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A Charlie's Angels McInterview with director McG

by Joel Cunningham

You know, one might assume that a former music video director who's first feature film grossed $125 million in the U.S. might be a bit cocky. Stupid Hollywood people, driving cars and dressin' nice. Some of us think it's a treat to eat fast food, but NO, these people...

Oh, sorry. Hey, it turns out that McG, the director of a small art film called Charlie's Angels, isn't like that at all. He considers himself a "knucklehead" from Michigan who got lucky. Hey, I didn't have many dates in high school. Will I be a director? Only time will tell. Anyway, McG ruminates on such notable subjects as method acting, action sequences, and Drew Barrymore's cleavage. Read on!

mcg dOc: I know you did a lot of commercials and music videos prior to Charlie's Angels, but where did you really get you start in Hollywood?

McG: I sort of got started in the record business. I grew up in Newport Beach, Ca, with some good friends of mine from childhood, the guys who are Sugar Ray, actually. So I got started making records with those guys, and that's where I made their first video. Then they got a record deal and made their record and I kept making videos for them and just sort of moved into this.

un dOc: Wow, it sounds easy! What Sugar Ray videos did you do?

McG: Fly and Every Morning (my ode to The Bad News Bears).

dOc: That's funny. Actually, I was talking to somebody on-line and they said "Arrgh! I'm trying to remember that one video he did. You know, the one with the extremely bright colors, heavy lighting, scantily clad women, a prominently featured car...which one was that again?"

McG: Well, I do like to celebrate. Given the choice between having a good time and a bad time, I'll take the good time.

dOc: And that is certainly obvious in the movie, which makes a good segue... How did you get involved with the Charlie's Angels project?

McG: Well, I knew Drew Barrymore was out there and that she was attached to it, and I'm a big fan of hers both personally and professionally. I figured she'd want to make an interesting film, which is tough because it's a film that came from an old TV show. Not always an easy translation. She and I got together and started talking, and we realized that we had a lot in common and that we wanted to make the same kind of "pop-a-wheelie," you know, pleasure center kind of film. You know, we wanted to have the best time possible. Take all the elements and turn them to 11.

dOc: So there was no different vision between you and Flower Films [Drew Barrymore's production company]?

McG: Not even. We were locked in what we were out to do. We both liked the same kind of stuff.

dOc: Did you have any concerns signing on for a TV-based movie, especially after The Mod Squad just exemplified everything wrong with such remakes?

McG: Well, yeah. I mean, I was very concerned about wanting to do everything we could... You know, I wanted to honor the original series, and at the same time make something that worked for today's moviegoing audiences. We were very cognizant of some of the films from shows that were a little disappointing and that the public didn't seem to react to. We wanted to take all the steps possible to make something that worked as a feature film that people could get really excited about, especially kids today who are, you know, playing Playstation and surfing the Internet. They have a lot more stimulus than in the 1970s so we had to convert it for today's audiences.

dOc: Speaking of movies based on TV shows, the one that Charlie's Angels reminded me most of in tone was The Brady Bunch movie. I mean, Charlie's Angels was definitely not making fun of the original series, but it reminded me of that film with just the bubbly energy, the bright colors, and the upbeat energy. Was that the kind of thing you were going for? Not to make fun of the series but to sort of wink at the audience who was familiar with the original and at the same time make it entertaining for new audiences?

McG: Yeah, that was the idea. I mean, I think if you've got a film like Charlie's Angels, you can't take it too seriously and act like you're doing Shakespeare or you'll shoot yourself in the foot.

dOc: Yeah, this wasn't you know, ER or something.

McG: That's what we said. It was a popcorn movie, it was a drive-in movie and we thought, "Hey, let's not fight that, let's just take it as far as we can take it."

dOc: So what was it like signing on to a $90 million plus movie as your first feature?

McG: (laughing) Well, I tried not to think about that too much. It could probably overwhelm you if you sorta dwelled on it, so I just focused on trying to take the film to its highest place and luckily I was protected by Drew who sort of shepherded me through the whole thing. She has 30-plus films under her belt, and she's such a great ally, and sort of protected me throughout. I just focused on making it everyday and getting all the bits and pieces that would make the film fun to watch and making sure the three ladies were comfortable with the characters. Making sure they felt safe so they could go out there on a daily basis and be the best they could be.

dOc: Well, obviously Drew was on from the beginning, and I remember Cameron Diaz was signed on pretty soon also, but how did you go about casting the Angels?

McG: Well, Drew brought me in and we both wanted Cameron, and Drew deserves full credit for landing Cameron, you know, for inspiring Cameron to have faith that we were going to make a kick-ass movie. And that got Cameron excited and she got into it. Then we had the challenge of finding a thrid Angel who could stand up next to those two star powerhouses. You can't just grab any actor and throw them in the shot with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore and expect them to hold their own. You need someone with a lot of presence, who is very powerful on-screen. So I knew Lucy Liu was out there, but I knew she had some scheduling problems with her TV show, and we didn't know if we could make it work out or not, but David Kelley [creator of Liu's show, Ally McBeal] was gracious enough to help us out, and we knew the second she met with Drew and Cameron that it had to be her.

dOc: I thought she fit in perfectly. The second they pop up on screen, you know, Farrah Fawcett and you know, the other two that I don't remember because I didn't watch the show religiously, but they just sort of disappear. It's like we have the new Angels, and I thought they were a perfect match.

