Chart Topper: Director Ruben Fleischer Shows His Comedy Chops with Action-Adventure Uncharted

©2020 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved, photo by Clay Enos

Back in 2010, Mark Wahlberg was attached to play the young protagonist Nathan Drake in the film adaptation of the video game franchise Uncharted. Yet the project remained trapped in development hell for so long, that when the film actually comes out, in February 2022, Wahlberg will play Drake’s much older partner and father figure, Victor “Sully” Sullivan. (Tom Holland, of Spider-Man fame, is now Drake.)

A globe-trotting action-adventure in the mold of Mission: Impossible, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and National Treasure, the movie is based on one of the best-selling video game series ever, one that takes the player on a series of treasure-hunting quests. The film, from Sony Pictures and Columbia Releasing, is exclusively in theaters Friday, February 18.

 Ruben Fleischer is no stranger to directing action-comedies, having helmed 2018’s Venom, 2009’s Zombieland, 2019’s Zombieland: Double Tap, and 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less. He spoke to Boxoffice Pro about how the Covid-19 pandemic hit during the first week of production, how he includes Easter eggs for fans of the games, and how his path to directing movies was largely accidental.

I have to start with the obvious question: In this film, does Tom Holland open up a multiverse featuring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield?

I mean, I feel like you’ve already seen this movie! [Laughs.] No, there is only one Tom Holland in this movie. Not any multiverses that I’m aware of. But I appreciate the suggestion.

Where were you in the production process on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, “the day everything changed”?

We were five days out from shooting. March 16 was our very first day of production. If you remember, at that time, it was way worse in Europe than it was in America. It wasn’t even really on people’s radar quite the same in the U.S. We were in Europe, and that’s where it kind of sparked up. We were in Germany. It was really becoming something that collectively we were concerned about, but nobody really knew what was going on.

That week, you could feel it. As we were just about to get started shooting, crew members—especially the Germans—were starting to get nervous about what was potentially going to be a reality. We were deep in the thick of prep. The actors had just arrived in Berlin to start rehearsing. We were putting the finishing touches on all the sets. We were going to start shooting, our first day of production, on March 16. On March 15, the studio said, “Let’s just see how this thing evolves. Don’t shoot on March 16—continue to prep and let’s see what happens. We’re going to consult all the right people.”

Then on March 17, they basically said, “You guys have got to come home.” And we came home the very next day. We shut down for three or four months. We were one of the first big movies to come back up and start shooting again, in July.

When you returned, did it feel like starting from scratch?

No, not at all. We basically locked the doors on all the stages; we didn’t break anything down. We shut the doors, put locks on them. And then when I came back to Berlin in the summer, it was kind of like we had never left. Everything was just like we left it, except maybe a little dustier. The actors came back as well, and we all just kind of fell back to where we’d left off. For everybody, it was this bizarre and unprecedented experience. There were certainly a lot of nerves, collectively.

But Germany, at that time, was really doing great. They had locked down aggressively during the pandemic, and cases were way less in Germany than they were in L.A. at that time. So I felt more comfortable there than I did at home! We didn’t have a single issue during production. We didn’t have to stop shooting for a single day. It was a really safe and positive experience, largely because Germany was doing so well, in terms of pushing back against the pandemic.

This film is being released exclusively in theaters. Why is it important for audiences to see this on the big screen?

There’s nothing like being in the theater and watching a movie with other people. This is a huge-scale film. It takes place on three continents. The visuals are incredible. It’s a movie made to be seen on a big screen. It’s so incredibly visually impressive. A super-entertaining movie with tons of laughs. There’s nothing like laughing with other people and having that collective experience. So whether it’s the visuals, the entertainment quality, just the experience of watching a giant globe-trotting adventure, it’s definitely one that should be seen on the big screen.

This film had quite the arduous journey to the big screen, with about a half dozen different directors publicly attached at various points over more than a decade. So how did this project ultimately come to you?

I just got really lucky, I think. Growing up, Indiana Jones [movies] were my all-time favorite films. I’ve always wanted to do a globe-trotting, treasure-hunting movie. Having the opportunity to make this film, especially with Tom and Mark, was beyond a dream come true. So I just consider myself super-lucky.

