Coming off the success of “We’re the Millers” — the top-grossing original comedy of 2013 — Rawson Marshall Thurber felt ready to attempt something new. So the funnyman decided to tackle his boyhood dream of directing an action movie.
“I knew if I was going to make an action-comedy, at least I wouldn’t screw up half of it,” Thurber says.
Now with next weekend’s release of “Central Intelligence,” the writer/director’s crack at a different genre seems poised to pay off.
“Doing the action was incredibly relaxing. It was way easier than comedy,” says Thurber, calling from New York City.
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“What was relaxing in comparison is you spend so much time in action planning and preparing. You have a stunt coordinator and a VFX coordinator. You’ve storyboarded it and worked with your cinematographer to know the shots. There’s so much that goes into it that by the time you call ‘action,’ the car is either going to blow up or it’s not. You can’t say, ‘You know what would be funny? Can the car blow up like this?’ ”
In “Central Intelligence,” Kevin Hart portrays a bored accountant whose high school glory days are a distant memory. On the eve of his 20-year reunion, he’s contacted by the bullied geek of the class (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), who has transformed himself into a lethal CIA agent. Soon the pair are involved in an espionage mission with shadowy motives and hazardous repercussions.
The initial story (penned by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen) was quite a bit different from what ended up onscreen.
“It was not designed for Dwayne,” Thurber says. “The original idea was a guy who was heavyset and picked on. More of a weirdo in high school. When you meet him at the reunion, he’s still a heavyset weirdo, but suddenly he can kick ass. … We pictured it like a fat Jason Bourne.”
Then the 6-foot-5-inch former WWE champ became interested in playing the character. Thurber admired the humorous sensibilities Johnson displayed hosting “Saturday Night Live.” He knew the star could offer a quirky, imposing take.
“Dwayne came on and said, ‘You know who should play opposite me? Kevin Hart.’ I said, ‘Kevin’s the best. He’s so funny. But this is a straight-man role.’ Dwayne said, ‘I know. They won’t expect it.’ ”
So Thurber got to accompany Johnson when they met Hart for the first time.
“It was like brothers,” Thurber says of the actors. “The chemistry was instant. I just rubbed my hands together, greedily.”
However, at no point did Thurber meet anyone in the actual CIA.
“I had a couple conversations with consultants who told me that everything I wrote was completely inaccurate. I was like, ‘Uh-huh. But is it funny?’
“I assumed almost nothing we did in this movie has any toehold in reality.”
Reality has always remained a subjective concept for the 41-year-old San Francisco native. His entry into Hollywood proved particularly surreal.
After earning a master’s degree in fine arts in producing from the University of Southern California, Thurber created the short “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.” It played at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and then was adapted as a beloved Super Bowl commercial that earned Thurber a Golden Lion for advertising.
In 2004, he found himself in the enviable position of not only selling his first feature screenplay but being asked to direct it. The ensuing Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” turned a $20 million budget into a $167 million worldwide hit.
“It basically comes down to three things: hard work, luck and talent,” he says. “The only one of those you can control is hard work. But I owe my career to Ben Stiller for reading my weird script about adults playing dodgeball.”
Do people still try to recruit him to play the sport?
He says, “I can only lose if I play dodgeball. If I drill someone in the face, it’s like, ‘He did the movie. Of course he’s good.’ But if I get drilled in the face, it’s like, ‘Ha ha. I nailed the guy who wrote the movie.’ So I stay out of that situation.”
Thurber went on to adapt Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” in 2008. Yet it was five years until he returned to filmmaking with “We’re the Millers,” starring Kansas City’s Jason Sudeikis, whom Thurber describes as “a world-class comedic talent.”
Next, he nearly worked alongside another KC celebrity: Paul Rudd. Thurber was seriously considered to take over 2015’s “Ant-Man” after original director Edgar Wright dropped out.
“I did not turn it down,” he says, clarifying a rumor about being hired for the gig. “It’s something I met with (Marvel Studios president) Kevin Feige about, something I met with Paul Rudd about. I did not say no, and they did not make an offer.”
Unlike the heroes of his latest picture, Thurber didn’t attend his 20-year high school reunion.
“I went to my 10-year reunion, but I missed my 20-year because I was shooting ‘Millers,’ ” he says. “At this point with Facebook, everybody is in touch anyway.”
And Thurber says his high school experience was nothing like those of his “Central Intelligence” characters.
“I was never the popular guy, but I was never the outcast. I wrote for the paper. I was in the theater. I played on the football team. I had friends in all the groups,” he says.
Opportunely, his 25th reunion is next year.
Except … Thurber again might not be available to attend. He’s already busy with “We’re the Millers 2.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”