Rawson Marshall Thurber Is a Hollywood Unicorn
Rawson Marshall Thurber is no stranger to making big movies. The director first made a name for himself in 2004 with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and has spent the intervening years writing and directing some of Hollywood’s highest octane, mega-budget action comedies like 2016’s Central Intelligence, and 2018’s Skyscraper, both of which steered clear of any source material, and which cemented his partnership with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But his latest venture is, without a doubt, his biggest yet. Red Notice once again stars Johnson, this time opposite Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds, and follows an FBI agent who teams up with two notorious art thieves to hunt down one of the world’s most expensive treasures. On top of being The Rock’s first Netflix Original, it also mark’s the streaming service’s most expensive movie to date, yet another milestone in the ongoing sea change from theatrical to streaming. We recently spoke to Thurber about what his film represents for the industry at large, the state of modern movie stardom, and his undying love for Taylor Swift.
JACKSON WALD: How’s it going?
RAWSON MARSHALL THURBER: Great. How are you, man?
WALD: I’m excited to chat with you. Many studios right now are spending their money on reboots, sequels, major brands, and IPs—like Marvel, DC, and Star Wars—what does it mean to sit down and write an original script for a big-budget movie these days? How do you go about convincing a studio to spend their money on an original idea?
THURBER: That’s a great question. Sadly, you’re exactly right. Original ideas on a big budget are astonishingly rare. It’s even rarer when they come from a writer-director… there’s not a lot of those kinds of films and filmmakers out there. People are going to get a lot of the same stuff over and over again unless they start voting with their eyeballs and dollars. As it relates to Red Notice, I just don’t really know how to do it any other way. My whole life I’ve written screenplays and tricked companies into giving me money to make them.
WALD: As someone who’s directed both blockbuster comedies and action-adventures, how do you create the right balance of suspense, action, and laughs?
THURBER: My whole job is to create that balance and blend those tones. When you’re talking about action-comedy, the trick is to keep both dishes—action, and comedy—not only spinning at the same time, but at the same frequency. You want them to spin harmoniously, so that they’re helping each other. For instance, when you’re making an action-comedy, you want to make sure that the action part never gets too edgy or too violent. If you’re worried that Dwayne Johnson’s fingernails are going to get pulled out of his fingers, it’s going to be hard to laugh. On the comedy side, you don’t want your comedy to be too broad, too silly, or too goofy. If that happens, then the action doesn’t work. There are no real stakes, everything’s made of nerf. It’s about balancing both of those things and helping them work with each other.
WALD: I wanted to ask you about the rapport between The Rock and Ryan Reynolds, which is really palpable throughout the movie. Is chemistry like that something that happens naturally on set, or is it something that takes time to develop?
THURBER: I think it happens naturally. I don’t think chemistry is something that can develop. At its base, chemistry is not a function of writing or directing. Chemistry is a function of casting. You just hope you get it right. In this particular case, I think we did. Ryan, Gal [Gadot], and Dwayne are so charming, and they’re so charismatic. But the reason that they all work together so well is that they’re similar in one in one way: they all take the work very, very seriously. But they don’t take themselves seriously at all. They laugh at themselves, and they definitely enjoy laughing at each other.
WALD: Can you walk me through how the Ed Sheeran cameo came about?
THURBER: That’s my favorite part of the whole movie. Ed Sheeran was actually part of the original pitch. When I went to pitch it, I pitched that moment, and literally said “Ed Sheeran.” We had a lot of trouble with the production during the pandemic. It caused a lot of delays and eventually, it was time to go see if Ed would be willing to play the part in the film. A mutual friend introduced us and I wrote Ed an email, told him I’m a huge fan, and I sent him a picture of my notebook from back in the pitch days. It had his name circled in it, so he knew that I wasn’t kidding. I asked him if he’d have any interest in doing it, and he said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do it. The weirder the better.” And I was like “Great. I got just the thing.”
WALD: Did you have any backup plans if Ed said no? Maybe Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez?
THURBER: Nobody’s asked me that. It was Ed Sheeran or bust. But actually, T-swift would have been my second call. Much to my wife’s chagrin. I’m a massive Taylor Swift fan.
WALD: I’m glad we got the exclusive scoop for that one. What do you think having a movie like this as a Netflix exclusive means in the shifting landscape from theatrical releases to straight-to-streaming—like the release of Tenet? Does the thought of someone watching Red Notice on their phone bum you out?
