Not despite Charlie's Angels, but because of it (the first one, anyway), I really like McG as a filmmaker. Say what you want about his undeservedly but oft-criticized nickname, but the guy has the chops – and then some – to make blockbuster spectacle look, well, spectacular. Given his existing filmography, he's only made one serious creative misstep, the disastrous Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, since the first Angels movie was an exhilarating thrill ride and 2006's We Are Marshall a heartfelt and powerful drama.
Aiming for the A-list credibility enjoyed by the likes of Christopher Nolan, McG has unleashed his muscular, bombastic creativity on Terminator Salvation, which should certainly resuscitate the franchise even if it doesn't quite distinguish the director from other fanboy punching bags like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner. As part of Cinematical's special Summer Interview Series with different directors, we sat down with McG at the film's Los Angeles press day for an exclusive chat about reimagining Terminator's beloved characters. In addition to talking about defining the director's own filmmaking style and searching through summers past to find the films that inspired him to become a director, McG drilled us a little bit about our own feelings on the film, precipitating one of the more interesting, and, well, interactive interviews we've done in a while.
Cinematical: What were the things that were on your shortlist of references or iconic moments that you knew needed to be in the film, and what did you know absolutely couldn't make it?
McG: That's difficult because Job One was to create a new film, and not just rely on yesterday's films. We have these three films that are so important to all of us, and this is the film that doesn't have Schwarzenegger. That's very risky, because I was worried that at the first screening people would come out and go, "yeah, that was alright, but I just can't get behind a Terminator movie that doesn't have Schwarzenegger." And I say in fairness, I haven't really heard anyone say, "I miss Schwarzennegger. I can't enjoy it without that character." And of course we have that little cameo and the digital moment of it, but you get my drift. So I needed to be very careful regarding everything as simple at the Guns & Roses song that we all know from the aqueduct chase in T2, to the flip of "I'll be back," to the genesis of "come with me if you want to live."
But then more deeply to the Nikes that Kyle Reese wears in the first Terminator. To the genesis of the strap for the shotgun; there was a point where Marcus, and in the outtake, you're going to see he's going to say, "pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it." That's of course what Kyle Reese says to Sarah Connor in the first picture. All of this stuff, it was walking this tightrope of how much is enough, and when do you go too far? Because it's like, "f*ck off – create your own movie." So we needed to find that balance, and I think in the end I feel pretty good about that. For example, the Schwarzenegger moment, I don't think it overwhelms the film. [But] Did you hear the black ending that I talked about?
Cinematical: No – what was that?
McG: There was this leak on the internet that Connor dies and we put his likeness on Marcus' body.
Cinematical: I think I did hear about that.
McG: That wasn't the ending. He was the ending. Connor dies. We're in that tent in the end in the desert, and Connor's going to die. We were going to put Connor's likeness on Marcus' machine body. They do the operation. Connor sits up looking like Connor, but know that underneath it is indeed Marcus. Kate, Blair, Star, Kyle, everybody that we care about is in the room. Connor shoots them all. We go to black. He was a machine. Skynet wins. Game over. That would have been jet f*cking black. Bale and I were like, "we're doing that ending." He sits up and you go, "aww," in his eyes there's a slight flare of red and he takes the gun right to the face of Kate, Kyle, Star, Blair, Barnes, everybody dies and got to black.
Cinematical: Seems like it would make it tough to do a sequel.
McG: Who knows? There's a thing called time travel out there. But that also just felt like a f*cking buzzkill, you know what I mean? There's one thing between a gutsy ending and just an icky feeling of "that sucks." Having said that, I adore that ending. That's the truth of what the ending was. That's about as dark of an ending as I've heard of in my life. Straight up bad guy wins, it was a ruse, gunshots to the face. Can you imagine? Imagine Bale with a gun blowing away his wife and blowing everybody away in the room. And just whack! Go to black, and you and I elbowing each other at Mann's Chinese going, "what the f*ck just happened?" Who knows.
