Rampage: On the Set with Dwayne Johnson for the Giant Monster Movie

Our report from the set of Dwayne Johnson's Rampage, a video game movie with monstrous potential. And we mean more than just the Rock.

Under normal circumstances, when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson walks into a room, folks notice no matter what. Towering at over six and a half feet, and with enough charisma to qualify as his own breathing high-concept, the movie star has a way of drawing attention. Still, that concept was heightened further during a sunny afternoon on the set of Rampage, the New Line Cinema action/adventure adaptation of an arcade game that features Johnson fighting three skyscraper-sized monsters (because, of course). Just outside these air conditioned offices in the heat of a Georgian summer, an Atlanta backlot has been turned into a Chicago neighborhood stomped to hell.

Amidst the dust, shattered bricks that replicate actual Federal Center Plaza building blocks, and an imploded U.S. Army helicopter—all with a Windy City torch streetlamp that looks at risk of capsizing off its perch and onto the crew’s crafts table—Dwayne Johnson has been shooting his big third act St. Crispin’s Day speech. After sending his on set partner in awesome, Oscar nominee Naomie Harris, off to go get help, Johnson turns to a blue screen almost as large as Chi-Town’s Rookery Building for a call to arms. But as his army is not a battalion of Englishman, but an invisible albino gorilla named George, Johnson keeps it short and Rock-ish. “Ready to do this buddy?” Then after a deep sigh, and maybe a laugh (depending on the take), he adds with an ingrained smirk, “Yeah, let’s kick some ass.” All that’s missing is a giant ape fist-bump.

So it’s been a big day when Johnson rolls up in an attire that includes a ripped shirt, bloody knuckles, and a crimson circle around one eye that we can only hope is makeup. Yet he is in such good spirits about the whole thing that only after several quips and thoughtful answers does he look down at his hands and crack, “I just realized, by the way, I look really fucked up!” Not that it is going to slow him down.

There are reasons to keep things moving at a steady clip on Rampage. You don’t need to be the star—or any of the filmmakers—on a hundred million-dollar video game adaptation to know the inherent risk of trying to make one of those properties work as cinema. Johnson himself is no stranger to video game films, although he does not bring up his last foray into the subgenre, 2005’s Doom, nor is he unaware of the simplicity of the original Rampage arcade game formula: You play as either a giant gorilla named George, a wide wolf called Ralph, or a large lizard entitled Lizzie, who in the game looks a lot more like Godzilla than the mutated crocodile in the film. And like the Rampage title suggests, you wreck a city like it’s 1945—bothering with some red-draped Fay Wray stand-in, if you so choose.

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Johnson grew up playing the original quarter-eater at the arcade before eventually graduating with it to the Nintendo Entertainment System. So he is aware of its bare bones setup—which is its appeal for filmmakers. Here is a game with just goofy enough of a premise to work as a monster movie, but none of the baggage or mythology that can cripple other dense game-to-film transfers.

“The idea of making Rampage I thought was interesting, just because I love the game,” Johnson considers before conceding, “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.” The actor even revealed he and his director Brad Peyton, who collaborated with the Rock on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas before this, went to filmmakers who had adapted other video games to less than marvelous results. And before even signing on, Peyton had apparently heard several pitches that included Johnson turning into a giant ape like the pixelated avatars of the original game. But Peyton nixed those pretty quickly in favor of something that at least keeps one foot out of pure camp.

“That was a solid no,” Peyton laughs in a separate interview when the subject of Johnson transforming into a giant monster is broached. “Let’s just say I said no to Rock-zilla. It was presented in a room much like this, and I was like, ‘That’s a hard pass for me.’ That sounds really not grounded at all; it’s like a Saturday Night Live skit a little bit, [and] I just wanted to balance out some grounded aspect with the film.”

