Magnum P.I. without a ‘Stache?!
A Pajiba Exclusive Interview with Rawson Marshall Thurber, Director of Dodgeball, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh & Magnum P.I.
Interviews | July 5, 2006 | Comments (31)
Perhaps it was a strange twist of fate that this publication launched itself onto the web the week after Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story hit theaters, relieving us from the awkward position of facing its director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, in light of our review. Had we assessed the film, however, I suspect we would’ve called it a clever indictment of the fitness industry disguised as an often hilariously lowbrow testicle punching bag. It was an amusing sports-spoof with elements of Revenge of the Nerds that worked 75 percent of the time and, for what it’s worth, it was one of Ben Stiller’s best comedic performances.
Two years later, the writer and director of Dodgeball is set to helm The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, based on a screenplay he adapted from Michael Chabon’s brilliantly heartbreaking novel of the same name. Shooting begins this month and, after Thurber has completed production, he will bravely attempt to do what no director has done before: remake a television series for the big screen that audiences (and maybe even critics) will actually enjoy. Indeed, Thurber has been attached to write and direct Magnum P.I. for Universal Studios, which will be produced by Brian Grazer via Imagine Entertainment.
A self-described fan of Pajiba (yeah, we were as surprised as you!), Thurber agreed to sully his good name by answering a few questions posed by our staff.
Pajiba: First of all, with all due respect, how did the director of Dodgeball manage to convince a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to allow him to adapt his first — and probably most personal — novel into a film?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: The short answer is: I wrote him a fan letter. The longer answer goes like this: We’re both represented at the same agency (CAA), and I’d been a huge fan of Michael’s since the moment I read Mysteries. So, after Dodgeball, I wrote Michael a letter saying, basically, I love your writing, I love your books, and I’d love to take you out to breakfast to talk about the possibility of adapting The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Michael lives in Berkeley, which is pretty much where I’m from. So I flew home to the Bay Area, met with Michael at Rick & Ann’s — a local Berkeley breakfast spot — and over the course of eggs, toast, and coffee talked to him about why I loved his novel, what the challenges were in the translation from novel to film, and how I planned on going about it.
I wasn’t trying to get the job. I wasn’t really even trying to convince Michael to say yes. I was just intent on describing the film as I saw it in my head and, if he liked that film, then we’d go ahead. If he didn’t, I let him know that, you know, I’m a big fan and I can’t wait for his next thing to come out. I had some pretty radical notions about how to adapt the novel, which had sort of gotten the rap of being un-adaptable — and who knows, maybe it still is. My take was as much amputation and alteration as it was adaptation, so I wrote a six-page treatment outlining the film — beginning, middle, end — thematic concerns, alterations and extensions, etc. I sent if off to Michael, never truly believing he would say yes, and I crossed my fingers. Michael read it, called me up and said, “Great. Let’s do it.” I was shocked.
Pajiba: What attracted you to this project? Was it something you sort of gravitated to on your own, or did someone bring it to you?
RMT: I read the novel in the summer of 1995 — it had come out in 1988, I believe — and just fell in love with it. I knew I wanted to make the movie of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh before I even knew I wanted to make movies. That’s how long the desire has been with me. Though I hadn’t had some of the specific experiences that Art Bechstein had had in the novel, I related to it somehow. The writing was so beautiful, the characters so well drawn, the story so skillfully executed — it was all just so overwhelmingly wonderful. I was smitten.
Pajiba: It’s kind of surprising that a director who made his mark with sports-themed gigs (the Terry Tate Reebok commercials and Dodgeball) could turn from material with implicit homoerotic themes to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, where it’s explicit. You don’t see a lot of directors — Ron Shelton comes to mind — who turn away so quickly from their bread and butter to more risque material. Why take this risk so early in your career?
RMT: Haha. Good to know the implicit homoerotic themes in Dodgeball didn’t slip past you — but I guess when you make a movie about balls, it’s kinda unavoidable. In terms of any risk involved in MOP — God, I don’t know — I guess it doesn’t really seem that risky to me. That’s never really crossed my mind, perhaps it should’ve, or it will now, so thanks for that.
