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A Nod to Classic Action-Adventure Hollywood Movies and Storytelling with ‘Red Notice’ Writer-Director Rawson Marshall Thurber

'Red Notice' writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber shares his love for Hollywood classics and childhood comedy adventure films that inspired his new film, how he approaches writing action scripts, and specific camera gear that helped shape the tone and look of his action-adventure comedy film.
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When an Interpol-issued Red Notice the highest level warrant to hunt and capture the world's most wanted goes out, the FBI's top profiler John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) is on the case. His global pursuit finds him smack dab in the middle of a daring heist where he's forced to partner with the world's greatest art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) in order to catch the world's most wanted art thief, "The Bishop" (Gal Gadot). The high-flying adventure that ensues takes the trio around the world, across the dance floor, trapped in a secluded prison, into the jungle and, worst of all for them, constantly into each other's company.

Red Notice delivers on action, adventure and comedy with keen direction by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Plus, the star power and screen chemistry certainly doesn't hurt - it adds to what Rawson has set in motion. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rawson about his love for Hollywood classics and childhood comedy adventure films that inspired Red Notice, how he approaches writing action scripts, and we get into some detailed camera gear tech talk. 

(L-R) RYAN REYNOLDS, GAL GADOT and DWAYNE ‘THE ROCK’ JOHNSON STAR IN NETFLIX’S RED NOTICE.

(L-R) RYAN REYNOLDS, GAL GADOT and DWAYNE ‘THE ROCK’ JOHNSON STAR IN NETFLIX’S RED NOTICE.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: A lot of fun elements that you're playing with in terms of comedy and action with nice nods to films like Indiana Jones and perhaps old comic strip favorites, like Spy vs. Spy. How did you land on this specific story idea?

Rawson Marshall Thurber: I've always loved spy movies, heist movies, and action adventure swashbucklers with a puzzle at their core. And I think that Red Notice was sort of my love letter to all of those genres kind of put into a big, beautiful blender.

Sadie: You have so many great twists and turns along the way, and it makes it feel very engaging as an audience member, because you're trying to piece things along the way. During the writing phase, were you story mapping plot points and the beats or did you go straight into writing a first draft and make tweaks along the way?

Rawson: Broadly speaking, there are sort of two approaches to screenwriting, right? There are the people who are super planners who spent six months writing an outline. And then take two weeks writing the script, essentially. Or there are people who write who spend six months writing a first draft and six months writing a second draft, and they find it through the writing. And I don't think either way is better or right. It's just whatever is going to get you writing you should do. For me, I am sort of a little bit in between the two. I have a pretty good idea I know where I'm starting, I know where I'm ending, I know kind of what happens in the middle. But I like to leave a little open to discovery as I'm writing. I don't like to have a 20-page outline, because I feel like, for me personally, the act of writing the screenplay becomes an act of typing. And that's not enjoyable to me. So, I try to leave room for discovery and inspiration as I go. I know I'm starting in Los Angeles and I know I'm going to end in New York. And I know I'm going to hit Houston and Chicago, and maybe Charlottesville on the way. So, I sort of know that but I'm always willing to take an off-ramp if it seems exciting.

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Sadie: And as a director, do have those visual elements in mind as you're writing? Do you use anything to inspire the tone or the pacing?

Rawson: Well, I love movies, and I have them in my mind as I'm working. Sometimes I'll re-watch films that I feel sort of speak to what I'm working on to kind of have that tone in the forefront of my mind and on my fingertips as I'm working. From a visual standpoint, it gets more specific the closer you get to shooting, of course, but I tend to write the way I write because I know I'm going to direct it - my first chance at directing the story is through the script. And so, I essentially visualize the scene in my mind, and then write it down in as few words as I possibly can. I play the movie on the movie theater on the inside of my forehead and the screen. And then I write it down as best I can to communicate as evocatively as I can.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 03: Rawson Marshall Thurber attends the World Premiere of Netflix's "Red Notice" at Regal LA. Photo by Kevin Mazur.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 03: Rawson Marshall Thurber attends the World Premiere of Netflix's "Red Notice" at Regal LA. Photo by Kevin Mazur.

Sadie: In terms of dialogue, how much were you letting the team adlib, and how much of that was written by you?

