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How Arcade Fave RAMPAGE Became a Blockbuster Movie

It’s a hot summer day in Atlanta, but you wouldn’t know it sitting in the extremely air-conditioned art department on the set of Rampage. On one wall is a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood A-List stars, from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Naomie Harris to Joe Manganiello to Jeffrey Dean Morgan to Malin Akerman to Will Yun Lee to Jake Lacy. The other walls are filled with renderings of giant monsters, larger than buildings, fighting each other and standing next to The Rock, towering over a man who is usually the tallest in any room. Pre-vis photos show a destroyed Chicago landscape, but the action also takes place in the sky in cargo airplanes and helicopters and even up in space. Just a short drive away on a concrete field, the Rock films a massive third act scene, bloodied and battered, surrounded by giant green screens taller than most buildings as far as the eye can see. By all accounts and evidence, this is a massive blockbuster action movie. But as anyone who’s ever played the game upon which the film is based will tell you, Rampage would barely crack a list of the top 100 most likely film adaptations of video games.

The 1986 arcade game was as simple as they come: players control human characters who are turned into giant monsters. The object of the game is — literally — to rampage. The game ends when an entire city is destroyed, buildings and all, eating people and cars along the way. It’s not something that sounds like it would easily lend itself to a big screen summer blockbuster because it’s so simple, and yet the Rampage filmmakers credit that very same simplicity as to why the arcade game actually works as a movie. “It’s almost like a late ’80s, early ’90s adventure movie, but with monsters and Dwayne Johnson,” director Brad Peyton tells Nerdist along with a small group of reporters on set on a blazing hot day last May.

Rampage stars Johnson as primatologist Davis Okoye, who, untrusting of humans, shares an unshakable bond with George, an extraordinarily intelligent silverback gorilla that’s been in his care since birth. When a rogue genetic experiment goes wrong, it causes George, a wolf, and a reptile to grow to a monstrous size. As the mutated beasts embark on a path of destruction, Okoye teams up with a discredited genetic engineer and the military to secure an antidote and prevent a global catastrophe. That actually sounds pretty close to the arcade game plot, where King Kong-like gigantic gorilla George is transformed by an experimental vitamin; Lizzie, a Godzilla-like dinosaur/lizard is transformed by a radioactive lake; and Ralph, a giant werewolf, is transformed by a food additive. And that’s where the filmmakers got their inspiration.

“What I liked about it was that you could expand on it so much, that there wasn’t a whole lot you had to adhere to,” Peyton says. “I thought that it lent itself tonally to a fun direction, and of course there are the creatures. There was just a lot of room to make it my own and do my own thing with it.”

Johnson loved the arcade game Rampage when he was a kid, and then when he got a little older he played it on Nintendo, so he knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on with Peyton for the movie. “It’s such a simple premise, so the challenge was to take this fun simple premise and try to build out and hopefully make a cool movie out of it,” he says. Sporting a (fake) black eye, covered in blood and with his t-shirt in tatters, knuckles bruised and bloodied, he looks like he’s been through hell and back, which makes sense as he’s filming one of the film’s big climax scenes today. But he thinks he’s got it all figured out as to why Rampage will be a success. “You’ve got three gigantic monsters who’ve been mutated through genetic editing and you have a hero in Naomie Harris’ character, and then you have some big bald brown guy running around, shooting shit, and trying to look cool and trying not to get killed,” he says with a laugh as he reclines in his chair, relishing the air conditioning for what might be his only chance that day.

A self-proclaimed gamer, Peyton admits he would be “scared shitless” to adapt video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Assassin’s Creed, any game with an established mythology and characters that are so clearly defined. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that and sticking to those things,” he says. “You’d have to be a real die-hard fan to have a shot at doing things right.” That’s why Rampage seemed like a good fit for a film adaptation. Everyone already knew the basics. “We all think of the three creatures and the woman with the red dress who gets eaten,” Peyton says. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I can do that, and then get to do all the things that I want to do.’ That’s what led me to eventually say yes … then we developed it into a direction where there was more emotion, more grounding, but still maintaining all the fun of it.”

