Randall Frakes Q&A


Randall Frakes is a film and science fiction writer best known for James Cameron fans for his work with long-time friends, Bill Wisher, and James Cameron on The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day novelizations. While Frakes was in the U.S. Army, he was stationed in Europe, where he edited the newspaper for the 16th Signal Battalion. While editor, he won a Stars and Stripes award for investigative journalism. After the Army, he earned a degree in Film Writing and Production from Columbia College, while also writing for Analog, Fantastic, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. He then became a professional screen and book writer

JAMESCAMERONONLINE: Could you tell us about your background, how did you become a writer?
RANDALL FRAKES: I first became aware of film when I was a six year old kid watching Robert Aldrich’s grim Word War 2 thriller, “ATTACK!” which featured Jack Palance getting his arm run over by a Nazi tank, and surviving, barely, to get revenge on a cowardly officer. It was a monophonic, black and white, standard aspect ratio movie but it mesmerized me, and I got the bug to tell stories then and there. Hungry for narrative, I started buying CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comics (no DC or Marvel for me!) and then going to more movies. From “DAVY CROCKETT” to “GODZILLA,” and I was hopelessly a geek for storytelling, in any format. I started writing little short stories, some of which never got higher than stupid in quality, much to my frustration (I had a lot to learn about writing!).

JCO: Why did you decide to become a writer?
RF: See above, and adding some detail, I began writing plays for my drama class in high school. It seems we had about 75% girls in the class, so there were no plays WRITTEN to use SO MANY girls in the cast, so I told my teacher I would write some. My first effort, and we not only performed it live, but also videotaped it by borrowing the new-fangled machine from the sports department, was inspired by Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY, in which a peaceful tribe of barbaric women who are survivors of a nuclear war draw lots for mating rights to the only male they’ve encountered among the ruins. It went over big with the girl cast, the teacher and the male audience!

JCO: First stories?
RF: See above, and I was heavily influenced by the masters of the golden age of sci-fi, guys like Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Sheckly, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. So my first stories borrowed from them: stories about Mars colonization, moon colonization, and fist contact with truly alien species.

JCO: How did you meet James Cameron?
RF: One of my short stories that actually got published was “I Wince in Limbo,” a sad tale of a man so in love with a woman that he stows away aboard a star cruiser taking a hundred year journey to a far planet to colonize. She is put into cryosleep and the stowaway can only watch himself age as she stays the same. The ship’s computer goes off course and selects a closer planet to colonzize, and awakens the girl just in time to hold the now old man in her arms as he dies. Jim was in a psych class in college that my girl friend at the time, a wonderful person, was also attending. He tried to pick her up, and she told him he needed to meet me, because we “talked the same talk”. So here comes this bearded Viking-looking dude with my girl across the quad. She introduces me and I realize immediately two things: this guy is a genius, and he and I were going to be friends. And so it went.

JCO: How did you become friends?
RF: See above, plus, we began collaborating on several shorts and experimental stories, until we realized we had a large area of overlap. The difference is he is more focused and ruthless and ambitious, thinking of life as a war you must strategize to win. The Darwinian model of survival of the fittest. Because he was also very talented, this point of view has served him extremely well! I, on the other hand, think of life as an opportunity not to compete, but to cooperate with one another to achieve great goals… I surf life rather than try to conquer it. The cooperative and symbiosis model and the Darwinian model are both evident in life all over the universe. Both can work well. We are very alike, except he and I have different perspectives, although as we age into senility, our two world views are coming closer together to make a powerful mix.

JCO: Your first known collaboration with Jim Cameron is Xenogenesis. Only a short pilot was produced, can you elaborate on its story and creation?
RF: He and I were looking to do something more ambitious to get us into the film industry. A mutual friend had a recording studio and a garage band making records there got to know him. The father of the leader of the band was a financial consultant for a bunch of Orange County (California) dentists. His son told his father about Jim and me, and we were asked to come in and make a pitch for funding. We did, and they had $17,000 left over they needed to invest into something immediately for tax purposes. Se, we were in the right place at the right time. We elected to shoot the short in 35mm. We used an old Mitchel rack-over camera and made this short to demonstrate our nascent abilities as effects techs who could get a cool shot cheaply. Which we did. Using stop-motion techniques, we made a short illustrating one scene from the first script Jim and I collaborated on, which was “Xenognesis,” based loosely on my short story “I Wince in Limbo.”

