Rampage: Dwayne Johnson on Finding Heart of Monster Movie

On the Rampage set, Dwayne Johnson chats on finding humanity and friendship in a story about him and a giant albino gorilla in Chi-Town.

The first thing that crossed the mind of Dwayne Johnson upon hearing that there would be a Rampage movie was, “Yeah, let’s see that.” The action star icon, statesman of professional wrestling, and only half-joking contender for the political arena, never seems to shy away from a challenge, and before he felt any caution about the prospect of attempting another video game movie, his first impulse was to embrace this bit of arcade silliness from his youth. Apparently it was the Rock’s childhood favorite, as a coin-op and then as an NES video game in his home.

And like that, Rampage stood a much better chance of being a video game film that would be worthwhile. In the three years since that initial conversation, the film took shape into something that appealed to Johnson’s sensibilities of finding heart in an otherwise absurd premise about three monsters wreaking havoc in downtown Chicago. As a story as much about the friendship between his anti-poaching badass hero, Davis Okoye, and the albino gorilla named George he adopts for the San Diego Zoo, it is on this foundation that Johnson and his frequent directing collaborator Brad Peyton are unleashing a giant monster Battle Royale.

There is plenty said of how the the film’s use of CRISPR technology (actual genetic engineering that is still in its early stages) could theoretically lead to the kind of gene-splicing seen in Rampage, but the movie’s most grounding influence is obvious when Johnson steps into a room with journalists on the film’s Georgian set. The production is almost over, and Johnson has just finished shooting one of his character’s destined-to-be-quotable lines.

Yet Johnson is strangely serene, even pensive as he gives measured answers about how this film differs from his and Peyton’s last movie, the disaster flick San Andreas, and how he is ready to tackle a video game film in a skeptical market. One even forgets he is covered in bruises, fake blood, and a torn shirt. But that’s part and parcel for a man who is ready to go bananas in his next action movie extravaganza.

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Out of every arcade game that could be made into a movie, what makes Rampage the perfect game for adaptation?

Well I can only speak for me, personally. So I just know from my taste and my experiences in playing the game—I loved the game when I was a kid. When I got a little older I had it on Nintendo; loved it then. It’s such a simple premise, so the challenge was to take this fun simple premise and try to build out and hopefully make a cool movie out of it.

I think we’ve been doing some good stuff on set here that might lend itself to a pretty good movie. And you know, again, there are just some really cool elements that if you do it right, hopefully it can turn into something that’s really cool. Because you’ve got three gigantic monsters who’ve been mutated through genetic editing and you have a hero in Naomie Harris’ character, and then you have some big bald brown guy running around, shooting shit, and trying to look and trying not to get killed. [Laughs]

You did an amazing description of this movie’s plot on Instagram in which you described the friendship between your character and George. “George mad, you mad.” What is it like to have to genuinely establish that rapport onscreen?

Sure, I think there’s layers to it. I’m an animal lover, I have a lot of dogs and horses up in Virginia, and I raise fish… so the idea with the first part about it was what great relationship with an animal in my life that I could apply to it. And I have a little Frenchie named Hobbs, named after the character from Fast and Furious. And apply that, and also the idea amidst the calamity, amidst of science going wrong in the wrong hands, it still comes down to this core relationship, and that’s one of the reasons that really attracted me to begin with to the movie and to the script.

Because the element and the anchor of the relationship between man and his best friend, and his best friend happens to be an albino gorilla, that was the final anchor that sealed the deal for me, because I was thinking, “Okay, we have these cool elements, great CGI, a great director who I’ve worked with twice already in Brad Peyton, who I know can deliver on a big massive scale, but what’s like the anchor, what is the heart?” And the heart is in this relationship. So the A-side of everything got me excited, [but] that was the part, the B-side, got me really super excited.

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So you and Brad have done the big destruction movie before with San Andreas, so what is the difference between making a disaster movie and a giant monster movie?

