Known for explosive, fast-paced hits, director McG tackles romance in "This Means War" — and sends sparks flying
Author JOHN SELLERS
THREE, AS ANY GEN-XER WHO watched Saturday morning cartoons knows, is a magic number. Case in point: the much-in-demand director who goes by the three-letter moniker McG. He made his mark by successfully steering the high-powered trifecta of Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore in the 2000 action-comedy Charlie’s Angels. And he’s since made truckfuls of cash, too: McG ‘s five films, including a hit Charlie’s Angels sequel in 2003, have racked up more than $1 billion worldwide.
“This Means War”, a new spy tale that mixes romance with McG’s signature fast-paced action, is what pushed his global box office take to 10 figures. Maybe that’s partly because it also harnesses the power of three—namely, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. Oscar winner Witherspoon plays a single gal looking for love in unlikely places, and finds herself in a bizarre, exhilarating love triangle with two sparring CIA agents.
While working with megawatt female stars is nothing new for McG, doing an action flick with heart is something of a departure for the man whose résumé boasts the testosterone-fueled 2009 sci-fi prequel Terminator Salvation. “The point is,” he says, “I like to keep people guessing.” Here, McG reveals his surprising love of musicals, why he’d choose Bond over Bourne and most important, what’s up with his name.
Does even your family call you McG? Yep. I’ve only ever been called McG my whole life. It’s short for McGinty—my full name is Joseph McGinty Nichol, but since my uncle was named Joe and my grandpa was named Joe, they called me McG. In Hollywood everybody thinks it’s some nickname I’ve prescribed myself, but it isn’t. It’s a cruel joke my mother played on me, and I’ve been apologizing for it ever since.
You have to admit, it does seem like something concocted to suggest street cred. Sadly, I’m not that cool. I’m just a white guy from Kalamazoo, Mich. You can look at pictures of me in second grade and it says “McG” next to me with an orange afro. It’s pretty pathetic.
Safe to assume that your firstborn won’t be named Joe? Absolutely not. It’ll be like the end of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” I’ll call him Steve or Bob or Jim, anything but that name!
Let’s get down to your latest project. “This Means War” is built around these two guys competing for the same woman. On the set, did life imitate art? Sort of. Pine and Hardy became really good friends, and I’ll admit I was trying to encourage a healthy competition between them, because that’s essentially what the film is about. It helped, I think, that both actors were a little bit in love with Reese!
A lot of people may think of Reese as a girl-next-door type, but she certainly shows her sexier side in this film. Did you encourage that? Yeah, I talked to her a lot about it. I said, “Look, Reese, everybody knows how intelligent you are, and how accomplished you are as an actor and a mother. But you are so foxy! Let’s show the world just how beautiful and sexy you can be.” I like strong female characters, and I don’t think women should ever have to apologize for being beautiful. And Reese took a deep breath and went for it. That really is her up there in her underwear, making out with Chris Pine and Tom Hardy.
Speaking of which, if you had to pick: Bond or Bourne? Interesting question. The British accent always takes you places. And Bond is a lot more fun than Bourne, isn’t he? I mean, he’d be a better night on the town. And Bourne doesn’t have an Aston Martin. Bond is tough to top. He’s the heavyweight champ, let’s face it.
Fun fact: With “This Means War”, you’ve extended your streak of having directed a feature film precisely every three years. Superstitious much? Ha! That’s just something that happened organically. But I think I’d be better advised to be a little more active. I really like what Steven Spielberg does, what Clint Eastwood does, where there’s a film every year or two.
No! Keep the streak alive! So, what McG-helmed film will be released in 2015? The film I’m likely to make next is Spring Awakening. It’s based on a musical that’s very Shakespearean in nature and that swept the Tonys. It’s a youth-against-establishment play of the highest quality. It’s my favorite piece of material, and it’s one that I’ll try to do as well as I possibly can in an artistic capacity without the pressure of “Hey, the whole world needs to respond to this blockbuster.” If we can get that done, that would be amazing.
No offense, but you don’t give off a musical-connoisseur vibe. I know. Like any filmmaker, I don’t like to be put in a box. As a music fan, you’re not going to say, “I only like ’70s rock ‘n’ roll.” Sometimes you want to listen to an interesting jazz record. Sometimes you want one of today’s deejays. Sometimes you want to listen to Radiohead. You want to be free to enjoy what you want to enjoy. The same goes for me as a filmmaker.
You haven’t sworn off big-budget action films, though, right? No. There’s big movie stuff in the works, too. You have to earn the respect of the studios as being someone they can trust to deliver good results with big budgets. I’ve been fortunate to get to $1 billion at the worldwide box office as fast as any filmmaker. That gets you a certain standing in the community.
Do you keep track of how your movies fare with critics? You know, I got kicked around a little bit on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, but that’s different. Frankly, I think a lot of people are still hung up on my name!
You directed Christian Bale in Terminator Salvation. The infamous leaked audio of him yelling at your director of photography—what happened? That whole thing was really taken out of context. It’s silly. If you came in midstream on anyone’s passionate discussion, it would be hard to understand. I was there that day and was right in the middle of it, and I’m happy to report that the truth is we were making a war movie. I mean, we were shooting a passionate scene; that sort of thing happens all the time. And from the bottom of my heart, I can say that Christian Bale is one of the best, most down-to-earth family guys you’ve ever met in your life.
The leak must have been annoying. It was. The larger tragedy is that anything that happens on a film set would be leaked at all. … It’s a violation of the community of film, which is like the Sunday night dinner table: What you talk about is meant to be kept within those parameters.
All that matters, really, is that you got a solid action flick starring Christian Bale out of it, right? Yeah. I liked it, too—I feel like we did a few things wrong, but I think we did a lot right. The funny thing is, if you ask the Terminator fans worldwide right now, “Hey, do you wish there was another Terminator with Christian Bale coming out?” everyone would go, “Hell, yeah!”
A decade or so ago, weren’t you one of the many directors attached to the frequently postponed Superman reboot? Yes, and I was the first one to get it green-lighted. But it’s ironic talking about it now. I didn’t make Superman because at the time I was afraid to fly. They wanted to shoot the film in Australia. The studio had a plane fueled and ready to go, and I couldn’t get on. I was too overcome by my fear of flying.
That’s funny, considering that the movie is about a guy who flies. I think that getting involved in Superman was an attraction/repulsion thing, honestly. I’ve been afraid of flying since I was 15 and always wanted to overcome that, but I didn’t want to admit I had a problem. So perhaps that led me right to what I was most afraid of. It’s sort of like the Batman complex: Because I was afraid of bats, I had to become the Batman.
How did you get over your fear? Right after [the Superman incident], I started putting myself back together, from a flying perspective, with two experts from UCLA. I had a genuine problem, and I worked very diligently to get over it. Looking back, I can’t believe I got through making the Charlie’s Angels movies without ever having to go anywhere! That was lucky for me. Still, I missed all these incredible life opportunities along the way.
Like what? I didn’t get to go show Charlie’s Angels to Prince Charles with the three actresses, for one—it would have been fun to be at Buckingham Palace. And there’s a thousand more examples where that came from. But now my great passion is flying. I’ve been around the world many times over—it’s worked out well!