'San Andreas' Director Brad Peyton Talks Action, Authenticity and The Rock

Sure, “San Andreas” is an epic earthquake film filled with spectacle, from its intense visuals of widespread destruction along the California coast to the similarly impressive form of star Dwayne Johnson in action. But director Brad Peyton also wants you to feel a heart beating among the aftershocks.

With credits like “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” Peyton has proved himself a filmmaker of significant technical proficiency, but the human touch was the most important element for the director when it came to updating the classic disaster movie. In his second film with Johnson, Peyton tells SPINOFF, he wanted to make sure that believing in his character's desperate quest to save his already-splintered family was just as important as believing on the amazing on-screen mayhem.

Spinoff Online: What was is that got you creatively stoked about this project from the get-go?

Brad Peyton: The very first thing? Well, I read the script, and the point where I got the script, it was a bit rough around the edges, but at the core of it was a guy trying to put his family back together. And I just could understand that. I could understand the flaws of the lead character.

And I know that's not the glitzy, glamorous answer – there's a lot of cool effects and there's a lot of cool explosions, there's a lot of cool stuff in it – but for me when you start on a movie, you want to go, "What is this about? What am I really saying about people? About this person?" I'm a bit optimistic. I look at the virtue of people. I want to see the power of humanity and its virtues, and this movie has that. It is literally like "What happens if we throw the worst disaster at a guy and his family? What does that say about us as people and how we persevere and how we get through it?" And that was really attractive to me.

I was like, "I want to tell a story about people persevering." I think that's cool. I think that's a great way to ground an experience that is literally going to crack the earth open, crush LA, throw a tsunami at you, because I need to ground it all. After that I was like, "Yes, this is cool. Let's blow up California. This is going to be fun."

And with Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario you assembled a cast that is probably the single most attractive family that we'll see on screen and then proceeded to torment them during the shooting. How much did you push? Tell me about the situations that these poor actors found themselves in, where you sort of had sympathy, but said, "But this is going to be a great shot."

Well, listen. I'm Canadian, and so I jokingly say I have Canadian guilt, you know, where it's just like, "I'm really sorry, but Carla, I'm going to put you on this thing and we're going to drop you for four stories. It's not really four stories, but it is 10 feet, and it's going to be kind of rough." You know, like, "And you'll be cabled, it'll be safe, but –." You get to a place where you're like, "I'm sorry, but I need you to go faster. I'm sorry."

But you know what it is for me? I want what's in camera to be 100 percent authentic. I want it to be authentic, because here's the thing: all of these VFX are not necessarily authentic. And what I mean by that is: it's design-oriented, it's conceptual-oriented, but you're not really shooting that part of that building. My tact with them is, I'll see it and I'll turn to the effects company. I'm like, "Go out and shoot the reference, because I don't buy that shit." But when I'm there with the cast, I'm not looking at that. I'm like, "I need to see it in your eyes. I need to see exactly how you feel. I need to know that’s authentic." And it's rough sometimes, but it's a rough, small period of their lives and the reward is so much greater. So when they see it on screen, they're like, "That's legit. That's real. I felt that."

And a lot of time when I see it, I'll run over to Dwayne and I'll run over to Carla and go, "You feel that?" And they're like, "Oh, yeah." And I was like, "That's it, we got it." Because I saw them feel it. I was like, "That is legit. There's no posturing. There's no shortcuts. That was the real deal." We had a saying on set, "Let's build the ride, and let's just put them on the ride." So I'm going to put you in this thing.

Paul Giamatti came to the set on the first day and he saw what we were doing to them. He's like "Where are the green screens?" and I was like, "There's no green screens in this scene," and he's just like, "Wow. OK." And I said to him, "We're going to build the ride. So when rooms shake, they shake. It's full on. You're just going to have to react." And I like that. I was like, "Let us do our job. Let us build this." It was pretty cool.

