From a 7-figure bidding war to last-minute reshoots: How The Rock’s thrilling summer movie ‘Skyscraper’ was made

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“Skyscraper.”
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Universal Pictures

  • “Skyscraper” is the second time director Rawson Marshall Thurber and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have worked together, the first being the hit comedy “Central Intelligence.”
  • Thurber explained to Business Insider how he worked with Johnson on “Skyscraper.”
  • This included insight on the bidding war for the movie, and why the two felt the ending needed to be reshot.

The idea for “Skyscraper” came to director Rawson Marshall Thurber while editing his 2016 hit, “Central Intelligence.” The premise was simple: a guy has to get through a burning building full of terrorists to save his family. And looking at the screen in the editing suite, Thurber knew just the guy to play him.

“Skyscraper” marks the second time Dwayne Johnson and Thurber have worked together, but this is a very different project than “Central Intelligence,” an action comedy where The Rock and Kevin Hart throw out jokes while dodging bullets. This time, Thurber was looking for something different from his star.

Mixing “The Towering Inferno” with “Die Hard,” Thurber envisioned Johnson playing a man who is so determined to save his family that he will do insane things to save them, like jump off a crane hundreds of stories in the air, hold up a bridge on his own, and scale the outside of the building with just duct tape stuck to his hands.

Oh, and one other thing: “I told him, ‘You’re missing your left leg,'” Thurber recalled to Business Insider about his first talk with Johnson regarding the character. “And he just sat up in his chair and said, ‘I’m in,’ and we developed it together.”

What they came up with is a thrilling edge-of-your-seat summer movie that follows former FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson) who, after a horrific blast that took his leg, has rebuilt his life as a family man and skyscraper security assessor. His latest job is assessing the 240-floor Hong Kong skyscraper, The Pearl – touted as the largest building in the world. Will, with his family along for the business trip – becoming the first-ever residents of The Pearl – runs into trouble when terrorists show up to take over the building. And that’s when Will has to go into poppa bear mode.

The idea quickly became one of the hottest projects in Hollywood when Thurber and Johnson began pitching it to studios in May of 2016. Besides having the biggest action star in the world attached to it, an added bonus was that Thurber set the movie in China, a region studios have become obsessed with as it’s the fastest growing movie market in the world (and will surpass the US in the years to come as the biggest).

Needless to say, Thurber and Johnson were playing with house money.

“We went around town to 10 different buyers, and typically when you try to sell any pitch you get one, maybe two, offers, but on this one nine out of 10 places bid on it and the tenth didn’t bid because it was already priced out of their range,” Thurber said, noting the production budget on the film was around $125 million.

The eventual winner was Universal and Legendary Entertainment, for a reported seven-figure deal. Along with both co-financing the project, Legendary has ties to the Middle Kingdom as it’s owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, so the movie would definitely have top exposure there. Universal handled worldwide distribution.

But now Thurber was hit with a sudden jolt of panic: “You go into these rooms and you say here’s my story and they say, ‘Great go make it,’ and then you kind of go, ‘Oh s–t, I have to go make it!'”

What it’s like to work with The Rock

Thurber may be known for comedies like “Central Intelligence,” “We’re the Millers,” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” but he said he’d wanted to make an action movie since he was eight, when his mother took him to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With Johnson as his wing man he finally could do it. And the biggest challenge was making sure audiences would understand that they weren’t walking into an action comedy. As Thurber put it, “You don’t want to stop and do dick jokes in a movie like this.”

However, he admitted at first he did write more jokes than you usually find in a disaster movie like “Skyscraper.” They were supposed to be tension relievers.

“But in the editing process we tried moments of levity, more than jokes,” he said, realizing that “a little goes a long way” when it came to being lighthearted in this kind of movie.

He said what helped greatly in finding the right tone was the story-first attitude Johnson brought to the movie. Thurber had seen it in “Central Intelligence,” but it really stood out while making “Skyscraper.” It was never about Johnson’s ego being stroked, or making sure a big speech of his, or a major scene, didn’t get cut – all the star cared about was what was right for the story.

That was most evident when making the ending of “Skyscraper.”

In March, Johnson posted on his Instagram that following a test screening it was decided to reshoot what he called in the post, “pivotal scenes.” Thurber told Business Insider that it was, in fact, the ending of the movie.

I need tequila ???? All weekend we shot some big new scenes for this summer’s SKYSCRAPER. This all sparked from me talking with our audience after our test screening we had a few months ago when we all watched the movie together. Whenever we test my films, I always want the fans to feel empower to help me make the movie better, because in the end, whether it’s a JUMANJI, a RAMPAGE or SKYSCRAPER, the most important thing is sending the people home happy. Amazing how a few great notes from fans, can spark such a bigger creative conversation that ultimately leads to me saying “Let’s do this” and weeks later we’re on set shooting these new pivotal scenes. No rest for the wicked. Great weekend of work. Now where’s my tequila? #SKYSCRAPER JULY 13th.

A post shared by therock (@therock) on

“The original ending is very similar to what’s in the final version,” he explained. “The original was a little bit more poetic and smaller and a little more quiet, it didn’t give me or anyone on the film what you want to feel.”

And Thurber said Johnson was leading the charge in going back and redoing the ending to give the audience a more “Rocky” ending, as the director described it. In reality, Johnson could have just moved on to his next movie and let Thurber figure it all out in post with the existing footage. But Thurber said that’s why Johnson is at the level he’s at today, because he will go the extra mile.

“When you’re sitting at the top of the heap and you’re the biggest movie star in the world you don’t have to be vulnerable, you don’t have to take chances like this,” Thurber said. “It’s a real credit to him that he did.”

And the Thurber/Johnson collaboration will not end with “Skyscraper.”

When the two were wrapping up on “Skyscraper” in the beginning of the year, they went and sold another movie idea to Universal and Legendary. This one was an action/comedy heist movie called “Red Notice” (it was later reported Johnson will get paid $22 million to star, plus major bonuses for both he and Thurber if the movie is successful).

“He’s spoiled me for all other actors – but don’t tell him I said that,” Thurber said with a laugh.