“97% of the Film Has No Green Screen in It”: Writer-Director Rawson Marshall Thurber on Red Notice
Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes movies that are so impeccably crafted and deliriously funny that it’s easy to take them for granted; like the classical Hollywood directors of the 1940s to whom he often pays homage, Thurber employs an elegant but invisible style in which an immense amount of effort goes into making his films look effortless. This is particularly true of his latest release, Red Notice, a caper movie of enormous scale that nevertheless remains light on its feet, fast and funny and romantic in the way Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges movies used to be while still delivering the massive pyrotechnics one expects from a big-budget action flick starring Dwayne Johnson.
In Red Notice, Johnson plays an FBI profiler tracking two rival art thieves (Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot) around the world as each tries to be the first to get their hands on a trio of priceless ancient treasures; the premise allows Thurber to give the audience five or six spectacularly entertaining movies in one, as he veers smoothly from heist picture to buddy comedy to romance to globe-trotting adventure (all the more impressive given that Thurber and his team barely left Atlanta). There are twisty Mamet-esque con games, a musical number, stunt sequences that would make Jackie Chan proud and fast badinage right out of Howard Hawks, all photographed with warm, shimmering beauty by cinematographer Markus Förderer. Thurber nimbly juggles the various tones, styles and influences so that they all complement each other perfectly; the intimate interplay between the three leads is given weight and urgency by the action, and the set pieces are both livelier and less suffocating than in many similar movies because they’re so inextricably tied to character. Red Notice plays like Trouble in Paradise as directed by John McTiernan (with echoes of The Sting, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Midnight Run), and it’s a testament to Thurber’s dexterity that the combination feels completely organic and logical. His passion for both the movies he loves and the process of filmmaking itself is evident in every frame, and wholly infectious—Red Notice is one of the most purely pleasurable viewing experiences I’ve had all year. I spoke with Thurber via Zoom the week before Red Notice’s November 12 premiere on Netflix; it’s also currently playing in theatres if you want to check out Förderer’s lush imagery on the big screen.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really responded to in this movie was the elegant, classical look that it had while still delivering the satisfactions of a big modern action movie. What were some of the principles you and your director of photography discussed when deciding how to approach this visually?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: The first thing you decide is aspect ratio, and for me this seemed to be, without question, a widescreen film. We knew we wanted 2.40, and once you have that aspect ratio, you start figuring out how to compose for it. I tried to design shots that could play in a oner, or at least almost in a oner. With comedy, you need a certain amount of coverage in order to adjust for laughs in case a joke doesn’t work—or in case it works really well and you need to open it up. You need to give yourself a little bit of room in editorial to find the tone and the pace. But I try to figure out how to not cut if I can. Then color palette-wise, obviously we wanted red, rich brown, deep gold…those were the three tones that we really liked. And we wanted warm flesh tones with a little bit of grain but not too much—kind of a glamorous, but not quite glossy, look. So, we chose Ultra Panatar lenses, anamorphic lenses with incredibly old glass, about 75 years old. In fact, the same lenses that we shot Red Notice on were also used to shoot Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur! We paired those lenses with cutting edge digital cinema, shooting on the Red Monstro 8K, and I think the marriage of old school glass and new school tech gave us a unique look.
Filmmaker: You also have a marriage between very precise, John McTiernan-style compositions and a kind of playfulness when it comes to the performances—the movie feels at once heavily designed and loose, which is a tricky balance to strike. How much of what you do is pre-planned and how much is intuitively responding to the locations and what your actors give you on the day?
Thurber: If I had to draw a line, I would say that it’s probably 80% as we planned it and 20% inspiration or discovery, which I think is a good blend, because then the film has a focus and you feel a hand on it but it doesn’t feel like the grip is too stifling. I’m a pretty big planner; my cinematographer Markus Förderer and I spent weeks and weeks in a room shot listing the entire film, and once we had sets and schematics we would think through and talk through every shot in every scene. We watched a ton of movies that inspired us—both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a little bit of True Lies—essentially to see what we could steal, but even with all that I don’t mind deviating from the plan. When you’re there and suddenly you see a new angle or that the way the actor performs something means you don’t need a certain angle or you would never be in that position for a particular shot, you have to stay open to inspiration.
Filmmaker: And how does working with an actor like Ryan Reynolds, who has a reputation for being a strong improviser, play into that?
