Brad Peyton’s 3D disaster action thriller, San Andreas, will have audiences quaking in their seats when the San Andreas Fault triggers a catastrophic magnitude 9-plus earthquake along the West Coast of California. In the aftermath, an LAFD Search and Rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) make their way together from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter (Alexandra Daddario). As the family tries to pull itself back together in the face of a devastating natural disaster, we see how far each person is willing to go to protect the ones they love.
At the film’s L.A. press day, Peyton, Johnson, Gugino, Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, screenwriter Carlton Cuse and producer Beau Flynn discussed how the recent tragedy in Nepal connects to the themes in their film, why the movie is intended to entertain as well as raise awareness about earthquake preparedness, the three concurrent storylines that put the characters front and center against a backdrop of incredible spectacle, the strongly written female roles, why Peyton wanted the actors to do many of their own stunts, the personal responsibility Johnson felt to portray first responders authentically, the concept of personal heroism, and why it was important to show real heroes in a grounded way.
From the interview, we’ve compiled a list of 18 interesting things to know about San Andreas. Be aware there are a few spoilers.
The film was finished before the disaster in Nepal occurred.
- The filmmakers had no way of knowing there would be a devastating natural disaster in Nepal so close to the release of their film, but they felt that the tragedy that took place there closely connects to the themes in it. “We made the movie knowing and understanding the content of it and what we were making,” says Dwayne Johnson. “In the world we live in and the life we have today, these things happen. It was incredibly unfortunate. Prayers and thoughts continue to go out to everybody in Nepal that was affected by that. If there’s one correlating factor or connective tissue, it would be the ideology of family and strength coming together through a tragedy like this. The truth is you go into a project like this with everything you’ve got, and your heart and your soul, and you just want to make a good movie.”
It’s a popcorn movie, but it doesn’t treat its subject matter lightly.
- The movie is meant to entertain audiences, but not to make light of these things, because the filmmakers realize there are real world implications to an earthquake and they took that seriously. While not everything depicted on screen is fact-based, the film still acknowledges the reality behind it. “I’d actually be more nervous if it was silly or fun because it’s real world,” explains director Brad Peyton. ”It’s not aliens or superheroes or robots. I felt like the movie’s tone respected that.” Peyton believes the movie is something more akin to Jaws where the sharks are real. “It’s not about the Mayan calendar, the world ending, getting in gigantic robotic ark ships, and what happens at the end of that movie (referring to Roland Emmerich’s 2012). It’s more grounded than that. I’m sensitive to people that have been through tragedies. I don’t want to portray that.” For Peyton, the purpose of making this movie and what it’s really about is perseverance. “The movie is not necessarily about earthquakes. It’s about a family that’s trying to put itself back together. If you get knocked down in life, bad things happen. That’s life. But the most important thing is how you come together with the people you love to get back up and move on.”
The film raises awareness about preparedness.
- San Andreas raises awareness about the devastating impact of earthquakes through entertainment. Its star, Dwayne Johnson, did some amazing Emergency Preparedness PSA’s that were part of a multimedia campaign sponsored by FEMA’s Ready campaign and the Ad Council in partnership with Warner Bros. to draw attention to the importance of preparation and to educate audiences on the three steps to take if an earthquake strikes. “As someone who grew up in Canada, in Newfoundland, earthquakes were fantasy to me. You’d only hear about it in the news,” Peyton explains. “Suddenly you research it and you put it out there in the culture, and more people go, ‘You know what, I do need to be prepared for this.’ There is some positivity that comes out of doing a movie like this, which is that we can move on, that we can be prepared for when something like this does happen.” Alexandra Daddario agrees, “I think this movie will help people learn what the proper precautions are to take and what kinds of things could happen in a situation like this.”
The idea for the film was born out of a real-life encounter with an earthquake.