JCO: You co-wrote The Terminator novelization with Bill Wisher. It's safe to assume Jim picked you for the project - the book adds many scenes and elaborates greatly on many things, even Terminator's nature. For example, you explain what would happen to the Terminator if he completed his mission, what caused him to "awake" from the burning inferno and much more. Was all of it your ideas? Did Jim consult you on those extra aspects of the mythology?
RF: Jim had little time to consult with us on the book, but he did offer several inserted paragraphs to deepen some aspect of the story, but none of the ones you mentioned, that was mostly me, but, of course, directly inspired by Jim. He would have written an awesome novelization on his own, but he just didn’t have time. I helped in the very early stages of developing that script, and so he wanted to reward me for helping him get started with it by offering the novelization. Bill Wisher had been a vital participant in the short “Xenogenesis,” (he was the male lead!) and I was training him to be a screenwriter, as I had Jim. I showed Jim some of his work, and it was clear that Bill was a great dialogue writer, so I agreed to share authoring the book with Bill, who also contributed additional dialogue to many scenes in Terminator movie. The “I’ll be back” line came from him.


Randy Frakes, Bill Wisher and James Cameron

JCO: Why was the novelization released so long after the movie premiered?
RF: Jim had final right to authorize the manuscript, and he was so busy doing post-production and pre-release interviews and publicity, that he had no time to study the manuscript. He kept delaying releasing it until Bill and I hectored him into reading it quickly. He finally authorized its release, but it takes awhile for publishers to manufacture and distribute a book. Hence its delayed release, which hurt its sales. It sold less than its 50,000 copy first printing. But, when TERMINATOR 2 was published, they re-released that first book and it went through the roof worldwide!

JCO: You’re credited for synthesizer effects on Aliens. You helped create the sound of the Alien Queen with Jim Cameron, can you tell us more about that?
RF: When Jim was writing “ALIENS” I made a tape of brooding music to inspire him, selected from rare classical and modern music, and I punctuated it intermittently with this weird alien scream I created by breathing backwards, and changing the playback speed by putting my hand on the open reel to vary it. It sounded super-creepy, I must say. Anyway, when Jim got into post-production over in England, he could not get the same creepy sound from his sound crew. They didn’t know how I made it, and I had forgotten the details, so, in frustration he called me over and set me up in a secret lab, with our mutual friend Robert Garrett (a composer and sound technician, who also composed some additional music for ALIENS), and we struggled to remake that alien scream. We wound up creating sound effects for about a third of the movie, and the film won the Oscar for Best Sound Effects that year! So, I guess, among other things, I am an Oscar-winning sound effects guy! You say Jim helped. More like inspired and cajoled is the better way to describe his participation. However, he contributed directly one of the best sound effects, the breathing of the Queen Alien was all Jim, through a processor, and very effective in making the creature seem organic, real and terrifying.

JCO: You wrote the novelization for T2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day. How, if at all, was the process different from writing the first one?
RF: For the first novelization, Bill and I split the book up. He wrote all the Reese scenes, and a few of the Sarah Connor and Terminator scenes where Reese was also present. I wrote the Terminator and all the early Sarah scenes. For TERMINATOR 2, I wrote everything. It was more work, but the script (co-written by Jim and Bill) was so detailed and so good, that it was easy to transform it into a novel. My adds were either directly inspired by the script, or came from early discussions I had with Jim and Bill.

JCO: On the audio commentary for Terminator 2: Judgment Day by James Cameron and Bill Wisher, Bill says "I think it was seven weeks (writing the script), and we spent a few days in the beginning, you and I and Randy Frakes, talking..." but the action onscreen prompts a sudden change of subject. What was Bill going to say? Were you also a part of the brainstorming team for T2?
RF: I was hired to consult on both the script and the novelization for the first three days of brainstorming. But Jim had such a terrific vision for it that I contributed little but gathered lots of good info for how to do the novelization.

