After a screening of “Terminator Salvation” last week (sorry, there’s an embargo, so you’ll get nothing out of me on it’s worth), I had the opportunity to talk to director McG (“Charlie’s Angels”, “We are Marshall”) about the highly-anticipated sequel. We also discussed, albeit briefly, his next project – “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.
Q: How did you go from being the Charlie’s Angels guy to getting this film? Were you ever afraid that you might be stereotyped into making a certain kind of film?
McG: No. It’s the privilege of the public to put people in boxes. You take the body of material that anybody has been a part of and you draw conclusions. Who would ever guess that a guy that was on 21 Jump Street, with a ridiculous name like Johnny Depp, would go on to be one of the great entertainers of our time? You’ve got to earn your stripes and pay your dues, and I’m certainly willing to earn mine. Fortunately, I’m most comfortable in this genre, ironically. These are the films that I grew up on. This was my film school. This was my passion. So, I’m very comfortable working in this world. You just take the good with the bad, and you take your lumps along the way. On this picture, I tried to get away from being a cheerleader and really just let the film do the talking. It started at Comic-Con, some year and a half ago, when we said, “This is what the film is,” and we let it speak for itself. You try to honor the fan base by making elegant choices. With Stan Winston and Christian Bale, people have to take a closer look. They weren’t excited about the prospect of the Charlie’s Angels guy making a Terminator movie and, respectfully, why would they be? What have I done that would suggest I’m the right guy? So, you take a step back, you work that much more diligently, and you let the film do the talking.
Q: What have you learned about yourself, after making this?
McG: Well, I definitely hate myself. I can promise you that. But, when you hate yourself, it gives rise to a higher level of artistry.
Q: Why would you hate yourself?
McG: I’ve got a mirror, don’t I? I don’t know. It’s part of my own inner turmoil. I don’t think we have enough time to get into that.
Q: How many drafts did you go through before finally settling on this version of the film?
McG: I read a draft that John Brancato and Michael Ferris wrote, and that’s the reason why I did it. I remember talking to Jim Cameron about it and he said, “Why is this worth telling?” I said, “Because it’s the future war and people are interested. I’m interested. It’s not a contemporary movie with the machine coming back in time and chasing someone. This is that world that you’ve only ever given us a tiny glimpse of and, therefore, that’s the point of entry.” He nodded and went, “Oh, that’s cool.” I’ll credit those guys for creating that world, but by the time I came onto the picture, they were busy doing their thing. We went through a couple of writers. Christian and I were working very intimately. Christian had an excellent shorthand with Jon Nolan. He did some production work while we were in New Mexico and, at the end of the day, I think it’s actually my responsibility to be the arbiter of what goes in the film and what goes out. It’s always a team effort. There are a great many moving parts, and that was the case in the writing of the script, to say the least.
Q: Why did you decide to cast Christian, considering that he was already part of another film franchise?
McG: That’s exactly why it was appealing. He always likes a challenge. He was probably like, “Who calls himself McG? What are we out to do and why is this worthwhile?” I went over to England and I saw him. I wanted him to play Marcus, but he was more interested in playing Connor, and we went about the business of working on the script. Christian Bale is so passionate about acting and about his craft. He has no entourage. He’s got no assistant. He is about the work. That’s who he is. And ,to work with an actor who’s that focused and that intense, is to all of our benefit.
Q: Do you think your use of practical effects in this film is going to move the industry toward more organic productions of action films?
McG: I think the public has an intimate understanding of physics, and I think filmmakers underestimate that. We all know what’s going to happen. I also don’t like trying to get a performance out of actors when I’m saying, “Hey Christian, see that tennis ball? That’s a 7-foot robot trying to kill you, and that green screen is ultimately going to be a post-apocalyptic downtown Los Angeles. That’s bullshit! I think that’s a cop out. You can’t reach your highest level of performance, in the absence of a tactile environment. From a place of performance, and from a place of feeling the heat, it’s in the interest of building everything, creating as much as you can in camera and honoring the audience, in that respect.
