He made the world laugh and fear PE with DODGEBALL: A True Underdog Story in 2004, and almost ten years later he’s back with a raunchier and more anticipated film in WE’RE THE MILLERS. We sat down with director Rawson Marshall Thurber to talk about the comedy/family film genre, sneaking in striptease scenes for Jennifer Aniston and what it means to be the next big comedic film maker.
The script for We’re The Millers has been hanging around for a bit, what attracted you to the project and what changes happened from the initial script?
You’re right, the original script was written by Bob Fisher and Steve Faber, and they were the writers of Wedding Crashers, and I think they sold it right after Wedding Crashers so I think it’s existed for almost a decade in Hollywood, which by Hollywood standards is very old. I didn’t get it until Sean Anders and John Morris sent me a draft and that was about two years ago, so that’s when I first started and I thought that script was really funny. I thought it was a clever take on an old idea, and I think I laughed out loud four times when I was reading it and that never happens, because most of the scripts you get are terrible or unfunny or both. I thought it had a great attitude and shocking hilarity so I liked it. New Line asked me if I wanted to direct it and I said “Yeah, I’d like to” and I re-wrote it. Most of the funny stuff was already in there, I worked on the plotting and structure a little bit, worked on the Kenny character and his romance, and then I added the striptease scene.
Long-winded answer, sorry.
Was there a lot of improv on set?
There was plenty of improv. The best part about my job is I get to hire actors whom I admire to help me tell a story, and that’s what I got to do on this one. I got to get Thomas Lennon and Nick Offerman and Katheryn Hahn and Ken Marino and Ed Helms and Scott Adsit, not to mention everybody else. So I hired actors who have an improvisational background. There are two things, a lot of people say “How much was written, how much was improv?”, we had a lot of improv in the movie, I would say almost 10% which is a lot, but there’s a difference between improvisation and alternate lines. In the end of the movie we have some outtakes and we have what we call Lineoramas, so there’s a bunch of different lines, and those are written.
You write out a bunch of different punch-lines for the same set-up because anybody who knows anything about comedy will tell you that he doesn’t know anything about comedy, that is to say that you can be pretty sure that what you think is funny is going to work but you don’t know until you put it up in front of a real audience of strangers. There’s no way to know. The worst thing that can happen is you get twelve takes of the same punch-line and you put it up in front of an audience and you get crickets, and you’re sunk because you don’t have something else.
To me it never made sense to just have one punch-line when you could have five or six and pick the best one. There are alternate lines and jokes for sure, and those were mostly scripted, and then there is improvisation which some of the improvs are some of my favourite jokes in the movie.
Did you adapt the characters once the cast came on-board?
The script was in a constant state of being re-written. There’s an old saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. I’m not calling We’re The Millers a work of art but in the loosest definition, you never stop working on these things. So we were writing jokes in editorial that you put in loop-wise, and some of them are big laughs. The process never stops until they take it away from you, you just keep trying to make it better and better and better and better, faster, faster, funnier, funnier. Care more, care more. But in terms of the actual writing toward an actor or actress, not really. When Jen signed on she had some thoughts about what she liked about the character and what she thought was maybe undercooked a little bit. We worked towards making the character a lot more fuller and interesting, but it wasn’t anything crazy. It was all above board and all pretty standard.
Usually Jason Sudeikis is the comic side-character, here he is taking the lead, with added drama. Did you know he could pull that side off or did you just want the funniest man in the world leading your film?
I’ve been a fan of Jason’s work and I didn’t know him personally but I always thought that he was the funniest guy in any sketch or any movie he was in, and I thought he’d be perfect in this. I saw him in this movie, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s called A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy by Pete Huyck and Alex Gregory. Unseen, almost, which I can’t believe, and he was so charming in that and I knew it, from that part, that he could be a leading man, and should be a leading man. I was really excited to give him the opportunity to do that in a big studio movie, so I wasn’t worried about him pulling off the role by any stretch, and you want somebody as funny and as talented as Jason but I didn’t know, honestly, how good he was. He is so funny but he is such a talented actor. He can do anything, some people say he’s going to be the next Will Ferrell, but he could be the next Tom Hanks if that’s what he wants to do, that’s how gifted he is. That was, I have to say, surprising, but pleasantly so.
What made you feel that Jennifer would be good for the role, was her and Jason’s work together in Horrible Bosses a factor?
No, I think it wasn’t a factor in “Let’s get Jen and Jason back together because people like Horrible Bosses”, it wasn’t. I wish we were as calculated as that. If people knew how these things happen. We got Jason first and I was thrilled, and then I forget whose idea it was but someone said “What about Jen for the part?” and we all thought “Shit, that’s a good idea”, but when you send your script to Jennifer Anniston you never really think she’s going to say yes. We sent it off to her, I actually thought ‘eh, it’s never going to happen’ and then the phone rings and they go “Hey, Jen read it, she really thinks it’s funny and wants to talk about it” and we got lucky.
Looking back at your career, you apprenticed under John August, those two years, how did they inform the rest of your career in understanding script and directing?
