while some things remained the same – “Linda still has the blonde hair, still looks slim and fit in the tight jeans and has the big glasses and big guns,” says Klaus.

“My process is to do what I call my ‘Wall Of Shame’. I look at the locations and every single scene and I make the whole script on my wall, in pictures,” says Klaus. “You need to put in wet and dry and light and dark – you have to look at it as if you’re also storytelling with what you are dictating onto the process. What the trees are like, what the greenery is like, what the rocks are like [at all the locations] – all of those things you need to think about. You’re choosing that location because you’re using that as part of the palette, as part of the creation. When you’re a designer, choosing that location is terribly important. You know, I have worked with some producers who say, ‘I don’t see what’s wrong with this location’. But I look at it and can see that there’s everything wrong with that location! You can’t waste that choice. That choice that you make, that is so important.”

The level of visual depth that Klaus has poured into the movie comes across in every frame, grounding the story in a world that feels real, full of texture and sights, smells and sounds. “Even the graffiti,” she says. “There’s a lot of graffiti in the Mexico sequences at the start of the movie, and we got in a load of graffiti artists, who are all amazing. Graffiti is a storytelling artform and I said to Tim that I wanted to use the graffiti to tell a story. It’s not just about sticking some graffiti on a wall. It’s, ‘Why would it be on that wall and what is the story it’s telling?’ I said to the graffiti artist, ‘I want it to be joyous. I want this world where we first meet Dani [Natalia Reyes] to be this amazing place of colour and vibrancy and life. At least before death comes knocking…’”

terminator dark fate

Revolutionary Roads

Terminator: Dark Fate is different things to different people – on the one hand, an all-action extravaganza and on the other, an all-too-prescient warning about the changing nature of man and machines. “But for me, as a production designer,” says Klaus, “what it is mainly is a road movie.”

As such, her palette evolves – “Devolves, actually,” Klaus notes – as the story progresses. “I did a colour palette for every single set,” Klaus says. “The idea was that it would desaturate as the movie goes on and the characters’ predicament gets increasingly desperate. So, at the start, in Mexico, where Dani lives, the palette is full of all the colours and all the light you get in Mexico, which is a beautiful place that I knew very well as we used to go there a lot when I was a kid. I wanted where Dani lives to be welcoming, like a place you might want to go and stay with her for a while. That palette makes the audience feel welcome, at home. It lulls them into a false sense of security.”

Then, when the REV-9 arrives on the scene, bringing death and destruction in its wake, “I gradually stripped all that colour out as we were travelling through the movie. So, the movie gradually becomes more and more desaturated as it becomes more terrifying. It was this idea that you had less joy to hang onto as the characters’ situation becomes more desperate. It’s so important to have that colour in the beginning and to then take it away, because you need to empathise with Dani. You want her to survive because you like her and you know where she comes from. I thought of it like a pain, like when you get a stomach pain or a headache – it starts off mildly and then gradually it gets so bad that you have to take medicine. And, in this case, the medicine is basically getting rid of the REV-9. He has to go.”

Very much the next revolutionary step on from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 terminator from the original movie and Robert Patrick’s more advanced T-1000 from T2, the REV-9 presented a unique challenge for Klaus. Not so much in its conception, but in its impact. “Tim very kindly involved me in the start process [of the REV-9’s design],” says Klaus, “but then many, many people got involved with that, as they always do with that kind of thing! But, for me, I’m more concerned not with how he looks or what he can do – and what he can do is amazing, by the way – but the destructive effects that what he can do means for everyone else, and their environment. Everything I do is about reaction. You know, ‘How much damage is this thing capable of doing?’ And it turns out that the answer to that is a lot.”

terminator dark fate

Appetite For Destruction

This year marks Klaus’ thirtieth in the business, having started out as art director on Streetwise, a TV drama about a team of bicycle couriers in London that starred among them a fresh-faced Andy Serkis. But it was her move into set decorating, on a small movie called Gladiator in 2000, that saw her evolve into the creative force she is today. “My first job I did with Ridley Scott was Gladiator. I knew who he was, but I’d never met him and I’d never worked with him,” says Klaus of the director who would change her way of thinking so fundamentally that she has worked with him on seven movies and two TV series since. “I have learnt so much from that man about things that are visual. He ignited something in me. He ignites something in you that I can’t explain. He made me become a far better designer than I could have done had I not had that teaching. There was something about meeting that man that made me look at things in a different way.”

Her collaboration with Scott has led to awards (Best Production Design at the British Film Designers Guild Awards for Taboo) and nominations (Excellence in Production Design for both Robin Hood and Prometheus with the Art Department Guild Awards), but, more than that, it has instilled in Klaus a constant need to learn and evolve that has reached its peak with Terminator: Dark Fate. “I’m always interested in learning,” says Klaus, “and on this movie there were lots of detail that I needed to take on board. I learned a lot about big explosions, for instance,” she smiles, “because there are some very big ones in this. I already knew a lot about explosions because I’d worked a lot with [special effects supervisor] Neil Corbould before. He is amazing – he’s got, like, four BAFTAs and two Oscars or something obscene. So, I was lucky. But you always have to teach yourself more too, to learn about how explosions work, how they affect metals and wood at certain temperatures. I read up a lot about when cement gets to a certain temperature, what happens to it. Where does the actual force go, and what does it do? It’s important because I had to design [the sets] as pre-explosion, then halfway and then total devastation. I mean, I’d never exploded a turbine before, so I looked at a lot of footage. There was one in Russia, I think, but there was no actual footage of it going up – just the aftermath. So, all those things I have to look at because I’m responsible for the visuals that go to the CG people. I do the reference and they extend it. I have to give them the extension, for them to fulfil that and continue. And, also, that’s the interesting stuff – I want to learn all about it!”

And then, of course, there’s the stuff that most people would probably be happy to never know. “Yeah, you do learn some things that kind of sit with you,” she says. “Like with the aeroplane [in Terminator: Dark Fate]. You have to understand what happens to a plane when one wing comes off. What actually happens to it. Also, when one engine stops, what does it actually do? What happens inside? You need to know that. You can’t be ignorant. I know that some people might not be interested in that, or who would rather stay ignorant, but I am very interested in that, so you teach yourself. That’s how you grow, right? And that’s how you deliver.”

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE is available to own on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray™ and DVD now