THURBER: I think any filmmaker worth their salt would be bummed out about the idea of somebody watching their film on an Apple Watch. That would be devastating. I love theaters. I try to see movies on the biggest screen, with the best sound I possibly can. That said, I happen to have a Netflix subscription, and I really enjoy watching Netflix. I watch more Netflix than I do movies [at the theater]. I have a couple of things to say on this, Jackson. One is, I don’t think it’s an either-or scenario. This idea that it’s either going to be Netflix, or it’s going to be movies in theaters, is just incorrect. In the 1950s, when television started to enter the home, studios were apoplectic. They thought no one would ever go to the theater again. But it’s not the case. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. The way you enjoy a movie in the theater is totally different than how you would enjoy a movie on your couch. The other thing I’d like to say is the whole point of making this movie was to entertain the world. Red Notice is a movie for people who love movies, and it’s a big-tent film. Big action, big stars, big laughs. It’s for everyone from eight to 80. Men, women, conservative, liberal, it doesn’t matter. And, if your goal as a filmmaker is to have your story seen by the maximum amount of people, then there is no better place than Netflix. More people will see Red Notice its opening weekend on Netflix than will have seen all of my movies in their entire theatrical run combined. That’s how big Netflix is.
WALD: How are you tracking the release and reception of the movie? I’d assume normally, it would be some confluence of box office and reviews, but now with it being straight-to-streaming, are you looking at streaming records? Netflix Top 10? Is there a heavier emphasis on reviews? Effectively, how do you gauge success in this new landscape?
THURBER: Great question. As a filmmaker, you want your movie to be number one at the box office. You want to make a lot of money, you want 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. You want it all. And all of that stuff is ego, and that ego is based in insecurity. When you take that away, and you think about what you want for your story, what you really want for it is to be seen and enjoyed by the most people possible. It’s actually really nice to not be worried about the box office. Because it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Reviews are tough for me. I’m a filmmaker who makes movies for people who love movies, who go to see movies, and the critics don’t usually like my movies as much as I do. And that’s okay, because, in my career so far, audiences seem to like my movies as much as I do. And that’s who I make them for.
WALD: There’s a philosophy that the age of movie stars is over, and IP like Marvel has taken their place. Where do you fall on that spectrum? Is the “brand” of a movie more important now than the actual actors in it?
THURBER: That’s such a tough question to answer. I think that we’re certainly at a point now where there are fewer and fewer genuine movie stars. That’s partly because they’ve been replaced, as you’ve rightly said, by IP. But not even just by IP—by brand. It’s not the IP of The Eternals. It’s Marvel. It’s the Marvel brand. Like when Guardians of the Galaxy came out. I know more about comic books than my wife would like me to, but when I saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy, I was like, “Wow, we’re really going to find out what people think of Marvel, not what they think of Guardians of the Galaxy.” Why do you go to see a Pixar film? Because they’re great, and they’re always great. It’s the trust of the brand. So, in a weird way, those brands—Pixar, Marvel, etc.—have become the movie stars. When you used to go see Montgomery Clift, you’d trust that brand. And there are very few movie star brands left, but in Red Notice, we’ve got three of the last remaining movie stars in one film.
WALD: Your next project is The Division. I actually used to watch it regularly on Twitch. What can you tell us about the project? Also, there’s an infamous video game curse when it comes to major Hollywood movies. How does that impact your approach to making the movie? Are you learning from where others have failed?
THURBER: I’m doing a pass on the script. We hope to make it this year, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain, who are attached. Our producers and I are fired up about it. I love The Division. I played the first one and the second one. I waited in line at E3 for three hours to catch a glimpse of it. Did you ever play or did you just watch people play it?
WALD: Just watched, mostly. It was more of a niche game when I got into it. I was really into Destiny back in the day.
THURBER: Oh, yeah, so a similar sort of structure. Jackson, you gotta play it. It’s great.
WALD: I’ve been slacking. I’ll get on it.
THURBER: As it relates to the “video game curse,” I think it’s well-founded. Most video games-turned-movies haven’t been very good. And that track record is long and scary. But The Division has a lot going for it. First and foremost, when you play The Division, you’re not playing some sort of iconic character. You’re not playing Commander Shepard, you’re playing yourself. You create your own avatar. That opens up a lot of storytelling possibilities. Plus, I think the division has a really important heart at its center. It asks a very simple question at its core: when the chips are down, in a society, what do we owe each other? When things go wrong, are you fundamentally a selfless person or a selfish person? We get to explore that in The Division and I’m super, super excited. It’s my dream job, and I can’t wait to start.