Before he wrote and directed the summer action-thriller "Skyscraper" (in theaters everywhere Friday), Rawson Marshall Thurber created one of the beloved sports movies of a generation. "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story," starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, introduced us to "The Ocho," to the iconic broadcast team of Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks, and to the immortal line, "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball."
ESPN sat down with Thurber, in New York to promote "Skyscraper," to discuss his lifelong love of sports, of sports movies and the the benefits of directing ex-athletes.
ESPN: You're fresh off directing Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in "Skyscraper," and of course Johnson played four years at the University of Miami and in the CFL. But you also have a college football background, yes?
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Sure, we're both about the same level of athlete, quite clearly.
I played one year at Union College [Division III school in Schenectady, New York] as a wide receiver. I was a quarterback and defensive back in high school at Miramonte High School in Orinda, California, home of [ex-University of Miami and NFL QB] Ken Dorsey. I played my freshman year and realized very quickly that I was unlikely to turn professional. So I concentrated on other things, and thank goodness for that.
ESPN: Do you and The Rock have shared offensive and defensive philosophies?
Thurber: No, I would say absolutely not. I'm definitely more of an old-school, Houston Oilers run-and-gun style. Warren Moon all day. I'm a sucker for the new spread offenses, but the [run-pass option] stuff is a little sketchy just because of protections. I like to sort of wing it. I think Dwayne would definitely be more ground-and-pound, pull the guard, pull the tackle, 3 yards-and-a-cloud-of dust kind of guy. Defensively, I think he's more of a trenches dude. He was a three-technique (defensive tackle). I'm a little more into the zone-blitz scheme and exotic fronts.
ESPN: Within the director-actor dynamic, would you describe him as coachable?
Thurber: Absolutely. Dwayne Johnson is definitely a coachable athlete. That's what great about him. He comes from a Division I background. He's used to being coached. That doesn't mean that he follows blindly -- he wants to get better and he responds well to coaching. But he can audible, and he's usually right.
ESPN: Your affection for sports was evident going back to your first film, "DodgeBall." How much did you have real sporting events in your mind when you wrote the screenplay?
Thurber: I was 26 or 27 when I wrote it, and it was just based on 20 years of watching sports and loving sports. They were a big part of how my father and I connected and still connect to this day, calling each other after [San Francisco] Giants games and either celebrating or complaining. It came from watching sports and sports films. I'm a sports nerd and a comedy geek and I kind of melded both of them together. "Hoosiers," "Wildcats," "Bad News Bears," "Major League," "Karate Kid," etc. all fed into "DodgeBall," and I hope that's why people liked it.
ESPN: There's sort of a good-natured joke made at ESPN's expense in that film, and that's the existence of the fake ESPN broadcast network "The Ocho." What's the origin story of "The Ocho?"
Thurber: At the time I was writing "DodgeBall," ESPN2 had recently started and they were calling it "The Deuce" and I found that particularly funny. And then with any comedy, you just kind of take the knob and turn it all the way to 11. Where would ESPN broadcast something as ridiculous as dodgeball? It couldn't be on ESPN 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 ... it had to be ESPN 8. And then it had to be "The Ocho" -- it just kind of writes itself in that regard. I'm really pleased that that part of the movie has stuck around, [the fictional "The Ocho" broadcast team of] Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks, and that kind of broadcast-y stuff. In truth, that part was the most fun for me to write, and the easiest to write, because it's what I'd listened to my whole life -- play-by-play and color commentary.
ESPN: Did you have an idea at the time of whether ESPN would let you use our logos and present it as an ESPN broadcast?
Thurber: Absolutely not. I was so naive in terms of how you make movies. I was just writing what I wanted to see and I didn't know enough to not write that. I don't know who at ESPN agreed to let us use it. With the last three movies I've made, it just becomes incredibly boring and cowardly arguments with lawyers -- there's no upside in a lawyer saying "yes you can" -- the default is 'no' and you have to battle for every little thing. It's almost untenable.
ESPN: Cotton (Gary Cole) and Pepper (Jason Bateman) form one of ESPN's most iconic announce teams despite being fictional and having never worked for us. Did you have certain announcers who those characters were based on?
Thurber: Not specifically, but in 20-plus years of watching and listening to sports, it was kind of the straight-man, play-by-play guy and the sort of ex-jock color commentator. Gary Cole and Jason Bateman just absolutely hit it out of the park -- it helps when you cast fantastic actors. Originally Cotton and Pepper were supposed to be in blue shirts and ties and Jason was like, "I was thinking I could do like a motocross shirt with a dodgeball [logo], like an X Games announcer. And then you just write the most inane dialogue you can possibly come up with. My personal favorite line in the whole movie is "a double-fault final-play elimination hasn't occurred since the Helsinki episode of 1919, and I think we all remember how that turned out." Gary Cole delivered it so beautifully. It's so ridiculous, and he just leaves it there.
ESPN: The sport of dodgeball went through a huge resurgence because of the movie, it became a big adult league thing. There are probably some marriages and children that owe their existence to you reviving the sport. Is that something you think about?
