“People sometimes ask me what the biggest perk of being president is. No. 1 is the plane. ”
When he introduces himself in a hangar at TWC Aviation in Van Nuys, Calif., film and television director and producer McG is so friendly and engaging that you can't help wishing he were a neighbor who might come over for the occasional beer or Monday Night Football get-together.
Football, in fact, played a major role in We Are Marshall, one of the most important movies directed by McG, who was born Joseph McGinty Nichol. (McG, pronounced muk-jee, is an appellation his mother gave him.) But while football provided the movie with its framework, what inspired McG to direct it was the 1970 crash of a chartered Boeing 727, which killed all 75 people on board, including most of the Marshall University football team and its coach. The film chronicles how the town of Huntington, W.Va., a rebuilt team and new coach Jack Lengyel (convincingly played by Matthew McConaughey) overcame the crash and returned the squad to glory.
Dealing with issues surrounding the crash forced the now 42-year-old McG to face his fear of flying-a fear so strong it kept him from going to Australia to direct Superman Returns. Having since overcome that fear, he now travels all over in his own Hawker 800 and is even thinking about learning to fly.
When we met, McG told us his career began when he and friend Mark McGrath started the rock band Sugar Ray. McG produced its albums and shot photos of the band, then transitioned into shooting music videos and directing and producing television shows and movies.
Known for his iconic music videos and an ever multiplying series of television shows that he executive produces (Chuck, Human Target, Super Natural), and films he directed and/or produced that include Charlie's Angles, Charlie's Angles: Full Throttle, the 2006 horror film Stay Alive and Terminator Salvation, the prolific and creative McG has several interesting projects up his sleeve.
What gets your creative juices flowing?
Being the best director I can possibly be. I'm trying to continue to develop my voice as a filmmaker, but I love music and film. That's why I called my company Wonderland Sound and Vision. It's the marriage of my two favorite mediums. My life was very humdrum growing up, and I dreamed about a world bigger than mine. Therefore, my expression in film and music is always about a world bigger than my own.
One of your first efforts was cofounding the band Sugar Ray.
I was surrounded by a great deal of musical talent and I thought I'd put together a bunch of recording sessions. I ended up producing all those records. Because I was a still photographer it was organic for me to start shooting the videos in the great age of MTV. I realized I was more at home behind the camera than just about anywhere else.
We Are Marshall was a change from what you'd done before. What made you want to do that movie?
I was making Superman, and I was supposed to get on one of Warner Brothers' GVs and go to Australia. I was terrified of flying and it resulted in my being thrown off the movie. It was a really sobering moment for me as a man and as a filmmaker.
So I started to see these two women at UCLA who helped me understand and get over my fear of flying. That's what led me to TWC Aviation [in Van Nuys, Calif.]. I chartered a GII for months and I remember walking around the plane and getting on and off and taxiing around and then being afraid to take off and fly.
What do you think was behind your fear of flying?
It wasn't so much, "Hey, this thing is going to crash." It was more, "I'm in a steel tube seven miles above the Earth and there's nothing I can do to get out of here." It's just a lack of control and an inability to say, "Just get me out of here."
So how did you overcome your fear?
I kept putting one foot in front of the other and getting more and more used to it. And I slowly and steadily started to overcome my fear. And it built this great passion for aviation, and then I kept putting my professional life together until I was in a position to buy the Hawker 800. It's like the moment in Batman where Bruce Wayne is most afraid of bats but he knows to be the man he wants to be he's got to go into the bat cave, spread his arms and let the bats just flood over him so he can become what he's most afraid of.
Did you have a moment like that when you finally took off?
Indeed. And that's what led me to We Are Marshall. It's about the plane crash and about a community coming back in the face of overwhelming grief. It's a very inspirational story about how, if you fall off of life, you've got to get up and keep on trucking. I knew I'd have to fly into that airport in West Virginia every time I went to shoot the picture and it was very much a personal statement about overcoming that which I was most afraid of.
The way you showed the crash in the film was understated-some noise, then a black screen for long enough that I wondered whether the movie was broken.
I wanted it to be impactful, and sometimes less is more. You just see the beginnings of a tree trunk coming through the fuselage-it's nothing but two or three frames-and then you go to black for a long time. And that was the intention: stay in black long enough to have people wonder if the film snapped in the projector.
