McG’s Judgment Day Cometh: Director McG on Terminator Salvation

McG's Judgment Day Cometh

Is Joseph McGinty Nichol (he’s been going by ‘McG,’ pronounced MICK-JEE, from birth, so we might as well go ahead and call him that, too) a shining-light-on-a-hill example of friendly, motivational by-your-bootist success? Or is he a fucking menace of an inspirational tease? I’m still not sure. Maybe he’s both — and that’s okay, too.

In any case, McG did his local-boy-makes-good, Guest of Honor spot at a reasonably intimate theater at the recent, ever-thriving Newport Beach Film Festival — always a good time for serious aspiring filmmakers and devout screen-worshippers alike. He’s been in the spotlight — and has been taking not a little dubious and wary geek-heat — since he dared take up the Terminator mantle. As with J.J. Abrams and the photon torpedo he just dodged, McG is risking death-by-fanboy, with everything riding on the doomsday bet of Terminator: Salvation hitting theaters on the 21st. Talk about your Judgment Day.

SF geeks and Serious Film-Goers can be a snooty, pre-judgmental lot. But give McG credit for passing his own worst-case Kobayashi Maru test when the theater bungled the screening of never-before-seen Terminator: Salvation footage, which he had brought with him (as a global sneak-peek exclusive)… no sound at all. Completely unflapped, McG drifted to the back of the theater and started bellowing his own improv audio-fill in the dark, complete with scene descriptions, wise-ass paraphrased dialogue and some sound-effect augmentation. Finally, the projection folks got their cybernetic shit together and re-ran the footage.

So give McG 10 out of 10 for style.

Presented here: a few choice McG tidbits on his career, what you really need to know about filmmaking, the passing of the Terminator directorial torch… and everything else under the Skynet:

On Following in the Footsteps of Respected Directors Into the Territory of Revered Franchises:

Before I agreed to do Terminator, I made a point of going to see Jim Cameron on the set of Avatar. I wanted to say, “I agree with you, Jim. I think this story has been told, essentially after the second film.” He agreed, and asked why it was appropriate to go forward and tell more. I told him that I want to make a film about the future war that you only ever alluded to. I think we live in a dangerous world. There’s a wacky guy in North Korea, and if he had his way, he’d do some crazy things — and that goes for the White House, and the Middle East, and the world in general.

So it could be timely to tell a thinly veiled story about what happens in a life after people. He sort of nodded, and said that was an interesting take. And he went on to tell the story of how he felt following Ridley Scott after the Alien picture. He said, “I wanted to make Aliens, and I want to honor the mythology of the first picture” — but he got a lot of shit for it, because people were saying, “Who is this guy Jim Cameron, with Piranha 2? He’s going to follow the great Ridley Scott? We’re not having it.”

I’ve experienced a lot of that with Terminator: “We don’t want the guy from Charlie’s Angels touching the Terminator idea.” Or “What kind of an asshole calls himself ‘McG’?” I’ve had that sort of blowback the whole time. But we tried to just lead with the material. I’ve tried to stay away from being a cheerleader and just put the material out there first.

The idea was to honor the fan-base, and honor Jim Cameron, by populating the film with the most credible choices possible. That begins with Christian Bale, who I think is the most credible and talented actor of his generation. And then, getting Jonah Nolan to help write the script. He wrote The Dark Knight. He’s Chris’ brother. He’s a smart guy. He’s got a great shorthand with Christian. And then I got Stan Winston to build all the machines. So the film has a very practical, realistic-feeling patina. We’ve dedicated the picture to the memory of Stan Winston, who passed while we were making the film.

On Christian Bale, ‘Cred’… and the Nature of Humanity:

I went to see Christian and he didn’t want to do the movie. He read the script and he didn’t like it. He said: “I can’t do this. There’s not enough there.” I said, “I realize that, but we’re gonna work on the script; we’re gonna talk to Jonah, and we’re gonna take it to a higher place.”

