"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The director of the new version of “Charlie’s Angels,” who goes by the name McG, has a very slight résumé. He grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., studied psychology at the University of California at Irvine and began committing images to film when he borrowed a pro friend’s camera gear and shot some grass-roots music videos for the alt-rock band Sugar Ray.
But his ebullience is boundless, which may have been key for giving pop conviction to a giddy spree like “Charlie’s Angels.” In a 7:30 a.m. phone call from Los Angeles, he sounded either saturated in caffeine — or, to use a suitably ’70s phrase, “high on life.”
First things first: What’s your real name, and why is it McG now?
My real name is Joseph McGinty Nichol. My uncle’s name was Joe, my grandpa’s name was Joe and they just called me McG, short for McGinty, from the day I was born. It was challenging when I was making those first hip-hop videos. Everyone thought it was just some nickname I gave myself to sort of make things happen. But, honestly, it’s my name since the day I was born in Kalamazoo, Mich.
You were called that even in school?
Yeah, I mean the first day of school was always hell because teachers were like, “There are no vowels in it!” But that’s it.
How did you and Drew Barrymore hook up?
She was set to produce and star in the film, and I’m a big fan of hers personally — and a big fan of hers professionally. I just thought she would probably have an interesting take on the tricky genre of films coming from old TV shows. I tried to hook up a meeting with her. She canceled on me five or six, seven, eight times. She’s got a busy schedule; she probably didn’t want to hear from another knucklehead. Then finally she agreed to meet with me and we just got to talking about a bunch of common influences. About our love for John Hughes movies. Our love for bad ’80s heavy metal. We realized we wanted to make this film and make it explosive and colorful. We wanted to make a film that reached out and hit the pleasure center of your brain.
No matter how frivolous the movie, there’s got to be ground rules. What were the ones you settled on from the beginning, and how did they change as the project developed?
Well, we just wanted to take all the elements of filmmaking and just crank them to 11. I told Drew, Cameron and Lucy that when we go for action, I want the toughest action conceivable. I want to blow boys away that were raised on John Hughes films. When we make it sexy I want it to be the sexiest thing ever. When we make it funny, I want it to be funny as what the Farrelly Brothers are doing. No matter what we went for, I wanted to go for it all the way. I wanted it to be the most colorful film. Like the first time you see color when Dorothy lands in Oz and your jaw hits the ground. That’s the sensory-overload, explosive ride that we were going for. I just think that’s the way to do a “Charlie’s Angels” movie. You’re never going to make it an introspective piece.
I don’t quite get the John Hughes connection here.
Really? I just wanted, as far as tone and humanity and empathy for our audience, to tap into what John Hughes did with “16 Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” and just have a good time with it.
So “Charlie’s Angels” is kind of a kung fu “The Breakfast Club”?
Yeah, with a hell of a lot of “Grease” and “Rocky.” It’s difficult to slap one label onto this film. We clearly are influenced by a great many styles. To me it’s like the computer business: There was a time where you could have a really fast chip or big color screen or DVD player. Now you got to have it all. I wanted to bring it all to a movie, as far as comedy and action and just excitement.
Not to digress too much, but as a Midwestern kid, were John Hughes movies particularly big for you?
That might have been [a reason] why they resonate. I was pretty much raised in Southern California, but I still have that Kalamazoo, Mich./York, Pa. blood in me. My whole family’s from York, Pa. Everyone in my family went to Penn State. But my dad got a job for the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., and that’s where I got squirted out. And I do have this affinity for John Hughes. What can I tell you? It might have something to do with me looking just like Anthony Michael Hall, with the neck-gear and orange Afro. Now I cut it short enough that you can’t really tell, but my hair’s like a genetic defect, man.
How did you get started in film?
I was involved in the theater when I was a kid. I was always a still photographer, and the music scene was really happening in Orange County when I was growing up, with Sugar Ray, the Offspring, Korn, Rage Against the Machine, No Doubt. It was really hot then. I had the good fortune of making the videos for Sugar Ray, my old childhood friends, and Korn, and the Offspring. Just kept putting one foot in front of the other as a filmmaker, trying to hone my skills until I started making a few commercials. And when I got the chance to do this film, I said, “Let’s go shake it up and make a film that isn’t terrible that comes from an old television show.”