Thurber: That was pretty wild to me, that those leagues started sprouting up after the movie. It was really nice. I get asked to play in those leagues not infrequently. It's sort of ironic because I loved dodgeball as a kid, it's part of why I wrote the movie is because when you say "dodgeball" to somebody, they either break into a smile or break into a sweat. But either way, they know. It's a lose-lose for me, because I can throw the ball pretty well and if I win, it's like "Oh, it's the guy who wrote the movie, of course he's good" and if I lose and get smoked, "I beat the guy who made the movie." So much pressure, so much pressure.
ESPN: The film also parodies sports movies. In the same way that you can't make a music biopic without trying to avoid the things that are accused of the genre in "Walk Hard," you may have saved the world from a lot of bad sports movies.
Thurber: Well, you're welcome. I don't know if it's that true, but it's a nice sentiment.
ESPN: Why are there so many bad sports films?
Thurber: I think there are a lot of bad sports films because there are just a lot of bad films. I don't think it's endemic to that particular genre. The best sports films aren't about sports typically. You look at "Major League," which is fantastic -- I remember I saw that movie half-a-dozen times in the theater -- and you get chills at the end when he drops the bunt and is trying to beat out the single to first. That team is an island of misfit toys -- that's "they think we can't do it, well watch this."
And that's what "Dodgeball" is, it's the island of misfit toys. That movie is about these guys saying this is our clubhouse and it's over unless we can save it. It's not about whether they win or lose. And that's what I think is kind of fun about that movie, and what I set out to try to do. In spite of how ridiculous it is, in spite of the fact that it's adults playing dodgeball, in spite of the fact that there's a guy who's a pirate, is that in the climax when the Average Joes are playing the Globo Gym Purple Cobras that if we did our job right, the audience -- in spite of how silly the movie is -- would catch themselves rooting for a dodgeball film.
ESPN: But you're down on "Dodgeball 2?"
Thurber: I get asked that more than you might think. I think I said everything I needed to say about dodgeball in one film. I got it all. But I would say "never say never."
ESPN: Congratulations, by the way, on your appearance in "Madden NFL 18." How did that come about?
Thurber: I was going to bring it up if you didn't. I'm so happy you did. What happened was I knew [EA Sports'] Ben Haumiller who was the lead producer on NCAA Football. I played that game so much that I kind of got to know him. He was producing "Longshot" [mode] for "Madden 18" and he introduced me to [creative director] Mike Young. Mike sent me the script and -- I was just going to be a consultant on the script which was better than a lot of the scripts I read for movies. I was taken by it, and I said I would love to consult on this but I don't want to be paid a dime. The only thing I want is to be in the game. I want the announcers to say my name, that's it. And they said no problem. So if you take me in the game, you can put me in at quarterback -- I think they wrote three separate intros for me. Nothing has made me more happy.
ESPN: What sorts of things have you achieved with yourself?
Thurber: Thank you for asking. I'm in a Madden league, and we've been playing 10 years together. We started in NCAA and when that went out, we started playing Madden. I'm obviously the quarterback for the Niners. I've won the MVP a couple times, offensive MVP I think three times in a row. Signed myself to a very cheap long-term contract so I'm team-friendly. And then I've made it to the Super Bowl I think the last three years, and I've lost every time to a gentleman that I hate. His name is "New Brett" and he runs the Cleveland Browns, so it's insult to injury. I can't really talk about it. It's humiliating.
ESPN: So do you own a Jimmy Garoppolo jersey?
Thurber: Not only do I have a Jimmy Garoppolo jersey, I bought one for my daughter, as well. Her name is Sutton and she's 2 -- the first word I taught her to say was Garoppolo.
I can't tell you how excited I am to have Jimmy Garoppolo on the team. I think the sky's the limit for the Niners, with [Kyle] Shanahan there. His offense is incredibly complicated and incredibly verbal, to see what [Garoppolo] did in just 6-7 starts, not really knowing the entire offense, you have to be excited for a whole offseason in the system. Not to mention signing Richard Sherman in the secondary, which is bittersweet for me as he was not my favorite Seahawk. I don't think I had a favorite Seahawk, but if I did, he wouldn't be my favorite Seahawk. But now that he's there, I'm trying to bury the hatchet. I can't wait for the season to start, and I haven't been able to say that in a long while.
ESPN: What is the sports job you want? Would you want to run the 49ers?
Thurber: I would trade being a director in a heartbeat for running a baseball team or a football team. You wouldn't have to finish your sentence. Growing up, I wanted to play first base for the Giants. I was a big Will Clark fan. Being down in Los Angeles, I really only get to see the Giants when they come to town to play the Dodgers. I go with Bateman every once in a while. He's a big Dodgers fan. He has season tickets, goes to 80 games a year, that kind of guy. You know they didn't win the World Series? I don't know if you knew that. What a World Series, it's a shame either of them had to lose. But it turns out a $250 million payroll can't buy heart.
Thurber: Oh, congratulations ... question mark?
ESPN: Is there a sports story you're amazed hasn't been told in a film?
Thurber: Joe Namath. I think his story is pretty amazing coming from Pennsylvania to Alabama to New York to being kind of the first sports celebrity and what that entailed, I think is a really interesting story. That would be one. The NBA when it was a barnstorming league in the 50's is also interesting.
ESPN: Have you thought about a Jim Harbaugh 49ers years biopic, and if so, is there a possibility of Harbaugh playing himself?
Thurber: [Laughs]. I think he could only play himself. I love, love, love Harbaugh. Harbaugh will always have a special place in my heart and in all 49ers' fans hearts.