McG, the machine behind ‘Terminator Salvation’
This week the “Terminator” franchise returns to theaters with its darkest chapter yet, a relentless, spirit-crushing vision of the future where humans are snuffed by killer robots. There are not a lot of lighthearted moments in this film, but you might hear chuckles in the theater during the screen credits because of one line: “A McG film.”
McG? ? Let the eye-rolling begin. There’s something about that name that conjures up images of Sacha Baron Cohen’s hip-hop buffoon Ali G or maybe McLovin, the nerdy, underage boozehound from “Superbad,” cultural references that don’t exactly lend themselves to the fearsome, grinding gears of “Terminator Salvation.” His resume hasn’t relieved the pressure, as it’s highlighted by the gloss of two “Charlie’s Angels” films, a lot of pop music videos and a Superman film project that infamously never got off the ground.
The man behind the name McG -- or perhaps under it -- is the most relentlessly upbeat filmmaker in Hollywood today, but even his face droops when the nickname issue is raised.
“Believe me, I know, people hear the name and they just think, ‘That guy must be a jerk,’ ” the 38-year-old said with a groan. “And having it hasn’t helped me, that’s for sure. But it’s what everybody has called me forever.”
The moniker wasn’t handed to him at a college keg party or when McG worked as a top music video director during the 1990s; it was hung around his neck by his parents who put “Joseph McGinty Nichol” on his birth certificate back in Kalamazoo, Mich., but then decided “McG” would be a tidy way to avoid household confusion since the boy’s grandfather and uncle were also named Joseph.
It’s a quaint story, but it’s too late: The damage has been done, and McG finds himself lumped in with Dane Cook, Criss Angel, Brett Ratner and others in the pop culture category of “clearly popular yet widely loathed.” In the June issue of Esquire, a headline praises the director by saying “McG is not a douche bag” and, well, just think how proud his mom must be.
All of this is dismaying to many people who know and work with McG, but they say a turning point has arrived. “Pretty soon,” says “Salvation” executive producer Dan Lin, “McG is not going to have to explain himself. He’s a talented, multifaceted guy. Honestly, he epitomizes the American dream. And unlike most people, he accomplishes his dreams.”
Tapped into pop culture
Well, perhaps, but at the very least McG does seem like a man for the times in this Hollywood era of popcorn movies that need to be huge and high-concept. By reputation, he is loud but cheerful and, as he puts it, “good at working with big personalities,” which brings to mind Christian Bale’s notorious rant on the “Salvation” set (more on that later). His colleagues say he is intensely prepared -- one Warner Bros. executive said the director became a world-class scholar of all things “Terminator” -- and in touch with youth culture (which speaks to his sidelight as a TV producer with credits including “The O.C.”). Lin, revealing much about the contemporary tugs of Hollywood, adds that McG is not only adept behind the camera but also won over Pizza Hut execs in talks about “Terminator” tie-ins.
McG has shown a flair for the unexpected in his career. Growing up in Newport, his Michigan roots made him an outsider, as did “my slight build, my orange afro, the braces -- I was the odd kid out in a land of Adonises,” he said. He was passionate about music and, after a few attempts as music star or record producer (he did co-write some hits for the band Sugar Ray), he ended up making music videos at a surging time in Orange County music. “He always had a kidlike enthusiasm about him,” said Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring, a band that hit the top of the MTV charts with McG’s videos. “And the great directors are able to bring you into their world and feel like a kid again.”
Drew Barrymore was impressed with that flair as well and brought McG to Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures, and insisted he be the director for “Charlie’s Angels.” Pascal was deeply skeptical but won over by McG’s intense preparation and, well, because star and producer Barrymore was going to walk if the newcomer wasn’t trusted with the $100-million project. “Amy Pascal was reluctant,” McG said, “but it worked out after I acted out the entire movie.”
The 2000 film grossed $40 million its first weekend in the U.S. (which set a box-office record for a first-time director), and critics split on whether it was great, mindless fun or just grating and mindless. A 2003 sequel followed, and while McG isn’t especially proud of the second film, the films racked up a combined $523 million worldwide despite mixed reviews.
Big things were predicted for McG after that sparkling start, but his film career was abruptly grounded
McG was handed the keys to a signature Warner Bros. property -- Superman. More than $15 million had been spent in preproduction and on a summer day in 2004 in Burbank, a private plane was waiting on the runway to whisk the director to Australia so he could get to work. McG was stricken and couldn’t make to it the steps of the plane -- it wasn’t a physical ailment, it was a severe panic attack. His intense fear of flying kept him on the ground that day, and the Superman franchise instead took flight with director Bryan Singer.
Bruised and widely ridiculed, McG sought medical help at UCLA to overcome his intense phobia. His next project was a far smaller film, “We Are Marshall,” but it towered in his mind because of its plane-crash plot. The film tells the tale of the Marshall University football program the season after its team was wiped out in a plane crash that left both a small town and a campus reeling.
“That was very personal for me,” McG said. “I was doing my own Joseph Campbell or Batman experience, going into the cave with that which scares me most and trying to come out the other side and experiencing growth. I knew I was going to have to fly into the airport where it happened. As you approach that airport in Huntington, W.Va., you can still see this big bald spot on the mountain where the plane went down. I did it. I made the film. Now I fly all the time.”
After “Angels” there had been dark days in his personal life as well, with the death of his brother, a loss that he finds difficult to discuss. But even as his film career sputtered and lurched, he tapped into an unexpected success as a television producer with shows such as “The O.C.,” “Chuck” and “Supernatural.” Still, TV is TV and film is film, so there was really no reason in the world for Warner Bros to think of McG as the right man for the $140-million revival of “Terminator” -- but, well, here he is. Lin said many observers were flabbergasted.
