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Published: 5/23/2009

Film director and Michigan native McG talks about resurrecting the Terminator

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The director is a native of Saginaw, Mich. The director is a native of Saginaw, Mich.
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McG goes over a  Terminator Salvation  scene with actors. McG goes over a Terminator Salvation scene with actors.
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NOVI, Mich. —The first thing you notice about film director McG in person is his height.

He’s listed at 6 feet, 2 inches tall on Internet Movie Database. After meeting him here Monday to talk about his latest film, Terminator Salvation, there’s no reason to doubt the Web site’s accuracy.

You also notice how nice he is. Not the kind of transparent nice Hollywood types put on for the media. The 40-year-old Saginaw, Mich., native is genuinely friendly.

Before the world premiere screening of Terminator Salvation in a theater here, for instance, he addressed the audience and thanked them for coming to see his movie. And after the film, he stood in the lobby for an hour to meet with fans. He posed for photos. He signed autographs. And he listened to what they had to say about this film.

McG is always listening. And watching. He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California-Irvine. It wasn’t so much to understand others, he said, but to understand himself.

"I was studying psychology because I was such a neurotic kid," he said. "I was trying to cure myself. I realized that ... if I wanted to go all the way to get my m.d. and become a psychiatrist, I was going to be in school for some 10-odd more years, and I couldn’t deal with that because I was broke. I loved music, I loved film, and once I reconciled, ‘Hey, I’m interested in being a psychiatrist because I’m pretty [messed] up,’ I was free to pursue my love of the arts."

Like his name, McG is complicated. Born Joseph McGinty Nichol, his family called him McG because two other relatives had dibs on Joe. He kept the nickname. In previous interviews, McG said to go by his birth name now would make him feel like a sell-out.

He’s not.

Even decades after he left his home state for California, McG might as well be some sort of abbreviation for Michigan. It’s obvious he retains an affinity for the state by what he says as well as by what he wants to do: bring Hollywood dollars to help the financially beleaguered state. This includes the real possibility of filming additional Terminator sequels in Michigan. (Terminator Salvation was filmed in New Mexico.)

"I’m just passionate about this part of the country, I think this area needs a base for production," McG said. "Michigan has been at the forefront of a very aggressive tax incentive, and I think that the state needs an infrastructure of jobs that likely won’t ebb and flow. I think that there’s going to be movie-making and television shows being made, and a lot of content created for a long, long time. That could be video games, that can be a great many things, and I believe the state of Michigan would be wise to take advantage of that.

"So, hopefully, it will create jobs and give back to the place that gave me my start."

Restoring glory

McG’s directorial resume isn’t padded with the kind of box-office numbers that would make him the clear choice to pilot the new Terminator movie.

Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angles: Full Throttle each made more than $200 million at the box office earlier this decade. But it’s a largely forgotten box-office series that met with lukewarm reviews. His third film, 2006’s We Are Marshall, flopped with audiences and with critics.

And now McG is tasked with restoring glory and enthusiasm to a franchise that has fallen on hard times: 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, grossed more than $433 million worldwide, but it’s far from a fan favorite. And a Fox TV series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, was recently canceled after two seasons.

Was McG worried about catching the series at the wrong time, as it was falling out of public favor?

"I don’t think so. I think it was ripe for being reinvigorated. I’m very inspired by what Chris Nolan and Christian [Bale] did with Batman. That had completely fallen off the rails by the time they were done with those last pictures. And Nolan said, ‘Look, I can honor the mythology, invent a new visual language, and take the source material very seriously, and get people excited,’ " he said. "I also think to a very large degree Daniel Craig did that successfully with Bond. It had lost its way. Hopefully, I am bringing back the grit that we all got so excited about the first go around, and the tricky intelligence of a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction.

Casting coup

McG doesn’t consider himself the savior of the franchise, but as a fan of the Terminator movies he knew what he wanted to see on screen.

"I was a very big fan of what James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger put forward in those first two pictures. I went down and I saw Jim Cameron [who wrote and directed the first two Terminator movies] and I said, ‘Look, I’m considering making a Terminator movie, I can’t do it without your blessing.’ He says, ‘I’m not going to give you my blessing. I don’t know what you’re going to do, I don’t know what the script is, I don’t know if the movie is going to be good or bad.’ And we sort of giggled about that. And he said, ‘I hope you make a good movie.’ "

McG never did get Cameron’s blessing, but he landed actor Christian Bale, hot off last year’s biggest film, The Dark Knight, to play John Connor, the savior of the human race.

The casting coup gave considerable clout to Terminator Salvation. Bale is well regarded for his acting, and more recently as a box-office draw. In July, he became known for something else: an egocentric and abusive actor. An audio tirade by Bale at Terminator Salvation director of photography Shane Hurlbut was leaked, and became a viral sensation. Bale was a punch line, and the attention he was drawing to Terminator Salvation wasn’t funny.

The actor went on damage control, discussing the incident on a Los Angeles radio station a week later. In subsequent interviews, Bale has said he’s sorry for what happened, and that he’s learned from the mistake.

Like most directors, McG is protective of the actors in his movies. Bale is no exception. While he doesn’t excuse Bale’s bully-ish behavior, the director takes responsibility for the outburst being made public.

"For that particular scene I was trying to rev the actors up to a very high degree because I wanted it to feel credible. I wanted it to feel like they were fighting for their lives. I wanted their blood up. So everybody’s blood was up and then this small little incident was taken out of context, and Christian was unfairly accused.

"Accuse him of other things, but don’t accuse him of being abusive, because he’s just not. He loves his wife, he loves his kid. He’s focused on being an actor. He has none of the trapping of traditional Hollywood. He has no assistant. He drives around in a bad, beat-up ol’ pickup truck. He’s just a regular ol’ guy in that respect, but he’s just very, very focused. And I got his blood up and the real crime is that that got leaked. It’s no different if Kate Winslet were doing a nude scene for Titanic like she did. And the outtakes of her taking her robe off, and positioning herself on that the couch before they did the scene got on the Internet. You’d feel real bad as a director if that happened on your watch."

Plenty of projects

Terminator Salvation opened Wednesday to mixed reviews (mine was only 2.5 stars, full disclosure). On Thursday, McG most likely woke up to read that the lukewarm reviews didn’t matter and his movie still made $3 million in midnight performances on opening day.

The director says he won’t obsess over the box-office performance of Terminator Salvation , but realistically, the big-budget movie rumored to cost $200 million to make (McG said it’s not quite that high) will need to turn a sizable profit for there to be the second and third Terminator films the director wants to make.

Meanwhile, McG’s got his plate full with other projects. He is executive producer of the NBC hourlong spy spoof Chuck, which was renewed for next season. He’s also prepping a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake, possibly starring Will Smith as Captain Nemo. It would be another casting coup for McG, but he’s not banking on directing the bankable star.

"We haven’t landed Will yet. That’s one of the privileges of being Will Smith, you do whatever the hell you want to do. But we’re chasing him, and we’ll see if he ends up doing it. That’s what I’m prepping next, that and Spring Awakening, which is a musical that swept the Tony’s and Broadway. It’s a 19th-century thing that’s made contemporary and a huge departure from anything I’ve done thus far."

"So, hopefully, I can keep them guessing."

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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