Cinematical: Notwithstanding the legacy of this series, are you only beholden to yourself when you're putting together a movie like this, or are you thinking at some level, "we need to do this bigger or better than the previous blockbuster?"
McG: No, I don't ever really worry about that too much. I'm a product of the films and all of the stimulus that I'm subjected to every day. I watch a movie every day of my life. I have my entire life. It's just what I do. I can't change – that's what I enjoy doing – and that finds a way of expressing itself through my filmmaking. But one thing I'm very proud of is that I have my own imprint; people can not like it, that's a privilege of the viewer. But I think people know when they're in a movie I've directed, win or lose, and it just feels like its own animal.
I don't think you can look at Terminator Salvation and go, "oh man, it's just like [anything]." I mean, you can see a scene – you mentioned Apocalypse Now, and when the Hueys are coming down a river and you're getting that low-end thump, well of course! I watch Hearts of Darkness every night before I start principal photography on a movie because if they can overcome that level of duress, I feel like I can do it too. So there's a great many influences there, but I think in the end what you see is my expression. I've never been guilty of people going "that's just like this, that, the other," so I would ask you, what did this film remind you of? What film up there would you say, "oh, Terminator Salvation feels like-?"
Cinematical: I definitely didn't feel that way.
McG: That's not to say that's a good thing or a bad thing. But at least it's not like, "sh*t, man, the thing's just like the second Terminator. They just rebooted that and they did it and it just reminded me of Robocop and this is bullsh*t." So I feel very good about that.
Cinematical: I was lucky enough to speak to you on set and at the roadshow screenings of footage earlier this year, and I know there is a sense for you of your earlier films haunting you a little bit – meaning people have certain expectations of you based on those films. Do you feel like this film is a proving ground for you, either for yourself or to audiences?
McG: Yeah, but every film is a proving ground, and I've never held it against the audience for thinking I'm the wrong guy to make a Terminator picture. I haven't done anything that would suggest that I'm the right guy, so why would I expect that the passionate to say, "oh, that's the guy we want at the helm of our beloved Terminator." I've done nothing to suggest that I'm the right one. But I know in my heart what films I grew up on, I know in my heart what films I'm most passionate about and the manner in which I would prefer to tell stories. And it's in this genre. I'm reading Philip K. Dick's Standard Edition and studying Giger production design because that's what I love.
That's just who I really am as a filmmaker, and people just happened to see me in Charlie's Angels first, which is the way of the world. It would be like you seeing Johnny Depp in 21 Jumpstreet and going, "oh, that's a good-looking pretty boy. Why would I take him seriously?" And he's saying in his heart, I know what I'm capable of. Or a guy in checkered Vans who calls himself Spicoli. You've got to pay your dues and it's the privilege of the public to put you in a box, and you can't bellyache about it. You just have to let the film do the talking, and my name will never define my movies. My movies will define my name, win or lose, and I'm willing to accept the consequences.
Cinematical: Do you have a quintessential summer movie experience? Something maybe you were obsessed by or inspired you creatively?
McG: Raiders. That was a time when I would characterize the big movies as the best movies, and so rarely is that case. That was the case last summer with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which were the biggest movies of the year and arguably the best movies of the year. So I would welcome that sort of summer moviemaking coming back, and I'm a child of [Star Wars] Episodes IV, V and VI, and that's just where my head is. Those are the seminal moments of my life.
Cinematical: You're set to do 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea next. After having resuscitated this franchise, do you feel like other filmmakers can now take it on, or is this series personally connected to you?
McG: It's extremely personal. I've made an inferior sequel in the second Charlie's Angels picture and I don't want to do that again. I feel like I learned from that, so I'm very motivated to continue the story of John Connor and to continue the story of Skynet and bring it to its rightful conclusion in this manner. So I'm passionate about that, but we'll see if it's in the cards. The fans will have to speak; there is no second movie, there is no third movie in the absence of a great deal of passion from the fan base. Everybody thinks they're going into a trilogy; that's a joke, but you need people to respond to your material to warrant that next movie. So if the people want the next movie, I have indeed arc-ed what that story is, and then the story that follows that – and it's dark, and it's elliptical, it's very challenging, and it's not got a happy little bow on it.
