Nonstop action and a singular style characterize the work of McG, who faced down a crippling fear of flying to reach Hollywood heights.
Director McG’s work is so colorful, so packed with in-your-face exuberance and testosterone-fueled car chases and explosions, it’s hard to believe his career was nearly derailed by a severe episode of anxiety and fear.
It was 2004, and Joseph McGinty Nichol — known as McG since childhood — was supposed to jet to Australia to direct the high-profile Warner Bros. Superman:Flyby film. But the executive producer of Fox’s Lethal Weapon, the CW’s Supernatural, Freeform’s Shadowhunters and the new Fox pilot Behind Enemy Lines has suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia since age 15, and he could not get on the plane.
“I remember going for a walk with Alan Horn, who was running Warners at the time. And I was trying to tell Alan and [production head] Jeff Robinov, ‘Hey, I have this problem. I don’t think I can do it. I’m really scared. And I’m concerned I’m not gonna be able to get down to Australia.’”
But nobody took him seriously. “I have kind of a bombastic, rah-rah sort of attitude, so they went, ‘Ah, come on! You’ll be fine. You’re McG! Don’t worry about it!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m trying to tell you I can’t do it.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, walk it off! You’ll be fine.’”
McG was far from fine. Fired from the film for refusing to board the plane, he felt utterly humiliated. “It was on the front page of The New York Times,” he recalls. “A really embarrassing story, very emasculating. I suppose we can laugh now, but it was probably the worst thing that ever happened in my life.”
At that point, some people would slink off to some dark hole, but not McG, director of such big-budget action films as Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation. He decided to channel some of those superheroes and face his fears head-on.
With the help of a psychiatrist and a behavioral therapist, McG put himself through a severe form of exposure therapy. In fact, he lived on an airplane for an entire month and eventually bought his own private plane.
Perhaps most remarkably, the studio that fired him liked him so much that it continued to hire him for projects during and after his recovery. He went on to direct the 2006 Warner Bros. film We Are Marshall (about a real-life plane crash) and executive-produced and directed the first two episodes of last fall’s Warner Bros. TV series Lethal Weapon, which was renewed for a second season.
“It’s a pretty cruel, debilitating, shitty disease,” he says. “I’ve been better now for maybe 15 years, but I would never regard myself as cured. It’s kind of like somebody who was 300 pounds overweight, and then got to their fighting weight. But you know if you don’t do the work and stay the course, you can go back to where you were.
"So I try to be very, very vigilant, and I try to get on a plane every two weeks or less so I stay super sharp. And now, I’ve been around the world 20 times.”
McG’s unlikely triumph over his anxiety disorder mirrors his unlikely rise to Hollywood A-list director status. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, McG moved with his family to Orange County, California, as a preschooler because of his father’s job in pharmaceuticals.
“I think what defined us growing up the most was that we thought nothing cool could possibly come from here,” he recalls. “It’s a bunch of mini-malls and planned communities, and the general malaise of divorce culture.”
However, “Anywhere there’s a strong conservative movement, there’s very likely to be a strong counter-cultural movement,” says McG, sporting a leather jacket in his Wonderland Sound and Vision on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Formerly occupied by Ronald Reagan, the offices are decorated with a motorcycle that McG “Fonzied” up the stairs, plus a sword and tons of pop-culture and sports memorabilia.
The counter-cultural movement of McG’s youth was the influential Orange County music scene, which gave rise to No Doubt and its singer, Gwen Stefani, as well as such alt-rock stars as Sublime, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots and The Offspring.
McG was accepted at USC, but his agoraphobia made him feel safer close to home, so he studied psychology at UC Irvine. His original plan was to attend medical school, but then he decided to pursue his love of music.
In the late ’90s, McG could have been a member of the band Sugar Ray, since he was best friends with singer Mark McGrath, but, he recalls, “I was afraid to travel to the gigs.” So instead he wrote hits for the band (“Fly,” “Someday,” “Every Morning”), then mixed and produced the music and shot the videos.
Entirely self-taught, McG made videos full of heightened color and So Cal car culture, with a distinct visual and narrative quirkiness.
“I did the videos in a complete do-it-yourself culture,” he says. “We just did it. We ran from the law. I didn’t know that you could have a producer who could help you procure a location and get insurance and a camera package. It was very raw, and that’s where the honesty, and the visual style — the aesthetic — came from.”
Many people assume McG adopted his nickname during this period. “Everybody thought it was some sort of hip-hop tag name,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s my mother’s maiden name from Kalamazoo all those years ago. McG is just short for McGinty. My uncle was Joe, my grandpa was Joe. The house just had too many Joes.”
The name occasionally led to comical confusion. “I got beat up a lot, like, ‘What kind of an asshole calls himself McG?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t call myself McG.’ I’ve been apologizing for it ever since. And I even got hired once by Puffy to do a video, and he showed up, and he’s like, ‘You’re not black?’ And I go, ‘Should I split?’ He goes, ‘No, let’s just do it.’”
McG was churning out videos and commercials alongside directors such as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher. He soon caught the eye of Drew Barrymore, who was hanging out with Courtney Love from Hole — and had the film rights to Charlie’s Angels.