I think it’s impossible to exaggerate how influential the two and a half years that I spent working for John August has been on my career. It’s the most luxurious and fantastic incubator you can imagine. He’s the nicest guy, he’s so talented, he paid me way more than I deserved for what I was doing, and I just got to learn. I read everything that he wrote, I learned what it meant to be a professional screenwriter in town, both on the page and in the room, and the guy that you hear on the podcast, on ScriptNotes, is actually who he is, he’s that nice. You wouldn’t want to meet anybody nicer, they’d be trying to sell you something. I stole so much craft and office supplies from John August, I wouldn’t be where I am without him, he’s a dear friend and mentor. I love ScriptNotes, it’s an invaluable resource not only for screenwriters in town but anybody who is interested in movies. Couldn’t be more important in my life.
Working on a comedy like this, there must be a lot of outtakes, how much footage might be seen in the deleted scenes?
I don’t know if we’ll have a different cut of the movie, I think the movie that we put in the theatres is the movie we intended to make and we’re proud of, I use the royal we of course, but there were a good handful of scenes that just didn’t make the film because of pacing. I think we have a lot of the alternate punch-lines and some of the improv that just couldn’t fit. There should be a healthy amount on the DVD for people to look forward to.
There’s a balance of gross-out comedy and quite a tender aspect to the film, how is it to strike that balance?
I’m really happy to hear you say that, it was a big part of it. If you don’t have heart in your comedy then you just have a bunch of dick jokes strung together and who really cares? You can laugh yourself silly in the theatre but you won’t remember a lick of it by the time you get to your car. The movies that I loved, the comedies that I loved growing up, have heart to them. You just have to care a little bit, just enough, so for me that was the most important thing. Obviously number one is you want it to be funny, but a 1a is you have to make people care, and we tried really hard to do that. I think Will Poulter who plays Kenny, is the heart. He is the heart of the movie, and so at the end of the picture, spoiler alert, when he punches out the bad guy and kisses the girl and fireworks are going, if the audience doesn’t feel something there, we’re f*cked. Fortunately so far people do, there have been plenty of screenings where we get cheers at that point. As the filmmaker that’s what you want, at least that’s what I want.
You’ve had two big hit comedies in the last decade now, and you’ve only made three films in that time. What’s going on? Why aren’t you the biggest thing around right now?
Will you call my mother and please tell her that. Thank you, first of all, shit. It’s just hard, let me back up. So there’s this big struggle that goes on behind the curtain, and it’s not easy to convince a studio to write a big mutli-milllion dollar cheque on a work of art, god that’s the second time, on a movie because it’s a gamble. There’s no formula for it, people try to make formulas but there just isn’t, so at some point someone’s got to pick up a pair of dice, blow on it and throw ’em, and it’s a hard thing to get. Even companies whose entire job it is to do that, it’s hard. No matter who you are. There’s a big struggle that goes on behind the curtain, I spent a year and a half working on something, re-writing something, casting it, getting close and then it goes away. And then you go over here “F*ck it, I’m going to do this one” No. Finally you get all the pieces together, they say yes and then you step out from behind the curtain and everyone goes “Where the hell have you been?” I’m not sleeping, I’m working my ass off back here, sweating here in the shop. Even on this one, we started at the end of 2011 and now its 2013, so that’s another 2 years or so where I was actually making a movie. That’s a very long-winded answer but the short version is I hope to make more movies more frequently, and hopefully you’ll see my next one sooner than three years from now.
How do you get all the action, the sex, the comedy in the movie, and how important was the Flashdance scene, or having Emma Roberts talking about anal sex, for the film?
Gosh that’s such a dangerous question to answer. I’m glad you called it the Flashdance stripper scene because we were aiming for a Carls Jr. commercial or Flashdance, it’s the sweet spot. I wrote that in because I thought, I wanted, each character, each Miller, to have a moment to save the family. Emma has hers when she covers for the weed baby, Jason has his at the end, Will has his at the end also, and it seemed like the character of Rose, that’s her superpower. It seemed like a fun way to get the Millers out of trouble. In terms of the foul-mouthed nature, that was in the screenplay, so I just shot what was written, I thought it was really funny, and Emma delivers that kind of stuff very well. She’s really funny. And then the action side was some of the most fun for me, and I hope to do more of it. The next thing I want to do is some kind of comedy with action to it, a little bit more scope in size. Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon 2 are good examples of that, but so is Ghostbusters and Galaxy Quest so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a buddy cop movie, and I’ve got a few things I’m looking at right now, hoping to jedi mind trick somebody to let me do one.
I read in previous interviews that regarding Dodgeball’s sequel you’ve said that you feel like you’ve said all that you need to say in that film, do you feel the same with We’re The Millers?
Like a sequel? Gosh, I just hope the first one works. But I do think that whenever you have characters that people care about there’s always an opportunity to continue the story. I think the track record on comedy sequels is not very good, and I will burn that bridge when we come to it. Right now I just hope the first one works.
WE’RE THE MILLERS is out in the UK on the 23rd of August and is available to go and see in US cinemas right now.