On a July day in 2004, the director known as McG sat in his car outside the terminal at Burbank Airport where Warner Bros. keeps its private jet fleet. He could see the Gulfstream g550 he was to board and feel the vibration of the engines' auxiliary-power unit. All he had to do was open the car door, cross the tarmac, and climb the stairs. The plane was bound for Australia, where McG was to shoot the new Superman movie. After his massive successes with the Charlie's Angels franchise, Warner was counting on the filmmaker to deliver a much-needed blockbuster to match. But McG couldn't move.
He'd spent the prior year planning storyboards and concept art, and making casting decisions based on a script he had commissioned from J.J. Abrams. After various false starts — Warner had already sunk north of $20 million into the project — the film had a bright green light. Outside Sydney, trailers were ready for actors, soundstages were completed, and more than 1,000 production people were on the payroll, waiting for their director.
McG had known this moment was coming. He'd followed his preproduction ritual of watching the Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness, a reminder that no matter how bad things get during production, they could be worse. He had taken what he thought were the necessary precautions. He thought he could keep his terror secret. He was sure that when the time came, he'd be ready.
"I was staring at the terminal, knowing I didn't have what it took to get on," says McG today. "It just put me in that fetal position in the corner, saying, 'What have I become?' I had to look into the abyss and experience that find-my-character moment — and realized I didn't have it."
In the world outside the car, there was that awkward tension that develops when high-powered people reveal themselves as helpless. Both McG's manager and his agent tried to talk him onto the plane. Warner executives — CEO Barry Meyer, studio chief Alan Horn, production head Jeff Robinov — tried to goose the young director up the gangway. Everyone said they understood, that everything would be fine. He just needed to get on the plane.
"Imagine instantly becoming the CEO of a $200 million company that is going to create a product that has the potential to make a billion dollars," says McG. "You have to do it in 24 months, and everyone is pretty excited about the prospect. I'm excited about the prospect — it's a dream. Then I have to say I have this problem you don't know about that's going to fuck the whole thing up."
"People in Hollywood are so conservative," says McG over the din of a boozy after-work crowd at P.J. Clarke's in midtown Manhattan. "I come from the rock 'n' roll world, where people fuck up all the time. They throw TVs out of high-rise hotel windows, drive motorcycles into pools."
McG, who never goes by his given name, is tucked into a corner nook with two attractive young women, after his remarkably efficient 23-year-old assistant charmed them into making their cozy table for two an extremely cozy party of five. Officially, McG is in town for New York Comic Con to promote his latest film, the $200 million Terminator Salvation, to the assembled sci-fi/comix fanatics. But he's also doing damage control to soothe the movie's backers after his leading man Christian Bale's on-set verbal assault on the director of photography was leaked online. The media firestorm put major studios — Warner is distributing domestically, Sony has the international rights — as well as dozens of producers and scores of agents and publicists into lock-down mode.
After knocking back a tequila-gimlet shot (he drinks rarely, but expertly), McG laughs off the meetings he has been forced to endure when he should have been finishing the edit of Salvation. "Of course, out of context I understand the appeal of Bale's outburst," he says. "And I have to admit, that dance remix [on YouTube] is pretty hot." (The next day, McG would deftly neutralize the issue at Comic Con by responding to a panelist's first question with a full spittle-shooting, finger-pointing Bale impersonation: "You and me are fucking done professionally!")
McG's introduction to Bale was itself kind of salty. "I'd flown to London to gauge whether he was interested in the John Connor role," says McG. Bale, whose work in The Dark Knight had helped that film become a mega-blockbuster, read the script and told the director to "fuck right off," says McG. But Bale left the door open a crack: "Get the script to a place where we can read it on a stage like a play, with no effects, no explosions, then I'll do it." McG hired Jonah Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) to evolve the script, which eventually won Bale over. He brought in Industrial Light & Magic for visual effects, as well as F/X master Stan Winston (Terminator, Jurassic Park, Aliens, Edward Scissorhands) to create the death bots that overrun the movie. (Winston died last June.)
The advance buzz on the film has been impressive. Even the crucial message-board geeks seem lathered up by McG's grimy, primal futurescape. In fact, he seems to have produced a work that will force Hollywood to look at him differently. McG has never been all pinkies up about his art. He embraces mass culture and all the gaudy, T&A-filled crashing and burning that implies. And he has long been seen as a sort of bubblegum auteur (one critic of his first film, Charlie's Angels, called it a "Pop Rocks and Coke" kind of movie), a world away from the Scorseses, Finchers, and Coen brothers. Yet in the past few years, McG has stealthily emerged as one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.