That’s a good question. Well, let me take a stab at this: I think probably from my experience, the difference between a disaster movie and a monster movie is one, you’re dealing with mother nature, very unpredictable; the other side, you’re dealing with mutated monsters, which are unpredictable, but at the same time, one was a best friend of mine, someone who I treated like my brother or my kid.

… I think what I’m finding with—and it’s funny you ask that, because I could only answer that now after we’ve shot for a couple of months and putting everything on its feet… but what I’m finding as we move along and we’re shooting these scenes is that, unlike with San Andreas, we had time between earthquakes. We have a sense that something was coming, that something else was coming, the big one was going to happen. We had a little bit of time.

In this, with three gigantic monsters, especially at their height of the serum taking effect, there’s no time. There’s no time, and everything happens very quickly, and everything’s happening from different angles. Not only are you dealing with the destruction and the collapsing, by the way, of buildings in all of Chicago, but then you’re dealing with alpha animals who are trying to do everything they can to kill everything around them. And then the fighting for territory, and then trying to get to the beacon; there’s a whole bunch of things happening.

With the game, you’re playing as the monsters, your goal is to destroy everything. So when we see the movie, are we the audience rooting for you to defeat them or are we rooting for them to destroy everything?

I think it’s a combination. It all depends on what you like! [Laughs] Because everyone is going to get satisfied. But also, I think what you’re going to be doing, the goal here is you’re going to be rooting for—look, I know when I watch a movie I’m going to be rooting for the monsters, because I love the monsters. I’m also rooting for the relationship and just taking myself out and watching as a fan, but I think everybody’s going to be satisfied. There’s something for everybody.

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But the fun of the destruction of Rampage, which is completely destroying everything, that’s in here. There are some easter eggs in here too that I think people are going to like.

There are a lot of bad movies that are based on video games. So what’s the secret of making a good movie adaptation of a video game?

Great question. I’m not quite sure what the secret is. I can tell you what we wanted to do was we wanted to collectively get together and put together the best team possible to execute on the script, and that means bringing in all the great department heads. We had a great studio who does this very well, we’ve got a team in Brad Payton. Yes, we’ve done San Andreas. Before San Andreas, we’ve done [Journey 2]. That’s when I found how talented Brad was. At that time, we were using James Cameron’s new cameras right off of Avatar, it’s pretty cool, and how Brad was able to execute that.

I think it all starts with story and I think it all starts with, I think with like any movie, it all starts with story, it all starts with characters. I can tell you the idea of making Rampage I thought was interesting, just because I love the game. Like so you love something, it’s like, “Yeah, let me see!” But you’re always a little bit cautious, especially when you know it’s a video game, and it’s an interpretation of a video game, and you always want to try and study, and see video games in the past that didn’t do well. And a lot of those filmmakers who made those video game movies that I know and we all know, because we’re all in the business, right? We talk to them and get as much information as possible.

And I think it goes back to actually finding an anchor. So yes, we had the CRISPR science that rooted that in science, rooted that in a reality which is happening today, the love of animals, me being a primatologist, and also the anchor of a relationship. There’s the calamity and there’s the craziness, and everything that’s happening. But it all kind of follows down to just me and this silverback gorilla, which you guys will see, we have not only this awesome relationship, but we do sign language, he tells me, “I love you,” I tell him, “I love you back.” He shows off in front of pretty ladies, I tell him don’t do that [gesturing the middle finger]. We do some funny stuff.

Did you work with any real gorillas? Did you have time to do that?

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We did. I spent a lot of time at the Atlanta Zoo here with primatologists there, and also the Dian Fossey Foundation, which when you want to root something in a reality, especially in Hollywood, you want to do your best to be authentic as possible and have some roots in a foundation that people feel good about seeing, as opposed to being just a big commercial movie with three monsters.