Dwayne, besides being a huge movie star, has one of the best reputations for his work ethic, and he's got such a great sense of humor on set. Tell me the fun discovery about working so closely with him, because, really, you two are in a partnership here.

It's true. It's so funny, because Dwayne and I are very, very different in terms of: he goes to the gym a lot; I've looked at gyms a couple of times, I've gone a little. You know, it's rubbed off on me! I'll give Dwayne this: His gym thing has rubbed off on me. I'm going to the gym a little bit. But I'm also getting a little older, so it's not as easy to stay slender anymore.

The thing about Dwayne for me is that I just feel like, at the end of the day, he and I have a similar viewpoint on work, on life, on appreciating what you have and not taking things for granted. And in this industry, that is kind of rare. So you couple that with, obviously, his skill set – he's super-, super-talented – but also his ability to collaborate and trust. It's an amazing combination. It's a very, very rare thing. He does work super, super hard, and he doesn't back down from anything. He's not scared. There's no fear. So it's great. When you get in there, you're like, "This guy is fearless. We're going to ace this.And it's not going to be easy, but we're going to ace this, because he'll never back down, I'll never back down and we trust each other. So, there's only one option here. We're going to get it. It's just a matter of working out the kinks."

So, as a filmmaker that's exciting because you're already tired and beat up and you're on Day 15 and you're like, "How many 18 hour days are we doing?" But he's an amazing guy to collaborate with, and I would do it a thousand times.

Tell me a little bit about the buffet of disaster movies that you grew up with that definitely influenced a lot of your approach here?

First of all, the challenge for me as a filmmaker on this movie is I wanted to earn a certain credit that I'd never had before, which is "A Brad Peyton film." And I don't take it lightly. I see people take that title all the time, and I'm like, "I don't know if I buy that." I think a "directed by" credit is a big credit. I didn’t go in with a blueprint. I didn't go in with any kind of model. I didn’t go in with any kind of "I want it to feel like this." I just went into it like, "How would I do this?" Which is, by the way, a little bit daunting, because you get to situations you're like, "I've never shot this way before. And I'm not shooting coverage, and I can't let anyone know I'm worried, because I don't have anything to cut to, because I got to get this to work."

So, it's a bit daunting and intense to do, because you don't have that reference where you just go, "What would this person do?" or "What did they do in that movie?" at all. And I don't really direct from that point of view anyway, but this movie it was a choice, like, "I'm not even looking." The two movies that I would say influenced me in that I kind of had to think about it, only in terms of talking to the studio and the executives – and it's a weird thing to say, but I said, "I want to make ‘Titanic’ meets ‘Children of Men.’" Which makes me sound bat-shit crazy. It's weird.

And yet it makes sense.

It makes sense. And it makes sense, because they have two very different things going on. “Titanic” is big, massive, emotional, heartfelt. “Children of Men”: raw, gritty, long takes. Take those two. Now you have something real like, "Hmm, if you actually think about the best attributes of both and put them together? Very, very potent combination." So I was like, "OK, that's my goal." Which is lofty, but why not?

It's kind of like, you hear these stories where it's like Wes Anderson said with “Bottle Rocket” he wanted to make his “Goodfellas.” You know? And I was like, "Yeah, I get it. I get it. He's doing his suburban, gangster movie." Well for me it's like that. I was like, "I want to do “Children of Men,” but with the heart of “Titanic” inside of this massive, disaster epic."

Have you lived in California long enough to have a good earthquake story?

I have one earthquake story. I have a silly one. I've only been here through one. It was very subtle. I was playing video games at 3 o'clock in the morning, I had a couple of drinks, and the room just kind of shifted, and I thought, "Oh, man, I got to go to bed. I've been playing this game way too long." And only after I saw the pictures moving, I was like "Oh, man. That was an earthquake." Because, you know, in Canada we don't get a lot of earthquakes. So yeah, it was silly, but that's the only one I have.

”San Andreas” opens tonight in select theaters and Friday nationwide.

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