To put it in raw numerical terms, he's now too big to be ignored. The man was paid $350,000 for 2000's Charlie's Angels, which together with its sequel grossed more than $500 million worldwide. But he earned $6 million for Terminator Salvation and just locked in $10 million for the second film in what will be a new Terminator trilogy — likely a billion-plus-dollar reboot of the 1980s Schwarzenegger titles. In January, Disney announced McG will direct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo, a prequel to the 1954 film; his fee: $8 million against 7% of the gross.
But big-money movies are only a slice of the McG empire. His production company, Wonderland Sound and Vision, has shows and pilots on every major TV network and beyond. After four seasons and more than 1 million albums sold, The O.C. is in syndication. His Pussycat Dolls Present series, created with über-producer Jimmy Iovine, had a two-season run promoting two international pop acts that sold 6 million records. The paranormal thriller Supernatural was just picked up for a fifth season on the CW (it's also in syndication), and last year, NBC added a second season of the spy-gadget-action-nerd comedy Chuck. Wonderland also sold three pilots this season: ABC picked up Limelight (a contemporary version of Fame that's based on the high-school experience of Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams); CBS took the obstacle-course-car-rally reality show Road Rage; and Fox bought Human Target, based on the DC comic book of the same name. For the extra-small screen, Wonderland co-produced 40 Webisodes of Sorority Forever (underwritten by H&M) and recently created the thriller Exposed for the newly relaunched WB.com, where McG is also an executive producer.
None of which is likely to get McG inducted into the Academy. But on the back of a P.J. Clarke's napkin, he jots down the revenue produced by all the components of his business. It easily exceeds $2 billion. That's a lot of influence. And now, with the new Terminator on its way, McG is looking to apply that influence in a whole new way: by turning the tables on the studios themselves.
McG never did get on that plane, but the reason he couldn't wasn't quite as simple as the one fed to the media at the time. "It was easier to say it was a fear of flying because, while it might make me look weak, people can understand it and I don't have to say, 'Well, I'm kind of crazy,' " McG says, sitting in a private dining room at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. "In reality, it was a control issue: Whenever I got outside my comfort zone, I just felt like I was going to die."
In Hollywood, where alcohol, drug, and sex addictions are copped to without apology, McG's agoraphobia wouldn't elicit much sympathy. But it has intruded repeatedly on his life. "I was supposed to go to USC, but I spent one night in the dorm and just freaked out," he says. He ended up attending UC Irvine, 10 minutes away from home, studying psychology. McG produced and cowrote a number of the band Sugar Ray's hits back in the mid-'90s: "I was 22 when Sugar Ray got signed and were touring, but I couldn't get beyond a 35-mile comfort zone, so the rock-star dream of groupies and reckless abandon? Didn't happen. After Charlie's Angels, I got an invitation from Prince Charles to attend an event at Buckingham Palace. Couldn't go."
Then at the airport in Burbank, everything came to a head.
"It put me under a lot of duress with the Warner people," says McG, in a skinny tie covered in Bugs Bunny skulls, a salute for a later meeting with Warner. "Ari Emanuel, one of my agents, came over to my house when I got the lawsuit letter from Warner." Here he adopts a corporate lawyer tone: "'We are reserving all our rights ...' because they spent a lot of money on preproduction."
The perpetually pleasant McG began the unlikely task of salvaging the relationship — and his career. With the help of two psychiatrists at UCLA, he learned a kind of mental jujitsu that allows him to take control of his feeling of being out of control. "It's really kind of boring," he confesses. "It's like addiction and 12-step programs where you get this very simple advice that you have to follow to the letter and not let slip. Slowly, with practice, you feel the change and are able to take what was once your greatest weakness and perform this reversal where it becomes a strength."
After keeping his condition secret for so long, he's relieved to discuss it publicly for the first time. "There's something about the path I've walked to get here that means I can be forthcoming. I don't know how much deeper you can get than being agoraphobic for your entire adult life and having that be the mountain you need to overcome. I don't know how much further you can get than your brother dying in a cocaine overdose and being there to clean up the scene. [He lost his brother in 2007.] I look in the mirror and realize everything I've got is out there. I'm not banging tranny hookers, so I'm not scared of speaking honestly."
