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Mania Exclusive Interview: Terminator: Salvation Director McG
McG attempts to fill big shoes.
By Rob Vaux
August 01, 2008
Like many filmmakers today, McG got his start in music videos, producing work for the likes of Sublime, Korn and Cypress Hill. He then scored a huge success with the 2000 feature film version of Charlie's Angels followed by a less-then-well-received sequel in 2003. He grabbed another brass ring when he was selected to helm the fourth film in the Terminator saga, Terminator: Salvation. The film is due for release in May 2009. The director took a break from his shooting schedule to talk about the project at this year's San Diego Comic Con.
Question: The Charlie's Angels films were more or less your own, but with Terminator: Salvation, you're basically stepping into James Cameron's shoes. How do you approach that in a way that lets it be your own while still staying true to his vision?
McG: Truthfully, I think any filmmaker tries to go on a film-by-film basis and do what's right for what's in front of him. I'm very pleased with the Charlie's Angels pictures. With those movies, I was trying to break down the glass ceiling and say "you can make a successful female action picture." But that was a long time ago and I'm a different filmmaker now. I made a movie after that, We Are Marshall, about a plane crash. I've been afraid of flying for a long time, and I sort of needed to have that catharsis—that Joseph Campbell moment of facing what you're most afraid of. With Terminator: Salvation, I wanted to make a movie that's about posing ethical questions to the audience. A film that doesn't necessarily make things easy for them. Of course, this isn't designed to be an art picture, so you have to find a balance between that artistic take and a film designed to be seen the world over. We're very pleased with the way the film looks and feels so far, but you can be the judge. I'm hoping it has the right sense of grit.
Q: Did you consult with Cameron at all?
McG: We did. We'd had several phone calls and he knows that I respect him a great deal.
He was very encouraging, and we talked at length about the story. We talked about Sam [Worthington]'s character, who's new and who's key to the film. We talked about Cameron's experience on Aliens, picking up a franchise from another great director. Most particularly, we talked about not living in fear. It's a big responsibility taking on a franchise like this, but you have to move forward. Sometimes you've got to be on Happy Days before you become the great Ron Howard. Maybe you've got to be Spiccoli before you can be Sean Penn, and maybe you've got to do some time on 21 Jump Street before you can grow into the boots of Johnny Depp. There's nothing wrong with paying your dues, and I'm certainly willing to pay mine.
Q: Your star, Christian Bale, has come to the unwelcome attention of the tabloids this week. Is there anything you'd like to clarify or dismiss about that situation?
McG: I'm delighted to talk about Chris. He's the most professional, passionate actor you're going to find. It's just that simple. He is all about the work. He loves his wife, he loves his child, and he loves being an actor. He's not interested in materialistic things. He wants to come to work prepared, and… I mean I can't just go 'Christian, go camera left.' Chris is going to talk to me about what went into the decision to go camera left, which is wonderful. It provides the elegant opposition you want. You don't want people saying, 'yeah whatever, tell me what to do and we'll do it.' [The entire cast] challenges you all the time… and Christian sets an excellent example in that way. He's a big-hearted, good guy. I've worked with a lot of people and that's just who he is.
Q: Can you talk about Jonathon Nolan's involvement in the film?
McG: I would have to characterize Jonah as the lead writer of the film. I don't know how the WGA rules work, but honest to goodness, we did the heaviest lifting with Jonah. He's a very cerebral guy. You can see that in his work with his brother Chris, with Memento and The Prestige and of course the Batman pictures. They are deep, deep thinkers, and hopefully our film will reflect that.
Q: The early sequences look pretty intense. Was there any pressure to tone down the material and get a more teen-friendly PG-13 rating?
McG: None. Some of the people who green-lit the film are here in the room now and all of them are perfectly comfortable with an R-rated picture. We don't think about the rating when we're shooting. We just do what’s right for the story. I don't have a problem with a PG-13 picture. I just saw The Dark Knight and I thought it was immaculate. More importantly, I thought it was made compromise-free. So I'm not afraid of a PG-13 rating, and we're not rooting for anything in particular in that regard. But I'm not going to let the fan base down trying to target a rating. The only people who would give us a hard time about that are the studios--and you have to respect that, because they put a lot of money behind the film--but literally, those guys are right here. Jeff Blake is here from Sony, Jeff Robinov runs Warners, and they don't care. If they say, "deliver a rated R picture," then that's really liberating as a filmmaker. The film itself will rule the day, and we just do what we think is right for it.
Q: The continuity for this property can get a little nuts sometimes. What's your approach to the "Terminator timeline?"
McG: Well, T3 begins with a bit of a punt as far as what happened in the earlier films, and there's some juggling of the timeline. We're starting after the bombs have gone off--and I'm not going to reveal the exact date of that yet. The picture starts in 2018, and we've done the best we can to honor the timelines that have come before us. Beyond that, our dates simply come from doing a lot of research. We talked to a lot of futurists and scientists about things like how long the atmosphere would take to clear itself out after a nuclear war so you can go outside again. Certain timeline events are written in stone, and that can help guide you too. The T-800 shows up in 2029. We're building towards that place, and therefore certain kinds of hardware should show up in 2018. If more sophisticated machines start showing up, that's a problem for John Connor.
Q: How about the events of The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series?
McG: I'm a friend of the guy who runs the show, and we had a meeting early on. We want to honor the connection, but episodic television has its own rules , , , and we can't chase their story threads. We honor it, we're all using the same language, but this is this and that is that. And I say that as a big fan of the TV series.
Q: What do you remember about the experience of seeing the original Terminator for the first time?
McG: I've always regarded the first picture as a horror picture. It's Halloween. What's the difference between Schwarzenegger in the first picture and Michael Myers in the first Halloween? I intend that as a compliment; I think it works marvelously well. Then the second picture brought a level of complexity that you can't normally hope to achieve. Sequels are tough: I made an inadequate sequel (and personally, I blame the make-up girl for that) [Laughter] so I know how tough it is. It's a short list of sequels that are better than the original.
The easy thing for us is that our picture happens after the bombs. Every other Terminator picture is set in the present day. This is after it happened, so it gives us a whole new palate to play with: this sense that the machines are rising to a place of complete dominance. And it's not such a far-fetched notion. We're heading towards that place very rapidly. I'm looking out at you guys and I'm seeing open laptops and digital cameras. All these things are just getting faster and more intelligent and more intuitive all the time. It's a pretty scary thing. I mean, who here would suggest that humanity is in great shape? We're melting the oceans. We have a huge population problem. And at the same time, if I type the "a" and the "n" in my Blackberry, it types the "d" for me. That's artificial intelligence. And it's no longer George Orwell material. It's here.