'Central Intelligence's' Rawson Marshall Thurber on Comedy Sparks, Action Fireworks

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a proven record for blockbuster comedy match-ups, from “Dodgeball’s” Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller to “We’re the Millers’” Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis. With “Central Intelligence,” he moves into action territory while keeping one foot planted firmly on comedic ground, and unleashes his heaviest firepower yet with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart.

The filmmaker joined SPINOFF for an enlightening conversation about star chemistry, mixing full-scale action sequences with major laughs, and his long-simmering ambitions to bring some of his favorite comic book properties to the big (and possibly small) screen.

Spinoff Online: For you, what was the fun of it that you may not have seen coming? What was the discovery while you were making the film that you were like, OK, this is really cool for me?

Rawson Marshall Thurber: Well, I guess it was actually Kevin and Dwayne, the people. The fact that on the movie there were no divas, there was no sort of ego. Here we have the biggest action star in the world and one of the funniest people in the world, both of them are their own brand. Kevin is selling out stadiums on his comedy tour, 30-, 40-, 50,000-seat stadiums. Biggest comedy tour in the history of recorded time. And Dwayne Johnson, it goes without saying what a global star he is.

But these guys were so normal. It’s weird to say, but they were just easy, easy to work with. They were there to do the work. Obviously, they’re very different packages, but they’re really similar guys. I guess that was the most surprising thing to me: just the lack of ego and the focus on the work, and the good humor with which they approached it. It was very refreshing because they’re not all like that.

As I look at the films that you’ve made, one of the things that stands out to me is how you’ve been either very smart or very lucky in terms of the chemistry that your stars have had. So tell me about that this time around, because that’s got to be a really difficult thing to predict.

Well, sure. It’s a very good question. I’ll take “luck” on that. Look, chemistry – especially when you’re talking about a buddy picture, that genre specifically relies so heavily on chemistry, so heavily on having that pairing, that combustible cast.

And it’s not really a function of directing, and it’s not really a function of writing. It is, to a certain degree, in that you have to create the scenario, and the characters have to be different enough, etc. But really it’s a function of casting. You hope you cast the right guys. You cast two people who just have that sort of magic pixie dust, that chemistry. I think we really have it on this one. I can’t wait for it to open.

How quickly did you see that come together? Was it, like, day one? Did you see those guys find their groove together?

Very, very quickly. Day one we shot the scene where Dwayne pretends to be the couples counselor, and they end up on the couch slapping each other. So we were jumping in the deep end pretty quick. “Hi, my name’s Rawson, I'll be your director. You guys are going to slap each other and kiss. Here we go – ready, and action.” So it was kind of that.

But if I’m being honest, the first moment where I personally was like, “Oh, this is going to be good,” was actually the very first moment that Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson met each other. So Dwayne came on to the movie, and then he’s like, “You know who would be great for the role opposite would be Kevin Hart.” And I’m like, “Kevin Hart’s great, but we’re looking for a straight man”. He’s like, “I know. Wouldn’t that be great?” Then I was like, “Yeah, shit – OK, let’s do it!”

Then Dwayne and I drove to Kevin’s office in Studio City, and they’ve been mutual fans of each other but never met. I was there when they first gave each other a hug and said hello, and I just sort of stood back and watched them kind of talk to each other, and just kind of … I don’t know what it was! Just seeing those guys together and how they instantly had this, I guess, for lack of a better word, chemistry. They were so easy with each other and so fun with each other. Obviously, the physical size is so different. I was just kind of rubbing my hands together creatively as the director.

For you, this film adds a new level of action to your filmmaking. You’ve had some action sequences before, and I know you’ve looked at possibly doing some more action-oriented projects. But what was the fun of taking your game to the level you needed it to be action-wise for this, but still keeping everything in the funny realm?

I’ve loved action movies my whole life, and wanted to make them my whole life, and that’s certainly where I’m headed next, is more sort of action adventure, more tent-pole-y type stuff. But I’ve loved action-comedies. “Beverly Hills Cop,” “48 Hours,” “Lethal Weapon,” these are the ones I grew up on. I knew after my last movie that I wanted the next thing to have a bigger component of action.

When you deal with action-comedy – or any sort of hybrid genre, but especially action-comedy – you have to get the balance right because if it’s too funny, then the action doesn’t play. It doesn’t feel serious, it doesn’t feel dangerous at all, right? It’s all too silly and you just kind of check out during the action sequence. And if the action’s too hardcore, too hard-boiled, then nobody feels comfortable to laugh.

So with an action-comedy, you really have to get the balance right. That was a lot of work, in the scripting, in the execution of the action, and in the editing of the picture itself. But for me, I was so excited to direct the action, and it was so relaxing! Directing action was so much easier for me than directing comedy because on the comedy side, when Kevin and Dwayne are doing a scene, my brain is going a million miles a second. I’m trying to think of what the next joke could be, and if Kevin says something funny off the cuff, how we can explore that or follow that to make it even funnier. What if he said this and you say that? I’m always involved. It’s me, Kevin, and Dwayne trying to make the scene as good as we can.