Amazingly, Warner believed in McG's talent enough to give him another shot, directing the Matthew McConaughey vehicle We Are Marshall — centered on a plane crash. With a $35 million budget, it was no Superman. But not only did it gross a respectable $50 million, it also revealed a new side of McG, one less about pyrotechnics and more about emotional connection and storytelling.
The next day we're scheduled to fly to Toronto on his Hawker 800 jet to show Terminator footage to Canadian media. I mention that as far as prescriptions go, a private jet as a coping mechanism isn't too shabby.
"I'm glad there was a comeback," says McG. "But I don't want this to be some Up With People, Promise Keepers kind of story. I've flown all over the world now," he says. "But I may have a nervous breakdown tomorrow and you may have to put me in a choke hold. I have great respect and liken it to someone who lost 300 pounds. They'll never look at you and go, 'I'll never gain it back.' Hell, call Oprah."
About that name. It's not a Bono thing. Joseph McGinty Nichol was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a family that already featured an uncle and a grandfather named Joe. So McG was always known as McG. He grew up in Newport Beach and went to Corona del Mar High School in the OC — years before the show coined the term.
Neither a preppy, nor a surfer, nor a jock, he gravitated toward a punk-music scene that was being defined by Orange County bands like the Adolescents, Social Distortion, and the Vandals. "My dad must have thought I was a total freak," says McG, whose father owned a company that tested drugs for pharmaceutical firms. "I was like 5'2", with this red afro, wearing orange leather pants and skate shoes. The only reason I lost my virginity was because this girl thought I looked like Anthony Michael Hall. She even called me Tony."
His obsession with music led him to start a band with his friend Mark McGrath. After failing miserably as front man, he persuaded the chiseled McGrath to take over while he kept his runty looks and Rick Rubin ambitions offstage, where he focused on producing and marketing. "Even back then, McG always had a business plan," says Stan Frazier, the drummer for what eventually became Sugar Ray.
"I produced Sugar Ray's first album and cowrote a number of their songs on the second," including the No. 1 hits "Fly" and "Every Morning," says the 40-year-old McG, a runt no more at 6'2". "On the follow-up album, they decided to go with someone else as producer. It was painful, but in retrospect it ended up creating more opportunities."
Like his contemporaries Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), McG found film through making music videos. His vivid use of color and exuberant portrayal of the SoCal good life hurled local alternative bands like Cypress Hill, Korn, the Offspring, and Sugar Ray into the mainstream. The videos (there are more than 50 to his credit) were so popular that in 1999 an executive at MTV remarked, "Lately, it's McG TV." At a time when MTV still played music videos, McG's lens work was instrumental in selling more than 100 million records.
But unlike Jonze and Gondry, McG's film debut was no hipster art piece. It was a loud, shiny bauble of a blockbuster.
Through a music connection, McG had met Drew Barrymore — who owned the rights to Charlie's Angels — and the two clicked. She took McG to Columbia's Amy Pascal for a meeting, where Pascal was typically blunt: "I said, 'Drew, he's never made a movie, you're insane! There's no way I'm putting him in charge of a $100 million film.'"
Barrymore just put her arm around McG and said, "He directs or we don't do it." McG then proceeded to climb on the table and perform the entire movie from a stack of 5-by-7 cards.
"He even did the dance numbers," says Leonard Goldberg, the former head of 20th Century Fox and the producer of the original TV series, who was also at the meeting. "People may not know this, but he could have a second career as a dancer. He's remarkably likable and has an enormous amount of positive energy."
At some point in the pitch, Pascal's arms slowly unfolded. "Sometimes you just know. I just had a feeling that he was the right guy," she says from her office in Culver City, California. "He wowed me, and he's wowed me ever since."
Goldberg and Pascal were prudent enough to provide McG with plenty of adult supervision and not just set him free with a suitcase full of cash. "We surrounded him with veteran people," says Goldberg, who is coproducing Limelight with McG. They also kept a tight rein on the schedule. "We tried in every way to support him. But I'm a firm believer that once the movie starts shooting, it's in the hands of the director."