Peyton and Johnson eventually found what they were looking for in a sci-fi premise that was just lightly grounded enough into something approximating reality to justify a giant monster Battle Royale. In the film, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist and former military guy who is a vigilant protector of animal rights. Johnson tells us Davis fought in wars and in his downtime hunts poachers in Rwanda. He also is best friends with an albino gorilla he personally adopts and names George. After raising George in the San Diego Zoo, Davis is forced to connect with other people once the ape becomes a threat to humanity due to being infected with a mutagen derived from CRISPR—an actual form genetic engineering (or “editing”) being used in the 21st century to take out dangerous strands of DNA. In the film, however, it is essentially used to splice dozens of animals together in the blood stream of host organisms.

After canisters of CRISPR mutagen fall out of hands on the international space station, the dangerous biohazardous material will end up landing in Wyoming (near gray wolves), Florida (near alligators and apparently crocodiles), and in the midst of the San Diego Zoo… by George. So it’s based in a slightly more believable science than the game, even if the movie climaxes, according to the concept art, in the ruins of Federal Plaza with Davis and CRISPR scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Harris) surrounded on all sides by three towering monsters—albeit it one of them is a friend instead of a foe. And hey, that ending of “my monster can take your monster” has worked before!

Indeed, it is that unique relationship where the humans are intimately tied to one of the beasts that gives the story its appeal to Johnson and company. While much of the concept art is on display during our set visit, including impressions of a crocodile who appears to have the reddish pink frills of Steven Spielberg’s vision of a Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park, and a gorilla with eyes that evoke the shapeshifting fury of the titular American Werewolf in London, it is the very first concept image, which was designed at Peyton’s behest, that crystallized the film for Johnson: Davis Okoye, rifle in hand, is walking through the smoldering ruins of an American city with good, gigantic George watching his back, undoubtedly ready to rumble after that pep talk we saw being filmed.

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Pointing to that specific piece of art during our interview, Johnson says it was two and a half years ago when Rampage clicked for him, and it was because of that lone drawing that his director showed him. “This was before the latest draft we were going to work off of came in, in terms of the script,” Johnson remembers. “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… 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.”

It is a friendship between man and beast that Johnson can relate to—he even compares Davis and George to his own love for dogs and horses he raises in Virginia, including a little French Bulldog named Hobbs (after his character in the Fast and Furious films)—and it’s also what cemented his continuing working relationship with Peyton. Having done three movies with the director, the two have established a rhythm that the filmmaker himself marvels at while understanding (and appreciating) its harmonic simplicity.

“First of all, I am like a giant nerd,” Peyton exclaims while thinking almost wistfully of his lake house home in New Hampshire. “I read, I draw, I write. I’m more comfortable in a room with two people, and Dwayne’s more comfortable in a room with 30,000 people. So we’re polar ends of the spectrum in terms of personalities. Where we meet, however, is that we talk very clearly. I talk very, very clearly to him, and he talks very, very clearly to me. And for all of my nerdy, introverted, shyness, he’s willing to go in the opposite direction.”

If Peyton says, on the day, he needs Johnson to do a new stunt, the action star gamely replies, “Okay, I’ll run through that wall no problem!” According to his director, Johnson “never, ever looks at the monitors. He always says, ‘What do you need? How can we do it?’” That earned level of respect is needed unto itself, as Rampage is their biggest collaboration yet. Which is saying something since their last film, San Andreas, tossed Los Angeles and San Francisco into the sea.

After being asked about the differences between doing a disaster movie and a giant monster movie, Johnson says with some consideration, “What I’m finding as we move along and we’re shooting 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… 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.”

For Peyton, the goal is to literally bring that out in even the way the monsters are filmed as they rain hell down on Johnson and Harris.

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“[This] is not like a monster movie I’ve seen recently where ‘there’s the monster over there,’” Peyton says. “Like you’re under the monster, you’re on top of the monster, you’re inside of that event, as opposed to ‘look at that giant monster over there.’ Ultimately, everything I do is I’m trying to drop you right inside of the event.”

That includes when it comes time to film some of the most brutal sequences with his actual stars being thrown around the frame like piñatas.

Standing in the midst of a Boeing C-17 cargo haul (or what’s left of it), the dread caused by mutated monsters, even those who are our friends like George, becomes very apparent. The plane that a group of journalists and I are crowded in is vast, and technically not really a plane. It is a meticulously designed set on a soundstage that recreates the width and breadth of an aircraft that, like those cityscape exteriors, has been completely shattered.