Q: There are a lot of explosions in this movie. Is there ever pressure, in terms of building a bigger explosion that the last? Do you sit up at night, thinking about it?
McG: I really don’t. This film was always designed to work at a table read. What I wanted to do is tell the becoming story of Connor. Here’s a guy who’s been in the mountain, there’s been radiation all around, and he finally comes out and says, “Hey, everybody, I’ve got an idea how to win this thing.” Well, what does the guy who spent 20 years in the Marines, who has also survived, say to this kid who is saying, “I know what to do”? He says, “Shut the fuck up! You do what I tell you to do. I’ve been surviving my whole life and I’m still here.” So, we see the becoming of the Connor character, and that’s what the movie’s about. In regard to Marcus, I think it’s an allegory for what we’re experiencing today where, if you have a bad heart, they’ll give you a new one. If you’re depressed, nobody says, “Tell me about your mom and dad.” They just say, “I’m going to manipulate your serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and you’re just going to feel better.” We can clone a sheep and deconstruct the human genetic code and, therefore, what is it that makes us human? Where does humanity lie? The Marcus character is, indeed, a study of humanity. He thinks, “You may be able to put a few metal rods running through my body, but at the end of the day, I am a human being and I’m willing to go all the way to prove that.” So, it’s not about those explosions. But, I’m not apologizing for summer fare. I like that level of activity and. at the end of the day, it’s a Terminator movie. If we’re successful, it will work on both levels.
Q: That stunt in the helicopter looks like one long tracking shot. How did you do that scene?
McG: I’m very influenced by the Hitchcock picture Rope. In that time, they would run out of film in the mag and they’d move into somebody’s back full frame, and that’s where they would hide their cut. One of the things that we wanted to do, in this picture, was honor the audience and the passionate by staging and blocking the picture in a way that wasn’t reliant upon cuts. I think cutting is a bit of a cheat, when say there’s a bunch of cameras on the scene and you cut it together and make it work in post. We chose to go and scout the locations. Christian was a good sport, and we blocked the action very succinctly. The camera swings around to see a transport ship of Skynet flying away, Christian runs over to a helicopter and the pilot’s been killed, and he gets in the helicopter to take off, all without a cut. The camera is now moving with him. The hole down below explodes, the helicopter crashes, he cuts himself out of the seatbelt, and crawls out to see a mushroom cloud, which is effectively the ashes of all the people he cares about, until he’s interrupted with the hand on the shoulder of a T600. There were no cuts. And, we do that a great many times in the picture, in the spirit of saying, “We honor you, audience.” We’re trying to show a lot of leg work and a lot of planning went into this film, and it’s not just schlocky and cut together in the spirit of faking the action. That’s just one example. The escape through the minefield, with the Marcus (Sam Worthington) and Blair (Moon Bloodgood) characters, was the same thing. Those very, very long shots, in the body of action sequences, one traditionally equates with a great many cuts, and we chose to do in a single shot. We hid a great many cuts, but we made it feel seamless, in its movement. It would be physically impossible to move the camera body from a ground position and live through that helicopter crash, unless I were really committed.
Q: Can you talk about casting Bryce Dallas Howard and Moon Bloodgood? What did each bring to her character?
McG: Bryce brings a First Lady elegance that I believe, all the way. If you look at Carla Bruni in France, or you look at Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, these are very elegant people that I would, personally, believe in. I took one look at Bryce, and I know a thing or two about her upbringing and who she is as a young lady, and I thought that she was effectively a wonderful First Lady choice for this world. Then, you take a look at Moon, and Moon, to me, is the third leg of that triangle of Ripley and Sarah Connor. Moon can damn well do one-handed pull-ups on a psychiatric bed, turned upside down, and that’s following in the footsteps of Sarah Connor. She is a survivor and she doesn’t have a rich uncle in Hollywood. She’s got to pick herself up by her own boot straps and make it happen, and I responded to that. I said, “I believe you would be the last woman standing, so come be a part of this.”