JCO: What was your involvement in True Lies?
RF: Jim needed to finish a whole screenplay in less than three weeks to capture Schwarzenegger’s commitment before he had to sign onto another movie. Bill was not available at the time, so he called me up, rah-rahed me into coming on board. So we spent a week researching real terrorists and breaking down the little French thriller we were adapting TRUE LIES from (it’s called “LA TOTALE” and is a charming hoot if you can find it). Jim hastily wrote a treatment based on our discussions and notes, then we split that into two parts. I wrote the first half, he wrote the second. But the script came out to be over 200 pages long! It would have made an epic three and a half hours long! And we weren’t supposed to be making “DR. ZHIVAGO,” but a riff on a Bond film. So Jim cut the hell out of… the first half, reducing most of what I had written to a few lines of dialogue (“Your horse?” was one of them that stayed). I should have gotten a story by co-credit with Jim, but the writer’s guild was warring with Jim at the time and gave him a hard time, sticking to the exact rule. They said that our work was not a screen story, but should be titled an adaptation. They waited until the last possible moment (ten seconds before all the prints were going to be made, an extremely expensive process) and ruled that we could not have that credit. Jim stalwartly told me he would hold up the lucrative summer release to fight for us to get properly credited, but I told him that was unnecessary. It would have cost Jim and 20th Century-Fox a small fortune, and for a credit that could have been very helpful, but in the final analysis, I didn’t really think I earned (I just didn’t give Jim enough cleverness and amazement, since he was like a creative locomotive who knew exactly what he wanted to direct. I knew I was actually slowing the process down, so I backed off to let him carry the ball so we could jut get the script done in time.

JCO: You're the author of Titanic: James Cameron's Illustrated Screenplay. How did you get involved with the project?
RF: I had given Jim some notes on his first scriptment for TITANIC. I gave him advice he basically ignored. But when he finished the film and test-marketed it, the audience kept telling him the same things I had early on and he finally altered the film appropriately. But don’t think I’m this hidden genius behind Jim. Jim knows what he wants and all I’ve ever done is given him someone to bounce ideas off of. All HIS ideas. And, in addition to that, although my first notes on his scriptment proved to be correct in the long run, I made a very strong objection to the ending of the film and fortunately, he wisely ignored me again. But this time he was right to do so. Very right.

JCO: You were also a consultant on James Cameron's Avatar. Can you elaborate on that?
RF: Jim had asked me to co-write AVATAR with him because he had just read an original screenplay by me which had very similar themes and even characters (I said we thought alike!) and he suggested that the quicker and bigger way to get my material filmed was to join him in his similar project, a very gracious gesture and fantastic opportunity. However, I specifically wrote my script for a suspenseful but non-violent resolution to my script’s conflicts because I was so bored with the giant final battle which had been in almost very movie since “STAR WARS.” Not only was it promulgating use of force to solve conflicts, but it was just cliché. So I said I would co-write AVATAR if we could find a way to make it like the ending of my script. You will recall I said earlier that Jim and I think alike, except he’s a competitive Darwinian and I’m a cooperative symbiotic guy, so he said he couldn’t do my ending, because he had already sold Fox Studios on the climactive battle.
So, years later, when he was given the green light to develop the AVATAR sequels, he called me up and asked if working on the sequels would disturb my ethics (Jim can be cuttingly funny). I told him not if we could work a non-violent resolution into one of the sequels. He said we might be able to do that for the last one. So I came on board as a story consultant. He had a plan to hire good screenwriters in teams of two to develop each script, using the TV sitcom model to get a lot done simultaneously, but since it is Jim’s vision, and he is going to direct it, he has to make it his own, so he wound up rewriting all the scripts himself (why it took so long to get to filming the sequels!). All I did mostly was talk to Jim about various dramatic directions to go, how to make the story work if certain characters had to be deleted because the stars weren’t available to play them. This is primarily what I did helping Jim to develop ALIENS. We made up several different story lines with and without the Ripley character, but when she became available, he combined all the best stuff from every version and that became the script he wrote.

RF: An idea we both came up with almost simultaneously, about a future biker gang, only Jim said they don’t ride cycles, but pocket rockets. Very exciting possibilities. So we developed that script together and I wrote a first draft. Jim is very particular about what he wants the script or movie to be about. Sometimes he doesn’t know immediately what it should be, but he always knows what it should NOT be! And my version was close, but no banana. He paid me a small fortune to work on that, and then gave it over to several other scripters, but unless Jim actually writes it himself, he is not close enough to the material to fully embrace it. And so that idea lies in the drawer that may never see the light of a projector. Oh well, can’t win them all.

We'd like to thank Randall for taking his time to answer our question and with such great detail