Rawson Marshall Thurber's directorial debut was 2004's "Dodgeball," a surprise summer hit that grossed $167 million worldwide. Nine years and one indie later (2008's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"), Thurber's back with another summer movie that could surprise at the box office: "We're the Millers," a twisted and often very funny road trip comedy that stars Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston as, respectively, a drug dealer and a stripper trying to bring a bunch of pot into the U.S. from Mexico by pretending to be married. (Emma Roberts and Will Poulter star as their fake kids; it's all very complicated.)
"It had been alive in various stages of development for almost eight years," Thurber said of the R-rated script, originally written by Bob Fisher and Steve Faber. "I think it was alive for that long for a couple of reasons: One is that the premise is such a fun, commercial concept that I think that's what kept it afloat, as opposed to gathering dust on the shelf somewhere. It almost came together, I think, three or four different times with different collaborations of directors and actors and it never quite achieved liftoff until I came aboard."
Thurber, 38, spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about making "We're the Millers," Jason Sudeikis' future as a leading man and why it took the director five years to make another movie.
This script has been around for quite a while. What was it about this incarnation that finally got things off the ground?
I think it was a collaboration and a conspiracy of good timing. The two writers who came on right before me, Sean Anders and John Morris, are very funny guys and they wrote a great draft of the script [originally written by Bob Fisher and Steve Faber]. It still had the same premise, but it was the first time I read a draft of the script that had a real attitude to it. Their script was wickedly funny and clever. That made me raise my hand and say I would very much like to direct the movie, please. New Line said, "Great! We like you and would love to." I came onboard and rewrote Sean and John and put my own spin on it -- added some stuff I thought wasn't there and kept the stuff I thought was great. We went out and got Jason Sudeikis and Jen Aniston and we went and made the movie.
Jason and Jen have such amazing chemistry in the movie. Did that allow you to push things even further with their characters, knowing that they would be able to connect so well with each other and the audience?
There's an old saying that directing is 90 percent casting, and while I wouldn't fully agree with that, in this case it was very helpful to the film. Jen and Jason are friends in their personal lives. They had such an ease with each other. It came across onscreen really clearly. I think because Jen knows Jason, likes Jason and trusts Jason, that she was able to relax a little bit more. It's a really natural and fun performance. They're so charming together, it's a real pleasure to watch.
When did you realize that their relationship was working so well?
In terms of the film itself, I think it was the first week of shooting. We were outside doing the campfire scene where they were doing the Pictionary joke. We had a two-shot on Jen and Jason and they were whispering to each other and playing off each other as they're planning what they're going to do. I remember watching both of them do that moment and it was so charming and easy and funny, and the chemistry was so apparent, that I let out a sigh of relief. It definitely makes a director's job much easier when you have chemistry. And it's not something a director can create. It's either there or it's not and you hope you pick the right combination.
Having Jason as the leading man here feels almost prescient with him leaving "SNL" for a new stage in his career. This really seems like a huge breakout performance for him.
I've been a huge Jason Sudeikis fan for a long time. I always thought he was the funniest guy in any movie he was in. It didn't matter the size of the role. I always wanted him to play the leading man. I saw him do it only once in this small movie that's very funny called "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy." He was great in it, but that was more of an ensemble comedy. Here, from the first table read to the final cut, it was apparent to me and anybody who saw the production that Jason Sudeikis is a fantastic leading man and a star. I feel like that after this movie he might be seen as the next comedic leading man in town. But I think he's talented enough to do anything he wants. If he wants to be the next Tom Hanks, he very well could be. That's how good he is.
You made a big splash with "Dodgeball," then directed "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" soon thereafter. That was five years ago. Does the five-year gap between that film and "We're the Millers" speak to you being choosey as a filmmaker or to the difficulty of getting movies made in Hollywood?
There's a little bit on my side of being choosey. For sure. But it's also just hard to trick somebody into giving you $40 million to make a movie. It's a lot harder than it sounds. I got close on a couple of things that I thought were going to happen. I was desperate to make "Magnum P.I." at Universal, which was a script that I wrote and was hoping to direct, but I couldn't convince them to roll the dice on it. It was disappointing and something I wanted to do. What people don't see, though, is that there's a lot of struggle behind the curtain in trying to get all the pieces together and trying to get someone to sign a check. Sometimes that can take a couple of years and sometimes that can take five years. I was not sitting on my couch. My intent was to make a movie as quickly as I could after 2008 and this was as quick as I could do it. But I am proud of the movie.
What did you learn on "Dodgeball" and "Pittsburgh" that you brought to this?
There were lessons I learned on both. "Dodgeball," I originally wrote in my little apartment in Hollywood. I wrote it before I even had an agent. It was very personal for me because it was a love letter to a lot of the films I loved growing up. It was my baby. You live and die with every joke and every moment that either makes it into the final edit or doesn't. A big portion of a first time director's job is trying not to get fired. That was a big part. Then you try to make a great movie. "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" was a book I loved for a long time, I did the adaptation myself and I spent a lot of time on it. Whatever momentum I had off of "Dodgeball" I used to get that movie made. I don't think it would have been made otherwise. You bring all of that stuff with you for your next film.
The big difference for "Millers," which was really fantastic for me, is that I didn't write the script originally. It wasn't my baby. It was just something I was hired to direct and execute. In that way, it was really freeing. Nothing was precious to me. I didn't have any darlings, as they say, in the script. It was much more of a clinical approach: does it work or does it not? It was freeing in the editing room to take out jokes that didn't quite work or got in the way of a moment that needed to breath. It was not my own child, but I was much more of an adoptive parent. You love the child the same, but there's a biological difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed.