CS Interview: Rawson Marshall Thurber on Central Intelligence
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber made a splash with his 2004 sleeper hit Dodgeball, then tried for nearly a decade to get away from comedy before returning triumphantly with We’re the Millers. Now he’s finally getting a chance to prove his action chops while keeping one foot in the comedy realm with the new movie Central Intelligence.
In the film, Dwayne Johnson plays Bob Stone, a formerly mocked high school fat kid who comes back to town for a high school reunion a ripped CIA agent. He meets up with former “coolest kid in school” Calvin, played by Kevin Hart, who’s feeling like he might have peaked in high school, and together they go on an adventure and maybe save the world. The movie provides Johnson the opportunity to show off the more vulnerable and comedic muscles he rarely gets to flex as a lethal weapon who may or may not be a loose cannon, while Hart essentially plays the straight man who’s along for the ride.
Thurber talked to us in an exclusive 1-on-1 in which he mentions his plans to focus more on action/adventure in the future (he’s since been announced to re-team with Johnson for a Chinese skyscraper-set action film), why people who think The Rock isn’t a good actor are wrong and how his “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” shorts influenced Central Intelligence. He also gives us a few tidbits about the in-development Choose Your Own Adventure movie.
ComingSoon.net: I got a kick out of seeing you in the last scene of the movie.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: You noticed that?
CS: Yeah, catching those pants with vigor. Is that going to be a tradition, like a Hitchcock-ian tradition for you?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, I think that might be the only similarity between me and Hitchcock. Yeah, no, I’d like to. I’m a terrible, terrible actor, so I wouldn’t want to ruin my own movie, but yeah. I’d like to kinda pick a little spot here and there. Like I was in “Dodgeball” and I was in “Millers.”
CS: This movie had a lot more action than your previous films. Did you get really hands on with it or did you rely on second unit?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: No, no, we didn’t have a lot of second unit because all of the action was with principles. Typically second unit works when you’re doing a big car chase, right, or a big foot chase with a double. Most second unit is that. And we had very little second unit. What we did have was great. Joel Kramer and Allan Poppleton handled the second unit stuff. But I would say a good 85 to 90 percent of the action, I shot.
CS: That’s awesome.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, it was really exciting for me. I mean, I grew up loving action movies as a kid, you know, from “Die Hard” to “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Lethal Weapon,” “48 Hours,” and I really wanted to make an action picture. And you know, I’m very proud of “Central Intelligence” and I would sort of never call it a stepping stone, but it’s certainly a bridge, right, a bridge to what I hope to be doing next, which is action/adventure, action tentpole stuff in the future. After “Millers,” I wanted to do an action comedy, both because I loved the genre and also because I’m like, “Look, at least I won’t screw up half of it, you know?” That was kind of the idea. I loved shooting the action. It was so relaxing. It was so, so much easier than the comedy side. You know, on the comedy side, my brain is going a thousand miles a second, because you’re paying attention. You’ve written it, right? So you know how it’s supposed to work and you’re listening. And Kevin might say something funny, “Oh okay, no, do that. Do that. And Dwayne, what if you say this instead of that? So okay, try this punch line. Try that punch line. Try the other.”
It’s not improvisational, but spontaneous. You need to be fully, fully present and engaged on the action side. There’s so much preparation and planning that goes into it, not only for execution, but for safety sake, right? There’s so many meetings about it. You’ve got all these great people to help you. You’ve got stunts and visual effects and special effects, all of that working, You’ve pre-vised it, you’ve storyboarded it, you’ve worked with your DP, you have your shot list, you know exactly what it is. And then, the car either blows up or it doesn’t, you know what I mean? You don’t go, “Oh, could that car blow up?” It doesn’t really work like that. So on the action side, it was deeply relaxing and so much fun and I can’t wait to do more of it.
CS: And this isn’t the first time you’ve had a big, hulking guy checking fools in an office.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: I can’t believe you know that.
CS: Yeah, big Terry Tate: Office Linebacker fan. Was that the ideal sort of prep for this movie?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: You know, you’re the only person to ask me that.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Yeah, so there were a couple of moments when we were shooting the office escape sequence in this picture, where I went, “Oh my god, I’ve done this before.” There was a moment in the movie where Dwayne is in the little kitchen fighting with the guys, right? And there’s a moment where he grabs the refrigerator door and goes, bang, bang. And that was exactly from “Terry Tate.” I remember doing that. It’s all preparation. So yeah, I felt at home in that sequence, yeah.