On the action side, you have all of these incredible, professional, these skilled craftsmen and experts to help you, and you’ve been planning the action for months. Talking it through, working with your cinematographer, working with your stunt coordinator, working with your special effects, storyboard, visual, pre-vis. Then on the day, the car either blows up or it doesn’t. Take two isn’t like, hey, can that car blow up funnier? You know what I mean? You either get it or you don’t. To me, that was just like heaven. I can’t wait to do more of it. It was so much fun.

You’ve certainly looked at doing some really interesting projects, from “Elfquest,” and “Umbrella Academy” in the comic book world, and with “Dust” the board game realm. Are those all still viable things you’re looking at? Or do you have something else in mind that you’re going in that tent-pole direction?

I grew up loving comic books. I’m a big comic book nerd, basically. That’s certainly where I’m headed. “Dust” is in development at Lionsgate. We’re just about finished with our first script. I’m so, so excited about that because I’m a big World War II kind of history buff. And the idea of kind of doing something that is World War II, but with this kind of steampunk element, this alt-history element just seems like the coolest thing of all time. So I’m super excited to be doing that with Lionsgate, and Dan Lin, by the way, the producer of “LEGO” and many others, so I feel great about that.

“The Umbrella Academy” is far and away the best script I’ve ever written, and my personal favorite book, graphic novel. I just thought what Gerard Way did and Gabriel Bá was nothing short of art, and I wrote my guts out trying to write a script that was worthy of what they did.

I think ultimately, on the feature side, I don’t think there’s much hope for that movie to get made. It was just I think too challenging – which seems sort of strange to say in a world in which every third movie is a superhero movie. But just, I think this one might have been a bridge too far, and the thing that makes “Umbrella Academy” so special and so unique, in order to spend that kind of money to make a movie, most financiers would want to round off the edges and change the thing that makes it so special, to kind of make it fit into a different box. So I don’t know if there’s much hope on the feature side for that project, but there might be hope on the television side, dot dot dot.

And lastly, “Elfquest” was my first love. I worked hard for Warner Bros. on that script, and ultimately it did not make the final rose ceremony. So I don’t imagine that will coming to the screen anytime soon. Although, if someone is smart enough and courageous enough to bankroll that property, they will be very well-rewarded because I think it’s incredible. It deserves to be shared wider.

What was your favorite day on set as the guy behind the camera on “Central Intelligence”? Was there one that was really satisfying, rewarding for you?

It was probably that scene when Bob and Calvin go to see the grown-up bully Trevor. We shot that in about a day and a half. Yeah, and it was viciously funny and I couldn’t stop laughing. Poor Dwayne. It takes a really strong actor to kind of cut Dwayne down like that. That was super, super fun.

But gosh, I guess there was a scene, a scene in the movie where Kevin and Dwayne are in a plane and it’s going down. That day was really fun because I had two favorite actors in the world stuck in a tiny little plane, saying things that I wrote, and just making me laugh all day. I felt pretty lucky at that point.

Then tell me about your co-screenwriters. What was fun with that collaboration with those two guys?

Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen – they’re so, so funny. I had read the script that they wrote, and they wrote it in I think 2010. It was, I think, their first screenplay that they’d written. What they told me about how it all came about is they saw a picture of a friend of theirs from high school on Facebook. This was like 10 years after they graduated, and the friend was kind of like essentially in a Speedo on a boat holding a machine gun. And they’re like, “What? Maybe this guy’s in the CIA now!”

They just thought it was really funny that the kid who maybe wasn’t the most popular in high school, or got picked on in high school, comes back to the reunion and is an absolute killer. So they wrote a really funny script that I thought had a great premise for an action comedy. After I finished “We’re the Millers,” I knew I wanted to do more action, or I knew I wanted to do an action-comedy, because I figured I could handle the comedy side and it might be a nice way.

This movie is certainly, I’m too proud of it and care about it too much to call it a stepping stone, but I would definitely consider it a bridge to more action in my career. So I was looking for precisely this. I remembered loving the script. I got my hands on it and did a quick pass on the script, and got Kevin and Dwayne.

Your favorite improvised moment in the movie? Something that you guys came up with on set that just kind of worked like gangbusters.

Oh, man! I guess my favorite was …There’s a scene with Kevin Hart in his kitchen with Amy Ryan when the CIA first shows up, and that’s supposed to be a really, very, very dry, sort of expositional scene. And Kevin Hart just went nuts and just unleashed everything that is great about Kevin Hart. He had me in stitches the whole time, and half of that scene is basically Kevin just saying dumb stuff that made me laugh.

So to have someone like Kevin Hart who can score anytime, anywhere, it’s just, as a director, a dream. You have these dry sort of expositional scenes, but then you’ve got one of the funniest people in the world making people laugh while you’re laying the pipe you need to lay for the story. I mean, I wish it was in every movie. Every one of my movies – nobody else’s!

“Central Intelligence” opens today nationwide.

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