What are some of your funniest stories from the shoot?

The experience of making a movie during a pandemic, everybody was masked up the whole time. At the end of the shoot, people want to take group pictures. When they pulled their masks down, even though I had spent 80 days shooting them, I was like, “Oh, Hans, I didn’t know you had a goatee!” People just looked so different with their masks off, but we were so strict about it that I hadn’t seen some people’s faces the whole shoot. It’s funny seeing them for the first time without a mask, at the end.

It was an unprecedented process of making a movie, for everyone involved, no matter how experienced the person. No one had ever had to make a movie while wearing a mask, getting tested every day, just all the Covid protocols. So it wasn’t one of those everyone-was-pulling-pranks-on-everyone kind of sets. It was such a heightened circumstance under which to be making a film. This was July through November 2020.

There was hilarious improv, great performances, things like that. But the reality is, it was a pretty heightened experience of having to make a film, which was new to us all. At this point, anyone working in the film business has done more than their fair share of shoots wearing masks and everything else. At that time, it felt completely novel.

You just said there was hilarious improv. Were there any that made it into the final cut?

Oh yeah, tons. Both Mark and Tom are so funny. The joy of the movie to me is their relationship and their dynamic. If you know my work, I come from a comedy background, so I always encourage improv. If you’re lucky enough to have actors that can elevate the material on the page, I always try and take advantage of that. Throughout the film, there’s tons of lines that those guys came up with. Other people too, but especially Mark and Tom.

I won’t tell you a line, you’ll have to see the movie, but I can tell you a scene. They’re below a church, they’ve just found this hidden tunnel and they’re following the clues. There’s this exchange between Mark and Tom about using cell phones. A lot of those jokes were improvised and were just super laugh-out-loud funny moments.

Were you a fan of the Uncharted video games?

Yeah, though more of a casual fan as opposed to hardcore. But I played Uncharted prior to getting involved with this. I love Indiana Jones and those types of movies, and the Uncharted games were very much inspired by those, so it really crossed a lot of interests for me. I was also just a fan of the games’ irreverent sense of humor, and all the puzzle solving. Super-fun games. What attracted me to them originally was they felt so cinematic, almost like a movie. So actually getting to turn it into a movie was really exciting.

Do you include any Easter eggs for fans of the games?

Yeah, there’s a lot of Easter eggs for the observant fans. They’re sprinkled throughout. Some are visual, some are auditory, but I think they’ll be really happy if they’re paying attention.

On the other end of the spectrum, what are the biggest differences between the film and the games?

The most noticeable is the characters are a lot younger than they are in the games. Tom is certainly not the middle-aged Nathan Drake. Mark plays the younger version of Sully, pre-mustache. The idea is to have these characters catch up to the versions that people are more familiar with from the games. But as an introduction for moviegoers, it’s a great way to get to know these characters. Hopefully get invested in them, so they can watch them go on both this and many more adventures.

What about the music? How closely did you try to mirror the games’ score, versus original music?

My driving instinct was to make this a movie that could work on its own, that wasn’t dependent on the game. Games are so immersive and so experiential, it’s difficult for a film to compete with that, because it’s a more passive experience. It has to work as a film, first and foremost, while paying respect to the source material. So in an effort to distinguish it as a film, I didn’t want to just repurpose the score and have it feel like the game. I want it to feel like its own stand-alone thing. But again, you asked about Easter eggs? If people are paying attention, they might notice moments from the game’s score throughout the film.

Is it true that your first job in the entertainment industry was as a production assistant on “Dawson’s Creek”?

Yeah, I was a P.A. in the writer’s room. So I didn’t even get to go near the set, which was in Wilmington [North Carolina]. I had originally moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco, to do some internet stuff, but the company I was working for—like many a start-up—folded. I was looking for a job, and I knew Mike White because he went to my college [Wesleyan]. He was a writer on the show, and he got me a job being a P.A., which was my first introduction to any kind of filmmaking. I didn’t go to film school and initially didn’t have ambitions of being a director. But that experience got my feet wet. Then I started down that road.

