Die Hard meets Towering Inferno set in Hong Kong—a love letter to the action movies writer/director, Rawson Marshall Thurber grew up watching.
In 2016, just as Dwayne Johnson and his Central Intelligence writer/director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, were wrapping the action-comedy, they began to discuss an entirely new project together—exploring the type of character that Johnson had not yet tackled. While Johnson’s ability to draw in worldwide audiences with his inimitable mix of charm, muscle and passion has long been proven, the performer was keen to flex a different kind of muscle.
Rawson saw how diverse Dwayne was as an actor and had an idea to create a character for Dwayne who was coming from a vulnerable place, something Rawson felt audiences had never seen before.”
The filmmaker, known for his deep love of definitive high-stakes actioners from the ’80s, ran his idea past Johnson. The actor/producer immediately called Hiram Garcia, Johnson and EP Dany Garcia’s production partner and president of their production company, and the two asked for a fleshed-out pitch.
What Thurber delivered was a juggernaut: Die Hard meets Towering Inferno set in Hong Kong—a love letter to the action movies he grew up watching.
Global superstar Dwayne Johnson leads the cast as former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran Will Sawyer, who now assesses security for skyscrapers. On assignment in China he finds the tallest, safest building in the world, The Pearl, suddenly ablaze—and he’s been framed for it. A wanted man on the run, Will must find those responsible, clear his name and somehow rescue his family who is trapped inside the building…above the fire line.
“I wanted to make a big movie that demands a big-screen experience, with the biggest movie star in the world driving every bit of it,” he says. To that end, Thurber is proudest of the fact that his film isn’t based on a comic book; it’s not a reboot, remake, prequel or sequel.
“Skyscraper is an original idea, one that guarantees the audience won’t know what’s going to happen next. I wanted to make something with Dwayne that audiences have to experience firsthand in the theater, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished together.”
Johnson explains why he was drawn to the project, one he calls “easily, the most physically demanding role I’ve ever played.”
He notes: “The number-one anchor with audiences all around the world is the bond of family. Regardless of race or culture or class or religion, the ideology of family is one everyone relates to. There’s something very visceral about a family being torn apart, and the parents doing everything they can to protect their young. That’s always been a special anchor for us in Skyscraper, and for us to explore this on the canvas of film makes it so relevant to people.”
It wasn’t just the premise, but the chance to work once again with collaborator Thurber that drew in the performer/producer.
“Rawson is one of the very unique talents in Hollywood in that he is the sole writer and director of projects on a massive scale. All this all this comes out of his head and out of his brain. When he pitched me Skyscraper, I was in 100 percent. I felt like it was an amalgamation of Die Hard, The Towering Inferno and The Fugitive—Harrison Ford was already the inspiration for Will Sawyer.”
The three reached out to Beau Flynn, who has collaborated with Johnson since 2012’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and worked with him on six subsequent films.
The producer was immediately hooked by the premise. “Dwayne and I love the disaster genre,” shares Flynn. “He called me up and said, ‘Brother, I’ve got something really special for you.’ He said, ‘I’m going to link you up with a very good friend of mine, Rawson Thurber, and, I’ll let him take it from there.
“I was a huge fan of Rawson’s films, and he’s a terrific person and a major talent,” the producer continues. “We got together and he said, ‘I have one line: The tallest building in the world is on fire, and Dwayne’s family is stuck above the fire line.’ That was the pitch, and my entire body vibrated. I said, ‘I will make this movie for you; we’ll find the perfect home for it, and we will do something fantastic and ground-breaking.’ Rawson said, ‘Great! Let’s do it. So it was pretty incredible how it all was ultimately realized. I was extremely grateful and honored that Dwayne, Rawson and Hiram thought of me to hear the one-line pitch and come aboard for the epic ride.”
Just like the film’s director, Flynn shares a passion for classic actioners.
“I am a massive fan of legendary producer Irwin Allen’s films, especially Towering Inferno, and I have a huge love and respect for Die Hard. So when they pitched me the idea, I said, ‘I’m 1,000 percent in!’ I immediately visualized the entire film. Will Sawyer is a totally unique and different character than anyone Dwayne’s ever played. He’s extremely vulnerable and also very relatable as a man and a father. He’s just a regular person in this film who must learn to overcome his limitations. Combine the spectacle, scale and scope of the film with a grounded, emotional story surrounding a family, and we knew it had to be made.”
For the filmmakers, Skyscraper also provided an opportunity to delve into an original screenplay. “We’re in an industry right now where it’s about IP and capes,” reflects Garcia. “Don’t get me wrong; we’re also a part of that playground and love to have projects in that space, but the opportunity to create original content is very appealing to us and important for our industry. Coming off the success of Central Intelligence, which was also an original property, this felt like the ideal project.”
Born in San Francisco and raised in the East Bay (Orinda, California), Rawson Marshall Thurber graduated cum laude with departmental honors from Union College (Schenectady, New York) with a bachelor of arts in English and theater arts. He went on to earn a master of fine arts in producing from the Peter Stark Program at the University of Southern California.
Shortly after graduation, he wrote and directed the short film Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, which was accepted to the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and soon became a much-heralded Super Bowl commercial—also written and directed by Thurber—that won advertising’s highest honor: the Golden Lion Award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. The groundbreaking 60-second spot is continually ranked as one of the top three Super Bowl commercials of all time.