- Producer Beau Flynn came out to Los Angeles from New York at the end of 1993 with a dream to tell stories and make movies. Three weeks later, the Northridge Earthquake happened. “Like Dwayne, I’m from Miami. I’m very familiar with hurricanes, but we do get a notice when a hurricane is coming,” said Flynn. “Unfortunately, you don’t with an earthquake. Northridge was a very scary, sobering experience. I just felt very small, very humble, and really grateful in terms of how things can change so quickly. I had incredible respect for that.” Flynn always wanted to tell a story about a family persevering. After that earthquake, he called his mom and said, “I’m moving back to New York,” and she said, “Why don’t you settle down?” He thought that was incredible advice, and he’s never regretted that he did. “I really wanted to tell a story about the myths of Mother Nature and how these things do happen globally, about people coming together as a community, and family reuniting, staying together, persevering and fighting through this. That’s really how this has been percolating for the last 20 years.”
This movie celebrates real superheroes.
- Flynn loved what Peyton brought to the movie by showing how everyone had a special strength and was almost like a superhero in a grounded and real way. “It’s really fascinating the kind of fight or flight mechanism that we all have,” he says. “It was just an area that Brad continually brought up and all of the cast contributed in a way. Everyone can make a difference. I love that Brad really focused on that and focused on people in a movie amongst incredible spectacle obviously, but really put the people first. Every single day on set that’s all he said. It was about how performance and actors bring out who these people are. He showed them as true heroes in their own real grounded way and showed the heart and what makes a real genuine hero, and not necessarily a Marvel hero. That was really impressive and I believe that came through in a big way in the film.”
Johnson agreed to star in the film almost immediately.
- Dwayne Johnson was in Budapest shooting Hercules, another movie produced by Flynn, when he was handed the script. He stayed up until 3:30 in the morning to read the script all the way through. “I loved it. I texted Beau and said, ‘I’m in.’ It all came together fairly quickly in terms of the amazing actors who had their hands up who wanted to come in and play in the sandbox and hopefully redefine a genre that has been around for such a long period of time. Collectively, the group here wanted to create something special because it’d been a long time since there’d been an earthquake movie.”
Showing the Hollywood Sign in your movie comes with a price.
- The iconic Hollywood Sign which appears in the film is a copyrighted piece of artwork and a registered trademark that cannot be used without the permission of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. When it appears in movies, there are fees that must be paid, According to producer Beau Flynn, “We are extremely thorough in clearing everything. We have a really intense clearance department, and when we fight for something we do, then obviously we pay out and let other people participate. We’re happy that we can create that for them.”
Johnson is intimately involved in the development of his characters.
- In the wrestling ring, Dwayne Johnson created a character that is still an icon of that world known as “The Rock.” In action films, he has constructed an action hero that everyone has certain expectations for, and he has detailed conversations with people who are writing, producing and directing his films about what this action hero should be doing, his limitations, and his expectations. It’s a conscious effort on his part. “It’s such a collaborative effort,” says Johnson. “There are so many different moving mechanisms obviously to making a movie. When you’re trying to construct a heroic character, one that can play a part in being an anchor in a big movie like this that’s a real world movie, playing real men and women who live and exist today in terms of first responders, the level of detail, the deep diving and conversations that we do are really extraordinary.” Johnson felt he had a responsibility to portray first responders accurately. “This is why I say this particular role has been a life changing experience for me. There’s an expectation that fans globally have with what we have been used to delivering. We wanted to take that and then raise the bar, which is honestly why everybody came together with the script which was very well written. We had an opportunity to create something that was very special and unique, but also grounded in science and anchored with amazing heart. We have producers, actors, and certainly a director who wanted to meet that expectation in terms of heroic characters across the board.”
Peyton wanted to explore what makes a hero, and 9/11 loomed large over the actors as they were shooting.
- Brad Peyton spoke a lot about the concept of personal heroism which he revealed in the movie through different characters. He talked about it every day on set and instilled in his incredible cast what it is that he thinks makes a hero. “You can sometimes see the extremities of human nature and humanity,” suggests Peyton. “You can see the best and worst in people. Some people really step up and are there for each other.” Each of his actors played a character that was a hero in whatever they were doing while trying to save lives. All of these actors have also dealt with that kind of emergency in real life and were willing to share their experiences:
- The first thing Alexandra Daddario thought of when she was auditioning for this role was how she grew up in New York City and was in Manhattan during 9/11. “That was really the only thing that I related to as far as a disaster on a grand scale,” says Daddario. “It was really interesting to see on that day and in the weeks afterwards how people came together, what they were able to do for each other, and what I found myself feeling, thinking, and doing for the people around me, whether it was strangers on the street or my own family. I really related to it in that way. All the things that you worry about on a day-to-day basis drop away. They don’t matter.”
