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Fight the Future with Director McG
The Terminator Salvation director talks about the task before him.
By Rob Vaux
May 20, 2009
Director McG talks about saving humanity on the big screen in TERMINATOR SALVATION(2009).
© Mania.com/Robert Trate
The Terminator Salvation director talks about the task before him.
Introduction and Transcript by Rob Vaux
If McG weren't making movies, he could have an extremely lucrative career selling snow to Eskimos. His enthusiasm for his work and eloquence of expression can make even the biggest skeptic believe he's created the greatest movie ever. Sci-fi was always in his blood, he claims, a passion which led him to revive the Terminator franchise for a fourth outing this summer. He spoke to the press about it during the recent junket for the film
Question: How much of an issue was the rating of this film? Was there a lot of pressure to bring this in at PG-13?
McG: No. From day one, we were given the okay to shoot the movie we wanted to shoot. It became clear that the things which would take it to an R or an NC-17 would be gratuitous. "Oh, there goes the arm and look at the blood squirting on my face!" That wasn't in the service of the characters or the story. Ultimately, we were able to make exactly the film we wanted to make without any compromise whatsoever. And it happened to garner the rating it got. As I've said elsewhere, look at The Dark Knight. That's a compromise-free picture.
Truthfully, I'm pleased. When I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I wouldn't want a guy busting my chops keeping me from seeing a movie I ultimately wanted to see. The elements which would have taken it to an R really felt gratuitous in the editing room. There's a topless scene with Moon Bloodgood. I wanted to echo that scene in Witness where Kelly McGillis tells Harrison Ford "I'm not ashamed." But it just felt like the genre stunt of the good-looking girl taking her top off. It felt counterproductive to what we wanted to achieve on a storytelling level.
Q: Will it be on the DVD? Enquiring teenage boys want to know.
McG: I suspect it will. You'll have to ask Moon about it. She was very passionate in a sort of third-wave feminist kind of way about the scene. It was a fun conversation to have.
Q: Your attitude seems to be "CGI when necessary, but not necessarily CGI." How passionate are you about that philosophy?
McG: I'm very passionate about that. Human beings spend a great deal of time looking at physics. [Picks up a pen and drops it to the table.] You just understand what that pen's gonna do when dropped. I think we can all smell the CG component in these films, and you're immediately taken out of the picture. We went to the one and only Stan Winston--who passed during the making of this picture, and we dedicated it to his memory--to build all the robots and all the machines of Skynet to the best of our ability. We wanted to do as much as possible in camera, so you get that level of physics and that level of response. Most particularly, you really get the performance you're looking for. You're not stuck telling the actor, "Oh the tennis ball is the robot, be afraid." That's terrible. I want a seven-foot piece of Soviet tank machinery, where if you punch your hand up against it, it's going to hurt. It brings a better performance from Sam Worthington and Christian Bale and the rest of the cast. It was absolutely critical to build as much as humanly possible… and then when you have to extend it into a CG capacity, then go for it. But films that take place purely in a CG environment, they just feel animated and I detach as a viewer.
Q: What about the color palate?
McG: We talked to a bunch of futurists at MIT and CalTech and asked them what this word might look like. What happens to the ozone layer? What happens to the patina of the Earth? We studied Chernobyl and the whole "life after people" concept. We ended up using some dead stock from Kodak. We left it in the sun too long in order to damage it so that it lost some of its nuance and characteristics. We used old lenses, which are more likely to flare. It just makes you cock you head a little bit and say "what's wrong with this world?"
Q: A year ago, you said that fans would either love or hate the ending. Is that still the case?
McG: That was a time when the film had a very dark ending. That's the great irony of the way the film shook down. There was a leak that Connor dies, but that's only half of it. We had a jet black ending, something even worse than that. I would hope that--if we'd gone there--the oxygen would get sucked right out of the theater. Who wants that? It would have been the biggest bummer ever!
Q: How did you write around the franchise's paradox? The cause-effect loop?
McG: We felt comfortable honoring the triangle of the mythology that everyone most fundamentally understands. John Connor has to send Kyle Reese back in time to save and protect Sarah Connor, and ultimately impregnate her to give birth to John Connor to save us all. Which is a mouthful, but is that not indeed the core understanding of what Jim Cameron did with the first film? It's always going to be tricky, but if you notice, we stay away from time travel in this picture. If you handle that indelicately, it becomes an Austin Powers picture, when you just go back five minutes further and change the results.
The idea is that the first three pictures are contemporary pictures with Terminators coming back in time, and our film takes place during that dark age that was never thoroughly explored between Judgment Day and 2029, which is the first known point of a T-800 coming back. So here we see how Skynet, through farming human beings, is building towards that realistic-looking T-800, just like we went through a lot of lab rats to get to a polio vaccine.
Q: Did you cast Sam Worthington before or after he was cast in Avatar?
McG: It was before Avatar. I saw him in a picture called Somersault,and my casting girls were very big on him. I knew I needed a guy who could stand up to Bale in a two-shot. Bale's a very physical presence and most actors in their 20s and 30s are these heroin-chique waif guys that Bale would crush. I think the best scene in the picture is when they go face to face, and I think the audience can look at that and go, "I don't know who I'd take in that fight." That says a lot about Sam, to stand up to Christian Bale and make you believe he could endure.
Q: Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen are taking about another Charlie's Angels movie. Are you interested?
McG: I haven't thought about it. I'm trying to grow and work in genres that I'm most comfortable working in. I got started in Charlie's Angels, and I wish them every success with another sequel, but these are the films that I grew up feeling very passionate about. The Terminator. Blade Runner. The Kubrick pictures.
Q: Are you going to be doing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
McG: I'm looking at that, and I'm looking at Spring Awakening, the musical, and of course I'm hoping to do another Terminator picture provided I can trick my screenwriters and stars into playing along.
For our interviews with the Terminator Salvation supporting cast and co-star Sam Worthington, click here and here. Stay tuned tomorrow for our final interview with lead star Christian Bale.