“He inspires me to do the impossible, because who would have thought that McG could get Christain Bale to do ‘T4'? Nobody,” said Lin. “Right from the beginning people were saying, ‘Why are you doing “T4"? Is this “Basic Instinct 2"?’ But he did bring credibility to the franchise; he got Christian Bale, one of the most credible actors of his generation, to play the lead. Then he got Arnold Schwarzenegger to come back and do a digital cameo in the movie.”
For McG, who survived his own personal judgment day in Hollywood, now is the time to be a Hollywood director who is bigger than his name.
Programmed to kill
The director is tall, over 6 feet, and trim, with short, curly red locks and a straight-back stride that seems vaguely cowboyish, or maybe that impression is just from the loud echoes his boots make on the wood floors of his business headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. “This used to be the Screen Actors Guild building and my office used to be Ronald Reagan’s office, which is simultaneously cool and creepy,” he said. He led a quick tour that included stops at the Evel Knievel pinball machine (“We’ve been circling a movie about him for a long time. I even went and interviewed him about it. Maybe we could get Brad Pitt? Or [“Salvation” costar] Sam Worthington?”) and the assorted totems from “Terminator,” a franchise that McG revered as a youngster.
Last year, on the “Salvation” set in New Mexico, producer Moritz Borman said the director came into the project with “a clarity” about what makes the original 1984 movie by James Cameron an enduring sci-fi favorite and what tropes from the subsequent two films should be jettisoned for the contemporary youth audience, which sneers at anything corny unless it happens to be sold in buckets at the snack bar.
“The audience now wants things dark and smart and stylized, and McG can give it to them without forgetting the special things about ‘Terminator,’ ” Borman said as he watched early footage one afternoon last July.
The film is set in 2018 and the war between the malevolent machines of SkyNet and humanity that has been foretold since the first film is underway, and it’s not going well for the side that bleeds. Bale is the finally adult John Connor, whom the previous films set up as the prophesied savior of humanity in the face of the killing machines. In this movie, they come in staggering variety (serpentine underwater models, flying models, motorcycle models, giant walking models, etc.)
McG said he wanted more than a hardware film, however, and he cited Philip K. Dick’s work, George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” as compass points for his broken-spirit battlefields. McG says he found the material had to live up to the standards of star Bale and possess enough drama and character development that it could hold an audience’s attention if it was done on stage with no costumes or props.
McG was paid $6 million to direct “Terminator Salvation,” and he has locked in a $10-million deal for the sequel, up quite a bit from the less-than-$400,000 payday he made on the first “Angels” film. This film arrives in theaters as a PG-13 film, the first “Terminator” film without an R rating. That decision was driven by the success of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” last year. Lin said “seconds, not minutes -- frames really” are missing from “Salvation,” and McG says flatly: “This is the movie we wanted.”
The film would have gotten an R rating if it included Bale’s vicious on-set rant, which, after a recording was posted by TMZ.com, became a sensation in February. The 35-year-old Welsh actor already had a reputation for a ferocious temper, but it became fodder for late-night monologues and joke T-shirts after he laid into cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, after Hurlbut wandered across the actor’s sightline during a scene. McG shrugs off the tantrum as a “thing that happened and then was over” and said actors will take fewer risks if they know their outtakes can be made public.
He also said his years making videos in the volatile music world make it hard to rattle him on the set.
“That is my environment -- I have no sense of pressure or anxiety when I’m making a film,” he said. “I have anxiety in my life, I’m no stranger to that but strangely not when I’m under the pressure of making a film. For me, getting the day’s work done, dealing with the big personalities, achieving a vision -- that is where I live. For me, though, I want to let this movie speak for itself. I really want to get away from my cheerleader self and keep quiet.”
Good luck with that. This is the same man who not long ago challenged director Michael Bay to publicly drop trou so they could prove publicly who is the bigger man. (That came after Bay’s sneering comments about “Salvation” copping the big- robot mojo from the “Transformers” series.) McG also, at a comic-book convention in San Francisco, got so pumped up in front of an audience of 3,000 hooting fans that he climbed atop a table to praise the breasts of one of his actresses (as she sat there on the dais next to him, mortified) and to pledge to the crowd that “Salvation” would send their testicles flying out of their rear ends.
Even the people who adore the director roll their eyes, albeit with smiles on their faces.
“He is just the greatest, he is so passionate and talented and real,” said Moon Bloodgood, the actress whose curves were the subject of McG’s bellowing at WonderCon. “And this movie is going to show people how amazing he is.”
His business headquarters is a hive of activity these days with staffers working on McG’s assorted ventures. There are comic books being written, new multimedia ventures being accessed and, for television, a lot of “heavy lifting” on two new projects: The pilot for “Human Target” for Fox is about a man who impersonates people who believe they will soon be murdered, while “Limelight” is a bid to bring back the kids from “Fame,” sort of, with Pharrell Williams as collaborator on a performing-arts school drama for ABC.
In film, McG is trying to decide whether his next project will be moving forward with his take on the Jules Verne classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or adapting the musical “Spring Awakening.” “So it’s either 19th century French science fiction or 19th century German tragedy,” he said, clearly pleased with the notion of surprising the people in Hollywood who still lock in on “Charlie’s Angels” and its sequel as his defining work
If his career is at a crossroads, so is the director’s view of himself. Last year, on the set in New Mexico, as the director was on a tear, talking loudly as he zoomed across the Kirtland Air Force Base on his way to a shot near a tarmac dotted with fighter planes and helicopters, he contemplated this very notion.
“Maybe you have to be Opie and Richie Cunningham before you can be Ron Howard, maybe you have to be Jeff Spicoli before you get to be Sean Penn winning Oscars. I have a lot to prove, and I’m working on it.”