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Credit: New Line Cinema

The tone and story of Rampage changed a lot before settling on its fun, monster mash style

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Apr 10, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

On a sweltering morning in June, a concrete backlot at Atlanta's Third Rail Studios stands in for a devastated war zone Chicago. Overturned cars and the scorched wreckage of a fallen helicopter line the streets. Debris and dust choke the air. Blaring sirens assault the ears. And, amid all the chaos, stands a battered and bruised Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

This is the set of Rampage, the feature film adaptation of the beloved video game of the same name. The movie finds the larger-than-life actor playing Davis, a primatologist whose best friend happens to be a large albino gorilla named George. David rescued him as a baby and their unbreakable bond serves as the heart of the story. Things get crazy when a genetic experiment accidentally mutates George, a crocodile, and wolf into gigantic, raging monsters that leave a path of mass destruction in their wake. It's up to Davis to secure an antidote for George – and save the day.

On the Rampage set, executive producers John Rickard and Hiram Garcia spoke to press about the pitfalls of adapting a video game to big screen, tweaking the material and raising the bar for monster movies.

What was it about Rampage that made you think you could do something with this and how did you overcome the hurdle of making a video game movie?

John Rickard: First of all, the backstory of Rampage is not really mind-blowing as far as storytelling. So, that gave us a great place to start from because we could go a lot further with any story we wanted to prep behind it. Really, I think the nostalgia of Rampage is just three monsters attacking buildings. So, you just take that piece of the concept and build something out exciting behind it. We're really just trying to have a lot of fun with the title and the monsters themselves and not take ourselves too seriously.

Hiram Garcia: That's a great opportunity because the game is so old that, at the time, it was just you drink a potion and become big. So, it gave us a lot of opportunities to really root it in science and something that's really happening and get to the rampaging monsters in the most realistic and authentic way. The science that we're based on is factual. It's how they're bringing woolly mammoths back. It's how they're bringing carrier pigeons back. They're successfully removing HIV from rats with this technology, so it's a very real device that's happening. And, at the end of every great discovery, there is always a scientist who is saying, "I also fear for how this can be used if it's not used in a positive way." So, for us as storytellers, that's a great opportunity to try and get to that big, final end moment that everyone knows from the video game but in a very realistic way.

Can you talk about the decision to make George albino instead of brown like he is in the video game?

HG: We're very aware of the landscape. You have King Kong, you have Planet of the Apes, but the fact is, George does have the greatest mental capacity, of any of those creatures. We wanted to try and separate it from the others, have it rooted in a real heart connection between Davis and George. They're essentially best friends. In that attempt of "How do we make this feel fresh from what's happening in Apes and what's happening in Kong," we were like, "What about an albino gorilla?" On paper, it's kind of daunting at first. You're like, "Oh, is he going to look fluffy?" But, when we started to get mock-ups and you see how badass he looks and get in it, you're like, "Wow this is striking, I've never seen this." We felt like it was a great opportunity.

JR: Me personally, I really bumped on it when we first talked about it. It wasn't until really that image there [points to the wall] when I actually said, "Oh there's something interesting to it and something unique." And then to get to the story aspect of it that he was touching on, the fact that it's an albino baby gorilla in the story, that he's actually finding amidst poachers killing the rest of his family, you even feel that much more for the albino which clearly is that much more valuable to the poachers. Really, Davis has no choice but to save him.

HG: When you see this though, you're like, "Oh, yes!" You're like, "Oh, okay, I am 100 percent in." Right? So cool!

Can you speak to the rest of the ensemble cast? You got Joe Manganiello and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and P.J. Byrne.

JR: Each one of the people that we got, I feel like elevated the character on the page. That's all you can ask for from an actor, is to come in and read that character and then bring something on top of it. Each one of those elements has to make the movie that much better every single time. So, when Malin [Akerman] came in and Jake Lacy came in as our villains, it really was exciting to see that dialogue, which you've been reading for so long, all of a sudden come to life, but also feel like a character that you really wanted to hang out with for longer than just the scenes they were in. And, then, Jeffrey Dean Morgan?

HG: You know how hard it is just to cast someone opposite Dwayne? Jeffrey Dean was fantastic. They looked great together and Jeffrey has so much weight to him that seeing them face-to-face was very exciting. Malin, obviously, she comes in, she kills as the villain. The nice thing was, we drafted off of San Andreas. The studio was so happy in terms of the way we told that story and what we were able to do. We were lucky enough to partner with John [Rickard] on this.