So we spent a lot of time with scientists and scientists from CRISPR. I personally spent a lot of time with primatologists. I spent a lot of time with the people from Dian Fossy, the people from Atlanta Zoo, and I spent some time in the Primate Department. You can’t go in and actually touch these gorillas, because they’re not your best friend. [Laughs] But they’re very friendly, they come up to the cage, by the way, and I was able to feed them, I was able to spend time with a silverback named Taz, and you know another fascinating aspect is our motion-capture aspect… [Jason] is fantastic. So I had an opportunity to spend time with primatologists, understand them, understand what their passions are, what their goals are, especially when it comes to animal conversation.

Jason, as you guys will see, he studied gorillas for months and months, and months. Getting their emotions, getting their facial expressions.

We’ve seen motion-capture reach a certain height with Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings. Did watching those movies help convince you to make a movie like this and engage with that technology?

Yeah, absolutely. We went to those filmmakers and those ones who made that company, we went to WETA as it relates to The Lord of the Rings and the new Avatars, and the motion-capture company. So I think going back to your question, the “what’s the secret to it?” It would have to be trying to find those filmmakers who really did it right, those department heads and those companies who did it right, see if they responded to the script, which they did.

Because I think something like this in their minds, which are way smarter than I am, especially when it comes to tech script, this is the kind of script where they’re like, “Oh yeah.”

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Going back working with Jason, what surprised when you start working with someone who’s doing motion-capture?

Well, there’s the commitment of it when somebody commits. But then I was really blown away by the immersive-ness of how he committed. When he comes on set, he comes on as George with his emotions and with his facial expressions, and with his grunts, and there are modulating grunts that gorillas have for different meetings. His sign language, when he’s in pain, especially when the serum is taking effect and he knows that something’s wrong with him. I was really blown away and really captivated by his performance, which really reminded me of how remarkable motion-capture acting is.

And now after being on set with Jason, someone’s who’s committed to the role, months and months of studying gorillas and being on these apparatuses where he’s a silverback for weeks and weeks and weeks, running up and down the Santa Monica stairs… it’s really just spectacular. I can see why when, I think, the second to last Planet of the Apes came out, where the discussion of an Oscar nomination started happening, and that dialogue started happening filling up our rooms throughout Hollywood.

Now I get it and I understand. I thought I got it before, understood it then with Andy Serkis and what he was doing, but wow. When you look at some of these guys, it’s spectacular.

Speaking of Oscars, Naomie Harris came out of Moonlight and had a big year. What’s it been like working with her?

She’s been the best, yeah. She’s been amazing, I love that woman, love working with her. I’ve been really lucky—I was just thinking about this the other day—I’ve been really lucky to work with just some amazing women over the years. And Naomie, she really takes the cake. She’s just so incredibly committed and disciplined and phenomenal with her work, and you immediately can tell, “Ah, this is why you were nominated for an Oscar. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re nominated for two or three more at some point in your career.” Really wonderful.

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And the best part about it is, the best part of Naomie is she’s just an awesome girl. Like really cool, down to earth, fun to talk to. So yeah, nothing but great things to say about her. And before every take, I’ll come up to her and say, “Okay, I need the Oscar performance.” Or I’ll be, “You know what? We don’t need the Oscar performance, just do a little bit.” [Laughs]

We’ve heard the flipside of your character is he loves animals, he’s great with George, but he’s not great with people, maybe.

Yeah, just like me in real-life. [Laughs]

But with Naomie’s character and other people he’s encountering, how does that play out?

Well, it makes it very challenging. Here’s a guy who’s been around the world. He’s fought in wars and he’s been an anti-poaching human in Rwanda, which is based off Dian Fossey and some of those anti-poachers that I had the opportunity to spend time with. And he’s seen a lot of the grim parts of the world, he’s tracked down a lot of bad people. So for him, the interpretation of what a good human being is is a bit skewed, but he is justified in his ways in how he feels.

