by Morgan Gmelch '05
Dodgeball, the ball-throwing game that may be as close to combat as a youngster can get, has for decades been the stuff of legend around water coolers. Now, it's the basis – and title – of a successful summer movie, the brainchild of first-time feature writer-director Rawson M. Thurber '97. An all-star cast and clever script made Dodgeball the highest grossing movie ($30 million) its first weekend, June 18. Dodgeball is Thurber's second comedic success; his first, a commercial series for Reebok, “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker,” received the Cannes Film Festival Gold Lion, and was voted the most popular Super Bowl ad in 2003 in a Wall Street Journal poll. Recently, Morgan Gmelch '05 had a chance to catch up with the filmmaker.
Morgan Gmelch '07: Can you describe what you've done since graduation?
Rawson Thurber '97: I graduated in 1997 and went right into the Peter Stark Producing program at USC. I graduated from that in '99 with a master's of fine arts in producing. Right after I graduated I started working as an assistant for a screen writer named John August, he has distributed Go, Charlie's Angels, Big Fish, and Minority Report. I was essentially his apprentice and assistant for two and a half years wherein I wrote and directed Terry Tate and the script for Dodgeball. I wrote that script in April of 2001 and got an agent because of it and ended up selling it to Dreamworks in the fall. I wrote the villain role for Ben Stiller and the hero role for Vince Vaughn. I am a big fan of both of them and it was amazing to get them both in the movie. I hope you like it, it's a movie that's really stupid and I think pretty funny and occasionally clever. Its funny but it also has a good heart, very tongue in cheek. I have been very lucky since graduation in a lot of ways. Certainly my education at Union was instrumental in teaching me how to think and analyze.
MG: Did you know you wanted to go into film when you were at Union?
RT: I majored in English and theater arts because there wasn't a film program available. But I did end up making a short film, in fact my first short film, for my senior thesis. It was called Palaber and I directed and co-wrote it. I knew that I wanted to be involved in making better movies than the ones I was seeing but I didn't know exactly how I would go about doing that. There weren't any courses at Union for this. I kind of made it up as I went along.
MG: Were there any film clubs at Union at the time?
RT: There weren't, so when I was a senior my friend, Mike Ferguson, and I created a club in order to get the funding we needed to make my short film. We formed a club called the Visual Landscape Art, VLA.
MG: Were there any professors at Union who gave you guidance?
RT: Peter Heinegg [English] was my advisor and my favorite professor. He gave me great advice all the way through my years at Union. In the Classics Department, Professor [Scott] Scullion had a tremendous influence on me. Professor Bill Finlay of the theater department was also very helpful in teaching me the processes of how to direct. He taught the first directing class I ever took. It was electrifying for me and I would say that was really the turning point. I draw on all of their teachings to this day, when I'm reading scripts, writing scripts, when I'm working with actors and thinking about stories. My classics minor also has a great influence on me.
MG: Did the liberal arts education of Union prepare you for a career in film?
RT: Undoubtedly. I had a wonderful experience at Union College. Not only the liberal arts background but the quality of the professors and size of the school were great. I got to really know my professors intimately. It also allowed me to be very active on campus – I won political office a couple times, I was on the radio station WRUC, I wrote a column for the Concordiensis, I played football my freshman year, and I was a member of a fraternity [DU].
MG: What was the inspiration for Dodgeball?
RT: I've always been a comedy geek and a sports nerd, and I wanted to put those two worlds together. Some of my favorite movies growing up in the mid-80s were Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds, and Stripes and then I liked a lot of the sports films like Bad News Bears and Bull Durham. I wanted to pay homage to those types of movies that I really love and I put both of those together in Dodgeball. Not only is Dodgeball an homage to those movies, it is also a satire of them. Sports are taken so seriously in this society, but when I think of dodgeball we played in school I laugh. Everyone has a visceral memory of dodgeball, you're either getting hit or hitting someone. When you say dodgeball to someone they either break into a smile or a sweat. There is a nostalgic connection to it.
MG: Are sports an easy way to achieve comedy?
RT: I have used sports with my comedy because I know that world pretty well. I've played sports my whole life and always been a fan. I know the intricacies of that world and the hypocrisies and ridiculousness associated with it, little things in sports that I always find annoying or frustrating. The two sports casters in Dodgeball are my attempt at satirizing play-by-play and color commentators because so many of them are horrible and say the most asinine things. But I really love the good ones, like Al Micheals, Jon Miller, and Joe Morgan. It was my attempt to mock the flowery prose of the play-by-play announcer and the dim-witted eagerness of the color commentator. I think that the American culture puts a lot of emphasis and importance on sport.