Interview: McG Talks Populist Filmmaking, Absorbing Movies, and ‘This Means War’

By  · Published on February 18th, 2012

This Means War is, as McG puts it, exactly what you think a McG movie is. It’s as commercial and open as a movie can get, something the director has no shame about. Plenty scoff at the idea of loving the tag of a “populist” filmmaker, not McG. Clearly he sees his films as being more than dumb fun, though, and strives to make sure they’re not that.

Films similar to This Means War usually don’t strike audience members as being a “personal” project in some fashion. That doesn’t seem to be the case for McG, as he puts it. This Means War has a scene featuring two of the leads discussing Alfred Hitchock, and you can just feel the director taking the opportunity to talk through his characters. It’s a fanboy touch, and he came off as the most energetic kind in our conversation.

Here’s what McG had to say about embracing the title of a populist filmmaker, leaving behind med school for music and film, and reflecting on Terminator Salvation:

Have you been looking at the word-of-mouth screening reports anxiously?

The word-of-mouth screening reports are fantastic, but the critics are mixed. I’m disappointed. I mean, it’s never going to be the film that’s fun to say how much you loved it. To me, the success of the film is its originality. You can’t look at it and say, “Oh, it’s just like this and that.” It’s its own animal, and that’s hard to do. I wish people would put more focus on that. You know, I read things about people kicking me because of my name. You know, ten or twelve years into this, that’s frustrating. It’s just the name I was given when I was born. Like, give me a break…

I don’t think you should take those opinions too seriously.

Yeah, but they’re out there. The voice is the voice. Look, I’m a populist filmmaker, and there’s no doubt about it. I don’t apologize for it. You know, you’re in an art form that’s designed to be seen by many people. It feels better when people respond to your material than when they respond negatively.

Did you know early on that you wanted to be a populist filmmaker?

Not necessarily. It’s just who I really am. I can’t be someone I’m not. I’m raised on all movies, and I certainly make no apology for enjoying E.T., Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump, films I thought were magical. And the films of David Lean. I would look at Doctor Zhivago and I would dream about Russian landscapes [Laughs]. Just other worldly films were just what I was raised on. Between that and the music I’ve been exposed to my whole life, it’s just the path that I’ve walked. What you see is what you get. I feel like This Means War is a McG movie, you know what I mean? It’s like we all know what a Woody Allen movie is or a Quentin Tarantino movie or a Wes Anderson movie or a Michael Bay movie, and I think there’s such a thing as a “McG movie.” It’s certainly the privilege of the audience to like that or hate that, but this is who I am. I like action, romance, and comedy very much. And I like honesty in what it means to be out there and be alive.

You can see the love for certain films in your work. I was watching Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle the other day and I was surprised to see a reference to Cape Fear, with the score [Laughs].

[Laughs] Of course. I mean, that movie changed my life. Whenever I can, I have a guy getting out of jail [Laughs]. Yeah, I grew up in the home video age, so I had the opportunity to see every movie ever made. Everyday I would watch two or three movies, and I would just absorb them. I would look at Rope from Alfred Hitchcock, and I’d look for where he hid the cut and how it was achieved. I would watch Citizen Kane every week. Then I’d go see Tootsie three times over at the theater over the weekend. I’m just from the heart of the hearts. I’m just a genuine film enthusiast. I love movies, and I think because my life is boring and small. I grew up in a track housing community in the suburbs, and all I had was the movies to offer transport.

Is that where the personal side of populist filmmaking comes from, making homages to the movies you love?

Yeah, that to me… the movies are designed to work on different levels. For those who choose to pay a little more attention, there’s always cookies. Be it the Hitchcock references, the Gene Wilder references, or the fact that there’s a girl dancing to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” while also watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That’s two things: one, a very cool choice for a girl to be watching, so who doesn’t love that girl? And two: it’s obviously a metaphor for what Chris and Tom are experiencing through the movie. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s frustrating sometimes, because I don’t think many people notice that.

You also have a nod to Titanic.