CS: You did some rewriting work on David Stassen and Ike Barinholtz’s script. What would you say is your biggest contribution?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: David and Ike wrote such a funny script. I remember reading it – I think they wrote it in 2010, I think It was their first spec- and it was so funny and such a great premise. I really loved it. Then I went and made “Millers,” and when I finished that I said, “I really want to do an action comedy.” I thought that premise was so strong because it had this potential for heart, for a real story. So I got my hands on it and did a rewrite, but the underlying premise is theirs. Bob, that character is theirs. Kevin’s character is there. I just sort of straightened out the plot a little bit and simplified a couple of things. The only thing I really added that I could call a feather in my cap was the therapy scene. I wrote that, but most of the other stuff they wrote.
CS: There was a point in the middle of the film where it just hit me like, “Oh my god, this is The In-Laws.”
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Oh yes. Nobody knows that picture, or not many people do. Yeah, so right. That was definitely one of the touchstones. There’s that shot where Kevin’s walking away from the SUV before it blows up, and that reminded me of Shelly, right, like the serpentine…
CS: “Serpentine! Serpentine!”
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah. Alan Arkin and…
CS: And Falk.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, and Peter Falk. Pretty great. I’m so glad you know that. Geez. Definitely that was a touchstone, that sort of odd couple pairing and that kind of mystery of like, “Can you trust Peter Falk or can’t you trust Peter Falk?” That’s something I really wanted to make sure we got right with Dwayne.
CS: And there have been a lot of other movies that have taken that template. Obviously “True Lies” is another one, where you start domestic and then you segue into the action adventure.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Well, “True Lies,” I mean, James Cameron, he’s the only director who’s never missed. All he does is make great movies. And I loved “True Lies,” and that was certainly part of the fun, right, is how do we do an action comedy? You know, how do you get the most comedy out of your action? By having this premise, especially that Dwayne’s character has a man crush on Kevin Hart. And Dwayne’s character is this giant St. Bernard…
CS: Yeah, bordering on disturbing.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: No, right. You’re precisely correct and that’s a real fine line to walk, both on the page and in the editing room. Like, you want to make sure that it just touches uncomfortable, like awkward and not uncomfortable, right?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: So that it doesn’t go “Single White Female.” Do you know what I mean?
CS: Yeah, exactly. That brings up an interesting point. I was having an argument…
Rawson Marshall Thurber: This sounds good.
CS: …with a friend the other day, because he was trying to say to me that The Rock is not an actor because all he does is franchise movies. And I was like, “First of all, you underestimate the Rock at your peril.”
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yes. Yes, exactly correct.
CS: And also, even if all he did was those franchise movies, there’s a craft to that.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Of course.
CS: Then you take something like “Central Intelligence,” where he’s literally riffing on his own persona, and really giving us a very nuanced character.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: First of all, your friend sounds like an *sshole, and you can tell him I said that.
CS: It’s in print now.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: No, but of course Dwayne Johnson is an actor, and especially in this film. We’ve never seen him do anything like this at all. Look, it was a leap of faith on his side and certainly on mine as well, but if you know anything about Dwayne Johnson, the one thing he loves more than anything is a challenge. If you tell him you can’t do it, you tell him, “Oh, you’re not an actor,” he will run through a brick wall. He will do anything to prove the doubters wrong, and I am so proud of what he did in this movie. Like, essentially, we took the biggest action star in the world and we made him the funny guy. And we took one of the funniest people in the world and made him the straight man. I think that offers up a fresh angle on a very traditional genre.
CS: No, totally. This Bob Stone character is really complex because he’s sort of pretending to be vulnerable to manipulate Kevin, but deep down, he really is that vulnerable.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yes, that’s right.
CS: And you also have to believe he might be a psychopath.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: That’s right. That’s exactly correct.
CS: I could imagine even Mike Myers or Sacha Baron Cohen having trouble with that.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: You should tell him that when you talk to him. He worked so hard on it, and it’s a fine line, because if you go too far in any one direction the rest sinks. I thought he did an excellent job, and certainly you shape and craft that in the editing room as well. In this particular one, we had to keep a mystery of whether or not you can trust Dwayne. He might be the bad guy. I mean, look, it’s not “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” we have about as much mystery as a “Scooby-Doo” cartoon, but it’s a little bit, you know? It’s enough to kind of keep you, “Well, maybe not. Maybe he is the bad guy. He might be.”
CS: Yeah, or it’s fun to suspend your disbelief.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Exactly, exactly.