After Dodgeball came out and did pretty well, my agents, very smartly, counseled me to “capture the value” of the moment: essentially, hurry out and sign a big deal to make a similar movie — a comedy about darts players or a romantic comedy about curling or something — which, of course, is very sound advice if your goal is to make lots of money. That really wasn’t my goal. On top of which, I have director friends who’ve made a successful comedy, then follow it up with another comedy and then they’re stuck. They only get to make comedies for the rest of their careers. You get type-cast that quickly in Hollywood — just like actors.
I love comedies. I’ll always love comedies. I hope to make more of them for many years to come. But that’s not all I love. When a friend calls me up and asks me to go see a thriller, I don’t say, “Sorry, man, I only like comedies.” My tastes, like most people’s, run the gamut, and I want to make the films that I’m interested in making, regardless of genre.
So I figured, If I’m ever gonna make a film that isn’t a comedy, I better do it quickly. I better do it now. I’d always wanted to make MOP so I said, fuck it, I’m gonna give it a shot. It’s going to be a real challenge, and I can’t wait to start.
Pajiba: I’ve had the opportunity to read the script, and though I started off with a healthy amount of skepticism, I was really impressed with how it turned out. There is a lot in there to really be proud of. How does your script differ? And do you think that the script will satisfy fans of the novel?
RMT: Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I worked very hard on the script and I’m proud of the result. Scene to scene, sequence to sequence, the script differs widely from the novel. The script isn’t, nor will the resultant film be, the novel. They’re wholly different forms. I think what remains in the script is a trueness to the tone and theme of the novel which, in my opinion, is what the best adaptations are anyway.
I suppose the most glaring change is the removal, whole cloth, of Arthur Lecomte from the story. In the novel, there’s this sort of a four-pointed love rhombus — for lack of a better term — between Art, Arthur, Phlox and Cleveland. I felt strongly that in order for the film to function properly, it needed a more efficient and more cinematic engine — in short, a love triangle. So I eliminated Arthur from the narrative and folded in important elements of his character into Cleveland’s and moved from there. I think the result really gives the story the momentum needed in the medium.
As far as fans of the book go, I think they’ll be very pleased as long as they go into it knowing that what they’re about to see isn’t a reading of a transcript of the novel. The friends I’ve shared the script with who were also big fans of the novel have all seemed, like you, surprised at their warm reaction to a script that is so different from the novel they loved. I think what they’re responding to is that the script is true to the heart of the novel without being the novel.
Pajiba: Has Chabon read the script, and to what degree has he been involved in the production process?
RMT: Oh, of course. Of course. Michael’s input and approval were, and continue to be, very important to me. I still can’t believe how brave and non-precious he was about his novel being butchered by the guy who wrote and directed Dodgeball. When we first sat down and had breakfast, he let me know that he was open to entertaining anything: any changes, alterations or omissions — and he actually meant it. He is, without a doubt, the coolest Pulitzer Prize-winning author you’ll ever meet.
I sent Michael the first draft of the script, and he gave me such wonderful notes: supportive, smart, thoughtful. The second and subsequent drafts have improved immeasurably due to his gentle input. When he read the second draft, he wrote me an email saying, “I love it. It’s great. Go do it.” I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to have Michael’s full vote of confidence and his seal of approval. I wouldn’t have moved forward without it.
In terms of his involvement in the production process, well, we e-mail regularly, talk every once in a while. I’ve talked with him about casting ideas, etc. I hope and think he’ll be on set for as much of it as he cares to be — the actual process of making a film can be very, very boring if you’re not directly involved in what’s going on in front of the camera — and I’m certain he’ll be involved in the editing process: reviewing a cut or two, giving notes and all that. Believe me, when you have someone of Michael’s talents and intellect on your team you want him on the field, not on the sideline holding a clipboard.
Pajiba: Anyone who has seen Dodgeball only once may have missed a lot of the more subtle, smart humor behind all the wrench throwing and physical comedy. Beyond the indictment of the fitness culture, there were actual literary allusions (Lewis Carroll, Darwin, Sappho!) in between the hits to the groin. How have you injected your sense of humor into a thematically weighty MOP script?
RMT: Gosh, I’m not sure. MOP is such a different animal. That’s not to say it isn’t funny, or that it doesn’t have moments of levity — the novel is, at times, really, really funny — but Mysteries just has a completely different tone and cadence than Dodgeball. Shocking, I know. For the record, though, I’m happy you caught a couple of those allusions in Dodgeball. I tried my best to keep the smart kids in class laughing. A lot of those jokes about alliteration, deus ex machina, Lewis Carroll and the like are there simply to impress my college English professor, Peter Heinegg. I hope it worked.
