When director Brad Peyton pitched Dwayne Johnson on "San Andreas," a relentless thrill ride that brings the Big One to the big screen for the first time in 40 years, he promised to redefine the disaster genre.
"I want to create shots that truly immerse the audience inside the earthquake, inside the tsunami," Peyton told the action superstar. "And also I need to immerse you."
From the tranquillity of the Bel-Air Hotel last week, Peyton described his vision this way: "Just like the event, I'm not letting you out, I'm not letting you off the hook. There's no 'Cut!' coming."
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"San Andreas," which opens in 2-D, 3-D and even the so-called 4-D on May 29, proves Peyton is as good as his word. The $110-million film follows a search-and-rescue pilot (Johnson) as he and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) rescue their stranded daughter, played by Alexandra Daddario, after a massive earthquake hits California. Paul Giamatti plays the Caltech seismologist who predicts it.
"San Andreas" joins a growing revival of the disaster genre that was all but abandoned in the years after the Twin Towers fell in 2001. Only now real-life catastrophes are so commonplace that it's not surprising when a flu pandemic coincides with the release of 2011's "Contagion" or a tsunami hits Japan just months after audiences watch one depicted in 2010's "The Hereafter." Perhaps the success of films from "Gravity" and "Godzilla" to "Noah" and even "This Is the End" has more to do with our need for catharsis than we thought.
"Movies become this metaphoric way of working out your own fears," said "San Andreas" screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who was also head writer of TV's "Lost." "We want to go through that hell and come out the other side and see the lessons that are learned."
"San Andreas" comes after two large Nepal earthquakes and a spate of spring tremors in Southern California. The movie's website now links to the American Red Cross, the Global Disaster Preparedness Center and FEMA's ready.gov. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who's making a public seismic safety push, has plans to attend the premiere on Tuesday in Hollywood.
Even Johnson ran earthquake drills with his family after watching the finished movie. And Peyton, a Canadian who grew up with blizzards, has fully stocked quake survival kits at the ready. They're both hopeful the film will inspire more Californians to be prepared.
"We thought we were prepared before our movie," Johnson said. "Now we're as prepared as we can be. We also have a newfound respect for Mother Nature, for the power and the wrath."
In "San Andreas," Peyton makes sure the audience feels the gathering panic inside a posh high-rise restaurant in downtown L.A. as a magnitude 9.2 earthquake causes the building to collapse, slamming Gugino's limp body against concrete as she falls four floors. Done in one take that took two months of rehearsal and 75 stunt people, it's a punishing, five-minute scene for the audience and for Gugino, who was strung up like a marionette over a "pancake" rig and dropped for the effect.
"I've never done more stunt work in my life," Gugino told the WonderCon crowds in Anaheim in April. "But we got to react to real circumstances."
For Johnson, that meant skydiving into San Francisco's AT&T Park with a terrified Gugino strapped to his stomach on one day, rappelling out of a suspended helicopter the next and, on yet another, performing an underwater rescue scene inside a 13,000-square-foot tank as 9,000-gallon shipping containers of water were dumped around him.
Instead of the abstract "God's eye view" favored by "Master of Disaster" filmmaker Irwin Allen in his 1974 classic "Earthquake," Peyton used more close-ups to enhance the claustrophobia and terror. And though he had the budget to rely on the spectacle of special effects, Peyton said he wanted visceral performances too. For that, Johnson nicknamed him "The Method Director."
"It was incredibly physical," said the former WWF wrestler known as the Rock, with a dozen action films under his belt. "It all goes back to the idea of the audience experiencing it with me."
Indeed, thanks to digital wizardry and a healthy budget, Peyton and his team of engineers, eight visual effects companies and a fast-working crew put the viewer inside every scene. In three months of shooting, producer Beau Flynn said, only two days were dialogue.
"A lot of times you're like, 'We don't have the money to do that,'" Flynn said. "That was never our problem. Our problem was, 'How are we going to do it? It's never been done before.'"
They made what Peyton called a human "hamster wheel" and rolled it over a parking lot strewn with dirt to put the viewer inside a car as it plummets down the Santa Monica Mountains. With visual effects, the audience climbs the crest of a 15-story tsunami wave, ducking falling shipping containers as a nearby barge capsizes. In another scene, they're trapped inside an underground parking garage as a building crumbles.
The toughest scene of all, though, was an underwater rescue from a sinking building. It not only demanded three sets be built on a submergible platform resting on four hydraulic ramps, it also meant a 200-member crew spent two weeks underwater in scuba gear, operating three cameras, while another 200 crew members and a team of engineers carefully replicated the force of a tsunami inside a giant tank. During one take, a massive water dump blew the wall off the set. By the last day, everything was falling apart. The result, though, means the audience is drowning alongside Daddario as the San Francisco Bay floods the 14th story of a skyscraper.
"It's so much movie crammed into such a small cycle," Peyton said. "We'd sink a building. And the next day we'd crash a helicopter. And the next day, we'd jump out of a plane."
The New Line Cinemas production took place over just three months, on sets at Village Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Exterior shots took place in Los Angeles and at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
And yet for all that effort (and money) to create the mind-blowing spectacle of "San Andreas," Cuse, Peyton and Flynn said they made a deliberate attempt to root every scene in the characters, Spielberg style.