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.)