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Rawson Marshall Thurber has makeshift stacks of books in his office, even after moving into his historic Hollywood home nearly a year ago. But what else can you expect when your movie gets shut down because of the pandemic and then picks back up months later — leaving you to revive production while in lockdown on the other side of the country in Atlanta? That’s the story behind Red Notice, the action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds that launched a fierce bidding war that was won by Universal, which then offloaded it when the price tag got too high.
Now, after a perilous journey to the screen, it has the designation of being the most expensive movie ever made by Netflix, a price tag said to be easily north of $250 million if not close to $300 million. That’s quite the leap for the USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program alum, whose first movie was the $19 million studio comedy Dodgeball, an unexpected hit that led to We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence and Skyscraper — the latter two cementing a relationship with Johnson. Without the worry of opening-weekend box office, Thurber is looking forward to taking a breather with his wife, Sarah, whom he met when she was a Warner Bros. assistant and he came in to pitch an adaptation of the fantasy comic Elfquest. “The movie never got made, but I did get married and had three kids,” he says. “I’m much happier this way.”
Thurber — a baseball fan who this year threw the first pitch at a game for the San Francisco Giants, his hometown team — spoke with THR about COVID-19 costs, his big bidding war and the future of guns in movies.
How does it feel to have directed Netflix’s most expensive movie?
It makes no difference to me whether it’s the most expensive or the least expensive. If I’m making a movie that has a $1 million budget or a $100 million budget, I sweat it the same amount. Because every time somebody puts money up for art, they expect a hit. So every time you step up to the plate, you’re 0-for-0.
Talent costs alone were massive.
The above-the-line number is very, very high. When you make a Mission: Impossible, let’s say, you have one Tom Cruise. We’ve got three Tom Cruises in this movie.
There was a frenzy for this package when it hit town. For those of us who’ll never have an idea what it’s like to pitch a project with Johnson, Reynolds, Gadot attached, can you describe the bidding-war maelstrom?
When we went out, it was just Dwayne. Gal and Ryan were in my pitch but not attached. It’s really exciting. When you first go out, you’re super nervous. You don’t know if anyone is going to bid. We took Red Notice out to 11 places and got 11 offers. That’s never happened to me before. It quickly became a serious knife fight for the idea. There is really no downside, but what you don’t realize when you’re in a competitive situation like that is, most times, you know all the buyers. You can only go to prom with one, so you have to break some hearts.
Tell me about being shut down.
Everyone was laid off, it was force majeure. I didn’t know if we were coming back. Nobody did. When it was decided that we were coming back, we had to figure out the logistics of how to shoot a movie of this scale, safely. There was no vaccine and a lot of misinformation [about] how to keep people safe. We had to invent the process. Then there was the creative.
What was one of the things you had to change or do differently?
There was a masquerade ball sequence that was supposed to have 300 extras as Dwayne and Gal dance together. We weren’t allowed to have that many people together, so the actors wore N95 masks under their masquerade masks. And we had to shoot it in layers, in plates, and stitch those pieces together. That is why the budget went up. We started the movie with 400 visual effects shots — it wasn’t a visual effects movie at all — and ended with 1,500 or so.
You had three big personalities. How did you make sure they’re all acting in the same movie?
That’s the whole job of a director: tone and balance, to make sure the actors are in the same movie. I start directing when I start writing the script. That’s when I put together my thoughts on tone and pace, what’s in bounds, out of bounds. Because I’ve written it and the actors have read it, they know what I’m going for. Then we talk about it before the meter is running. It doesn’t mean I’ve written a perfect draft and there are no notes, but it’s about having those discussions in an open way. My job is the arbiter of tone.
Your big break was writing and directing Dodgeball. Do you think that’s a movie that could be made today, given current studio economic models?
It was a $19 million movie, not very much for a studio film. I do wonder if the margins are there anymore. They don’t make the small stuff anymore, which is a real shame because you take a flyer on something like Police Academy, and it ends up paying for Ishtar. The Hangover cost very little, and it became a billion-dollar franchise.
There has been a lot of talk about gun safety since the Rust tragedy. Where do you fall on the spectrum of having live guns on set?
The level of precautions and safety procedures that we have for firearms on set are many and varied. For something like that to happen, you would have had to ignore half a dozen safety protocols. So I don’t understand how it could happen. Serious harm by firearm is so, so rare. That said, there is plenty of room for re-examination as it relates to those protocols. The baseline should be using replicas and airsofts and doing gunfire and muzzle flashes with visual effects. And if you want to use real firearms with half-rounds or quarter-rounds, and if there is creative case for that, we should look into making it into a bigger deal than it is now. Have special waivers just as you have a rider for nudity. That’s somewhere we’re going to head.
You always look like you’re jacked. There’s a lot of people who want to know: What is your production workout regimen?
First of all, I don’t think there’s a lot of people who want to know, and I think it’s a faulty premise for a question. But since you asked: It’s really, really hard to maintain any level of fitness when you’re making a movie. The hours are so long, and you’re always so tired. So when I’m shooting a movie, I’m strict about my diet. That is the biggest thing.
Have you seen your arms? Very few directors have arms like that.
This is misleading. It’s a very tight shirt.
Let’s run through potential sequels to your movies. Dodgeball 2?
Never say never, but I think I said everything I had to say about adults hitting each other with rubber balls in one single movie.
Central Intelligence 2?
We had an idea, but when Kevin and Dwayne went to do Jumanji, that itch was scratched for most people.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh? Maybe this time in Philadelphia?
Ha. I don’t think so, no.
(Pauses.) I think that is a real possibility.
I’ve heard that two and three would shoot back-to-back.
If we were to make a sequel, the only responsible thing would be to make two and three back-to-back. It’s such a big production, and if you can mount it one time, it will be better for everyone. Including for my mental health.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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