Well, I have a nod to Titanic because the man who shot Titanic, Russell Carpenter, shot this movie. The irony of a movie within a movie amuses me. Again, it’s a lonely amusement because I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people coming out of the multiplex who make that connection. I mean, just the fact that Russell shot that shot being yelled at by Jim Cameron with Leo and Winslet up there on the ship, and now, in this, there’s a character watching that. And that’s just the art imitates type of thing that amuses me. I find that very fun and cheeky.

[Spoiler Alert]

That character, FDR, is a jerk for most of the movie, so it’s interesting to have his humanizing scene to be watching Titanic [Laughs].

We had to work very carefully that that character seemed worthy of her choice in the end. Hardy is so fundamentally empathetic and a guy at a moment of reflection in his life. Pine is just sort of this guy who wants to run around with super models, until he meets Reese. He thinks, “Wait a second, I’d throw it all away, to have her at my side,” and I think Reese represents that in real life. I mean, you and I are two guys talking, and she’s just, for a lack of a better way to put, is wife material. She’s certainly pretty enough, intelligent enough, would keep you on your toes, let you get away with anything, and she’s just a dimensionalized, highest-quality woman.

What other endings did you have?

We had an ending where Tuck got the girl. We had an ending where neither got the girl. I wanted to hold on to the track race, the bitter, bitter last moment. I felt like I did that when I showed the movie to Reese in the editing room. Literally, we were 90 minutes into a 100 minute film and she looked at me and said, “I don’t know who I’m going to choose.” At that moment I thought, “Okay, I’ve done it: I’ve presented both characters fairly and you invest.”

[Spoiler Over]

I could buy them neither getting the girl. It was ironic the day I saw the movie, in my writing class, we talked about contrasexuals, and I think Tuck and FDR are definitely that.

That’s interesting. Where do you study?

I’m at a community college. I’m going to Maryland next semester.

Oh, that’s great. What city are you in?


Oh, okay, I know it well. I spend a lot of time in DC. I’m in and out of your neck of the woods, with New York and Philly.

Did you go to film school?

No, I went to school to be a doctor, in fact. I was studying psychology and was getting ready to go to med school, until I realized my love was for music and film. I mean, I’ve been into music and film since before I have memories. I’m the youngest of three. My dad would listen to jazz, my sister would listen to disco, and my brother was listening to hard rock, Led Zeppelin and what have you. I grew up in this cacophonous house of people competing for sound space. Then we’d go to the movies and we’d watch whatever movie came on television, with great regularity, and that was just my life.

As soon as I figured out I was going to med school for all the wrong reasons, I said I was going to immerse myself in music and film, and I went for it. I started my own record label in Orange County, California. I was friends with Gwen Stefani and this kid Zack de la Rocha who was Rage Against the Machine. I knew a bunch of kids who were rock and rollers, so I started making their records and we wrote songs together. Because I was a still photographer, I had taken all the pictures for the band. In the age of music videos, I started shooting all their videos without knowing that’s what I was doing. It was just a way for me to develop my visual signature and putting a lot of film through the camera and keeping it moving.

That must have been a pretty big whiplash going from med school to that.

Sort of. All through med school I was super into the music scene, and I was into it in high school as well. I mean, I had orange dreadlocks down to my ass. In college I was always into it, but I felt pressure of staying the course of school, because I come from a very academic family. It wasn’t until I summoned enough courage to branch out on my own. My parents thought I was crazy and I was broke doing it. By the hair on my chinny chin chin, I pulled it off, got it together, and started making music videos in the golden age of music videos, when it was me, Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, and Michel Gondry. We all sort of came up in that period and carved out our niche.

It must have been a tough life decision, at the time.

It was a tough life decision, because I don’t have a rich uncle in Hollywood. I don’t have shit. You know, I had to bite, scratch, and kick. Actually, the first video I ever made I hid in a pizza box and had it delivered to the head of Atlantic Records, hoping he would think it was a pizza and be barely amused enough to watch it, and he did. It worked out. Nothing ever came easy, I promise you that.