When you later started directing, did you feel like you had to play catch-up to leapfrog the people who had indeed gone to film school?

The way I did that was first being an assistant to a director, Miguel Arteta, on two movies: Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl. After watching him do the job, I got inspired to try and figure out how to do it myself. I just ended up shooting real low-budget short films and music videos, teaching myself. I produced them, edited them, even did the costumes. I just learned by doing. In terms of catch-up, it was largely just learning how to do the craft. The whole Malcolm Gladwell thing, that you just need to spend the time.

Gladwell said it requires 10,000 hours.

That much? Maybe I haven’t reached that yet. [Laughs.] But I’m still learning every day. That’s the great thing about my job: You’re constantly encountering new challenges. Even the most experienced director will find things that they haven’t had to face before. You just draw upon that experience.

So on Uncharted, what was the challenge you hadn’t had to face before?

It was hardly one thing! The action certainly was far beyond anything I’d done before. It’s just giant rigging situations. When it comes to the VFX, with Venom there was a huge learning curve, but this is even more so. I mean, learning how to shoot a movie in a pandemic. I’d never shot a movie in Europe, just working with international crews. Every single day, that’s the joy of my job. It’s all unprecedented. You’re learning constantly, which is terrific.

There are constant challenges of cultures. I think we had at least 15 or 20 different nationalities represented on the set, between all the different crew members and cast members. It was so international. People come to Berlin from all over the E.U. to be a part of filmmaking. Add to that our Australian and New Zealand stuntpeople, and all of us Americans and Canadians and North Americans, it was just really international.

Speaking of stuntpeople, how did you try to balance live stunts versus VFX? I’m thinking of the moment in the trailer where Tom Holland is jumping one by one over all the shipping containers as they’re falling out of the airplane.

It’s a real combination of everything. We didn’t really shoot Tom Holland hanging out the back of a cargo plane; that was done with a green screen. All the environments are CG or VFX, so the entire sequence has a VFX component to it. But in terms of the scale of the stunts that I was doing for the first time at that level, that scene is a great example. We had five of these robotic arms that they use to make cars at an auto factory. We had the boxes all programmed to be moving in sync on these robotic arms. And then Tom and the stunt guys and Tom’s stunt doubles, everybody was on wires, running across those boxes. You’re employing every tool in the box to bring a sequence like that to life.

Finally, I have to ask this question. You directed the first and second episodes of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis in 2008. Did you have any idea how massive that would become?

No. They had Obama on, and that’s just crazy. I mean, the first episode was Michael Cera. [Laughs.]

You know, the whole reason Between Two Ferns exists—they were doing a pilot based on Scott Aukerman’s comedy. I directed a few of the taped pieces, and one of them was Between Two Ferns. And the pilot never even made it to air. But it’s one of the things I’m most proud of on my résumé. Zach is truly one of the world’s funniest people, to me. The very first thing I ever directed for television was Zach’s show on VH1, kind of a parody of a talk show [2002’s Late World with Zach]. So Zach and I go way back; he was always my favorite comedian. I’m just stoked that it did become what it became.

AT THE MOVIES WITH RUBEN FLEISCHER

What’s your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and the audiences in D.C. are super vocal and interactive. My favorite thing in the world would be to go to an opening-night movie when it was packed, when I was in high school, like [1988’s comedy] I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or [1992’s] White Men Can’t Jump. I’d go to the Uptown [a single-screen theater that opened in 1936 and closed in March 2020].

The energy of being with that audience in that room, hearing people yell, “Don’t go in there!” or throwing things at the screen. It was just a really fun, participatory experience. It made me aware at an early age just how [great] that collective experience of a film, together in a theater, could be. Any Eddie Murphy movie, any movie that was highly anticipated, that energy in the theater of the audience, just so excited, having visceral reactions. Sometimes when it was a movie they didn’t like, they could be really harsh. It was just so fun. When I make films, I really do make them for a [theater] audience.

What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?

Traditionally, Sno-Caps. That’s my go-to. I like to keep it old-school.

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