From Here To Hollywood
Orinda-raised filmmaker Rawson Marshall Thurber directs We’re the Millers.
Rawson Marshall Thurber grew up on the underdog comedies of the early 1980s, beloved classics such as Revenge of the Nerds, Stripes, and Caddyshack. But while other kids watched those films, and then returned the tapes to the video store, Thurber found his career calling. The Orinda native went on to write and direct Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, the 2004 sleeper smash starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. Thurber shifted gears to drama in 2008, adapting the Michael Chabon novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to the big screen.
This month, Thurber is back behind the camera with another comedy, We’re the Millers, his biggest production yet. The film features Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis as a small-time pot dealer who poses as the father of a fictional suburban family on an RV vacation as a cover story while smuggling a huge shipment of marijuana into the United States from Mexico. Jennifer Aniston co-stars as a stripper in her midforties who has to make like June Cleaver in the R-rated comedy.
We caught up with Thurber, 38, in his Hollywood Hills home to talk about Millers, movies, and why he still likes the East Bay more than L.A.
Thurber directing David Hasselhoff in Dodgeball.
Q: Let’s start with the classic comedies of the early 1980s, such as Ghostbusters and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out when you were a kid. How did those movies influence you as a filmmaker?
A: Those movies—and Revenge of the Nerds and Stripes and The Bad News Bears—were a huge influence in my life. Not just for the experience of sneaking into the theater to see them, but because they came out in the golden age of videotapes.
My mom and dad divorced when I was about eight, and when I went to visit my dad, I would rent all those movies, and watch them over and over. They were really funny and had great characters, and a lot of heart. Certainly, my first movie, Dodgeball, was a love letter to all the movies I loved growing up.
Q: The previews for We’re the Millers reminded me of some of those films as well. National Lampoon’s Vacation, with the family trip, and Stripes, with likable characters getting into a situation that is over their heads. What’s the secret to paying homage to those films but not being overly derivative and ripping them off?
A: That’s a really important question because Millers does follow in the footsteps of those movies in a lot of ways.
When you start making a movie, you’re building on what has come before you and also what has mattered to you. That’s where your tastes come from. For example, on the set of We’re the Millers, Jason Sudeikis and I talked endlessly about how much we loved the movie Beverly Hills Cop. So you are always reaching into the bag of goodies that you grew up with, but at the same time, you don’t want to rip anybody off.
The key is good characters and good writing. You have to give the audience characters who are funny and whom they care about a little bit. If you give them a character who feels like a copy from another movie, you’re not doing it right.
Q: You’re working with a terrific comic cast here, including Sudeikis, Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, and Ed Helms from The Hangover movies and The Office.
A: It has been so great to work with this cast. There aren’t that many actors who can pull off the lead character that Sudeikis does here—a guy who is a bit of a screwup, but you still root for him anyway.
Ed Helms gets to play an evil drug lord and stretch his comic chops in ways we have not seen before. Nick Offerman is amazing: If you don’t like him, you don’t know what you’re talking about because he can take the most simple line reading and get something funny out of it. The actress who plays his wife, Kathryn Hahn, just kills her scenes.
Jennifer Aniston discusses a scene on the Millers set.
Q: You also get to work with Jennifer Aniston. Did you know her before this film?
A: I met her for this movie. The most surprising thing I can tell you about her is just how nice she is. I know that sounds boring, but it’s true. She’s a really nice and down-to-earth person, which is surprising for the world that she’s had to live in for so long.
She has great comic timing. She’s a total pro, and she wants to do great work.
Q: Aniston plays a stripper in the film. How did you film the strip scenes so they were sexy enough but also funny?
A: For the striptease, it was in the script when she signed up, and she was game to do it. She worked with a great choreographer named Denise Faye to find just the right level of sexy, without being tawdry.
Once we had the dancing ready, I worked very closely with the cinematographer to get the tone just right. We tried to set a tone that is somewhere between Flashdance and a Carl’s Jr. commercial. We did not want this to look like we were taking it too seriously. It’s all done with a wink and a smile.
Q: As a director, how do you keep the ship running tight and also bring out the funny from the actors?
A: Any director who tells you it’s a laugh riot the whole way through is not telling you the truth. Making a big movie like this requires a huge machine. It is a collaboration of craftsmen and artists from top to bottom. It’s not up to me to figure out everything else by myself but to rely on people who are experts in all the logistics who are there to help.
The most fun for me is after shooting, in the editing stage. That’s when you really get to put the movie together and give it the final rewrite—especially with comedy. There’s an old saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. That is absolutely true with making a movie.
Q: You got your first shot at directing when Ben Stiller read your script for Dodgeball, and decided to produce and star in the movie. How do you reflect on that big break?
A: Without question, I owe my career to Ben Stiller. He took a chance on me and read my script, and I will be forever in his debt for that. He was incredibly helpful and patient in making that movie work. I could have had Ben Stiller breathing down my back, but it was more about him watching my back, and helping.
Thurber with first-time leading man Jason Sudeikis.
Q: Similarly, were there any teachers you had growing up in Orinda who went above and beyond on your behalf?
A: Yes. I had an English teacher at Miramonte named Allison Burke who was very supportive of my writing as well as my movie watching.
Oh wait, I thought of another one, but he wasn’t a teacher. When I was in the fourth grade at Glorietta Elementary, I had to write a paper on what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to play first base for the San Francisco Giants because my idol was first baseman Will Clark.
I called the Giants and asked if I could interview Clark for my paper. They said no. Then I called the great sportswriter Ray Ratto and asked if he could help me. Ray said, “No problem,” and brought me to the ballpark to interview Will Clark in the Giants’ dugout. I had five minutes to ask him questions, and my heart was beating out of my chest.
Q: Now that you’ve made it in Hollywood, do you still come back to visit the East Bay?
A: Of course. My mom still lives up there. And I’m getting married in the fall, and we are having the wedding in the Bay Area.
I miss the Bay Area desperately. Every time I come home to visit, I let out a big sigh. I love the people there and the way of life. L.A. is where I live because it’s where I work. The East Bay is my home.
We’re the Millers hits theaters August 7.