Imagine a med student with orange dreadlocks down to his ass during the early 1990s. Do you have that horrifying mental image yet? Any takers on who that now-famous man might be? That’s right, it’s Joseph McGinty Nichol from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Like plenty of driven young filmmakers, Nichol one day dropped out of school, packed his things and moved to Hollywood. Without any connections, he pushed his way into the industry with the help of a pizza delivery service. He put a copy of one of his music videos in a pizza box and had it delivered to an executive, who was tickled enough to give it a watch. That box of pizza gave birth to the man we all now know as McG, the director behind Charlie’s Angels, We Are Marshall, Terminator Salvation and his newest film, 3 Days to Kill.
Nichol has had that nickname ever since he was a kid. In some ways, it is representative of his career: a little silly, but self-aware and unapologetic. “It’s never been fun to critically praise a ‘McG movie,'” he jokes. “It even begins with my ridiculous name. My name is who I am. My movies seem to further that difficulty. I try for drama, humor and action and yet try to make well-rounded movies.” General audience members could care less about Nichol’s nickname, but it’s turned him into a punching bag on the Internet, for both fanboys and, sometimes, critics.
The director believes his tendency to blend genres is what often fuels his harshest detractors. “Sometimes that [approach] results in a grimace from the critical community,” he tells me. Whether that’s true or not, all of his films have been met with animosity from critics. “It’s much more desirable to give your kicks, and I’ve learned to deal with it.”
That doesn’t mean McG is opposed to the idea of becoming a critical darling. No matter how many filmmakers say they don’t believe in reading reviews, most of those directors would still prefer a positive critical consensus than a negative one. “You want critical praise and for the audience to like it,” he admits. “I mean, you’re raised on applause. It’s the fundamental nature of putting it out there.” He says the life of a filmmaker isn’t all that different from what we do at Film School Rejects: we’re writing for an audience, which opens us up to criticism and, in some instances, insults. That doesn’t deter McG in the slightest. “I’d rather take my shot than live in fear and never put something out there.”
What McG does put out there is broadly commercial pictures, which he believes is a type of filmmaking that gets a bad rap in America more than anywhere else. “That’s something I’ve always liked in Japanese and French cinema culture, there’s space for all sorts of movies,” he explains. “There’s no judgement for what’s highbrow or lowbrow. That’s a decidedly American thing, chasing that idea of what is art and commerce.” You can achieve both, and last week we had The Lego Movie strike that balance, which McG cites as the perfect example in this instance. “I try not to get too hung up on that distinction,” he continues. “I want to focus on the value of the material in front of me. Sometimes it’s more pop and designed for a particular audience, and sometimes it’s not. I think excellence can appear in many ways.”
His first film was total 21st Century pop: Charlie’s Angels. The brass at Sony turned the music video director down multiple times, but McG persisted. The result was a film that had three women seriously kicking ass, for a variety of reasons. For one, the Angels were physically and mentally stronger than the men in their lives, which isn’t the case in most action movies. That rarity caused some concern as to whether the movie would have mass appeal, but McG believed in the project from day one. “It was very different,” McG says, on how the film was viewed in a different light than male-driven action movies at the time. “It was a challenge then to make an accessible female action picture. You had Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, but it’s a different sort of thing. We didn’t want to apologize for them being women or for being beautiful. At the same time, how do you make it fun for the boys? People thought we couldn’t do it.” They did do it, raking in over $260M worldwide.
His new movie has a female character even more powerful than the Angels. The whole narrative is driven by Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) and her outrageous outfits. She’s Ethan Renner’s (Kevin Costner) boss, his life depends on her and, at one point, she finishes a job for him. McG and the film’s producer and co-writer, Luc Besson, are no strangers to strong female characters. Vivi is not the lead of the film, but the latex dress-wearing spy could easily have her own stories beyond 3 Days to Kill.
Sadly, women headlining major releases is largely unheard of. This truth has turned stranger over the years, especially when you take into account two of the highest-grossing movies of 2013 — Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — centered on female characters. Still, when Wonder Woman is announced to finally have her chance in a film, she’s taking the backseat to Batman and Superman. McG is optimistic that the tides will soon turn and, in his mind, perhaps they already have. “I’m hoping those days are behind us,” he says. “I think female stars in this day and age are as credible as male stars. I think we’ve gotten to a place of sophistication where people respond to quality. I don’t think people are hung up on sexual stereotypes or anything in particular. People can really sense when something is of excellence or not.” He lists off examples from television and film, highlighting that if the goods are there, an audience will turn up.
If you want a large turnout, it will likely help your chances if your leads, in the case of Charlie’s Angels, are considered three of the most beautiful women on the planet. Heard is seen in a similar spotlight as those women, and the young actress and McG both wanted to embrace that fact for Vivi. For him, her sex appeal does not undercut the character’s strength, as long as the final result is a fully-fleshed out character instead of another disposable piece of eye candy.
Not all filmmakers can do that. Zack Snyder deconstructed the way women are often dolled up for entertainment with Sucker Punch, but, despite his sincere intentions, he was still wrongfully accused of exploiting his female leads in favor of a fetishistic fanboy aesthetic. For McG, it’s the ownership a woman has over her body that makes her more than a pretty picture. “It’s not enough to be eye candy,” he explains. “Eye candy is wonderful on a superficial level, but I think we should all find something beautiful in all women. It’s much more attractive if you do have that ownership quality. If you do, then it transcends that physical expression you present to the world.” Basically, dressing up in a schoolgirl outfit is one thing, but it’s what you express with that outfit that truly matters. “That’s the nature of attraction,” he adds, “being comfortable in your own skin and owning it. You need to find that balance.”
McG’s progressiveness is ironic since he was raised by a generation of filmmakers that, by all accounts, was a boys club. “I’m influenced by the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and the male-dominated era of filmmaking,” he acknowledges. “It’s interesting someone influenced in that regard has done well with strong women, whether with Amy Pascal from Sony Pictures giving me a chance on my first movie, the three girls with Charlie’s Angels, Reese [Witherspoon] on This Means War, and Amber on this film. I find that offset of who I am brings out the best of me, or at least that’s what I hope for.”
The director also believes a filmmaker’s best work is brought out of them when they have Costner and Besson by their side. Not every filmmaker can be so lucky, but it’s that collaboration, in addition to Heard’s presence, that made 3 Days to Kill a satisfying experience for McG. Making an action movie in Paris was new territory for him, but having female characters who own their bodies as well as the stories they’re in has now become an old hat for McG. Maybe a few other filmmakers should give that hat a try sometime.
3 Days to Kill is now in theaters.