Coming off the back of Terminator 2, James Cameron found a smaller thriller to tackle next – but the success of T2 would have unexpected ramifications.

Whilst he’d had successes in his career before – notably The Terminator and Aliens – coming off the back of the expensive, fascinating box office underperformer The Abyss, filmmaker James Cameron was, not for the last time in his career, rolling the dice with 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Now granted, its star – Arnold Schwarzenegger – by this time was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and the original film was a big video hit. But it was still a gamble, not least for production company Carolco, that gambled hard on the project.

It’s often forgotten that Terminator 2 was effectively an indie movie, just one that happened to cost around $100m to make, and was the most expensive film ever made at the time.

When Terminator 2 became a sensation on its release in the summer of 1991, Cameron found himself in a position to make films more on his terms. He – as discussed in this Film Stories podcast episode – thus brokered an incredible, groundbreaking deal between 20th Century Fox and his Lightstorm Entertainment company. It was worth half a billion dollars, across 12 movies, and Cameron had autonomy to make films up to a budget of $70m without getting sign off first.

The deal would not go quite to plan, but before it all changed, Cameron was keen to get projects moving. One of them would be True Lies. He was also busy writing Strange Days around the same time. But post-T2, he was looking to make a smaller thriller based on a true story. He’d been taken with a book by Daniel Keyes called The Minds Of Billy Milligan. This was based on the story of a man whose lawyers were able to defend him on accusations of rape, by citing his multiple personality disorder. That he’d committed crimes didn’t appear to be in doubt, and Keyes told this story in his book, with it turning into something of a sensation.

One of the people who read it was Cameron. He was intrigued at turning it into a film, with the idea being to tell Billy Milligan’s story of abuse in childhood, and the continued dark turns his life took. As Cameron told Rebecca Keegan in her book The Futurist, “to do all those characters and externalise the drama that was playing out in that guy’s head would have been as big a challenge, in its own way, as making The Abyss”.

Cameron thus took out an option on the book from a new producer by the name of Sandra Arcara, and he joined forces with Todd Graff to start work on a screenplay. The film version was going to go by the name of A Crowded Room, and the idea was to turn it into something of a psychological thriller, one that deployed a flashback structure.

See also: Terminator 2, and the story of its groundbreaking teaser trailer

It was designed to be a much smaller production that Cameron’s previous two films, and the idea was to look at making it post-Terminator 2. Things got a little way down the line, too. John Cusack had been sounded out about playing Milligan in the film, and Cameron had started some preliminary pre-production work, and lined up Russell Carpenter to be his director of photography (Carpenter hadn’t worked with Cameron before, and would ultimate collaborate for the first time on True Lies).

The film was estimated to cost between $10m and $15m to make, and it would be set up at 20th Century Fox. But it’d hit the skids when Terminator 2 was released, instantly turning Cameron into one of Hollywood’s most wanted filmmakers.

The story goes that this boiled down to the changing demands of Sandra Arcara, and that in early 1992, she wanted a substantive increase in her fee for the film to go ahead. Her original deal, as per this Variety piece, was said to be worth $250,000, but now she was set to be working with one of the world’s biggest movie directors, she allegedly asked for $1.5m instead. As a report at the terrific James Cameron Online website added, Arcana was also apparently unhappy at the patchy communication with Cameron on the project.

James Cameron was not impressed. As he told Keegan in her book, “I don’t negotiate with terrorists or extortionists, so I told her to take a flying (“cluck” – Ed) and collapsed the project”. Or, in other words, he declined her apparent offer to increase her price.

This did not go down well.

Lawsuits would follow. Both Cameron and Arcara aimed legalities at one another, and then Billy Milligan took filed a $9m suit against Cameron as well. The suits were all settled by August of 1993 (details were undisclosed, as you’d expect), just as filming on True Lies was set to begin.

The suits also extinguished any interest remaining that James Cameron had in making the film. Quoted at James Cameron Online, the filmmaker added that Billy Milligan getting involved in the legalities was a contributory factor too. “He got in the middle of this whole thing because he wanted his story told. He was running around creating more chaos, filing lawsuits. It turned into madness”, Cameron said.

And Cameron wanted none of it.

He would thus exit the project, which Arcara would then try and get moving with other filmmakers. The likes of David Fincher, Joel Schumacher and Steven Soderbergh was mooted, but nothing came to fruition. For Cameron, it’d be the last time too that he came close to directing a modestly-budgeted mainstream movie too, with him following up True Lies with Titanic and Avatar (as well as some documentary work).

But if you want some sense of just what might have been, his screenplay is available to read in full online

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