Yes, 'Skyscraper' Director Rawson Marshall Thurber Knows It's "Die Hard In A Building" [Interview]

/Film happened to interview Rawson Marshall Thurber at TCA last summer as he was getting ready to film Skyscraper. Based on the premise, we asked him if it was "Die Hard in a building" and he jokingly agreed it was.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a security analyst helping to launch The Pearl, the world's tallest building, in Hong Kong. When terrorists set fire to The Pearl with Will's wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and children (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell) inside, Will has to get back into the building and rescue them while the Hong Kong police think he is involved in starting the blaze. It's The Rock's most heroic role yet, full of hold-your-breath action sequences. It's the perfect summer movie.

Thurber spoke with /Film by phone out of New York for a full interview on Skyscraper to talk about how he made a big movie worthy of a big screen. Skyscraper is in theaters this Friday.

Now that Skyscraper is coming out, everyone is noticing it's Die Hard in a building. I hope I was the first one to make that joke to you last summer.

I remember when you did that. You were the very first, exactly. Yes, that's one of my favorite jokes. It made me laugh then. It makes me laugh now.

Good. I don't know what's worse, my joke or the people correcting us, "Actually, Die Hard was already in a building."

I know, there's nothing you can do to help those people, Fred.

But really, is it also Die Hard meets Backdraft?

That's not too far off. I think it's definitely Die Hard meets Towering Inferno with Cliffhanger thrown in for good measure I hope. And The Fugitive.

What part of The Fugitive?

Well, Will Sawyer's on the run. He's wanted for a crime that he didn't commit so there's a little bit of wanted man on the run that you certainly have in The Fugitive. There's this moment in The Fugitive where Dr. Richard Kimble has to make a choice when Tommy Lee Jones pulls a gun on him about whether he can be arrested, go to prison for the rest of his life or take a leap of faith. We certainly have moments like that in Skyscraper.

Was it important to you that every action sequence has about three or four things Will has to do? It's never just one thing.

I'm glad you noticed. Yeah, I think whenever you're creating an action sequence, obviously this is my first action picture so I'm still learning, you want an escalation of problems. You want an escalation of tension. You want small moments of success and failure and challenge all the way through, the more the better.

Dwayne loves to undercut his hero persona, which you did in Central Intelligence with him. Was it any kind of a tough sell for him to be more of a straight heroic action hero in Skyscraper?

Oh, what a great question. No, we've seen Dwayne in action pictures for a long time now. He basically is invulnerable. He's a superhero without a cape. He's essentially bullet proof. I wanted to show a different side of Dwayne. I wanted to see him as vulnerable, as someone who's struggling, who's fighting, battered, broken, bloody, who just barely survives. He can't punch his way out of a problem. He has to think his way out of a problem. We talked a lot about that. Dwayne was excited to do it. It's been so gratifying, early audiences who've been watching the picture just say it's the best performance he's ever given. They've never seen him like this and I couldn't be more pleased as a filmmaker. I'm mostly just so proud of Dwayne for being willing to show that kind of vulnerability. When you're the biggest movie star in the world, you don't have to.

Was that vulnerability what really sold Dwayne on the movie?

You'd have to ask him but I think my read on it is if you know Dwayne at all, you know there's one thing he loves more than anything and that's a challenge. With Central Intelligence we're doing basically a straight up comedy. And then he goes and does a musical with Moana. I just don't know anybody who has that kind of guts and that kind of range. Dwayne is fearless. I think he was really excited to take on an action role that was different for him, that was challenging for him because he plays an amputee in the film and he's dealing with a lot of psychological demons. He's haunted by an opening failure that he blames himself for, and he carries that through the story.

In that opening scene, did that blast kill the children in that scene?

It's not actually explicitly said in the film. I hope not. We never really say one way or the other.

Of course, I know you can do more than one thing but I know how Hollywood likes to put people in boxes. Was it a hard sell for you to get to do a straight action movie?

Oh, that's a great question. No, it's a lot easier to get to direct an action film when Dwayne Johnson is the lead in it and he believes in you. The studio doesn't really second guess a guy like Dwayne when he's done it so many times. For me, I've loved action movies since I was about eight years old and my mom took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark at a little two screen theater in Hatteras, N.C. and I just fell in love with not only movies, but action films. I've made a bunch of comedies and I love that genre. I hope to make many more, but I've always wanted to make an action film. I got close on a bunch of Marvel movies and a DC movie here and there. I was always sort of a bridesmaid but never a bride. I just sort of said, "Screw it, I'm going to write my own thing" and came up with the Skyscraper idea while we were in post on Central. I called up Dwayne and said I had this idea. I pitched it to him. He said, "I love it. I'm in." We worked on the script together, finished it, sold it, shot it, directed it, cut it and now it's in movie theaters.

