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'San Andreas': Destroying LA scene by scene with Director Brad Peyton

Dwayne Johnson stars in
Dwayne Johnson stars in "San Andreas," about a massive earthquake that hits California.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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Find something sturdy to brace yourself against — "San Andreas" toppled all challengers at the box office this weekend. The blockbuster disaster film starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson grossed a little over $54 million as it resonated with audiences nationwide.

In case you've missed it, the premise of the movie is simple: destruction and chaos hit the West Coast when the largest earthquake ever recorded hits the San Andreas fault, and it's up to the Rock to save his family.

Like all good disaster movies, "San Andreas" is most at home when it's tearing everything down, so we got director Brad Peyton to pick one of his favorite scenes from the movie and break it down for us. He chose the sequence in which Ray Gaines (Johnson) saves his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) from a collapsing building in downtown Los Angeles. It's a five-minute, single-take sequence.

Peyton started describing the thought that went into the scene as he watched it in an editing booth. (Listen to the audio for the full experience.)

At the very top of the sequence, Dwayne flies over the Hollywood Hills, and the first thing he sees to his left is the Hollywood sign collapsing below him. He hears this gas explosion and he looks up, and in researching different types of earthquakes, we found that there's one that's like a rolling blanket, so I pictured it like shaking a blanket and it rolling towards downtown L.A. You can see all the skyscrapers are swaying like trees with all the glass coming down, to try to go, "OK, this is how bad it is, and that's where my wife is: in there, in the worst place possible."

As the sequence progresses, Peyton continues:

Then we hard cut from there to right outside the restaurant that she's in. That's the beginning of the five-minute single shot. We wanted to do this thing where, as she's running through the restaurant, you can see all the people in front of her are escaping the restaurant to get your attention, so when she got to the end of the bar there's an entrance to the kitchen.

Suddenly a fireball explodes out of the kitchen, and when we circle around her now we're looking into the kitchen and there's a chef flailing around on fire from the explosion. That's all practical [effects], and in fact when I was directing it I was actually behind that wall, so if I'm looking at my monitors and I turn to my right, I would see this guy being covered in jelly, standing there waiting with two guys with blowtorches who are waiting to light him on fire.

The wall that's in front of me is the wall with all the bottles on it, so this wall is undulating in front of me, and all I can hear is smashing and crashing and screaming, so it was very weird to shoot.

Sitting back in his chair after the sequence ends, Peyton talks about his strategy with "San Andreas" more generally.

My focus in the movie was to make it feel as realistic as possible, and the practical part of shooting gave the cast a sense of reality at all times. They knew where they stood and they knew the reality they were in — there's no second guessing it. It was clearly obvious to everybody what was going on in those scenes, even if they're in a helicopter that's spinning around. And yes, that's really a helicopter spinning around.

It's one thing for Peyton to insist on practical effects while he can watch from his chair; it's another thing entirely for the actors.
"Dwayne, God bless him, he's claustrophobic and not great with that much motion," Peyton confesses. "I'm sure that dudes that big don't like being thrown around that much for that long, so you get this reality of performance — they're really sitting up there going, 'Get me the hell out of here, this is insane!' And their characters are going, 'We've got to get the hell out of here, this is insane!'"
With the movie completed, Peyton looks back on it all: "It's by far the hardest thing I've ever made, but it's also by far the thing I'm most proud of making. When you watch it, it's like, 'This is one seven minute clip of an hour-and-forty-minute movie... that's bananas.'"
"The goal was always just to make you feel something, and a lot of great filmmakers — Peter Jackson, James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg — always get you inside their movies and just hold on to you. I just wanted to try to work my way into that conversation, but there's only really one way to work your way into that conversation: just go do the work."

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