In “Maggie,” Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the downbeat parent of a teenager (Abigail Breslin) bitten by a zombie. Spending most of the movie caring for ailing girl and anticipating her death, Schwarzenegger’s character in director Henry Hobson’s debut is far different from others he’s played in the past. That extends to the movie as well; opening day-and-date in the U.S. on May 9, “Maggie” marks a much smaller production than anything the actor has done before. But Schwarzenegger said that the movie gels with the way he’s worked for years.
In New York for the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, he spoke with Indiewire about his decision to make “Maggie,” his history with independent productions, the directors he admires and how he predicted the globalization of the film industry decades ago.
Were you worried about expectations for this movie?
It was totally different in every aspect. But I’m happy with the way it developed. Otherwise, I might never have been part of this movie. If they weren’t having a difficult time doing the movie in the first place, I don’t think they would have come to me. I don’t know exactly what the facts are, but since Henry [Hobson] has been involved with this project for four-and-a-half years, obviously they must have struggled to get it done. At a certain point they said, “Why don’t we get some big name actor to help get it going?” I think that’s when my agent said, “Hey Arnold, here’s an idea: You can squeeze this in between other projects. It’s only a five week shoot.” I totally agreed with him: It is very unique. It was very clear that this wasn’t the sort of thing going for a big box office result or any of that. But I knew that if I did a good job it would be a great movie for me and it could show a different side of me.
Why do you think your agent brought the project to you?
The agency, CAA, had this thing and felt like, OK, this script was on the Blacklist and it’s a very appreciated story. So they’re thinking, we, the greatest agency in the world, are going to get it done no matter what. We’re going to prove that these scripts get done because of us. My agent [Michael Kives] had really been on my case.
How do you usually choose your projects?
Most of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve gotten them myself, and then agents make the deal. People come up to me in restaurants and say, “Arnold, I’ve got this great script.” They send you stuff. They give you stuff in the gym. For “Eraser,” I was hanging out with Lorenzo di Bonaventura. I was sitting on a chairlift in Sun Valley. It is snowing. The snow is coming down. You can’t even see three feet in front of you. And we’re taking off in the chairlift to go skiing together. The chairlift takes off and he goes, “By the way, Arnold.” He pulls the script out for “Eraser” and gives it to me. He says, “Put it in your jacket, read it, I’m here this whole weekend.” That’s normally the way it happens. There’s no agent, no nothing. That’s how the “Terminator” thing happened — Mike Medavoy coming up to me after a movie and going, “Arnold, you have to play Reese. We have OJ Simpson as the Terminator.” Of course, it all changed later.
So agents usually claim they got the job and it’s not true. But in this case, it was one of those very extraordinary things. He really got me to do this movie. It was really like the ideal situation — the way agents should work. They see something they believe in and give it to you because they have this writer they also represent. He really believed in it.
A lot of times agencies say that A-list actors are “looking for an indie.” In some ways, “Maggie” is your first true indie, though you may feel differently.
Well, I don’t know what the definition of “indie” is, because most of the movies I’ve done are independent movies. If you think about “Terminator,” it was a totally independent movie. Then Orion took over. But it was produced by Hemdale Film, a British production company that independently financed it. A lot of those films were independent productions. Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna’s Carolco Pictures did “Red Heat” and “Total Recall” with me. They did “Terminator 2.” They independently financed all those movies.
Right, but there’s a difference between those movies and something like “Maggie,” shot on a low budget in a handful of locations.
Absolutely. But the thing is, some movies are very hard to get done because when you read them, you say, “This is great but doesn’t have commercial value, so how do we get it out there?” So you think, “OK, this movie shouldn’t be done for more than a few million dollars. Then we can get the money back.” That’s exactly what they did with this movie. They were very smart, kept the budget low, and they’re going to make their money back.
How do you think the film industry has changed since you first hit it big?
To me, the important thing is that my movies can play anywhere and people will understand the drama, the action, or whatever and get entertained. So this movie has to play in Austria as well as it does here — which it will. Any parent in Australia or Austria or Africa or American will be able to relate to it — this virus, the daughter dying, what you would do. It’s the same thing with a “Conan” script or a “Terminator” movie. It has to play the same way in all the different continents. That’s very important — from the beginning, when I was getting started, I always looked at everything in a global way, whether it was body-building or fitness promotion. Even though I passed environmental laws in California, I was thinking about how to make it effective all over the world. It’s always about the world.
