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Romantic comedies and young adult fare are bigger than they’ve been in years — at least on Netflix, where some of the most popular titles in the genres have come from Wonderland Sound and Vision, the production banner run by filmmaker McG. Née Joseph McGinty Nichol of Kalamazoo, Michigan, McG ascended from the 1990s music video scene to make his feature directorial debut with Charlie’s Angels. An instant megahit with a $260 million gross in 2000, it minted him as one of the town’s hottest directors. Movies such as We Are Marshall and Terminator Salvation followed, as did executive producing TV hits The O.C., Supernatural and Chuck. But questions of whether he was lucky or actually talented gnawed at his heels.
“I had good luck with the first Charlie’s movie, and that was my introduction to the Hollywood community,” he says. “But I’ve always felt that, between my name and the stuff I was putting out there, people thought I was just a guy who loved karate, explosions and girls in bikinis.”
Having partnered in 2009 with Mary Viola, Wonderland’s president of production, McG began to forge a new path in the mid-2010s — one that has made him a reliable hitmaker for Netflix and a player in the genres that have lost their theatrical luster. Wonderland, which was founded in 2001 and has 12 employees, has landed its past eight movies (including Holidate, Love Hard, Tall Girl and the latter’s recent sequel) at the No. 1 spot on the streamer’s most viewed chart.
The company is currently in post on The Uglies, a sci-fi YA adaptation starring Joey King that McG directed, and is heading for a summer start to produce Musica, an anti-musical musical with Rudy Mancuso Jr., for Amazon.
The pair sat with THR in their offices on the edge of Sunset Plaza to talk about the difference between living and dying on the platform, Terminator Salvation’s unreleased ending, the project that got away and, yes, why the name.
You two were doing movies for Netflix before it became a thing.
McG Wayne Gretzky once said, “I’m not good because I go where the puck is, I’m good because of where the puck is going.” I saw the writing on the wall — Netflix was too good to be denied. The day would come that that is the norm. I’m very active in the Chris Nolan world of protecting theatrical, but I really want to have my cake and eat it, too.
MARY VIOLA They can coexist.
Do you see yourselves still doing theatrical?
McG Absolutely. It’s not always the sexiest label, but we like to be smart pop. We enjoy sharing what we do with a large audience. We’re still very much in contact with our friends at Disney, Warners, Sony. We’re wide open to that. But, with great regularity, Netflix empowers us to make a lot of movies, and we take that very seriously.
A lot of filmmakers and producers are still vexed by how Netflix reveals its numbers. Does that opacity bother you guys?
McG We’re always trying our best to find our way in with the catch-up calls with the Netflix brass. They always see it coming a mile away. They reveal what they want to reveal and cloak what they choose to cloak. But we do the three-day call, the 28-day call and the one-year call, and I find it to be pretty clear. Babysitter, they made a second one. Tall Girl, they made a second one. It is difficult to gauge what success is. We thump our chest, but it’s hard to know where you are in the pecking order.
Has the new way the company reveals viewership been helpful?
VIOLA It’s definitely helpful; I’m not sure it will influence content. Everybody is trying to grasp why some things pop more than others. Is it concept-driven? Cast-driven? Filmmaker-driven?
Do you get tired of people asking what the deal is with the name?
McG My uncle was Joe. My grandpa was Joe. There were too many Joes. I’ve been called McG since the day I was born. But people still go, “What kind of stupid asshole calls himself McG?” My name is really McG. If you look at my second grade photo, it says McG. I’ve been apologizing for it ever since.
How do you choose between directing projects and producing projects?
McG Directing is all-encompassing and you can’t tend to your producorial duties. Directing is four in the morning to 11 at night. I can only direct one thing a year, but we can produce four movies a year. So I talk to May about it and it becomes about picking the one I have the clearest vision for.
There’s been a lot of talk about production companies selling to investors. Is that something you have explored?
McG Not so much. We’ve fielded a lot of calls, and we’re not against it, but we haven’t put a lot of energy into that space. We’ll defer to our agent group to tell us how we should play that hand.