- Carla Gugino concurs, “I was actually thinking the same thing because I was also in New York where I lived during 9/11. I used to be able to see the Towers from my apartment. By the time I got the call about what was going on, one Tower had gone down, and then the other did shortly thereafter. As we know, Mother Nature is incredibly powerful, and that’s one thing, and in this case, this was obviously caused for a different reason. But there is something in these moments of crisis that is really extraordinary about humanity and human beings’ resilience and the way in which everyone naturally comes together. You see the best in people in those moments for better or for worse and you find your best self. Certainly, that’s what happens with these people in this movie. That day, I wanted to tell everyone that I love that I loved them. All of the notion of sweating the small stuff seemed so ridiculous. Immediately, we got out and started bringing supplies and trying to help every single person. That’s the amazing thing about New York, of course. It’s that you’re all in it together. The second you walk into that street, you’re helping whoever is right in front of you. The whole experience was absolutely life changing. I thought about it a lot during this movie actually, because those moments are such wakeup calls and affirmations of how amazing people are and how we do all come together when it really matters.”
Until Archie Panjabi came to America, she hadn’t really been through any disasters. Then, as soon as she moved to New York, she experienced Hurricane Irene. Hurricane Sandy also hit her in quite a big way. “I had 12 days without any electricity or water,” she explains. “The thing I realized the most from it was that we’ve become so dependent on technology. There’s so much accessibility to information that suddenly when everything is cut off you’re completely lost, and you start asking deeper and more profound questions, which hopefully people will ask when they leave the film, about how powerful Mother Nature is, how short life is, and how grateful we should be for things.”
- Paul Giamatti is from coastal Connecticut where he tells us the only disasters are purely economic, but he too was in New York City on 9/11 and lived near the Towers. “I was close enough that I could see all the stuff. I don’t know that I did anything heroic. I’m not a terribly heroic person,” he reveals, “but it was insanely inspiring, and the people’s response to it was ridiculous. I still will have moments in New York City just feeling that New Yorkers are extraordinary. The love in that city, in that place, is still extraordinary. I didn’t do anything very heroic, but everybody else did.”
- Dwayne Johnson tells us, “I’ve been through natural disasters. I lived down in Miami and was down there for Hurricane Andrew which was a Category 5. There were members of my family that thought they were going to die. Everyone was in the bathtub. It was a tough, tough thing, so I think the idea of coming together like we are showcasing in our story resonates with people.”
The film doesn’t play fast and loose with science.
- In addition to portraying first responders in an authentic light and creating a convincing family dynamic, it was equally important that an anchor was established from the beginning with the scientific side of the movie. The filmmakers had the best seismologists and the top earthquake scientists at Cal Tech and USC pour over the script, challenge the script, and then ultimately walk away from it saying, “This could happen. We hope it doesn’t, but it could happen.” “When you have that in a script, and then you have the top scientists say that and give it that stamp,” explains Johnson, “then you have to have equally someone to come on board and apply it and enact it, but also act it in a way with conviction and incredible heart.”
- In the film, Paul Giamatti plays a leading Caltech seismologist who believes he’s found a way to track the quake. “They’re not just intellectuals,” he says. “It’s a real concern for those guys. They’re genuinely concerned. It’s not just a discipline that’s sort of interesting intellectually. They’re deeply committed to trying to figure out a way to deal with these things. They’re extraordinary guys.”
The film’s screenwriter, Carlton Cuse, agrees, “They don’t do that for money. They do it out of passion. I talked to a bunch of seismologists when I was first working on the script. I felt that it was really important to have this sort of spine in the movie be this seismology story where we’re actually framing and contextualizing all the disaster that’s going on around a character. I was saying to Paul I had kind of imagined him in the role when I was writing the character, then weirdly, he was cast. It was an amazing coincidence. All these seismologists, to a person, appreciated the fact that this movie was going to come out and raise awareness of what they do and how important it is.”