In the ruins of the plane is what appears to be mangled steel from George, who in this scene will grow three sizes-too-big for his shackles, and appears to have been halfway successful in ripping to shreds the door to the cockpit before we arrived (the actual cockpit is in another part of the soundstage). The entire sequence is clearly meant to be one of the film’s major set-pieces, as we are standing on a rig built atop hydrolics that are meant to rock and roll the set as they inevitably crash toward the ground. And while the stars of the scene—Johnson, Harris, and motion-capture actor Jason Liles, who plays George—are not present, the intensity of the shoot in this room definitely is.

For Harris, the sequence encapsulates how much of a wonderful departure a role in a film like Rampage has been for her. While she is no stranger to blockbusters or action movies unto themselves—she has appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and as Moneypenny in Skyfall—in general, she doesn’t get to be the one who’s in the midst of the explosions. And that seemed like just the ticket after her previous role before Rampage: the despondent and addict mother of a young boy in the Oscar winning Moonlight. She also was nominated for an Academy Award for that performance.

“I read the script and I didn’t expect it to be my kind of movie at all, but it moved me and I was excited by the character,” Harris says during a roundtable interview between takes. She even credits director Brad Peyton’s enthusiasm for sealing the deal, as what was supposed to be a 15-minute phone call before an awards show turned into a 90-minute mission statement of passion by Peyton to bring her aboard. That, plus a friend who played Rampage growing up, turned the film into a must-have for her, as well as the perfect transition after Moonlight.

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“I suddenly found myself in a position where I was being sort of sent every haggard mother role,” Harris smiles. “And I was kind of like, I never started my career doing those kind of roles, I haven’t done it [a lot]. This is the one role that I’ve done, but it’s so easy when it’s something people attach you to for you to get typecast. And I was like, ‘I have to do something completely different’ to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

So instead she gamely found herself inside a hydrolic-powered C-17 plane, being tossed and thrown by gravity and presumably a growing ape. Johnson even had the photos on his phone to prove how exhausted they both were after a particularly long 12-hour day of being beat up on wires. Looking back on that day in particular, Johnson cracks, “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.’”

It’s funny, but it’s also obvious Harris is thrilled to be in this kind of movie where she is soothing giant apes in one scene, dodging falling debris in another, and punching out the bad guy in yet one more. To the actor, it’s a joy not least of all because she relates to her character of Dr. Kate Caldwell, and the good work she is trying to achieve.

“She is a scientist who has been discredited by the firm… so she’s been discredited by them and she’s been fired and ended up in prison as well,” Harris says of her character. This puts her in direct conflict with Davis when they first meet, as he isn’t too happy about having a scientist who worked on the CRISPR technology that has now inadvertently been weaponized by an evil, shadowy corporation… and then let loose on innocent animals.

Says Harris, “There’s a complete fascination, because basically seeing George is like seeing the worst side of my work come to life. So she takes huge responsibility for the state that George is in and really cares about him. Initially she worked in the arctic saving very rare species in the arctic… so she does care about animals generally, and then also, as I said, she feels specifically responsible for George.”

That underpinning of a love for animals, and a dread of experimentation (intentional or otherwise) on wildlife is the kernel of truth that everyone hopes will power Rampage into being more than just a spectacle of monster-on-monster violence.

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“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,” Johnson says while recalling what made him go from cautious about a video game movie to excited for this kind of adventure. “The heart is in this relationship. So the A-side of everything got me excited, [but] that was the part, the B-side, that got me really super-excited.”

This also informed Johnson’s training, including spending time at the Atlanta Zoo and with the Dian Fossey Foundation to better understand apes and the people who study them. While he didn’t actually get to hug his own George, he was allowed to feed some very friendly Silverbacks through the glass cage, and come to really appreciate a quote that his character has in the film. “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.”

It’s that purity of animal preservation that will hopefully make it all the more okay when that “eating” goes citywide.

Rampage is unleashed on April 13.