Rawson: Well, I certainly wrote all the dialogue in the script because you can't put TBD. [laughs] Unfortunately, although I would. But I would say the vast majority was written. Maybe 10% were improv lines or things we found on the day, which I love. If we find something better, or funnier, or just weirder, I always like to try it. I'm happy to be wrong and happy to have somebody else's idea succeed. To me, it's the best idea wins when you make movies like this, and ultimately, I get all the credit at the end anyways. [laughs]

Sadie: And there's some really fun camera work also at play. The collaboration process working with your DP, how much were you working off of a storyboard, and your allotted time for pre-production?

Rawson: Well, my cinematographer is a fabulous young German named Markus Förderer. And he did the pickups that we did on Skyscraper, and it was just a fabulous interaction and collaboration. He was my first and only choice for Red Notice. And he's just a wildly talented dude. He has an artist’s eye and a technician's mind, and he and I spent hours and hours together, working through the film, talking about style and lensing, which I can talk about if you're interested. But essentially, we had storyboards for some sequences, we had previz for other sequences. Marcus and I sat down, and we shortlisted the entire film from beginning to end. We knew what our setups were, we knew what we wanted to do. We talked about specialty shots throughout. And then I would say when we got there on the day, sometimes we would combine shots or cut shots or find new shots. But to me, I like to have a plan that we can deviate from as opposed to no plan. So, I would say it was probably 80%, kind of what we planned, and 20% discovery and inspiration, which is I think the right blend.

Sadie: Yeah, especially on the day because you never know what obstacle is going to hit you. And of course, that's the beauty of producing - putting out fires. I'm definitely very curious about the camera, how many cameras you had at a time especially with comedy - you want to capture everything you can and if you have one camera you may have lost that magic moment - and the importance of lens choices for effective storytelling?

Rawson: It's a great question. We had two cameras rolling almost all the time. And we had great operators. But yeah, when you're dealing with comedy, you definitely want more than one camera going. And if you can, you want to stage opposing coverage. So, if two people are sitting at a table, you want to film both of them simultaneously, if possible, especially with Ryan and Dwayne, because they have such great chemistry and you don't want to miss something and have Ryan say something really funny off-camera and then you have to come around after lunch and try to recapture that. It's really tough.

(L-R) DWAYNE ‘THE ROCK’ JOHNSON and RYAN REYNOLDS STAR IN NETFLIX’S RED NOTICE.

(L-R) DWAYNE ‘THE ROCK’ JOHNSON and RYAN REYNOLDS STAR IN NETFLIX’S RED NOTICE.

In terms of the specific technical choices for Red Notice, Markus and I talked a lot about wanting to have sort of an old school, Hollywood glamorous feel to the film, you know, beautiful people in beautiful locations, doing beautiful things. And we talked about our color palette - deep reds, lush browns, warm golds. That's kind of the vibe. And so we tried a bunch of different lenses. We knew we wanted anamorphic, we knew we wanted it 2-4-0. And we actually ended up selecting these fantastic lenses, these Ultra Panatar lenses, which are about 75 years old. They were actually in a case at Panavision on display like a museum piece until I believe Bob Richardson and Quentin Tarantino took them out and rehoused them for Hateful Eight, but then they went right back on the shelf, and Markus and I just loved the sort of visual patina of them. And in fact, the lenses that we shot Red Notice with were used quite literally to shoot Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. They're that old.

Sadie: Wow!

Rawson: Yeah, right? That's these lenses. And then we paired them with the most cutting-edge digital technology in the world - the RED Monstro 8k. So, the combination of old school glass and new-school tech really gave us this unique, beautiful look.

Sadie: It goes without saying, glass really does something.

Rawson: It really does, no fooling.

Sadie: Taking a step back, I’d love to learn about your filmmaking journey. Was there a specific movie or filmmaker that made you go, “Yeah, that's what I'm going to do when I grow up.”

Rawson: Well, I grew up in the Bay Area as a child of the 80s and 90s. My entire childhood was invented by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. And so that's sort of where I draw most of my inspiration. And I really love crowd pleasing entertainment, and unabashedly, I don’t look down my nose on that. I'm there to have a good time. There are a lot of films that have inspired me and certainly, as evidenced hopefully in Red Notice, Raiders of the Lost Ark is very near the top of that list for me.