Do you still have that feeling? Obviously it’s not easy getting a movie made, especially now.

Making movies is getting tougher and tougher because they’re very expensive and people have so many alternatives for entertainment. I mean, there’s so much quality television on, with Showtime and HBO and the networks. Video games are photo realistic. The net is amusing, and you can find anything you want on YouTube. The malls all look like Disneyland, so they’re fun to walk around in. There’s much more going on.

I’d imagine today you’d probably not be able to get We Are Marshall made at a studio.

I doubt it. I mean, it’s a very secular, Americana type of movie. I made that movie for personal reasons, because I was afraid of flying for about 15 or 20 years. That movie being about a plane crash was the equivalent of me walking into the bat cave and letting the bats fly all over me and just facing my fears. I had to fly into that airport, Huntington, West Virginia, where that plane crashed on approach. There was a very, very personal movie for me.

Did you also see it as setting a challenge for yourself, doing something very different compared to Charlie’s Angels movies?

Yeah, I just wanted to expand my horizons. No matter what movie you make, people are going to try to put you in a box, and I’ve always fought against being put in a box. You know, to me, We Are Marshall was as antithetic as I could hope it to be from Charlie’s Angels. It was a very calm, very specific kind of movie that wasn’t ultra-colorful or bouncy. It was a drama that was about humanity and overcoming immeasurable grief, which, naturally, were not the themes of Charlie’s Angels [Laughs].

[Laughs] I was probably one of the people bashing the idea of that movie when it came out, but I just rewatched it and I think it works.

I hope so. I thought the girls were at the right place in the right time. You know, it was novel at the time to bring in Hong Kong wire-work that nobody had really done with women. The only powerful female action characters were what Sigourney Weaver did in Alien and, of course, Sarah Connor. I just thought, “Hey, why not?” I thought we’d have the girls own their beauty and still kick ass, and we’d have a good time doing it. It just seemed like the right thing at the right time.

When you got offered that —

I didn’t get offered that. I had to beg, fight, and bite. I didn’t get offered shit. They said no seven times before I could go in there and get a meeting, to pitch what I thought was the film. I had to do the film in real time and the only person who was protecting me was Drew [Barrymore]. The studio wanted nothing to do with me at the time, but reluctantly they went for it.

What made you go after it like that?

I just really wanted to make a movie. I felt that I understood the tone of the movie. For This Means War, it was meant to be funny, action packed, contemporary, funny, aspirational, and escapist and filled with joy and heart, and there are all the touch words of why critics hate the material. Like I said, I just can’t apologize for who I am. I am who I am, and I gotta stay the course now.

Tonally, they both go for that cool vibe: good-looking people doing cool things.

Well, yeah, unapologetically so. I come from the world of movie stars. I like Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and movies that are larger than life, like The Sound of Music and even Pretty Woman, for God’s sakes. I have no problem with perpetuating the idea of aspirational, beautiful filmmaking, and I like that. It’s a very unchic thing to say, but I like those movies and I’ll continue to see those movies. I always want intelligence to be there. If anything, my hope is to be smart fun. Nothing’s worst than boring, bad jokes and humor that’s not clever, and that’s decidedly not fun [Laughs]. There’s an element of subversive filmmaking in the choices I make and I try to keep it lively. For those who choose to look a little deeper, I think there’s always something to be discovered.

Making films of this scope, how do you maintain a level of respect for a big audience?

I definitely respect the audience. I’m not interested in seeing films behind closed screening doors. I go the multiplexes all over the nation and all over the world. When I sit in the theater, I listen to the rhythm of the audience. I like to watch movies that I produce or I’m behind in any way, and watch it through the lens of an audience because I’m still that kid in the audience dreaming about the movies. You know, I would argue the most prolific filmmaker in history is Steven Spielberg, and he tries to do the same thing. Spielberg is a film fan first. He’s a fan. I’m a fan. I mean, Martin Scorsese’s a fan and Quentin Tarantino’s a fan, and those were the two strongest supporters I got when I made Charlie’s Angels. Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese told me how much they like the movie, and I thought they were pulling my leg. I nearly fell over. That gives me a lot of courage.