Creating strong female characters was a priority.
- San Andreas offers strong roles for women who are portrayed as smart, tough and resilient. Alexandra Daddario reveals, “I do consider myself to be a smart, tough girl. Growing up when I was younger, I didn’t feel all that tough or smart or strong. As I got older, I was able to discover my own strength. It’s really amazing when you discover how strong you actually are and what you really can accomplish. I’m 29 now and I’m reaching that point where I see what I can do. I feel confident and strong and powerful, and that’s an amazing feeling. Being able to portray a character like this is even more amazing and to do it authentically is quite a wonderful feeling. It’s wonderful that we’re portraying women in this way so that young women can see that women actually are strong and capable of accomplishing all kinds of things.”
Carla Gugino’s reaction when she first read the script was that there were three very strong female characters that are leaders and instigators, and that the women were as well taken care of as the male characters, which unfortunately is not always the case. “When we say strong women, I also think that almost makes it even smaller than it is,” she points out. “Women are strong, complex and smart. The thing that I loved about this film is that this felt like a very honest representation of what women are certainly capable of in a situation like this. I’ve played a lot of roles where I was a contingency analyst or a neurosurgeon or a U.S. Marshal or a cop, people who are actually very well equipped to deal with the situation. I really loved playing a woman in this particular case that isn’t defined by those particular things in this context, and therefore is a woman who is like any of us put in this situation. She has to think fast, she has to think on her toes, and she’s very smart and responds quickly, but in a way that’s not like a superhero.” Carla’s character is a woman on a mission. “She is a woman who actually just goes, ‘Okay. We’ve got to get our daughter. Nothing will stop me.’ These two characters (hers and Johnson’s) are also able to reconnect in that and find their own power with each other. I feel very excited about the fact that the women in this movie are well represented and super smart and strong.”
- Archie Panjabi concurs, “It’s definitely one of the things I noticed when I read the script, which was to see not just one woman was strong, but that there were three strong characters. Obviously, coming from a diverse background, we so rarely see women from my background playing such strong, intelligent characters.”
Johnson never imagined he’d grow up to be a heroic icon.
- When Johnson was a young boy, he never imagined himself growing up to be this hero icon. “I was raised by strong women and that DNA is in my daughter and wife,” he says proudly. “When I was 8 years old, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in Charlotte, North Carolina. I walked out of there and was so inspired. I loved the movie and I knew I wanted to be that guy. He’s charming, cool, kicks ass, and he’s cool with the ladies. But I had no connection to Hollywood. So, to be sitting here today, I’m grateful and very happy.”
Steven Spielberg was the primary influence for director Brad Peyton.
- The filmmakers are big fans of Steven Spielberg. According to Flynn, “Brad Peyton in my mind is the next Steven Spielberg and that’s why Brad is in this business. Spielberg was a huge inspiration on both Brad and Dwayne and this whole cast. ” Johnson agrees, “That’s very true. When we went into this movie, we sat in Budapest and started chopping things up, and said, ‘Wow, this feels like a Spielberg movie.’ Then, we just talked about it. We had this private conversation, the three of us, in a hotel about how much Spielberg had inspired us. We didn’t write him or call him. It’s just that we’re such big fans of his movies. I will say, just for the record, I received a letter from that gentleman who directed Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was very cool. He reached out and he said a lot of cool, inspiring, motivating things.”
Coming out of Lost and the TV world, screenwriter Carlton Cuse enjoyed writing for a bigger canvas.
- Screenwriter Carlton Cuse found it really fun to get to play on a big cinematic canvas and do something that was this expansive, because when he’s making television, he’s operating with certain constraints in terms of what he can do with only 10 days of shooting. Cuse revealed his thought process in approaching the script. “The movie has three storylines, and it was very important that all the characters in each storyline were being active and heroic and not being passive in the face of this,” he explains. “Part of the construct was making sure that each character had a mission and something that they were trying to accomplish. Alexandra’s character wasn’t just waiting around to be rescued. Carla wasn’t just a passive participant in Dwayne’s journey. I was trying to find those ways in which each character can express their heroism as an essential concept.”