Thurber: Well, on almost every single movie I’ve made I’ve worked with a great comedic talent, and I think you’d be a negligent director to not allow comedians to bring what they think is funny to the set and the film. I get all the credit at the end anyway, or the blame. Because I write the movies myself, I have a pretty good idea of what would be in bounds and what would be out of bounds, but even if it’s out of bounds, I’m a “yes, and” director. Once we’ve got it as scripted and I’m happy with it, then I always say “let’s try it” no matter what the actors suggest, unless it’s just totally anathema to the character. That’s rare, because most actors would never bring something that out of whack. It’s free to try things, and I’ve been wrong so many times—I’ve thought, “I don’t get this joke at all,” or that an actor’s choice won’t work, and then lo and behold, I’m in the editing room and it’s obviously the right choice.
Filmmaker: Now, when I watched Red Notice I assumed you shot it like a Bond movie and flew all over the world to exotic locations, but it turns out you shot almost everything in Atlanta, which is unbelievable to me.
Thurber: It’s true, the main unit never left Atlanta. We shot everything in the parking lot or on the sound stage. It was a nightmare. We intended to travel, but the pandemic hit and we couldn’t. We were about a week away from going to Rome to shoot a really fun, kick-ass car chase. We’d scouted and planned it and were very close to pulling the trigger on it when everything shut down. So, I knew we couldn’t have a car chase and had to ask, “OK, well, how do I start this movie in a really fun way?” Then I wrote a foot chase through the museum; it was, “I can’t really have a lot of people, so I’ll have Ryan run into an area of the museum that’s essentially shut down, then it’ll be Ryan and Dwayne running through a closed wing of the museum and we’ll have some security guards in there.” Then I came up with a scaffolding set piece as our car chase essentially, then Dwayne jumps in the Porsche and because we can’t do a car chase, I thought, “Why not pull the rug out?” and that’s where that joke happens.
Filmmaker: OK, but going back to the beginning of all that—the first image in the movie after the opening credits is an incredible aerial shot through Rome that lands on Dwayne Johnson getting out of his car and walking into the museum. How do you execute something like that?
Thurber: That was a shot I really wanted to get. I wanted the film to start with a big wide shot over Rome, as though it was a helicopter shot, then drop down, go through the canyon, pick up these cars and end in a close-up of Dwayne. We used a tiny little camera called the Komodo from RED that’s about the size of a tissue box and it’s 6K— you could make a whole movie with it. We attached it to an FPV drone operated by this incredible operator and went to Rome to get that particular shot—it was a splinter unit that went there for two days, then we digitally stitched that first part of the shot to the Steadicam shot of Dwayne getting out of the car. I think we were in Rome for two days and Sardinia for one, but otherwise nobody went anywhere outside of Atlanta. We built an entire castle on the backlot.
Filmmaker: The digital effects are entirely convincing. What kinds of conversations do you have with the effects artists to avoid the pitfalls of bad CG so many movies fall into?
Thurber: It’s incredibly important to me, because I’ve seen bad CG just like you have, and it really takes you out of the movie. We worked with Craig Hammack at ILM, who I’ve worked with before; I know his taste and his level of artistry, and he’s uncompromising. Then we hired Richard Hoover, who won the Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049. He came in and said, “I want to do this without green screen and we’re going to roto everything,” and I said, “That’s fantastic. I love it.” I would say 97% of the film has no green screen in it. It’s all roto work, which means there’s no green contamination. You get real reflections. It makes it much, much more convincing. So, between Craig Hammack at ILM and Richard Hoover as our visual effects supervisor, you’ve basically got two number ones in your rotation, and nothing was brought to me that wasn’t already nearly excellent—a lot of it is just hiring the right people and trusting them. I also had a cinematographer who has an artist’s eye and a technician’s mind. His ability to work with the visual effects people, and to plan and light properly, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the end result.
Filmmaker: That connects to my final question. On a movie of this massive scale—I mean, the end credits go on forever—how do you stay focused and not lose sight of the movie you’re making? How do you make sure the movie you imagined when you were writing it is the movie that ends up on screen when the idea has to pass through hundreds and hundreds of people?
Thurber: I wish I had a great answer for that. As you know, the actual process of making the film in prep and through principal photography is exhausting, and it takes every ounce of you. It’s not just the physical exhaustion, it’s emotional exhaustion and mental fatigue, and it’s a real challenge. So what I try to do is remember and remind myself of the simple story I’m trying to tell. What is your north star? What is the tone? What is the story in its simplest form and how is this particular scene or moment serving that? And when everything’s chaotic—and don’t get me wrong, I succeed sometimes and I fail others—I try to keep it small in my mind. If you start with, “OK, this is the simple truth that I’m trying to get across,” that helps you block out the noise a little bit and just make decisions from that space. It’s not always easy and I have a lot of help from a lot of people who are incredibly hardworking and talented.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.