Will you go see This Means War Friday night with an audience?

Always. I do that every time I make a movie. I’ll go tomorrow night when it sneaks on Valentine’s Day.

Do you find that never-wracking?

Yeah, because you want it to play well. You know, I just enjoy it and let the truth be the truth. We’ll let the chips fall where they may. I’ve sat in many theaters with this film and I’ve heard it play, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser. I think the jokes are very funny, I think Chelsea works well, and the chemistry between the two guys are great. You can believe in Tom Hardy and Chris Pine. As a guy, you can be excited about what those guys are doing. One guy’s Kirk and one guy’s Bane, for God’s sake.

[Laughs] It’s an interesting transition going to This Means War from Terminator Salvation, which, in popcorn movie terms, was bleak. Was it a conscious decision to make something lighter?

Yeah… listen, Terminator is one of those ones ‐ I like the movie, but I would change the ending a little bit, if I could. I thought that movie was of the highest-quality. I thought Bale and Sam were amazing. I thought the movie worked very, very well. I’d like to sit and watch that movie with people who didn’t like it and genuinely ask, “What is it about this movie you’re not responding to?” I like the action, the idea of how this is how Skynet came to be, Sam’s character, what Helena Bonham Carter did, and I definitely like what Bale was up to. I thought the action, the fun, and the grit was killer. I think that cameo we got out of the computer generated hybrid Arnold… I mean, I did everything I could to honor the hardcore fans, which I am one. Nobody can look at me and say, “I’m more into Terminator than you are.” The irony is, as people shat all over Terminator Salvation, don’t we all wish there was another one coming out this summer with Christian and Sam? I do.

I think some people were thrown off by the structure, where you weren’t really sure whose story it was.

That’s fairly put. I wish I could have shown you a rough cut early on and you could have brought that to my attention.

[Laughs] Did you test the film? Don’t you usually find that stuff out during that process?

Sometimes. I mean, for a big movie like, you don’t really test as much as I’d like to because they’re afraid of all the linking online. In retrospect, I would’ve tested the movie to find that feedback you spoke of. That would’ve been tremendous and valuable. You just get lost in the editing room, where you get mono-vision. I mean, you’re so close to the picture and it’s difficult.

With that movie, you also face the problem of what fans envision as that future. Every fan had an idea of what they want to see from that war, so that must have been a challenge.

I mean, it was difficult to please… you know, the movie made like 400 million dollars, so it’s not like it took shit. People liked it, it did well, and the reviews were mixed, and I wish it was an overwhelmingly positive thing. I wish we were making two more right now that Christian and I planned on making, but the rights got tied up with some crazy legal thing. We’ll see.

I know a lot of footage was cut from that movie. Do you think there’s a longer or different cut out there that could please fans who were more mixed on it?

Maybe. I mean, I’ve definitely got the footage to tell the story in a different way. I also have the black ending, which is where… let’s just put it this way: Skynet wins.

[Laughs] I read that leaked report.

[Laughs] So, you know, that’s out there. Maybe one day we’ll put that DVD together. Well, I’ll put that version together, since I don’t think DVD’s going to be around much longer.

Have you talked to Warners about releasing that cut?

Yeah, we’ve talked about it. When the time is right, we’ll do it.

Great. To end on and bring it back to This Means War, you could argue what the characters are doing is very selfish and pretty questionable. Did you ever think that the dilemma could easily become mean-spirited?

No, I think all the characters bring such good-will to the cinematic experience that they can getaway with it. I mean, some may frown on a woman dating two guys at the same time, but we all know Reese to be such a good person, and not a manipulative person. You benefit from that. She does it in a way that’s reluctant and Chelsea Handler’s pushing her into it. I think it becomes okay and just in the spirit of fun. Ultimately, it’s a good-spirited movie, not a mean-spirited movie. I think people just immerse themselves in the fun of what’s going on.

This Means War is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.