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Hollywood Blockbusters And The Art Of World Creation

San Andreas director Brad Peyton talks about how a childhood rooted in imaginative play has helped him succeed in film.

Director Brad Peyton, 37, has come a long way from his humble roots in Newfoundland, Canada. After garnering some notoriety for his 2002 short Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl, Peyton went on to create a black comedy claymation show in Canada about mutant orphans.

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Brad PeytonPhoto: Eric Charbonneau, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But Peyton’s star really began to rise when he directed the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth in 2012. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (which starred Dwayne Johnson) grossed $325 million at the box office, the kind of figure that allows a director to do just about anything for his next move. Peyton picked up a disaster script by Lost head writer Carlton Cuse, refining it with the help of a few additional writers. The result is San Andreas, another Johnson movie, which opened at number one at the box office two weeks ago.

Yet, as far as he’s come, Peyton has stuck, in certain ways, to his roots. We caught up with Peyton to learn more about his process, and about an unlikely inspiration for his new, testosterone-driven movie: a childhood spent immersed in role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.

You’re from Canada.

I’m from Newfoundland. The next stop over is Greenland, basically. It’s a very beautiful landscape, in an unmanicured way. It has a rustic feel to it. We had about 15 acres of land, and if I walked straight back from my house, you hit about 62 miles of forest. I spent a lot of time playing in the woods as a kid, making fires and camping, playing with toy guns and swords. In hindsight, it was amazing, because I was constantly engaging my imagination.

How did the landscape affect your imagination?

It wasn’t just the weather, but also the culture. During Christmas, all the ornaments were handmade by my mom, not store-bought. There wasn’t a lot of money, so out of necessity, you had to be creative and make your own. The other thing I remember from being a kid was playing role-playing games. I was basically the storyteller. I’d always be the dungeon master or the game master, in geek terms. I was the guy telling the story to the players. We’d spend hours losing ourselves in the alternate reality of medieval adventures.

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I haven’t played RPGs. Being a dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons is a big storytelling role?

It’s as all-encompassing as being a director is–or it completely lacks that, as with a lazy director. You’re the one telling the story, and you can prepare all week for a game, or you can just wing it. I was very involved. I would build multiple levels within the games. Sometimes I would create eight characters. Generally I was assuming the role of all the antagonists as well. With Dungeons & Dragons, without even knowing it, I was training in how to build a world.


How does this translate into your career as director?

I think the more “popcorn” your movie, the stronger the world rules need to be. When you see a bad genre movie, it’s because someone made it who doesn’t understand world-creation rules. When we played D&D, every game would basically start with a system, but then within the system you would make everything up yourself. Sure, you could buy a map if you were lazy or had a lot of money, but we wouldn’t do that: I would go and draw the map. I’d get the paper with the little squares like an architect uses, and I’d design the dungeons. I’d fold back the map and expose it to the players and say, “This is how much you’ve seen so far.”

Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin says there are two kinds of world-creators: architects, who like to plan everything, and gardeners, who let things gradually grow.

I know what he means. Some directors go, “I need this room, it has to be 12 by 24, I need to pick the chairs and light sockets.” Other directors walk into a room and go, “Okay, the light from this window is best,” and adjust what’s happening around them in an organic manner. I think I’m more an architect than I am a gardener, because I like building from nothing. I enjoy sitting down and coming up with the world, the mythology, more than just taking a book and saying, “Well, this is what I would do with it.” But it’s also the most daunting task, especially in Hollywood, where not a lot of people believe you can create something believable from nothing.

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In trying to keep the world of San Andreas real, you even specified how different sections of a crowd should move in response to disaster.

Everything comes back to trying to recognize realistic behavior in people. A crowd has a set of characteristics. If you’re in a massive crowd, and you’re in the back of that crowd, but something is happening at the front, you’d just stop, curious. You wouldn’t back up and run away at first. I’m just trying to break things down to a get an honest representation of the world. When the trees are moving when the earthquake happens, that’s because I said, “I want two guys with ropes shaking those trees.”


You’ve used “shot references” as you made the film. What were these?

We did a lot of research. For instance, there was a Japanese earthquake, and there was a video camera set up inside a very high floor of an office building, and you could see five or six other skyscrapers as they were swaying from side to side. We built a library of real-world references like those. Every shot we planned had a file with these references. So if we were working on “ER-405,” shot number 405 in the “Emma’s rescue” sequence, and something didn’t look right, I could pull up the reference and say [to the visual effects designers], “Oh, I see what’s going on. You’re focusing on this detail–but let’s have less cement cracking, and more glass shattering. That way it will read better.”

You’ve worked with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson several times now. Any plans to play Dungeons & Dragons with him soon?

I’d play if he wanted to. I’m pretty rusty at this point. As soon as you upgrade to Xbox One, it’s pretty hard to go back to D&D.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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