‘My mom took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark at this little two-screen movie theater in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina,” says Thurber. “I remember watching that movie and my eyes were about as big as saucers. From that moment, I wanted to make an action picture.”
You may know some of Rawson Marshall Thurber’s films that aren’t in the action genre. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Central Intelligence all land in the comedic zone, so how did he finally get to make Skyscraper?
“A lot of the screenwriting work I was being hired to do wasn’t comedy. It was mostly sci-fi, fantasy, some action, but I never had the chance to direct one.”
He pursued the DC and Marvel universes and got close on a couple jobs but never quite sealed the deal.
“I was always a bridesmaid, never a bride, and I got frustrated with that. I finally said screw it, I’m going to write my own thing and I wrote Skyscraper.”
Set in Hong Kong, Skyscraper stars Dwayne Johnson as an ex-military vet who’s been hired to do the security for the world’s tallest building called The Pearl. When a fire breaks out in the middle of the skyscraper, this amputee must fight to save his wife and two kids. If you’re afraid of heights, this film will terrify you.
For Thurber, the whole story came out of creating the fictional skyscraper.
“When you set out to make a movie called Skyscraper, you’d better have a pretty cool skyscraper. Or Anna Nicole Smith, either way.”
Thurber is referencing the 1996 film, also called Skyscraper, starring Smith. Never heard of it? Me neither.
Inspired by the ancient Chinese legend The Dragon and the Pearl, The Pearl is an futuristic structure with 240 stories, complete with a botanical garden, indoor driving range for golf enthusiasts, a shopping mall, luxury living quarters, observation deck in the shape of a pearl, and giant wind turbines to create green electricity. Everything you could ever want exists inside The Pearl – it is literally a city in the sky.
Because The Pearl is so unique, so daring, it becomes it’s own character in addition to a great setting for an action film.
“I knew that what I wanted to do was essentially make a vertical city and create a space for incredible action. We have this 30-story vertical park 100 floors up. I thought wouldn’t it be great to have a forest fire in the middle of the sky, sort of Bambi-style? I thought about that and four or five other action set pieces.”
To give authenticity to the The Pearl, Thurber consulted with Adrian Smith, architect of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
“I did a lot of talking with him about what’s possible, what’s not possible, what the future holds,” says Thurber.
But it was Oscar-nominated production designer Jim Bissell who brought The Pearl to the screen. “I said here are the five action set pieces I want in the script and here are the real-world parameters from Adrian Smith. How do you blend them together into a beautiful silhouette that gives us the character and themes we want? Jim Bissell is a genius and he designed it.”
But you need more than a location to have an action film. You need action scenes where the stakes keep getting higher and higher.
“You want the action sequence to complicate and rise to a resolution. Similarly, if you were to sort of zoom out from that, each action sequence rises, but the entire picture must also rise. So you want to pace out your action set pieces in such a way that they keep getting better and better. You don’t want your best action sequence in the first act. You want to end with a bang not a whimper. You want it to keep getting more interesting, more clever and more exciting all the way to the end. There’s a reason Star Wars doesn’t end with the Death Star Exploding.”
Besides raising the stakes, action scenes need emotional tension. “Typically, the best action sequences have character and choice built into them. Otherwise, it’s just noise.”
In other words, the action sequences need a relatable protagonist faced with making decisions at every turn. That’s where the thrill comes in. When Dwayne Johnson must choose to either leap off a crane thousands of feet in the air to save his family or climb down the crane which will take up precious time, our hearts race in those uncertain seconds until he chooses the impossible – to leap. If we were to simply watch him take action without constantly making decisions, the thrill is lost.
Thurber admits writing action/thrillers are challenging but he has this advice for screenwriters: “There’s this old saying that amateurs wait for inspiration and professionals sweat. That’s really the truth. There’s no substitute for sitting down and doing the work.”
Skyscraper opens in theaters July 13.