Thurber then directed his first feature screenplay, the 2004 hit comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, which opened as the No. 1 film in America. It went on to make $167 million worldwide—this $100M- plus feat is an achievement never before accomplished by a first-time writer/director.
Following such success, Thurber adapted Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s first novel “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” Thurber’s film, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was one of 16 films selected for narrative competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize.
Thurber’s third feature film, the raucous comedy We’re the Millers, was the surprise hit of the 2013 summer, the No. 1 original comedy of that year, and has grossed $270 million to date.
Thurber’s most recent film, the action-comedy Central Intelligence, which starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, became the No. 1 live-action original film of 2016, and has earned $217 million worldwide.
To date, Thurber’s three original films have grossed a staggering $654 million worldwide.
Thurber recently created his first television show, the tongue-in-cheek half-hour comedy, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, which starred Ryan Hansen and Samira Wiley for YouTube Red. The show has been picked up for its second season.
Thurber and Johnson will work together for a third time on Thurber’s latest original idea, the international heist picture Red Notice (an idea that sparked a fierce bidding war and resulted in the largest pitch sale in film history) which begins production in Spring 2019. Red Notice is set to be released on June 12, 2020.
There was also never any question that Thurber would direct his own script.
“There are not that many guys in the business who are writer/directors at his level,” commends Garcia. “Rawson’s a master at crafting these concepts, writing and then directing them. He’s known for Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, and of course Central Intelligence, and he was getting into this position where everyone viewed him as a great comedy guy. But Rawson has long been a massive fan of thrillers, and he always wanted to helm one. He delivered a first draft that was fantastic, and within a couple drafts we were ready to go with a shooting script. He’s truly one of the great filmmakers in our business right now, and he’s so young. He has such an amazing future.”
For Thurber, the combination of writing and directing comes naturally, and he sees no reason to delineate the two. “I don’t separate the writing and the directing of it; it’s all part of the filmmaking process,” he states. “For me, the only purpose for a screenplay to exist is to become something else. It’s not a poem or piece of journalism, an essay or novel; its only purpose is to be performed and shot. In many ways it’s a blueprint. But I will say there have been times where it worked the opposite way…where the writer in me has been hesitant to write something because I knew it would be difficult to shoot. I usually try to ignore that voice, and just try to write the best thing I can.”
Of utmost importance to the filmmaker was for audiences finally to see Dwayne Johnson as a vulnerable hero. “We all know him as The Rock; we all know he can pick up a truck and throw it through a building,” laughs Thurber. “But that’s not what is most interesting about him as an actor and a person. I also don’t think that’s what audiences always relate to. People love Indiana Jones because he takes a punch, not because he can give a punch. He’s just a normal guy who is trying to survive the adventure. Dwayne and I wanted Will to be someone who barely survives the trials and tribulations he will be put through.”
As the producers and director fleshed out the story, the stakes became even greater for Will. “The building is on fire, Sawyer’s family is trapped above the fire line, and he’s outside the building,” explains Thurber. “What’s more, he’s being framed for the fire. So he’s got to figure out how to get into the building to rescue his family, figure out who the bad guys are, stop them and clear his name and get out. All in one day.” As he wrote this film for Johnson, the filmmaker reflects: “I wanted to challenge Dwayne. I wanted to see him be vulnerable. I wanted him to see him think his way out of a problem instead of punch his way out…and I wanted to see him barely survive.”
The team then took the idea around town and “it became the hottest pitch,” recalls Garcia. “There was a massive bidding war. It’s very rare in our business to conceive a concept, put it together, sell it, and a year later be greenlit and filming. That just doesn’t happen. Typically a movie like this takes about five years from the time you get the first idea to development. So it was a special thing the way it all came together.”
Skyscraper marks a particularly important moment in Flynn’s career, and he appreciates how his movies have evolved. “I feel we have all seen so many action movies,” the producer offers. “But it is crucial to make sure the audience is emotionally connected to our heroes and feels for them. That’s something that we really worked hard on in Skyscraper. If we can make you feel for Will Sawyer and his plight, trying to rescue his family, then we’ve done our jobs. Hopefully, we successfully delivered on this notion for the audience.”
Production wrapped, Thurber and Johnson take a moment to reflect on the film the team made, and what it means to all of them. Concludes the writer/director, what his labor of love ultimately comes down to is that: “nobody runs back into a burning building to save their iPad. The only thing you would run back for is something or someone you love; your wife, daughter, son, husband, or dog. You risk your life for those who you love. That was the underlying premise, and why we made Skyscraper.”
Flynn feels that this visceral passion to do whatever it takes to save your family is what makes Will’s story so deeply relatable to audiences. Ultimately, this pushing yourself to the edge is what gives our hero the energy to survive.
“This man is willing to stop at nothing, including sacrificing his own life, to rescue his family,” wraps the producer. “That’s such a cool idea in terms of how far you would push yourself to protect what you love the most. What heights would you reach to? How high would you climb? Would you jump off a super-crane into a burning building?”
“In today’s world, there are big superhero movies, big movies that are franchises and big commercial popcorn movies,” ends Johnson. “I know, because I make them. But what I also like about Skyscraper is we are a big summer movie; we’re fun, and we’re supposed to be. But there’s also something really gritty and down-and-dirty about it that sets it apart from everything else out there. I’m very proud of it.”