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McG, the machine behind 'Terminator Salvation'

The director has transformed himself after his Superman debacle to take over the futuristic action franchise.

May 17, 2009|Geoff Boucher

This week the "Terminator" franchise returns to theaters with its darkest chapter yet, a relentless, spirit-crushing vision of the future where humans are snuffed by killer robots. There are not a lot of lighthearted moments in this film, but you might hear chuckles in the theater during the screen credits because of one line: "A McG film."

McG? ? Let the eye-rolling begin. There's something about that name that conjures up images of Sacha Baron Cohen's hip-hop buffoon Ali G or maybe McLovin, the nerdy, underage boozehound from "Superbad," cultural references that don't exactly lend themselves to the fearsome, grinding gears of "Terminator Salvation." His resume hasn't relieved the pressure, as it's highlighted by the gloss of two "Charlie's Angels" films, a lot of pop music videos and a Superman film project that infamously never got off the ground.

The man behind the name McG -- or perhaps under it -- is the most relentlessly upbeat filmmaker in Hollywood today, but even his face droops when the nickname issue is raised.

"Believe me, I know, people hear the name and they just think, 'That guy must be a jerk,' " the 38-year-old said with a groan. "And having it hasn't helped me, that's for sure. But it's what everybody has called me forever."

The moniker wasn't handed to him at a college keg party or when McG worked as a top music video director during the 1990s; it was hung around his neck by his parents who put "Joseph McGinty Nichol" on his birth certificate back in Kalamazoo, Mich., but then decided "McG" would be a tidy way to avoid household confusion since the boy's grandfather and uncle were also named Joseph.

It's a quaint story, but it's too late: The damage has been done, and McG finds himself lumped in with Dane Cook, Criss Angel, Brett Ratner and others in the pop culture category of "clearly popular yet widely loathed." In the June issue of Esquire, a headline praises the director by saying "McG is not a douche bag" and, well, just think how proud his mom must be.

All of this is dismaying to many people who know and work with McG, but they say a turning point has arrived. "Pretty soon," says "Salvation" executive producer Dan Lin, "McG is not going to have to explain himself. He's a talented, multifaceted guy. Honestly, he epitomizes the American dream. And unlike most people, he accomplishes his dreams."

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Tapped into pop culture

Well, perhaps, but at the very least McG does seem like a man for the times in this Hollywood era of popcorn movies that need to be huge and high-concept. By reputation, he is loud but cheerful and, as he puts it, "good at working with big personalities," which brings to mind Christian Bale's notorious rant on the "Salvation" set (more on that later). His colleagues say he is intensely prepared -- one Warner Bros. executive said the director became a world-class scholar of all things "Terminator" -- and in touch with youth culture (which speaks to his sidelight as a TV producer with credits including "The O.C."). Lin, revealing much about the contemporary tugs of Hollywood, adds that McG is not only adept behind the camera but also won over Pizza Hut execs in talks about "Terminator" tie-ins.

McG has shown a flair for the unexpected in his career. Growing up in Newport, his Michigan roots made him an outsider, as did "my slight build, my orange afro, the braces -- I was the odd kid out in a land of Adonises," he said. He was passionate about music and, after a few attempts as music star or record producer (he did co-write some hits for the band Sugar Ray), he ended up making music videos at a surging time in Orange County music. "He always had a kidlike enthusiasm about him," said Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring, a band that hit the top of the MTV charts with McG's videos. "And the great directors are able to bring you into their world and feel like a kid again."

Drew Barrymore was impressed with that flair as well and brought McG to Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures, and insisted he be the director for "Charlie's Angels." Pascal was deeply skeptical but won over by McG's intense preparation and, well, because star and producer Barrymore was going to walk if the newcomer wasn't trusted with the $100-million project. "Amy Pascal was reluctant," McG said, "but it worked out after I acted out the entire movie."

The 2000 film grossed $40 million its first weekend in the U.S. (which set a box-office record for a first-time director), and critics split on whether it was great, mindless fun or just grating and mindless. A 2003 sequel followed, and while McG isn't especially proud of the second film, the films racked up a combined $523 million worldwide despite mixed reviews.

Big things were predicted for McG after that sparkling start, but his film career was abruptly grounded

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