Sadie: Going off that, what are the stories that excite you that you want to put on a big screen? Is there one that you're burning to make or?

Rawson: I'm excited to make what I hope will be my next movie, which is called The Division, based on a Tom Clancy Ubisoft video game, which is a game I love and play every Tuesday night with three buddies of mine. And the film stars Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal. And I hope that's my next film. It's a world I love and characters I love and actors that are pretty darn good.

Sadie: Crossing fingers. You've written and directed these high octane, action-adventure comedy films, as a writer, when you're sitting down with an idea, and trying to implement those action pieces, what is something that you are pulling from to keep that rhythm going in terms of setting up action and action set pieces, or does even matter?

Rawson: [laughs] No, you want to plan it, for sure. You don't want to wing it. There's obviously the standard screenplay structure, which I keep in mind as best I can, you know, act one break, mid-act turn, act two low point, etcetera. And those are all really good touchstones and things to keep in mind. And I don't flout convention, just for the sake of it. But in terms of when you deal with action and comedy, which is kind of what Red Notice is, broadly speaking, I think the trick is not only do you have to keep both of those dishes spinning, but you have to keep them spinning at the same frequency, so that they make a harmonious sound together, if you imagine like two glasses of water and you're rubbing your fingers around the lip, you want those to sound resonant with each other. And what I mean by that is if you're making an action-comedy, you don't want the action to be too edgy, too scary, too dark, because no one is going to want to laugh if they think we're about to pull out Dwayne Johnson's fingernails, right? And then, conversely, you don't want the comedy to be too broad, too "waka waka" Fozzie Bear, because if it's too silly, then nothing's real. The world is made of Nerf, there's no jeopardy, no stakes. It's about balancing both of those things, keeping them both going at the same time. So, you can't have 25 pages of jokes, and then suddenly there's a big action sequence. You need to keep them both alive and present and hopefully simultaneously working together.

The best action sequences for me are always action sequences that reveal character. And the only way you can really reveal character is through choice. How does your character decide to solve a problem? Are they going to outthink it? Are they going to out-punch it? Are they going to run away? Are they going to run toward it? What is their reaction to the stimulus? And when you have two people, it's typically what you want to do is make sure that they have different reactions to the same stimulus.

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Sadie: Character development and character voice, it's so very prominent in this movie, especially, you would think, ‘Oh, it's just silly characters,’ but they do have a goal and they do have character arcs. Were you writing the two characters of John and Nolan specifically for Ryan and Dwayne?

Rawson: Definitely for them. When I came up with the idea, I pitched it to Dwayne, and he's like, ‘I love it. Let's go.’ And so I when I wrote the script, it was completely with Dwayne in mind, and I actually flew to London to pitch Gal and I pitched her the idea - she was in my notebook of like, ‘this is the only person I want for this role’ and I pitched her and she said, ‘I love it, I'm in.’ And then I wrote the script. And as I was writing the script, I had Ryan's voice in my ear, as best as I could approximate it. I've been a huge fan of his since Van Wilder and so I wrote it with his tone, his voice in my ear. And then we sent it to him, he read it overnight and said, ‘Yes.’

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Sadie Dean: When they came on board, did you go back and comb through that character voice with each of them just make it more of their own?

Rawson: Yeah, I think you keep honing, you keep refining. The act of writing a screenplay, especially when you're the writer-director, it never finishes - no work of an artist is ever finished, only abandoned as they say - and I'm writing and rewriting all the way through from prep to principal, to post - you're still rewriting, you're still tweaking, you're still adding lines, you're still changing things, you're still trying to tell the story in the most efficient and effective way possible. That process doesn't end until they take the movie away from you, because you have no more time.

Sadie: Post is such an important part of storytelling, too. What was that process like working with your editor and making sure that everything just flowed cohesively for you?

Rawson: I've got the two greatest editors in the world, Mike Sale and Julian Clarke. There are tough choices to make, especially as a writer-director, it's hard when you've got to cut stuff out. For me personally, when we cut out a scene, or we tighten something, I feel like I somehow have failed as a writer because I didn't write it like this. And now it is like this. But I'm coming around understanding that it's all in service of the final product. And not everything you write is going to end up in it but sometimes my editors need to talk me off the ledge about it.

Red Notice is now available in select theatres and streaming on Netflix.


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