McG: That's great to hear. Our primary concern was to not have people feeling ripped off or deprived of the joy of the original three, who were fantastic. But we just sort of took it like the Townsend Agency just kept on going, you know, there were Angels through the 70s, through the 80s, through the 90s, and here we are with these three.

dOc: And that avoids the whole James Bond problem were it's the same character but four different actors. I liked that the Angels were different people, it got rid of that little logistical problem. Anyway, I'm sure it was torture going to the set with those four beautiful ladies (if you count Kelly Lynch). That must've been tough.

McG: Truthfully, it's just a dream come true. I'm like this knucklehead from Kalamazoo, MI, and I never got any girls growing up and then I find myself looking over my shoulder and Cameron Diaz is there in a bikini and Drew Barrymore is in a little Swiss Miss costume and Lucy Liu has got this leather dominatrix thing... It was unbelievable. It was very fun, and the girls were so playful about it and so welcoming, and I really think that's where their allure comes from. That they're so comfortable in their own skin and they're just, you know, one of the gang.

dOc: Well, my personal preference would be the Drew Barrymore race car outfit, but...

McG: That was pretty titillating, yes.

dOc: Apt choice of words. But to each his own.

McG: Yes, she filled it out very nicely.

dOc: You could say that. Well, moving on, Bill Murray is one of my favorite comedic actors and I was happy to see him in the film. I know he has said that if he feels a part can be better, he'll feel free to do some improv. Did he do that a lot while filming?

McG: Well, that that's the thing. If I knew Bill was going to be on the set, I'd have a camera wide and a camera tight on him and I wanted to give him the freedom to move around the set because you never know when that magic Murray lightning is going to strike and I wanted to make sure we bottled it when it did. He definitely a jazz man actor in that he never does it the same way twice. He's fantastic to watch, and just like you, I was raised on his films, a huge fan, so it was a thrill for me to just watch his process and learn from it.

dOc: Were there any particular bits they he came up with on the spot that made it into the film that you particularly liked?

McG: There was the scenes where the baseball hits him in the mouth to reactivate the radio, and then the whole sort of greatest hits of the prison movie, with The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Great Escape and all those things mixed in there, and the way he conversed with the bird. There really was not a scene where he wasn't coming up with great stuff. That's just his way. He knows where he has to get in a scene, but the path... He's free to take different routes.

dOc: Speaking of different routes, during filming there were a lot of rumors about tension on the set between Murray and Liu over the tone of certain scenes. Was there any truth to those rumors, or was it just something blown out of proportion?

McG: It's odd. There were a lot of heated conversations on the set, but I was really promoting that because I wanted that sort of passion to come out of the actors. It was great being surrounded by these tremendously talented actors that are all superstars in their own right and they are very focused on being the best they can be in every scenes and the collective movie. I wanted everyone to feel that they could really express themselves and say what was on their minds about the way a particular scene was going and their character was headed. We had just sort of big family table type discussions, and yeah, that's the kind of stuff that gets misconstrued when it gets out to the press. But I wanted that passion. To me, a nightmare would be actors who are just phoning it in, who don't really care and don't think about what they are doing. I was honored and delighted that people cared enough to actually get into an argument about something.

dOc: Going back to the subject of comedic actors and improv, Tom Green was just hitting it big when Charlie's Angels was being filmed and I was wondering how much of his part was just him, especially considering the whole "It's the Chad" thing seemed to be something right from his show, like just some idiot thing that would come out of his mouth. What was actually in the script?

McG: Well, it was sort of both. Again, I like to give the actors a chance to bring their imprint to the piece. The part was written with Tom Green in mind and I wanted to capture that magical Tom Greenness. So, he and I cooked up the idea of his diving into the bay, which got us in trouble with the AD guys because they didn't know if it was safe. He was just genuinely out of his head.

dOc: He seems out of his head most of the time!

McG: But it is the most fun you can have hanging out with someone, I'll tell you that.

dOc: Did you see any sparks flying between him and Drew on the set? Was it obvious then that there was something brewing between the two of them?

McG: You know, it was obvious to everyone but me. You know, I'm such a knucklehead and I have no, like, spider sense in that respect, so I'm like, "OK, let's do this take!" And they'd be fawning over each other and I didn't even know because I was so locked in to getting scenes right. But yeah, they met on the film and now they're getting married. It's pretty romantic.

dOc: All the girls I thought were great, but really Cameron Diaz was the one that was just radiant. What was it like working with her? Was she always that open to taking risks with her part? I'm thinking of the UnderRoos scene in particular.

