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'Skyscraper' Director Made A 'Love Letter' To The Classic Action Blockbusters

Dwayne Johnson plays a U.S. military veteran framed for setting the world's tallest building on fire — while his family is trapped in it — in the new movie <em>Skyscraper</em>.
Legendary Pictures
Dwayne Johnson plays a U.S. military veteran framed for setting the world's tallest building on fire — while his family is trapped in it — in the new movie Skyscraper.

A new movie is coming from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson — former pro wrestler, current action movie superstar. It's called Skyscraper.

It brings together lots of threads. The world's tallest building! On fire! With thousands of people inside! Including the hero's beautiful family! Johnson is of course the hero, a one-legged war veteran who must save the day.

There are lots of scary moments, lots of tension, and — if you are afraid of heights — lots more tension. The director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, is writing and making his second film with Johnson.

"I am scared of heights," Thurber says in an interview. He's speaking from the 116th floor of a hotel in Hong Kong, avoiding the windows. "My mom's scared of heights; I'm scared of heights. Yeah, I guess maybe I made the wrong movie. Maybe I should have made Ranch House or something."

Interview Highlights

On coming up with the stunt where Dwayne Johnson jumps across a gap from a crane into the burning building.

Well, I think a couple things. The first is: How do you get into a burning building when your family's trapped above the fire line, 100 stories in the air? 'Cause you can't go in through the bottom and climb your way up. So how do you do it, right? So first I faced myself with that puzzle, and then there's that lightbulb moment, and I remember it distinctly, and I got really excited 'cause I'd never seen anything like it, and it seemed appropriately over-the-top for this kind of picture. And then the sort of beats that you talk about, where Dwayne's character Will Sawyer first attempts to use the crane hook to get in, and then that goes wrong, and then he doubles back and is going to try another way but he can't and he's cut off, and he's forced to make this leap of faith — you know, this is all stuff that you learn from Spielberg, I suppose, in the escalation of tension, the escalation of problem that pushes you toward character, toward revealing character. So Dwayne Johnson has to make a choice. What does his family mean to him? What is he willing to sacrifice? What is he willing to risk? And it turns out: He's willing to risk everything.

On building moments of humor into a high-tension movie

You know, Die Hard is one of my all-time favorite films. It's on the Mount Rushmore of action pictures. But that movie is about three jokes shy of a straight-up comedy. Now certainly, Skyscraper isn't quite as funny as Die Hard, but we found the moments — the moments of levity. And I think the film is so tense, and people are gripping their chairs and kind of watching it through their fingers, that you want those moments of relief so people can kind of shake the tension out and laugh and then buckle up again.

On Skyscraper's place among this year's big movie releases, and if it's a good year for heroes

It's clearly a good year for superheroes. But I think that's what's so interesting about Skyscraper, is that it isn't about a superhero. We have sequels on either side of us — we have 11 sequels in sort of a five-week corridor — and we're the only original picture there. And we're the only picture that doesn't really have a superhero at its center, when you talk about these big tentpoles. And I'm really proud of that. And they don't really make these movies any more. Skyscraper is like the kind of movie I grew up watching: Die Hard, Towering Inferno, The Fugitive. I don't know, I guess it's my love letter to those movies.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.