I hear you loud and clear when you talk about this film has a little bit of a shiny, sparkly bow at the end, and perhaps we are indeed guilty of that, but I'm very pleased in the end with where the film ended up as far as delivering on a character level, a story level, and an action level, which I think is important. Because if there's too much action, it becomes noisy, and if it's too much introspection, it's like, where the f*ck is my Terminator? I came here to experience the visceral ride of a Terminator picture, don't talk me into oblivion. So you need to find that balance, and I think Worthington and Bale help facilitate that balance.
Cinematical: What is it about this kind of big, muscular filmmaking that you respond to so strongly?
McG: That's where I want to be because I came from a very physical, muscular father. I grew up in a house with a lot of heated tempers and a lot of yelling and a lot of passion and it just comes very naturally to me, and I've always liked big characters in film. I like Scarface, I like the Scorsese characters, I like the Coppola characters. I like larger-than-life characters that transcend my suburban experience. I grew up in a tract housing community where I felt like anything cool had to come from somewhere other than where I was. So I'm fascinated with the classic archetype of Hollywood movie characters. Of course, I can get behind the subtlety of To Kill a Mockingbird and I can get into The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but I also don't want to apologize for liking big, summer fare. It's wonderful.
Cinematical: How tough or easy was it to synchronize your high-energy style with the focus and introspection that Bale brings to each character he plays?
McG: Uh, I liked it because we're such different people. I approach moviemaking from the heart and he approaches it from the mind, and I think that collision often gives rise to an artistry that neither one of us could create on our own. I'll just stand by what we did together, and it was very interesting because we approach life so very differently, and I want to feel and I want to emote, and I have a great deal of pain in my personal life, and the manner in which I express it is through overt expression. I don't push down, I wear it on my sleeve and I fail spectacularly and on occasion, I succeed, but I give it hell trying . And I don't want to lose that style. I don't want to be beaten by Hollywood, I don't want to bite my tongue, and you see all of the handlers trying to slap me on the wrist and keep me under control and tell me what to do and tell me how to act, and that's not why I came here. I'm from Michigan but I grew up largely in Orange County where everybody toed the line and got involved in commercial real estate. I grew my hair out to my ass, pierced my ears and rebelled against that level of society, and I wanted to immerse myself in the arts. And I will never acquiesce to a Hollywood that has become decidedly corporate.
Cinematical: Other than Terminator, what movie are you most looking forward to seeing this summer?
McG: It's got to be Star Trek. I grew up on Star Trek and now I'm a fan of J.J.'s, and J.J. and I went through a lot on Superman [Returns] and I think he's a great storyteller. So I'm looking forward to seeing it – I might go and see it tonight. Have you seen it yet?
Cinematical: Yeah – it's awesome.
McG: I hear it's great. I hear it's so good. I mean, people who like it, people who don't like it, they all come out and shrug and go, "it's f*cking good." Naturally I'm hoping our film is very different and excellent in its own way, but I'm betting that Star Trek is quite good as well.
Cinematical: I watched the first four Original Series films before seeing it, and I was just sort of sobbing at how much I was enjoying it.
McG: It just breaks my heart a little bit, and don't change your tune, but it sounds like you liked Star Trek so much more than Terminator Salvation. You don't need to placate – it is what it is, and they're very different movies. But from the bottom of my heart, I'm very pleased with our movie also, and sort of the grit and the breakout of Sam Worthington and the exploration of where is it that humanity lies. And then becoming the story of Connor, a guy who you meet as a garden variety soldier and because he stays the course and believes in what he was taught, he ultimately becomes the leader of the resistance.