You're one of the few directors working with Matthew McConaughey who draws out his skills as an actor.
He's had great success in the romantic comedy genre but I know that he can also go to that other place. You see it in the John Grisham film [A Time to Kill], and he's done it a few other times throughout his career, and I thought he was wonderful [in We Are Marshall].
Would you like to work with him again?
I would indeed. In fact, we got on one of those Warner Gulfstreams and got into a wrestling match where he destroyed me. It led to a very humiliating moment at 40,000 feet in front of the Warner Brothers brass that they still kid about to this day. So, McConaughey, when you read this, I want a rematch.
You went from not wanting to get on that Warner Gulfstream to having an airborne wrestling match?
Yeah, but to me, that's what life is about. What defines us is how we respond to adversity. There are a lot of challenges along the way and I'm not done seeing my share of them.
What drew you to the Hawker 800?
It seemed mission-appropriate. I like that it's an L.A.-to-New York nonstop aircraft. I was attracted to the winglets that this particular Hawker had. I thought it was great, added more fuel economy, more lift, and seemed attractive. It was in my price point and seemed like the most reliable airframe.
Do you charter out your Hawker?
Yes, because we feel it's intelligent for the airplane to fly about 400 hours a year. And I don't fly 400 hours a year. While making a movie, I'm probably [flying] 150 to 200 hours, but I don't like the idea of the airplane not flying for 10 or 15 days in a row.
How does flying privately help you when you're working?
It's terribly, terribly effective. For example, while we shot Terminator. Albuquerque is about 1,000 miles from L.A. and I came home every weekend and was able to recharge my batteries and get work done on the flight. And the stars would come home with great regularity, and it kept them happy because they could see their families. And I would stay on top of my other business interests in Los Angeles with a personal touch as opposed to being stuck in Albuquerque.
What is Airshow about?
It's a thriller that takes place in the body of an air show. The bad guys take over some of the military hardware that's at the Chicago air show. It's a big summer action movie, and hopefully that'll come to fruition.
Are you still trying to do a movie a year?
I think that's too ambitious. I mean, movies take longer than a year, especially the big visual-effects movies. And movies fall apart for any number of reasons. As [Avatar director] Jim Cameron has said, "When a movie comes together, it's nothing short of a miracle."
You're doing a movie version of the rock musical Spring Awakening?
We've just finished the script for that, and it's likely to be my next movie. That's something I'm passionate about. I love stories where boy loves girl, girl loves boy and society will tear them apart. I think that's timeless and every generation has their Splendor in the Grass or Love Story or Titanic that they can relate to and I'm confident that Spring Awakening is going to strike that chord with youth around the world and the youth in all of us.
You've said that you're proud of keeping on budget.
Yeah, because the more you can stick to what you say you're going to do, the more autonomy you get from the studio. When you say I can get this done in X days for X dollars and then you do it, you earn a great deal of credibility and therefore you earn artistic freedom.
A lot of people assume artists can't control a budget.
I don't know that that's true. I'm passionate and I can yell and scream with the best of them, but in the spirit of getting done what I need to get done. And I just simply have the experience at this point to deconstruct what we're trying to achieve and know how long it's going to take to get it done in exactly the way that I want to get it done.
What did you learn from your years of making music videos?
Music video allows you an opportunity to put a lot of film through the camera and develop your own style. So as opposed to being someone who went to film school and maybe got the chance to shoot a seven-minute short as the totality of their film experience in a multi-year program, we were out there shooting hundreds of thousands of feet of film on a weekly basis. And when you've shot on the mountaintop and on the water and in the desert and in the day and in the night and you've dealt with the difficult personalities and you've done the visual effects and you've done the long single take, you get a lot of experience.
What movie desperately needs to be made that hasn't been done yet?
Spring Awakening. It's a 19th century Frank Wedekind play that was banned in Germany. And to see it redefined as a contemporary rock and roll musical I just think is so original. I think any kid who couldn't get to Broadway or L.A. to the theater has a right to see that at the multiplex in Duluth.
Is it hard to turn a Broadway show into a movie?
It's hard to make a movie, period.