Pajiba: MOP revolves, largely, around a bisexual love triangle — and you didn’t shy away from that in your script. To what extent do you think thatBrokeback Mountain readied your typical Dodgeball fan for a movie that involves men kissing? Do you think that a film featuring a gay sex scene can be commercially viable in our current culture?
RMT: I suppose Brokeback Mountain will help a great deal, but, truly, the gay love scene is almost incidental in my mind. Or rather, the fact that it involves two men is incidental to me. The story is a love story, first and foremost. MOP isn’t, to me, a story about Art Bechstein coming to terms with his inner gayness, or his bisexuality, it’s a story, in part, about a young man’s love — indifferent to gender — of two important people in his life during what will be the last true summer of his life.
Honestly, the “gayness” of the story is the least interesting thing about it to me — I mean, aren’t we past that as a culture? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t we be? Is it really so shocking or risque to see two men kissing? And though Brokeback Mountain contains love scenes between two men, it’s ultimately a very, very different story than MOP. So, to the extent that Mr. Lee’s lovely film helps acclimate those who might have trouble acclimating to a story with themes of homosexuality or bisexuality, then great. But The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is by no means Brokeback Mountain 2: The Reach-Around.
Pajiba: With Dodgeball, you had the pleasure of working with two of today’s leading comedic actors, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn — in fact, Dodgeball was part of the trilogy (along with Old School and Wedding Crashers) that really relaunched Vince Vaughn’s career. And now you’re going to be working with probably the indie world’s biggest star, Peter Saarsgard, and Max Minghella, who is on the verge of a huge breakout. First of all, how fucking lucky are you to have worked with these folks? And, second, do you consider yourself an “actor’s director” — someone who allows your cast a lot of room to ad lib — or are you the more controlling, “read what’s on the script” kind of director?
RMT: Wow. Great question. Firstly, I am lucky. Incredibly fucking lucky. And I feel that way every day I’m not working at Sears. Working with Ben and Vince on my first film was a wonderful education. I learned so much from Ben — a comedy idol of mine — and both he and Vince were very patient and supportive while I fumbled around and fucked things up and learned.
As for Mysteries, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast we’ve assembled. Peter Sarsgaard is the only person I had in my mind as I wrote the role of Cleveland, and I just about fell out of my chair when he read the script and said yes. Sienna Miller is going to be incredible as Jane. Incredible, I tell you. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect fit. She’s going to knock it out of the park.
As for Max Minghella, unfortunately we’ve lost him. His school schedule at Columbia has caused him to have to drop out of the film. A sad occurrence to be sure but, fortunately, there are plenty of immensely talented young actors out there eager to play the part, and we’re going to find the absolute right one to play Art Bechstein. These things tend to work out the way they’re supposed to; I mean, who can forget that at one point Tom Selleck himself was going to play Indiana Jones? Anyhow, there are a couple of exciting options on the table right now, so stay tuned.
This is going to only be my second film, so I’m not sure if I even know what kind of director I am, but I approach the job with, I think, a healthy respect for the actors and the craft of acting. It’s a scary thing and it’s not easy to do. Ultimately, the whole process of making a film, all the trucks, the lights and the cameras — all of it — is only a very sophisticated recording device. We’re all there to record what the actors do. If the recording is no good, it won’t matter how well it’s framed or lit, or how cool the special effects are. People go to movies to be told a good story, and, as corny as it sounds, good stories are told by telling the truth. The more truth you can get on film, the better. And, as much as the writer in me hates to admit it, one look from a great actor beats the pants off a great monologue. It’s not even close.
Pajiba: After you wrap up MOP, your next project is Magnum P.I. How do you plan to approach the remake?
RMT: With respect, ultimately. I was a fan of the series, but I wouldn’t characterize myself as a fanboy of the series — though two of my closest friends are and remind me of that daily. The show itself struck such a smart balance of mystery, comedy, action, and character that I hope to emulate it as much as possible. The Magnum movie will be very much like Beverly Hills Cop in tone: basically an action movie that’s funny because the main character himself is funny, not because Magnum and Higgins have to dress up in chicken suits to break into a birthday party. My guiding principles for the adaptation are these: no short shorts, no cameos, no moustaches. It’s a title you know, a theme song you love and a kick-ass Ferrari.