So it makes any relationship with somebody very, very challenging. That includes Naomie, that includes the people he works with, that includes how he views the world and how he views people, and also he feels like the one thing that draws him to animals and especially to George is you always know the truth with them. You always know the truth with animals, and there’s a great quote in the movie—I think it’s a great quote, we’ll see how people respond to it—and it’s very simple. If animals like you, they lick you, if they don’t they eat you. [Laughs]

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During the development of the film were there any reference points or other films you wanted to tap into?

I think there were a few movies just visual effects wise that we were talking about, and these were all movies that WETA had worked on. Of course we all watched King Kong [Skull Island] when it came out, I think last year. Godzilla, movies in the past like that that have a semblance of a giant gorilla and a giant lizard, or in our case is a giant alligator, which I don’t know if you guys have seen… but that’s four football fields, by the way, that alligator.

… So I went, this was about a year and a half, two years ago, Brad had set up an office and looked like this minus all the visuals you see here [pointing to concept art around the room]. He had one visual… this only picture in the room, and this was before the latest draft we were going to work off of came in, in terms of the script.

But he goes, “This will give you a sense of it.” And the moment I saw this, it gave me a great reference and just a great visual understanding of what the movie could be, because one of the early challenges is that when you say “Rampage” to people, and if they don’t know the game, then they’ll go, “Oh, what’s that about?” But if they do know the game, it’s very easy without a visual like this, this kind of asset, for people to get a little critical. “Oh, here we are. Let’s see how this is going to be. Oh, three monsters in the middle of the game.”

But the moment I saw this I was like, “Ah, here we are, this informs us and this means everything, because this is the relationship.”

So this is obviously not your first rodeo, but was there anything physically challenging about this that was different?

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Easily the most physically demanding role I have ever done. Easily. And I didn’t really anticipate it, because I knew it was going to be physically demanding, because you read the script and you know that things start to happen at a catastrophic level, things are going down all around you, and you’re flying a helicopter, because you’ve got to fly a helicopter. Plus, I was familiar with Brad… But it wasn’t until I got to the set that you start to realize as you start to get immersed in it that it is constant. Unlike San Andreas where a little tremor would happen, a little bit of rumbling, we’d have a little bit of time, this is just a constant onslaught. So I think we’re going to make a movie that really, truly feels like a ride with amazing twists and turns, and ups and downs, and your heart will beat really fast and then we’ll slow it down just a little bit. Add a little bit of humor at certain places, which you need, and then [snaps fingers], you’re on it again.

From a physicality standpoint—the Fast and Furious movies can be very physical because there’s always a fight, you have to fight with somebody. But in this case, there’s a lot of running and there’s a lot of almost being eaten, and there’s a lot of running for your life. There’s a particular scene from a C-17… there’s a big C-17 in the movie eventually, and George is growing on it, he’s growing rapidly, he’s getting very angry. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is on it, and it’s a terrifying scene that just continues and continues, because the plane is nosediving, and we’re trying to get off it… This is 12 hours every day, and finally Naomie and I are like this…. And she’s like, “Fuck, man, this is tough.”

I will just ask we were watching you film that scene out there, and we loved hearing you say, “Let’s go kick some ass.” You’ve done a lot of these action movies, but is it still a thrill when you get to do those sort of core classic action movie moments?

It’s awesome, man. I still feel like I’m a big kid at heart. I certainly act like it at times, and at the end of the day, we’re on this treadmill of life and it just goes, and we all try to do good and do our job, and hopefully put in good work and learn from our mistakes. And all the things we check off our boxes every day, but at the end of the day, I feel like we’ve got the best job in the world: we love what we do, we’re here in Hollywood, we’re on this big soundstage, and it’s total destruction, and I’m looking up at this giant albino gorilla who’s my best friend. “Ready to kick some ass?” I’m sign languaging, and he’s like, “Yeah.” It’s the best; it’s very cool; I never take it for granted.

Rampage stomps into theaters on April 13.