CS: Going back to the idea of being typecast, I remember when “Dodgeball” came out, I expected you to be directing every Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller movie that there was. And then, you took this really sharp left turn with “Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” And then, I think for a while you were trying to do “Elf Quest.”
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yes.
CS: Was there a sense of trying to not become the comedy guy?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, I did “Dodgeball.” It was the first thing—I did “Terry Tate” and then I did “Dodgeball,” and I’m very proud of that movie. I mean, that movie is me. I wrote it in my crappy apartment off of Melrose. But yeah, after that, I saw some friends of mine who got pigeonholed very quickly as just comedy, and I didn’t want to do that. At the time I wasn’t feeling very funny, and I liked this book quite a bit. I worked so hard on “Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” I bled into that movie, and it was gutting. It was gutting to work that hard on something, bring it to Sundance and have the audience go, “Eh,” like that, you know? I mean, it really took the wind out of my sails. It was the first time that I failed professionally, and it spun me out. And then, I worked so hard trying to get “Magnum P.I.” off the ground and trying to get “Elf Quest” off the ground, “The Umbrella Academy,” you know, a bunch of stuff. And it’s really tough to trick a giant corporation into giving you hundreds, $40, $50, $60, $80 million. It’s not as easy as it might sound. So yeah. I love comedy. I hope to do it for the rest of my life. You know, like I said when we started, I’m angling toward action and action adventure.
CS: Right. And I know that one of the projects you have on your docket is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” movie.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Oh yeah.
CS: Actually, I brought this with me (an original 1982 copy of Choose Your Own Adventure #13: “The Abominable Snowman”), not to sign or anything, but just to show you that I love these books.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: How great are they?
CS: I love them. For people my age, like late 20s, early 30s, they’re important because they were the books that were always checked out of the school library. Me and a lot of my friends would read them and TRY to make our character die. It was cool. You wanted to make your character drive off a cliff or sink the submarine into the ocean.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Of course. I love those books dearly. I’m so excited about being involved with it. You’re exactly right. They are sort of the gateway drug in terms of literature, right? Because you start reading, and obviously it’s all second person, but it would say, “Do you want to go below deck with the captain or above with the deckhand?” And you go, “I’m going to go above.” And then, you get swept over and get eaten by a shark and you flip your hand back, “No, no, no, I didn’t, I didn’t move my finger, I’m going to go the other way.” So it was a really interesting way of learning about narrative and plot, as well as character.
CS: Yeah, well for the movie, do you plan on going maybe like an “Edge of Tomorrow” kind of route, where there’s alternate timelines within the story you’re trying to tell? Or is it going to be literally interactive?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: It won’t be interactive.
CS: That’s good.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, because I don’t think people want to see a movie like that. I don’t like to experience a movie like that. But talking with Tom and Ben…
CS: Yeah, who are brilliant. (screenwriters Tom Lennon and Ben Garant)
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Yeah, those guys are the best. We’ve got an interesting idea, an interesting take on it that we hope gives you that same feeling as when you read the book, but it won’t be about people texting or pressing buttons to pick a version.
CS: Oh okay. But is it going to embrace the masochistic spirit of the readers?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: I hope so. I hope so. I hope it does what you would want a “Choose Your Own Adventure” movie to do. I can’t say more than that, I’m sorry.
CS: Finally, your mentor John August famously told you, “No one wants to see a movie with Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn playing dodgeball.” In itself that’s very good advice, but luckily, you ignored it.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: (laughs) Well…
CS: And I guess I’m wondering how hard is it to sort of maintain your own inner barometer when you have very smart people discouraging you?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: I never felt like John was discouraging me. I mean, I’ve learned so much from him. Actually, when he read the script he thought it was great. He was like, “This is really funny. We should talk.” He’s like, “Let me send it to my agent.” He sent it to his agent and his agent’s like, “Eh, I don’t want to represent him.” And I was like, “Ah.” But that’s with any art, you have to have—look, if you don’t trust your inner barometer, as you said, then you have nothing. Then you’re not an artist. Then you’re a short order cook. Then you’re like, “Okay, how do you want your eggs?” The only value you have, one has, as a writer, as with any kind of artist, is what you like, what matters to you. And what mattered to me at that time was a comedy about adults playing dodgeball, which is the dumbest idea in the history of time, you know? But I liked it. And fuck everybody else. And if you don’t have that, you’re not only going to never find success, in my opinion, but you’ll also never be happy, because you’ll always be looking for someone else to tell you that what you did was good or that is a good idea, and that’s not the same thing.
Central Intelligence opens everywhere June 17.