Our agreement was to get it to a place where you could do a table read — just read it, without any pyrotechnics, explosions, or CG 100-foot giant robots, and just talk about the story, and it would be engaging. That’s the challenge we laid down. We really want to have an arc for the Conner character. The Conner character, we realize in this movie, is not the leader of the resistance. When we meet him, people are telling him “You’re crazy. We don’t give a shit about what your mom said, you freak. I was in the Marines for twenty years, you do what I tell you to do.”

I’ve experienced a lot of… “What kind of an asshole calls himself ‘McG’?

It’s the classic Conner predicament that we all know and enjoy from Terminator movies. Be it Sarah Conner; be it Kyle Reese; they’re all trying to say, “You’d better have some 2 Million sunblock or it’s curtains for all of you!”… and nobody wants to believe them. But Conner knows and he has to fulfill his destiny even though it’s very difficult. And then the character you see in Sam Worthington is revealed to be made up of a great deal of metal – metal that’s in pieces. The rub is: is he a man, or is he a machine?

It’s effectively a study of the question: where does our humanity lie? Christopher Reeve was an interesting example. He lost the use of his arms and his legs, but I don’t think anybody would suggest that he became any less human. And one could argue that he became more human. Where does your humanity exist? It’s not in your left arm, it’s not in your right leg — it’s arguably in your heart, or in your mind… but even that gets a little touchy because we live in an age where if you’re depressed, nobody wants to talk about your mom and dad issues. They’ll give you serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and you’ll just feel better in two weeks. That’s proof enough that Skynet is here.

On the Climb from Shooting Local Bands and Musicians:

I started making videos for the Sublime guys, and the guys in Korn came down from Bakersfield. We hung out, and I just started shooting everything as they were living their lives, trying to weave story into all of that. And I was always a fan of Big Entertainment. At the time, the Seattle thing was happening. That was sort of stare-at-your-shoes-and-be-negative and I was always interested in Busby Berkeley films and stuff that felt larger than life. I was always trying to be reactionary by trying to tell more story and be more optimistic and speak more to my rock and roll heroes — the guys in KISS who would dress up and go crazy. Or Freddie Mercury — just large, colorful personalities who represented everything that I wasn’t, as a kid in a tract-housing community. So that’s where my dream and aspiration — to go to that place and tell stories that are larger than life — came from.

McG's Judgment Day Cometh

For a long time, being someone who makes music videos was a negative thing that had to be overcome. People would say, “Oh, you can’t be taken seriously.” There was a real stigma that went with it. I think Mark Romanek, who is a very talented filmmaker, said it best: he said that ninety-five percent of music videos are shit — there’s no doubt about it; but the five percent that are new and compelling and exciting are indeed very original. Spike Jonze was doing some of that. And Michel Gondry was doing some of that. And Fincher was doing some of that. There was an elegant sort of ‘upper echelon,’ if you could get to that place. It was a great way to cut your teeth.

I didn’t have a rich uncle in Hollywood, I had nothing, I didn’t know anybody. And the biggest advice I could ever give to anybody who asks, “Hey man, how did you do your thing?” You’ve just gotta do it… from a place of love. If you’re a director, you direct. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re an actor, you act.

And now we live in this state of technology where you could get a red camera that shoots at 2K, arguably 4K, or you can shoot anything on just a hand-held camcorder. Nobody’s going to say “I don’t like your material because it wasn’t of a high enough quality.” Nobody’s even interested in ‘quality.’ They’re interested in material and the nature of what they’re seeing. So if you have a friend who’s a girl and a friend who’s a guy… and they’re actors, and you can stage a scene about two people… she’s leaving him, and they’re doing it in a diner booth at Ruby’s on the Coast Highway — you can go down there and shoot a master. You shoot her side of it, shoot his side of it…. and if it’s great, somebody at Warner Bros. will say, “We want to talk to you about making a movie.”

It’s really wonderful that you can do that now, whereas when I was a kid — just try going to PanaVision and getting them to lend you some gear, and then deal with the film, and the processing, and the transfer. Everything was a lot more difficult. So it’s a wonderful thing that the next great Academy Award-winning picture is gonna come from some fat girl in Des Moines.

Chris Hudak is a writer, former penguin recorder, marginal Japanese-language student and protagonist of the Harlan Ellison short story “Keyboard” — no, really.

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