Charlie's Angels had the biggest opening weekend ever for a first-time director ($40 million) and went on to earn $264 million at the box office. His sequel in 2003, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, grossed $259 million, and together the two films solidified McG's reputation in Hollywood as a bankable director who can appeal to the magic four quadrants (young and old, male and female). "He's the kind of guy where if you put a big franchise in his hands, you know you're going to be taken care of and have a big hit movie," says Pascal, who now runs Sony Pictures. "He's like Spielberg. Steven doesn't go over budget. In the old days, guys who made big movies, that is what they did. They paid attention to the budget. It seems to be a lost responsibility."
As afflictions go, it would be hard to find one better suited for a media mogul — or any mogul for that matter — than a seemingly endless capacity for control. To call McG a control freak might be uncharitable. Let's just say he's extremely attentive to detail.
Yet now, with his shrink-implanted coping skills, McG is able to control his need for control. His mental chiropractic adjustment was a transformative event. At the most immediate level, it gives him tremendous focus and patience for the material and people he's working with. During a screening on the Warner lot with his special-effects supervisor and Industrial Light & Magic team, I watch McG use a laser pointer to indicate areas on a particular robot where the patina is too shiny. To create a look for the sophisticated avionics used in Terminator's aircraft, he had the Gulfstream Web site brought up so his people could devise the appropriate futuristic upgrade. To capture the stunning aesthetic of the movie, he had a special film stock created with triple the standard silver content. In casting the movie, McG took pains to create a polyglot crew, hiring the rapper Common and the pneumatic, multi-ethnic Moon Bloodgood. ("In a man-against-machine future," he says, "I don't care if you're black or white, straight or gay, a man or a woman. It's all ability-based.") For background reading, Mr. Pop Rocks and Coke gave the cast copies of Cormac McCarthy's grim postapocalyptic novel, The Road.
Very little escapes McG's attention. At one point while watching footage, I ask how often Bale had to have his buzz cut redone to maintain continuity. Without looking up or even thinking, he responds, "Every three days."
In other words, if McG were a control freak, this world would be his paradise. Dozens of properties in development across every media platform. Tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in play at any given time. Hundreds of cast and crew to be fed, watered, and directed. Dozens of components to each production, every one of them an endless hair ball of decisions, problems, creative choices.
"A big movie shoot like Terminator costs $350,000 a day, so you have to manage the work hours," he says. "Grips, gaffers, DPs, craft services, actors, stunt coordinators, technical consultants, outside producers — the list goes on and on. So you're in Albuquerque, New Mexico, waking up at 3:30 in the morning, working until midnight, on mountaintops, in snow, underwater, you name it. It's a war and it is not glamorous and you get ear infections because so much dirt gets in your ears. It is very, very physical and ..." he pauses, remembering his time in the desert, "wonderful."
Early in January, McG invites me to see Spring Awakening on Broadway. Loaded up with Milk Duds and Twizzlers, he mentions he has locked up the rights and will direct the film version of the musical. The story is based on a 19th-century German play that deals with teen sex, masturbation, rape, and abortion — a winning combination to be sure. But the revival brings the story back as a rock opera, complete with a Duncan Sheik alt-rock soundtrack and postmodern staging with characters occasionally speaking to the audience. It swept the Tonys, winning eight awards, and is currently a global phenomenon playing in Budapest, Helsinki, London, Tokyo, and Vienna. No surprise that a rock aficionado, music-video master, and pop savant is drawn to the material.
During intermission, McG resorts to Hollywoodese to explain his vision for the film. "I see it as a modern Splendor in the Grass meets Romeo and Juliet with the feel of American Beauty." He plans to shoot it in six weeks for $25 million.
As McG accumulates money, power, and, now, artistic credibility in Hollywood, he has become a genial triple threat to business as usual. "Because I'm protected by Terminator and 20,000 Leagues in the most conventional way, I have the freedom to ultimately control Spring Awakening," he says. "I can decide what to do with the production and how much it's going to cost. I can stop doing the dance with Warner and the other studios — whom I adore, but the process always ends up with 17 development executives who constantly want to 'fix' it, or say they already have a hot-teen-sex coming-of-age musical in the fourth quarter."
McG is hardly the first to threaten this coup. The notion of unlocking the studios' monopoly is one that seems to be in perpetual turnaround. Three years ago, Steven Soderbergh made noise about subverting the system by digitally distributing his low-budget film Bubble, and doing so simultaneously on big screens, DVD, and pay per view. But McG isn't playing around with a shelved film-school piece: He's going to test the system with a super-hot property.