While most people would laugh at taking such a basic idea and making it a huge Hollywood action movie, producers John Rickard and Hiram Garcia immediately could see the benefits of it. “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,” Rickard says. “The nostalgia of Rampage is just three monsters attacking buildings so you take that piece of the concept and build something out exciting behind it.”

Regardless of how well they think Rampage works as a movie adaptation, the fear of bringing a beloved video game to life and ruining it is always present for filmmakers. Just look at the track record and it’s not difficult to see why. “I feel like the possibility of being attacked for doing [Rampage] is a little less,” Rickard says. “We’re really just trying to have a lot of fun with the title and the monsters themselves and not take ourselves too seriously.”

But that didn’t stop the producers from taking a fun story and grounding it in real science. “The game is so old that at the time it was just you drink a potion and become big,” Garcia says. Rampage the movie tells the story of what happens when bad people weaponize real-life biogene editing trials CRISPR. “It gave us a lot of opportunity to root it in science and something that’s really happening and get to the rampaging monsters in the most realistic and authentic way,” Garcia adds. “The science that we’re based on is factual. It’s how they’re bringing wooly 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.'”

By using that real-life science, Rampage ups the monster movie element by not only having three giant creatures wreaking havoc but also injecting them with attributes from other animals. “Using the CRISPR technology to be able to take attributes from all kinds of different other animals and plug them in to 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,” Rickard says. “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.”

Johnson admits that he’s not quite sure what the secret is to making a successful video game adaptation movie. “With any movie, it all starts with story, it all starts with characters,” he says. But even though he was a fan of the original arcade game, that wasn’t enough to make it work. “You always want to try and study and see video game [movies] in the past that didn’t do well. And a lot of those filmmakers who made those video game movies … we talk to them and get as much information as possible,” Johnson adds. “And I think it goes back to actually finding an anchor.”

Peyton always pushes for the emotion in his films, and Rampage, albeit a giant monster destruction movie, is no exception. Likening George to real-life intelligent gorilla Koko, he worked hard to build up the sweet and genuine relationship between him and Davis. “With San Andreas, really on the page it was just a destruction movie, and I [leaned into] it having a family and having heart,” Peyton says of his time working with Johnson on his previous film. “It was the same thing with this movie where I was like, ‘Okay, this could be a creature movie, but where’s the heart in that?’ In defining the relationship between George and Davis was to me the anchor of everything in the movie, and therefore gives you heart and purpose and drive and makes you relate you everyone so it’s not just big destruction for destruction’s sake, which is always what I’m trying not to do.”

Even in adrenaline-packed, money-shot scenes where a giant creature is roaring in Davis’ face (which will be shot later that day), Peyton would rather focus more on showing the emotion of Davis looking terrified instead of on the sheer terror of the big monster. “When I showed him [pre-vis renderings of] that [scene] he was like, ‘Okay, if there’s ever a scene in a movie where I get to be scared that’s the f-cking moment!'” Peyton says with a laugh.

When it came to breaking the overarching story of Rampage, something that took suspending disbelief way too far was bringing in the idea from the original game of turning humans into the destructive creatures. Both Peyton and Rickard as they remember how it was a “solid no.”

“Let’s just say I said no to ‘Rock-zilla,'” Peyton says. “That’s a hard pass from me. It’s like a Saturday Night Live skit.” Rickard remembers hearing a lot of different pitches in the beginning of production where some writers “did go down that path” of turning humans into animals. “But every time I heard it, it just felt like it wasn’t really right,” he says. “Honestly, it was too much to buy. You understand creatures can grow from what they were and become something else, but from human to animal, it just was one step too far.”

Rampage hits (and smashes) theaters April 13.

Images: New Line Cinema

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