McG: Well that's what's so great about her. She's the only person I can think of on the planet who is a superstar of that stature but is still willing to put it all out there and take chances. Look at what she did in There's Something about Mary, look at the stuff she did in Charlie's Angels, it's fantastic when someone stays so grounded and is willing to take such risks. A lot of superstar actors would say, "Oh I don't do that anymore" or "That's not my thing, that's beneath me." She would never go there.

dOc: I heard that about her during Being John Malkovich. There was a lot of talk about how "unpretty" she was in that movie. You know, she had the big frizzy hair, no makeup, and everyone was saying, "I can't believe a superstar would let a director do this to them."

McG: Well, you know, she had that kind of faith in Spike [Jonze, director of Malkovich], and the faith in herself, I mean, to make it funny in Spider-Man UnderRoos and everything else that went with it. It's great to be the beneficiary of that kind of thing.

dOc: Another actor question. I've heard a lot about Crispin Glover being a little bit eccentric. I think he even physically assaulted Letterman on his show once. It's really clear in the movie that he wanted to go a certain place with his character, and I'd say he accomplished it. For me, he tops any of the Bond villains, even OddJob. He's a great sidekick villain. But what was it like with his method acting on set?

McG: That is the truth. What people have to realize about Crispin is that he is such a serious and earnest actor, he writes up pages and pages of backstory for who his character is. He's so from his voice (or lack thereof in this particular picture), to his posture, to his hair and wardrobe, and he's so very committed. And you know, his dad was actually a Bond villain from Diamonds are Forever and one of the suits we had him in was the suit his dad wore in that movie.

dOc: One of the two gay guys? I can't remember their names. They probably had annoying pun names, knowing Bond.

McG: Yeah, well that's his dad, and if you look you'll see the similarities. But he's so committed to being a serious actor and it was great to work with someone that earnest.

dOc: Switching gears, I thought the action sequences were the best part of the film. The cuts were rapid but they never get to the annoying, Michael Bay level of incoherence. You know what's going on and have a clear idea of the relationship spatially between each person in the shot. What was your planning regimen for the busier scenes?

McG: Well, I'm a big believer in prep and storyboarding everything out. In a lot of the action scenes I had the benefit of working with Cheung-Yan Yuen, the Kung-Fu master from Hong Kong, to choreograph all the martial arts, so we just had to plan it all out so we could get it all done and make our days and keep it as comfortable as possible for the ladies who had to endure a lot to get all that done. I'm a big fan of knowing relationships in a sequence so you don't lose track, like "Wait a minute, that was over there, now she's up there, now they're down there" and have it all over the place so it is just a chop festival. I mean, I like it to have a true through line and be methodical and legible and that stuff.

dOc: Who were your influences in terms of action directors?

McG: Certainly John Woo, but also Michael Bay, and in terms of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. I try to learn from the great ones and come out with a style that's my own.

dOc: Keeping with the action, what was it like working with a living legend like Cheung-Yan?

McG: Oh, it was so great; it was an honor. It was interesting because not only did he prepare the girls to fight but emotionally he brought them together into such a tight unit during their training with him eight hours a day for four months. He's such a fascinating guy, and he did all that stuff in the 70s with Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan. It was an honor. Hey, I'm getting the signal here from my assistant...

dOc: Ah, the subtle "wrap it up." Well, we're a DVD website, so I'd better get to the DVD, which will be released March 27th. Did you have a lot of input on it? Did the studio give you a lot of freedom to put whatever you wanted on there?

McG: Well, I'm just a big fan of DVDs in general. I love going through the menus and listening to what everybody has to say and looking at all the little hidden menus that don't come up until the screen has been on for 30-40 seconds and all that and just taking it as far as you can take it. We tried to work on it and include all the scenes that got cut out on there, I tried to get everybody involved in the film on there talking about it in some interesting little vignettes and some tidbits. By far, the most interesting thing on the DVD is that you get to know these three girls, Cameron, Drew, and Lucy, and see them behind-the-scenes, out of the traditional celebrity mold. You see them being themselves, without their makeup or their hair done, and you find them equally charming when they do that. But that's the cool part.

dOc: Ok, ok, one last question: someone wanted to know why you decided to be credited professionally under a nickname.

McG: That's just been my name since I was a kid. My real name is Joseph McGinty Nichol, but there was an Uncle Joe in my family, and a Grandpa Joe, and rather than Joe they called me McG, short for McGinty, since the day I was born. People don't even know my name is Joe, because in school and everything it was always McG. I figured it wouldn't be very accurate to all of a sudden go by Joseph, since it's not my name. It is my name, but no one calls me that.

dOc: Well, I guess that's a plausible explanation! I don't want to get you in trouble with your PR people...

McG: Yeah, they're like, "C'mon! We got tons more to do!"

dOc: Well, thanks for taking the time and I hope to see something more from you soon. Maybe Charlie's Angels 2 with Jonathan Davis from Korn as the villain.

McG: (laughing) Oh, should we get him in there?

dOc: I think he'd work.

McG: (obviously excited) He's got the best screen presence. I love him. And he's out of his head, too. I'll keep that advice.