Interview with Terminator Salvation’s McG

McG: The Fat Girl Sings on Judgment Day

GR catches up with McG, nervously known in sci-fi/geek circles as “The Charlie's Angels Guy Who's Directing Terminator: Salvation”, at the recent Newport Beach Film Festival.

“Anybody want to see a few minutes of Terminator?” asks Joseph McGinty Nichol—or 'McG' (pronounced MICK-JEE—he's been going by that name since birth, so I guess that makes it okay… kind of…).

“I just raced down from Warner Bros. Nobody in the world has seen this yet.” Those of us in attendance hoot appreciatively and eagerly as the lights go down.

And then the projection-room's sound system fails.

On-screen, five minutes of never-before-seen Terminator: Salvation footage rolls on, with awesome combat/stunt shots and towering robots—in utter, high-definition silence.

On the 1-to-10 dramatic-presentation scale, it's a minus-11. Nevertheless, casual and utterly unflapped, McG simply strolls halfway up the darkened theater-aisle and starts doing his own Rocky Horror-style call-out, doing out-loud improv to the images on-screen—paraphrased dialogue, mouthed sound-effects and all—until the projection-room people finally get their auditory ducks in a row. Eventually, the sneak-peek footage runs the way it's supposed to, nice and loud.

This minor technical snafu is actually quite in keeping with the overall tone of this whole fairly small gathering—casual, down-to-earth, and entertaining. The most appealing thing about talking with or listening to McG is that nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is encouraging. In the midst of the thriving film festival in sunny Newport Beach, California, McG at least doesn't come off like an aloof Hollywood douchebag. Instead, he's telling anybody who will listen that he's here to soak in new, upcoming talents, films and visions; he's talking about his own not-terribly-auspicious beginnings shooting local bands and music videos. When he says things like “I didn't have a rich uncle in Hollywood, I had nothing, I didn't know anybody," it's hard not to feel a surge of ambitious, up-and-comer optimism. If his whole rags-to-riches thing is an affectation, it's at least a good, encouraging one.

McG, on by-your-bootstraps filmmaking:

The biggest advice I could ever give to anybody who says, “Hey man, how did you do your thing?” is this: 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 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 technical '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— 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!

McG is acutely, constantly aware of the film-snob/fan-boy guantlet he's running, by daring to take up the Terminator torch. It's like James Cameron before him, catching flak for following in Ridley Scott's footsteps with Aliens: “I've experienced a lot of that with Terminator: “We don't want the guy from Charlie's Angels touching the Terminator idea!” and “What kind of an asshole calls himself 'McG'?”

I've had that sort of blowback the whole time, but with this one, what we tried to do is just lead with the material. I've tried to stay away from being a cheerleader, and just really put the material out there first, which is what you see at ComiCon, which has a very interesting, passionate crowd. 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.”

Bale, accroding to McG, didn't want anything to do with Terminator: Salvation initially: “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; and we're gonna take it to a higher place.' " It certainly looks that way, with Salvation's dark, life-after-humans storyline (with dramatic overtones of The Holocaust, no less).

McG: “It's a study of what makes us human, what makes it all worthwhile, —and of course, along the way, there's some science-fiction fun to be had. That's why I enjoy the genre; because when pictures succeed in this world, they work on a visceral level for a two-hour experience in a theater like this—I think The Matrix being a great example—and they also work as you're exiting and you're going to your car and you start to talk to your friends about the theological and philosophical implications of what you just saw. You could spend four years in graduate school talking about The Matrix. At the end of the day, it's a story of—and this is what I've always found to be most compelling on an individual as well as a societal level—'that which makes us great will be our undoing'. And there's a lot of explosions in there, too.”

The afternoon hit a brief somber note when McG talked about the passing of machine/effects guru Stan Winston during the making of the film: “That was very emotional, because the day of Stan's passing, one of the guys who was with us was from Stan's shop—his first picture with Stan was Terminator. You can just imaging how this guy felt when he heard that Stan had passed, and he's standing there on the set with a big T-600 puppet that weighs 400 pounds and he's trying to articulate it. And he was the one to say, in the spirit of Stan, that the show must go on, and we've gotta keep shooting—that's how we can honor Stan best. It was a very special moment that those of you who've made film and immersed yourselves in the writing process and the directorial process understand—there's so much adversity and it's so difficult to do, and when you finally punch through, it's very rewarding with little microcosms and episodes like that that make it all worthwhile.”

As we all filed out and scattered to different films featured in the Newport Beach Film Festival, we even had a (very) brief walk-and-talk with McG about—what else?—games. I was a little bummed that he didn't, in fact, have much personal involvement with the Terminator video game coming out—but there was at least one small personal insight to be gained:

CHRIS HUDAK: Any thoughts/input on the interactive version—the game that's coming out, based on Terminator: Salvation?

McG: Well, I didn't have a great deal to do with that—but I'm happy to see the expression being made, in a great many ways. You know, my colleague Andy Shapiro had a lot to do with the ARG, the machines and stuff—and ultimately, the video game. An idea like this, you do what you can to have it express itself, as long as the quality's there. So I ask: How is the quality? That's one of the confrontations I always have: “Let's only do this if we can make sure that the quality is of a high enough level to be worth it!”

CH: You're hitting all these references for books and films in your spiel here—are you any kind of gamer?

McG: Oh, hell yeah! Are you kidding me? I grew up from Intellivision, Atari, Colecovision—to, naturally, Playstation 3 and Wii—all over the place.

CH: So you're old-school, huh?

McG: Well… no, but… well, now I'm new-school! I've been with it for a long time—and of course on my computer, when I'm looking to lose myself.

CH: Any particular favorites?

MCG: I'm a big Halo fan. It might be a weird expose, but… I'm a first-person shooter fan. [McG gives a sudden, toothy, I've-got-bodies-in-the-closet grin.] That's my thing.

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