And, as we started to make this, I think the one thing we found, and Jake [Lacy] was kind of the portal to that was, how much more fun we can have with this movie. We started very grounded and real and Jake brought an aspect of fun that just made us start to adjust things a little bit, where we were realizing at the end of the day, we're still a big fun summer movie and a well-timed laugh goes a long way. Jake was really the catalyst for that in terms of adding more levity to our movie. It's been great. We've been very fortunate.

JR: And the way our schedule worked out, we actually shot them up front, so it really started to inform the tone of our movie at that stage. That's where it all clicked, like, "Oh this is what's making our movie special and different." And then on top of that, the casting of Naomie Harris was such an inspired idea.

You have human villains in this. How do you want audiences to view the other animals that go on a rampage? They're still animals and if they are victims of these humans, aren't we supposed to sympathize or even root for them as they are destroying Chicago?

JR: That's an excellent question.

HG: We are sensitive to that, especially our arc for Davis. Davis was the head of an anti-poaching unit for a military unit in Rwanda, so he's coming from a place where he's an animal lover. He's actually not a big fan of humans. He has a hard time trusting them because he's seen what they can do. Part of his arc is learning through Kate [Naomi Harris] that he can start to trust people again. But, George is his family and his best friend. We wanted to make sure that we're sensitive to the fact that all the animals are victims in this.

One of the things that we like about our dynamic in our movie is typically, even though they're trying to stop these creatures, it's usually about killing the monster, but we're actually trying to save the monster. Our story is essentially about a man trying to save his best friend. That's our journey and ultimately, Davis is doing everything he can while everyone's freaking out. Unfortunately, these creatures are being triggered to rampage out of their control. Davis, to the end, is trying to save them. And he's still trying to save the world but, ultimately, he just wants to save his friend and bring his friend back because his friend never asked for this.

In the original game, you play as the creatures. Was that ever a possibility when you were first shaping this movie, that the main characters would be the monsters?

JR: I heard lots of different pitches when we started to craft this story and some of the writers did go down that path, but every time I heard it, it just felt like it wasn't really right. You couldn't buy it, honestly. It was too much to buy. At that point, I realized, one buys sci-fi as the best way to go and understanding that creatures can grow from what they were and become something else, but from human to animal, it just was one step too far. Every time I heard it, it just didn't feel right. As much as I wanted it to work that way, because it could be more fun to have a human become something, I think it was the right choice now because of how grounded and rooted in reality our story actually is at this stage.

Will we see the pathogen affect any humans?

JR: Not in this one, no. [Laughs]

We were told that this is raising the bar for the monster-movie genre. In your opinion, how is that going to happen?

JR: Most of these monster movies do have one monster at the basis of it and, organically, we already have three in this one. And using the CRISPR technology to be able to take attributes from all kinds of different other animals and plug them into these three animals, gives you so much latitude to give strengths that you wouldn't have to these animals as they're growing, as they mutate. So, not only do we have three monsters in this movie, but they're continually growing and getting more pissed off and more agitated and, also, getting stronger and having new strengths and abilities that weren't there to start with. It's almost like a superhero movie meets a monster movie with three monsters.

Rampage hero

Our villains are taking that CRISPR technology and adding in a way to pull those attributes and not only attack just one cell in the body, but spread it throughout the body in a short period of time. And that's the science fiction part that I'm sure will actually be solved in the next 10 years. By taking that technology, they basically steal that away from her and are going to use it to weaponize animals. They actually are going to achieve that, and, in achieving that, the space station they're on doing this experiment, is destroyed. So, those canisters that aren't built to survive re-entry, fall to Earth, and that's how our three animals actually come in contact with them. So, CRISPR is at the base of this. There's a bit of science fiction that allows it to help our animals mutate and do the things they're going to do, but that's where it stands.

You joked about a sequel. Can you talk about the potential to have this expand into a full-blown franchise?

HG: I think you always have a hope for - I don't want to say creating a new universe - but being able to start a story and world that you can go deeper into. So, everything's going great and we're very thrilled with the stuff we're getting, but, ultimately, the reception and how it's received always kind of dictates that next dance. Ultimately, our hopes are we're setting a relationship up between Davis and George that, if things work out, I would love to see that go on.

JR: And we have left room for other opportunities for other things to happen.