Apart from bigger, faster, funnier, more explosive, more eye-popping, et cetera — you had to set a certain tone for it, too. From the beginning, we know we’re going to see beautiful babes but that they’re going to be funny, too — even, or maybe especially, when they’re stripping off their wetsuits.
I’ve got to give all credit to the three ladies. When you think of Cameron, Drew and Lucy, you think about the cover-girl beauty, and think about them as actors. But what people don’t think of first off is their tremendous drive to entertain. These are three very, very funny, funny comediennes. I mean, Drew is out there doing Donald O’Connor-style pratfalls and Cameron has this incredible sort of puppy-dog humor: She’s just so loose and smiley and charming you laugh hysterically with her. Then Lucy has this really sly, intelligent wit. You put all three together and you can’t believe their propensity to entertain. That’s the hidden secret of why I hope it works.
When I saw this publicity handout and it said, “Cameron Diaz as Natalie the bookworm, Lucy Liu as Alex the class act, and Drew Barrymore as the tough girl,” I didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to mean, especially the “Natalie the bookworm” part.
I’m not certain, either. That requires a phone call to Sony marketing. With Cameron’s character, Natalie, we wanted to create someone who is really sort of Pollyannaish and lives in her own bubble, but also has got idiot-savant qualities. She’s kind of a “Rain Man” super-genius, where she’ll be the most intelligent of them all and then turn around and bump into the door and not realize she’s standing in Spiderman underwear. We wanted a person who’s so positive, even if she lives in her own place with her head in the clouds, that in the end you realize, “What a great way to live. Get me the hell out of reality!”
And we wanted to have Lucy’s character, Alex, the internationalist one, who went to Swiss boarding schools and was raised with a silver spoon.
Actually, with Alex I thought it was funny that the “class act” was into dominatrix chic.
[Laughter] Well, she’s sort of an adult class act. I just love it when she’s elegant and she’s tough. She taps into my subversive fantasies. Lucy is great, too: She has such a straight delivery. Then when she cracks up and starts laughing, you just want to laugh with her. She’s just so damn charming because of it.
And, of course, Drew is the most grounded, or at least most down to earth.
She’s supposed to be the product of foster homes, with sort of a “Switchblade Sisters” upbringing. She’s the street-tough one, the savvy one. And you put all three of them together and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The idea is that in some way they’re three similar ladies but from three entirely different contexts.
And you had to follow that intention through with at least three writers.
Add, like, two zeros. That was just a huge thing. We went through writers because Drew and Cameron and Lucy and I were on top of what we wanted to do with the characters. We were very particular. If someone came in with an idea that wasn’t in keeping with where we were already headed, we turned the page.
One particular thing I wanted to mention, because I’m such a big fan of hers: It was so great when Kelly Lynch [of "Drugstore Cowboy"] showed up as a femme fatale.
Exactly right. We wanted to be intelligent with those choices. We’re all big fans with what she’s done with her career. We had a sort of architectural connection in that she lives in a house designed by my favorite architect, this guy John Lautner, and we got to talking about that. She’s an incredibly fashionable human being. She became an advisor on the film from a fashion point of view. She’s one of the people who can look great in a gown but can look great in leather pants; she can hang with the boys but she’s ultimately a beautiful woman. She embodied that Charlie’s Angels quality but we wanted her to be effectively the “dark” angel. She had all the makings of an angel but was just a little bit too pissed off at the world to be the good guy. We wanted her to be the equivalent, in particular, to Natalie, Cameron’s character. They were like the good and evil versions of similar physical prowess. They’re both these tall, muscular, beautiful, extraordinary, intelligent, capable women, and they get into it at the end.
I almost wondered whether Kelly was the fourth choice on the Angels list.
That’s the idea. I wanted someone who was just a shade away from an Angel and had that depth and texture to take it to the dark side.
The idea that the gals were going to become martial arts fighters is new to this version, isn’t it?