Q: Can you talk about any stuff that was shot that isn’t in the theatrical cut that we might see on the DVD?
McG: Yeah, but I have a very particular position about that. I always maintain that what is released is, indeed, the director’s cut, and shame on any director who doesn’t have the wherewithal to stand up for what they want. It’s my job to articulate why it’s critical that something is in the film. For example, there was a topless scene with Moon that was designed to echo the Kelly McGillis/Harrison Ford scene in Witness. It was very innocent. They were 30 meters away from each other. But, at the end of the day, we all looked at it and felt, “Oh, that feels gratuitous, and feels like we’re placating the genre, and it may give people a platform to stand on, to take the film less seriously, and we don’t want that.” But, nobody pressured me to make that decision. I made that decision.
Q: Is that going to be on the DVD?
McG: I suspect it will be on the DVD because Moon has a very sophisticated, third wave feminist take on why she made that choice. I’m a big fan of strong female characters, as is Jim Cameron. The strongest female characters in history have got to be Ripley, in the Alien pictures, and Sarah Connor. So, I come from a place of an empowered female position, and I think that the film tries to suggest a secondary gain of the bombs going off because there’s no more ageism, no more racism and certainly no more sexism. Everything is ability based. You know how to fix a broken leg, then go fix that broken leg. You know how to get the helicopter running, then get it running. Nobody is hung up on the minutia and ridiculousness of things that we’re hung up on today. Without ever shining a lantern on it, you’ll notice that’s very, very prevalent in our picture.
Q: Where do you want to see future Terminator films go, as far as the story?
McG: I wouldn’t be so bold as to say there’s going to be another one. I think it’s up to the people. But, I’ve arced out a second film and a third film. We’ll see what the appetite is. If the people jump up and say, “We want more!,” we’re certainly going to be ready. There are a great many places to go in a world where what was once science fiction, is now upon us.
Q: Connor goes through the film on such a note of intensity. Do you think it’s a challenge to craft an emotional arc for him in a sequel?
McG: I’ve reserved that for the sequel. This film is all about the burden of a destiny you don’t want. It’s not fun, when somebody gets on the radio and says, “How many survivors are there?,” and you have to say, “One. Yet again, everybody died, but me. I hate this curse of being the one who’s gotta always crawl out of there and carry the torch.” That’s the burden of being the hero, in this respect. In the next picture, we’re talking about exploring those more emotional arcs. So, we’ll see.
Q: Has Jim Cameron seen the movie?
McG: I don’t believe he has seen the movie. I look forward to showing it to him. He was the first guy I talked to, when I was considering making the movie. I went down there, out of a position of respect, to kiss the ring and told him what my intention was. He says he reserves the right to like or not like the movie. I said that I reserve the right to like or not like Avatar, and we both giggled and went on our way. But, he told me that story, and I’ve told it many times, about his following the great Ridley Scott in the Alien picture. People said, “What does this guy who made Piranha 2 think he’s doing, following Ridley Scott?” He thought, “I can honor the mythology and tell the story,” and I think we’re all glad that Aliens got made. Hopefully, we’ve done our job and created a new idea in a world that he most certainly created.
Q: Speaking of the big explosions and this being a summer movie, you threw down the gauntlet to Michael Bay for an explosion-measuring contest. Has he responded to that?
McG: It’s interesting because it’s the sort of thing that makes me never want to speak again. It was meant to be ironic. Somebody said, “Whose robots are bigger?,” and I was thinking that that’s effectively like asking whose cock is bigger. So, I responded, “Well, we can meet at the Spartacus steps at midnight,” and I thought it was painfully clear that I was kidding. By the way, I’ve got a tiny Irish cock. I’ve got no business. Bay’s packing a Dura-Flame. I know a guy who went to school with him. I can’t win that battle. So, it was meant to be ironic, but the irony was lost in print, so I’m done talking about such vulgar things.
Q: How are things going with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
McG: I think things are going well there. I’m also looking at Spring Awakening and then, arguably, an additional Terminator movie. It depends.