Which Marvel movies did you pitch for?

We talked about Ant-Man and talked about Thor: Ragnarok. Those were a couple of them.

They tend to come back to filmmakers. Are you still talking with Marvel?

Oh, I have an open door policy with Marvel. Kevin Feige has my number. If he wants me, all he has to do is call.

How did it feel to see mathematicians analyzing Will's crane jump?

Oh, I loved it. I loved it. I was tickled by it. What's funny is that teaser poster, our friends at marketing, they exaggerated the distance of that leap. It was kind of fun to watch people do the math on that. Certainly in the picture, the jump is much more plausible and really fun because just recently this professor at the University of Central Florida just literally did the math and said this is 100% possible given a few factors. So I feel vindicated by science but I think it was super fun to see people rib us about it.

skyscraper box office tracking

Is pretty much any exterior of The Pearl CGI?

Yeah, any exterior shot of The Pearl is digitally created in the computer by Industrial Light & Magic. Anything where you see Dwayne on the building itself, we shot on a stage built by Jim Bissell, our production designer who also designed The Pearl. He designed E.T. and the last two Mission: Impossibles [before Fallout].

How many floors of the inside were actually built for the set?

That's a good question. Every interior you see in the movie we built so I think that's four or five different floors. I'd have to double check.

Did you and Dwayne agree on Will's look with the beard?

Yeah, that was something that Dwayne brought up pretty early and I just thought it was fantastic. I was really excited about that choice. I think he looks great in the beard. I've never seen him with one and I thought he was awesome. I think it helps ground the character. It was a nice choice from him.

Were you conscious of giving Sarah things to do and making her an equally heroic character?

Neve's character, Sarah Sawyer, my wife's name is Sarah so it's based on my wife. I know for a fact that if my wife and two daughters were trapped in a burning building, my wife's not going to wait for me to save her because she knows I'm a moron. So she would take action herself. It just seemed like someone like Neve Campbell, especially if she's going to be married to Dwayne, you'd have to be a badass to be married to Dwayne. It just never occurred to me that she would wait to be saved. I'm really proud of Neve's performance in the film. I think the way the picture ends is perhaps a little different than most action movies you would expect.

I have one question about the villains' plan. If they had stolen the tablet from Will's bad as planned, how would they have used it without his facial recognition?

Oh, so what they were going to do, if they stole it in taking the bag beforehand, they were going to bring it back to Will at Ben's location. That was the plan. They were supposed to go straight to the offsite control facility for him to assess the security there. The bad guys were going to be waiting there.

I knew you'd thought of it. So now that Doug Liman is doing Cannonball Run, when did you drop out of that project?

I've been off that since before Skyscraper started shooting. Just there's usually a lag time in terms of how these things get brought into the press. I've known Doug for a long time and he's one of my all time favorite filmmakers. His resume includes some of my favorite films: Go, Swingers, the Bourne franchise, Mr. and Mrs. Smith so he'll do a fantastic job with Cannonball.

Was it just the timing of you were busy doing Skyscraper?

Yeah, I was hip deep in prep on Skyscraper and I think they wanted to get moving a little bit faster than I could. I have a policy of never standing in the way of any movie getting way, even ones that I would love dearly to make. So I bowed out and wish them good luck.

Were you developing a Choose Your Own Adventure movie?

I was. We had a really good idea for that at Fox. I'm not quite sure what happened there. I think they were going through some changes on the executive side and it just lost steam which is unfortunate because we had a really cool idea and really cool way of executing it. It's disappointing that I won't be making that movie.

I can imagine VOD allowing individual viewers to choose different paths, but would the idea have worked in theaters?

It would've worked really well in a theater. I've gotta keep my mouth shut about it but we had a pretty cool way of harnessing what you loved about Choose Your Own Adventure books in a theatrical experience. I love those books. Sort of the first time you're in charge of your own reading, literally. You turn to page 62 and you get eaten by a shark. You're like, "No, no, no, flip back." We had a cool take and hopefully at some point it gets made. Nostalgia for sure.

Is your next movie another action movie with Dwayne?

It's going to be this movie called Red Notice which I just started writing a couple weeks ago. It stars Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot and a third actor we're excited to announce soon. I started writing it. It's an international heist picture, lovingly [paying homage to] True Lies with a little Thomas Crown thrown in for good measure. Dwayne plays an interpol agent tasked with capturing the number one art thief in the world played by this actor. Gal Gadot plays a mysterious figure in the art world. It starts shooting May 1st.