Do you feel that you’re underestimated?
McG I think we know who we are, but there are a lot of elegant people in town that think, “Fuck those guys. They’re disposable.”
VIOLA I’m not sure people realize that the last six movies that their kid, their teenager and their college-age kid watched were made by Wonderland. We’re fairly quiet. But when you start to put that body of work together — theatrical, streaming, TV — we have a lot of content that has been seen by a lot of people.
Over the years, you’ve been attached to a slew of projects — 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Hot Wheels, Spring Awakening. Are some of those still of interest?
McG Some of those movies not happening were definitely my fault. And some are just the way of Hollywood. You never know if it’s going to be a regime change, scheduling conflicts or a star falling out of favor. There are a thousand ways for a movie to fall apart and only a few for a movie to come together. The greatest passion of my life is Spring Awakening. I saw it in New York 15 times with the original cast. I saw it in L.A., San Francisco, London, Tokyo. But I was cavalier when I was attached to it. I kept putting it off. And, rightfully so, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater said, “Hey man, we have to take this and go do it with someone else.” To this day, I regret that. That’s the one that got away.
You tend to gravitate to stories that skew younger. Why is that?
VIOLA Growing up, I wasn’t popular, he wasn’t popular — sorry, I’m outing you — and I wished there was more content to make me feel better. That’s why I am probably emotionally stunted and still stuck in high school. But I want to create stories for other people where they do watch it and then walk a little taller and feel better about themselves. I had the John Hughes movies, which were great, and then there weren’t any anymore.
The famous line in the pilot for The O.C. was, “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” Did you and the other creators know you had gold with that line? And did you have to fight the censors for it?
McG: All credit to Josh Schwartz for that line. I didn’t know if that line was going to work or tank. It seemed so overt and crazy, but it was a reflection of what Josh experienced as a guy from Rhode Island who went to USC. And it was what I experienced as an outsider surrounded by these water polo-playing Adonises and I’m like this 5-foot-2, prepubescent freakazoid. The thing we really went back and forth about was the “the.” He wanted to call it “the O.C.” And I go, “Dude, it’s just O.C., there’s no ‘the.’” And it sounds odd in 2022, because it’s become so the norm for it to be the O.C. And now, you would never say, “I’m in O.C.” You will always say “the OC.” And that was 100 percent Josh. He created that cultural distinction. And that’s one of the fun things of our job: You get to have lightning in the bottle like that and touch the pop culture needle.
But yeah, Gail Berman was running Fox with Sandy Grushow, and they were uptight about the word “bitch” in there, and they went through it with Standards and Practices and by the hair of the chin, chin, chin, got it done. And Gail was fearless and pushed for it. And the rest was history.
Can we talk Terminator Salvation? It made back its budget, but the movie was not reviewed kindly.
McG We got so close to nailing that thing right. We brought in Jonah Nolan. We had Christian Bale. And we tried to honor the Terminator faithful and James Cameron himself. I got a lot right in that movie but didn’t quite stick the landing.
VIOLA Do you remember they screened that one scene at Comic-Con? It got a huge reaction. The movie was set up to succeed — and, I don’t know why, but it became popular to not like it.
McG We were testing it in secret, on the Warner Bros. lot. I purposely brought in some Terminator faithful, some people who were in chatgroups, and they had pushback. Me and [former Warners film exec Jeff] Robinov looked at each other like, “Fuck.” And I really thought we had the tiger by the tail up to that point. And it’s not that the movie tanked. It just didn’t do as great as we wanted it to. And it wasn’t as fondly considered as we wanted it to be at the time.
What would you do differently if you were to tackle that title again?
McG I would have stuck with the dark ending that we photographed that got cut. There’s a lot about that film that people enjoyed. And, technically, we pushed some things forward. You can’t have a better actor than Christian Bale. And Sam did what he needed to do, and [we had] Helena Bonham Carter, and Bryce Dallas Howard. We tried to stack the deck. I tried, Terminator faithful, I tried.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the April 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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