She wanted McG to direct the film version of the TV series, but that was no easy sell to the Sony execs, given his lack of experience. He made his pitch to then-Columbia Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal and producer Lucy Fisher, acting out the entire film on a tabletop.
“They had their arms crossed, and their heads were literally shaking left and right like, ‘No f—king way!’ And Drew was nodding, and smiling, and kinda cheering up and down,” he says. “I finished, and it was just crickets and tumbleweeds. And it was only Drew who just kinda went, ‘Look, either this guy does it, or I’m not doing it.’ And begrudgingly — and courageously, mind you — Amy acquiesced.”
Charlie’s Angels went on to have the biggest opening weekend for any first-time director at that time ($40.5 million). McG very quickly expanded into TV with shows such as Fastlane, The O.C., Chuck, Nikita and Supernatural, which has been picked up for a 13th season.
While he loves doing original work, McG has become the go-to guy to remake classic properties. “He understands how to approach a franchise with a fresh eye and a different sort of look,” says Terence Carter, executive vice-president of drama programming, development and event series at Fox, whose sister studio, 20th Century Fox Television, signed McG to an overall deal last year.
“He knows he needs to find ways to distinguish it from the original and set it apart, but also pay homage. He did that originally with Charlie’s Angels, really successfully, again with Lethal Weapon, and we’re hoping the third time’s the charm with Behind Enemy Lines.”
Still, when executive producer Matt Miller, who worked with McG on Chuck, first asked him to direct a TV version of the film Lethal Weapon, with Damon Wayans attached, McG was worried about the prospect of casting Riggs, a character so closely associated with Mel Gibson. “Guys, I think it’s gonna be impossible to replace Mel,” he said.
After searching and searching, they finally stumbled across actor Clayne Crawford in a clip from an obscure 2012 movie called The Baytown Outlaws. The problem? He lived and worked on a farm in Alabama and wasn’t sure he wanted the role. “He’s like, ‘My farm is my peace, and I’m happy just breaking down a log on my land,’” McG recalls. “And he’s like, ‘I gotta go to the mountaintop, I gotta think, I gotta talk to my wife, I gotta....’”
Even after Crawford said yes, McG was still anxious. Carter recalls, “He said very candidly to me, ‘This is a huge undertaking. I’m taking on one of the great quintessential comedy-drama franchises, and I can’t get this wrong. Everyone’s going to be gunning for it because everyone has such fond memories of the original.’ He was really nervous going into it. And he let that anxiety drive him to really go above and beyond to get it right.”
McG did that by kicking the action sequences up a notch. Miller wrote one scene where Riggs jumps from one car to another on the freeway. “And I sort of felt like, ‘How are we ever gonna do that?’” Miller recalls. “And he’s like, ‘We’ll figure it out.’”
After brainstorming with the stunt coordinator, McG said, “I think we figured it out,” Miller recalls. “Instead of him being on the freeway, they’re on the street in Long Beach, and they chase the bad guy, and they crash through a barricade and end up in the middle of the Long Beach Grand Prix, where cars are going past them at 200 miles an hour. And at the end you still jump from one car to another, and then the car crashes and flips over five times.
“And I’m like, ‘Dude, we’re making a television show here! You just took this sequence that I thought was unproducible on a TV budget and made it 20 times bigger.’ And that’s McG. It’s always bigger and more explosive and crazier, and — God bless him — we did that actual sequence.”
Carter believes the energy in McG’s work on screen mirrors his effervescence in life. “He’s got this really infectious energy,” he says. “He will come in for a pitch or a creative meeting and he almost can’t sit still. He’s so full of passion that he’s constantly up and down and pacing. I love it, because he comes with the unbridled enthusiasm of a kid who’s so excited about what he’s about to play with that he gets you excited about it.”
That enthusiasm, however, is also paired with an emotional range that helped him capture Riggs’s death wish after the loss of his pregnant wife in Lethal Weapon. Such depth often comes the hard way, and McG’s struggles with anxiety were not the end of it. His brother died from a drug overdose eight years ago.
“I think it gave me more empathy,” he says. “I had no choice but to grow up a little bit and become a little bit more evolved as a storyteller, and not just so interested in the superficial and the fireworks and the kung fu and the karate. But to go a little deeper into the human experience. And it humbled me.”
Nevertheless, McG, whose first child, Harper, was born just before the November election, can be a tough guy to pin down. “He is a very hard man to get a hold of,” Miller says. Ironically, plane trips are actually the best place to sustain McG’s attention and get some work done, Miller adds.
“If you want to have him calm and sedate, fly with him, because he is on so many medications that he has no choice but to sit and talk to you for five or six hours,” Miller says. “He’s lucid but he’s docile. He’s exactly what you want.”
Otherwise, McG is a “lunatic — in the best sense of that,” Miller says. “He’s this sort of whirling dervish, and if you want his attention, you’ve kinda got to grab him and pick him up, and his legs kinda keep moving, and then you talk to him and you put him back down, and he’s gone.”
A writer friend tapped to work with McG recently asked Miller for his thoughts on what to expect. “I said, ‘It’s going to be a roller coaster ride. You’re going to be absolutely terrified at times, and then completely thrilled at times. At the end, you’re gonna feel like, ‘I wanna get back on that ride again.’”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017