- The other aspect of the storytelling process for Cuse was the desire for all these people to come back together again. “Through this tragic event, this family is made whole again and that’s the silver lining,” he says. “I think tragedies have silver linings and that was something that was very important. In a way, the movie is about communication and how communication is an impediment that is overcome that allows these people to all come back together. Brad did an extraordinary job of directing it. I couldn’t ask for a better rendition of what I had in my head than what he gave and to see this cast pull it off has just been a fantastic experience.”
Johnson went through extensive training to portray a rescue pilot.
- Johnson’s training process was pretty consistent in terms of his usual physical regimen and any skills he had to master for this particular role. He explains, “The difference was actually participating in something that I had never participated in before, spending time with first responders, spending time with the LAFD (Los Angeles Fire Department) Search and Rescue pilots operating a helicopter, participating again in deep dives and the drill down processes with these guys and girls for a pretty good amount of time. That was a different part for me. It was exercising a different muscle that I hadn’t before. I’ve played characters like this where I’m pretty proficient, and I hope to be taking care of business, whatever that business is. But in this case, it was very different than anything I had experienced before. I spent a lot of time here in L.A. and a lot of time in Australia with those men and women.”
The cast did much of their own stunts.
- The cast did a lot of their own stunts because Peyton wanted audiences to see their faces. In the first 15 minutes of the film, Johnson rappels out of a helicopter that’s at least 150 feet off the ground to rescue a girl that’s in a car suspended off a cliff face set that’s 50 feet off the ground. “There was a little bit of a challenge that the script, the story, and the style in which we wanted to shoot it posed to the cast, which I think they delivered on in spades,” Peyton tells us. “I wanted to get Dwayne into the back seat and chase him with a 150-foot technocrane and not cut. I wanted the audience to know that they’re seeing Dwayne Johnson do this. This isn’t a trick. There’s no editing. This is him really doing it.” Peyton was thrilled when everyone in the cast stepped up to the challenge. “What’s awesome about Dwayne and the entire cast was you presented to them, ‘This is the vision for the movie. I want to experience it. I want to see you guys do it.’ And they were all in,” Peyton says. “I remember in Australia seeing Dwayne practice that, which makes your heart palpitate, because you’re like, ‘Please do not fall right now. We need to roll cameras, sir.’ When you see it, you’re like, ‘I buy this. This is legitimate.’”
The first quake that hits Los Angeles fatally destabilizes a downtown skyscraper where Carla’s character is having lunch. The breathtaking helicopter rescue sequence, when she must scale the wreckage of an imploding high-rise to reach the top, required complicated stunt work. “We had to drop Carla through that building when it collapses four stories,” Peyton reveals. “I have so much Canadian guilt still from hurting her on that.” There were new challenges for everyone in that way, even at Cal Tech where everything was shaking. Giamatti tells us, “Archie and I dove under a table together. We actually did that. We were not doubled.” Panjabi adds, “I did that in 3-1/2 inch heels.” Payton elaborates, “With these guys, the physical training was all about being there with them, grounding the experience, being with Dwayne as he repels, being with Carla as she tries to escape, and not cutting, and having you sucked into those moments.”
Peyton wanted to channel the magic he felt when he first saw Indiana Jones.
- Peyton wanted the magic of cinema to be the same as what he felt when he first saw Indiana Jones. “Growing up in Newfoundland, you get all your movies two weeks after it says, ‘Coming Soon.’ It has the date and then two weeks later you get it. Batman came the day it was on the commercials. I’ll never forget that. I was like, ‘This must be a really big movie.’ I walked out of Batman, and having grown up lower middle class, I felt like a million bucks,” he reveals. “For me, in creating movies, I want that experience again. When you get with really great collaborators where you’re like, ‘We can do it if we do it this way,’ I feel like we’re really going to have an awesome experience here.”
San Andreas opens in theaters on May 29th.