Yeah, definitely. I’m a big fan of Hong Kong cinema, and certainly a big fan of “The Matrix,” and I didn’t want to use guns — Drew made me a believer in all that. So I set out to use the female form as a beautiful lethal entity. It provided a lot of opportunities — I got to put the girls in clothing that was so tight it wouldn’t accommodate any side arms. They studied with a guy named Cheung-Yan Yuen, a martial arts expert from Hong Kong. [He was also the martial arts expert on "The Matrix."] He brought that style of fight choreography to the film. I think it’s one of the most exciting elements of the film. I’m delighted we chose that route. I mean, I’m a huge John Wayne fan, but I think the days of seeing the old right cross doesn’t really excite the audience as much anymore.
If you become part of the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise, what elements do you see planted here that you might want to bring into full bloom?
Well, I would definitely want to continue to grow. Perhaps if there were another one, it would be a lot more complex in the story and the plot. Perhaps we’d make it more of an intense film in that respect, as long as we were always having fun and having that excitement radiating off the screen. But as far as a sequel or franchise … my goodness. I mean, all of our efforts are just going into this thing and before I did a second film there would be a long conversation with me and Drew and Cameron and Lucy. For this film what I wanted was a platform for these characters to be everything they could be and for us to enjoy them. I hope the plot is substantial and the story’s fun enough to keep it going. I think it ultimately satisfies and has a little bit of heart at the end.
The Angels here are like comic book superheroes, complete with alter-egos and secrets they have to keep from boyfriends.
Matt LeBlanc’s character [Alex's boyfriend] is a Hollywood action hero and we just wanted to have fun with that male-female dynamic. I thought it would be kind of fun to invert it. Also, the route we went in the casting was very particular: Tom Green and Luke Wilson and Bill Murray; Tim Curry, Crispin Glover, Sam Rockwell. I wanted to bring a decidedly male energy to round out this film. I wouldn’t want anyone to ever misconstrue it as a “chick flick.” Yeah, I certainly hope the film works for girls and young women and mature women. But at the same time I want it to work absolutely for boys and men, and I want them to be able to go for a whole different set of reasons, but always to really enjoy the film.
You have a lot of pop satire in the film, too. Starting, of course, with the great gag about “T.J. Hooker the Movie.”
I mean, this is never going to be “The Deer Hunter.” It’s like, this is “Charlie’s Angels,” let’s have a good time. I want to be respectful to the original show, and I just want to really deliver for the audience. So they can go and have a great roller coaster ride and walk out of the theater feeling exhilarated and with a little more spring in their step.
It’s fun that guys like Sam Rockwell or Murray are not the most dead-center choices for a movie like this.
Something that’s always been attractive to me is making a film that works on several different levels. Not everyone will get everything that Sam Rockwell is up to, and what’s really going on between Tim Curry and Bill Murray’s characters. Or the subtleties of Crispin Glover and the friction between what he’s doing now and what he did with David Lynch. The 12- to 14-year-old kids, they won’t understand that dynamic with Curry and Murray, or why Glover’s holding a cigarette the way he is, reminiscent of the great bad guys of the film noir period. But there’s stuff in there for everybody.
Murray and Curry really try to out-droll each other.
There’s a “Goldfinger”-James Bond thing going on. They’re cocksmen jousting with each other.
All sorts of other parodies sneak in, too. Not just of “The Matrix” and Hong Kong movies, but of that great scene in “Rising Sun” with the big drums going during the party scene.
I like “Rising Sun”! Yeah, the taiko drums. That was an underrated film. I just wanted to make a movie that was an amalgam of many different styles. One part “Grease,” one part “Singin’ in the Rain,” one part “Rocky.”
And two parts “Saturday Night Fever.”
You bet your ass! I realize we’re not going to change the world with this film. But one thing I am artistically proud of is the tone and voice of the film. If you can create something that’s original, even if it’s in the context of a light delivery, that originality is artistry for me. I think this film feels original; you can’t say that it’s just like “Austin Powers,” or like this, that and the other. I think it is its own animal.
I know there’s a slew of critics ready to break out the thesaurus and slam us with it. But I believe in entertaining. I think it’s fabulous when you can get to somebody who’s got a tough job at a mini-mall and just wants to go to the movies for two hours and live a little better of a life. We set out to make a movie that doesn’t make you think too much and hopefully does make you dream. I don’t want to ever apologize for that. I hope someday I’ll be deep enough where I’ll be able to make a “Cider House Rules.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)