In terms of timeline, the film is, essentially, a genesis story. It’s Magnum Begins. When we meet Magnum, he’s not yet a private investigator, but by the time the story ends, he’s hung up his shingle. I’m working through a first draft now, and it’s been so much fun — currently Magnum and TC are bickering in a sugar cane field that’s been lit ablaze by the bad guys. It’s going to be an unapologetically great action movie. That’s a promise.
Pajiba: I understand that no one has yet been cast as Magnum. Do you have a wish list, and will you put our readers at rest: Can you confirm or deny that Ben Affleck is in the running?
RMT: I do have a wish list, yes. A very short one. And, for the record, Magnum has yet to be cast. Though I can’t directly confirm or deny the Ben Affleck rumors, I was as surprised as everyone else when I saw the notion pop up online. It’s been strange seeing the rumor mill at work. I’ve seen some Magnum stuff online that had me scratching my head. I have no idea how these things get started, but I can say, with absolute certainty, that no one has been cast as Magnum and that we haven’t even opened the doors yet. I’m still writing. When the script’s done, we’ll find our man and, if we land one of the guys I’m thinking of, Magnum fans everywhere will rejoice. Trust me.
Pajiba: You wrote Dodgeball, adapted MOP, and will be writing Magnum P.I. Are you averse to directing another writer’s material, or are you just more comfortable writing yourself?
RMT: I don’t know if I’m philosophically opposed to directing someone else’s script, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve read about 3,000 screenplays and I’ve found three that I’d want to direct. It’s a tough target to hit for me because when I’m sent a script to consider to direct, it has to have a central idea or theme or question that I’d be interested in spending the next three years of my life on — no small task to be sure — and it has to be better than one of my own ideas; and as you might imagine, I like my own ideas a whole bunch. Further, it has to make sense from an opportunity-cost standpoint. If I direct this I can’t direct that. So, it’s a pretty small bull’s-eye when all is said and done.
Also, so much of directing for me takes place through the writing process. I see the scene in my mind, then I write it down. As simple as that. I tend to write long first drafts, upwards of 170 pages, then I trim it down and figure it out a bit more. By the time I get on set, I’ve rewritten the material so much that I know it as well as I know anything in my life. I know it frontwards and backwards. I know the intent of each scene, the purpose and rhythm of each sequence. So, if we change something on set, I’ll know how that will affect everything else that comes after it and everything that’s come before it. It’s an intimacy with the story that I’m not sure I could attain with someone else’s script. I guess I’m not sure I’m a good enough director yet to direct someone else’s work. Maybe someday, though.
Pajiba: You started out as a protege to the screenwriter John August, who wrote the fantastic Go, Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish, and Corpse Bride, among others. How did August help you as a writer, and do you still go to him for advice?
RMT: God, I learned so much from John it’s almost impossible to exaggerate how influential he’s been in my screenwriting life. John’s a friend and a mentor. We talk nearly every week, and I go to him for advice on pretty much everything that has to do with my career. He’s just about as smart as they come and a disgustingly decent guy — you wouldn’t want to meet someone nicer or they’d be trying to sell you something. I worked for him as his assistant for about two and a half years after I graduated from film school. I stole so much screenwriting craft and office supplies from John it’s embarrassing.
Pajiba: Finally, after you’re risen the ranks of directors with MoP and Magnum, do you have a dream project? Is there another novel out there you’d really like to adapt?
RMT: I’ve got a couple ideas up my sleeve. I recently sold a comedy idea to Dreamworks that Ben Stiller and his producing partner Stuart Cornfeld are going to produce. I’m really excited about it and can’t wait to get writing — it’s going to be really, really fucking funny.
I guess, in terms of dream projects, there’s a property that Jerry Bruckheimer has that I’ve loved for a long time. It’s a role-playing game called RIFTS that I used to play a lot in junior high school with my friends — that’s OK to admit, right? Ladies, line up. Anyhow, it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing that I’d love to get my meat hooks into. We’ll see what happens.
Pajiba: Thanks for answering our questions, Rawson. Best of luck filming Mysteries of Pittsburgh this summer.
Posted by: Matt at July 5, 2006 8:55 AM