"The simplest expression of the idea is to raise my own money for Spring Awakening and do it all independently and just cut a straightforward distribution deal with an existing media conglomerate," he says. "This way, I retain an 85% ownership and can do it my way." As of press time, McG hadn't finalized the exact details on how he is going to finance Spring Awakening, but his options are many. He's mulling partnering with Apple or Nokia for an exclusive distribution deal through the Apple Store or Ovi, respectively. Or he might take a page out of the studio model and finance it through the presale of foreign rights. Or tap his network of fabulously rich contacts. "It's a terrific story and I believe in him," Vivi Nevo, the reclusive Israeli billionaire and media tycoon, told me. "If he brings it to me, I would definitely consider it because I like him a lot. It's powerful." Considering that Nevo is Time Warner's largest individual shareholder, the idea that he would back McG in the director's mission to do an end run around the company is powerful indeed.
McG isn't predicting the imminent demise of the studios. He believes they will still have a place funding their big-budget properties like the Harry Potters and Pirates of the Caribbeans. (And McG says he'll gladly continue to direct for the studios if the material excites him.) But when it comes to movies with manageable budgets and the potential for huge payoffs — Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps Spring Awakening — McG's friendly insurrection could ripple across the industry. During an earlier meeting, he had been remarkably open about how much he gets paid for his various projects. As he ran through the grosses, however, I realized he wasn't bragging about how much money he makes but revealing how much he was missing out on. As a hypothetical, assume Spring Awakening performs as well as Slumdog, that the $25 million movie grosses at least $300 million worldwide. In the old payout scheme (using the 20,000 League deal as a yardstick), McG earns his $8 million fee, against 7% of the gross, or $14 million, for a total of $22 million; after production costs, the studio takes $253 million. Under the McG plan, the studio gets $45 million for its distribution services; after costs, his cut comes in at $230 million, minus the expense of paying back any investors. He can then take that money to make 10 more movies of the same scale — or start hiring other directors to make them for him. Either way, the making of a single film has expanded his power in the market exponentially.
If and when he does it — and he certainly seems determined to try — McG's ability to leverage his own various forms of capital could push him over the invisible line between talent and titan. "That's how you create a media company," he tells me. "In an online era where movie houses have transitioned to digital projectors with cables sticking out the back, to fund a dinosaur studio system does not make sense. We as filmmakers are able to hit return on our computers and send prints the world over just like sending a blanket email. That is a revolution."
But for McG, it turns out, it's not all about his own control. "My dream is to create a new United Artists and a legacy that puts the people who create content at the top," he says. "I would partner with J.J. Abrams and Danny Boyle and Spike Jonze and David Fincher and provide the vehicle where we can make movies our own way, distribute the movies our own way, and take a leap of faith that people are going to want to watch them. I believe it is content that drives the audience, not some multimedia conglomerate."
"McG is a guy who is always going to be hungry and push limits," says Abrams, who directed the new Star Trek film. "Smaller films are going to be realized by smaller homegrown entities and the studios have to acknowledge the fact that legitimate movies will increasingly be done by people they don't control — and distributed in ways that circumvent what they do."
McG is standing before me at the guest-room door of his beachfront house in Newport. He is shirtless and barefoot in a pair of jeans. A few hours earlier, we were in the kitchen, passing a 1970 Gibson Hummingbird guitar between us.
At one point, talk turned to the idea of hit making. "How is it that for 20 years, Paul McCartney couldn't not write a hit song," McG asks, "and then for 20 years, he can't write a hit song if his life depends on it? I think there must be a chemical theory to the muse."
Even before his cranial rehab, McG was fascinated with the workings of the mind. He once said, "Certain songs and arrangements of music release a chemical reaction in my brain. It's such a euphoric experience that I want to chase that experience as often as possible. Of course, it's also that set of chemical circumstances in my brain that makes me fucked up. So you take the good with the bad."
Now that he has a method for defusing the bad, he's going for permanent euphoria.
It was after midnight when we decided to crash. Since I had a 6:30 a.m. flight out of LAX, McG put me up, promising to make sure I was out by 4:30. I'd told him not to bother, but at 4:30, there he is, shaking my hand and mumbling a "have a safe trip" and "talk soon" before making a somnambulant return to his bed. It seems some details are best not left to chance.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.