With movies, even though I had big fights in the beginning, I remember that with Universal Studios we were going to do promotion for “Conan the Barbarian” and I said, “Let’s go to 10 countries.” They said, “No, no, that’s not how we do it. We visit three countries — England, France, and the Cannes Film Festival.” I wanted to go to Italy, Germany, Japan. I kept at it and eventually they sent me to 10 countries, but they thought it was a little out there. They said, “This guy just likes to travel around.” But it had nothing to do with traveling around. I thought that the world was the marketplace, not just America.
Now look what happened. I was totally on the money. I’m so happy today because I was so right and way ahead of the curve. Now, in China, “The Fast and the Furious” made like $400 million and will end up making more over there than in America. China’s right behind America. So the world is very important for box office and making big movies. You need to go to China, Japan, African nations. You need to go to these places and make sure they’re building theaters all over the world. It’s a world economy.
How important is box office to you now?
I think it’s important that we make sure the money comes back. If I spend $6 million like they did on “Maggie,” then I want that to come back and have them make $8 million, so they’re encouraged to make another independent movie and the next one. They should get rewarded for making good decisions and sticking with it. When they spend $200 million on a movie I want to make sure they get $600 million back. Half of it goes to the theater owners, then you have to pay off your promotion and marketing, and then there’s some profit in the end. So that’s important to me. Then there’s your ego, of course. One should not forget that. It always feels good when you have great box office success.
Do you think the video-on-demand marketplace has complicated the definition of box office success?
Of course it does. But I don’t think anyone looked at “Maggie” as something that should open big in 5,000 theaters. It’s not that kind of a movie. So the studio — Lionsgate and Roadside — they look at it and say, OK, we can make our money back doing this. So you can’t change the way they work. My wish would’ve been for them to let the box office play out for three weeks and then go to VOD. [“Maggie” is a day-and-date release.]
Do you want to make other movies on this scale? Your next two projects, sequels to “Conan” and “Twins,” are at the end of the spectrum.
Oh yeah, I absolutely would. The good thing is that I feel comfortable with small, medium and big movies.
Special effects have gone through incredible changes since you first started out. But sometimes they overwhelm the story. Does that ever bother you?
It seems to me that visual effects are very welcome. For instance, if the T-1000 and the T-800 have a fight scene, and you want to go beyond just pushing each other around like it’s a UFC fight — which we see all the time on television — you can only do that with visual effects. I cannot tell the story without that ability to grab you, throw you by your head up against the ceiling so you land in this wooden floor, and since you weigh 1,000 pounds, each time you hit the wooden floor it goes down to the next room. That’s the power you have. Otherwise it becomes a UFC fight where human beings are hitting the floor. People don’t want to see that. They want to see a machine do it. What does that look like? For that you need visual effects.
For example, there’s one scene [in “Terminator: Genisys”] where he grabs me and throws me up against the wall, 15 feet up, to show the power these machines have. So it’s a different type of fight scene. The only way that’s possible is with visual effects. So it shouldn’t take anything away. If you use it wisely, I think it’s great. For instance, on “Conan,” Oliver Stone wrote a scene with the Tree of Woe. We had to take that scene out because that scene alone cost $20 million. His script was budgeted at $78 million — in 1980! Only because it was impossible to be done in those days as a visual effects. Today you can do it just like that. You can create a scene that is so spectacular, to show what this tree does, why everyone is so frightened of it that they couldn’t get through. It was a really well-written scene but you couldn’t shoot it in those days. That’s why I think visual effects are great, but when it’s not that kind of a scene, you have to get back down to acting and developing the characters. I’ve seen it myself firsthand on action movies how directors and producers don’t pay as much attention to the development of the characters because they focus so much on the big stuff. James Cameron is the only one I’ve seen who’s really so good in the details of the scene but also with the big things. He doesn’t compromise one versus the other.
At this stage of your career, are there filmmakers you’re eager to work with?
I just met Darren Aronofsky while I was in China. He and I talked about whether we could do something together. He’s a director who’s very talented that I’d love to work with and we may find something. Steven Spielberg and I have talked many times about doing something together. It hasn’t happened yet but that doesn’t mean it won’t. So there are a lot of really creative directors out there. But I also like to go back to the ones I’ve worked with in the past. I’d love to do another film with Jim Cameron, John McTiernan, Paul Verhoeven, those guys. They’ve been so good and if you give them with the right project and support them as an actor-producer, if you protect them, they can do extraordinary work. It’s just that the way Hollywood works, the new broom sweeps well. It’s always about the new guy on the block. The old guys are always being forgotten.