“Red Notice,” the heist-centric action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, was not supposed to be Netflix’s most expensive film to date. But when the global blockbuster was shut down halfway through filming, only to resume in a world restricted by a pandemic, the production was faced with two possible courses of action: scale down, or invest the resources needed to finish the film safely but still in line with the globe-trotting nature of the story.
Luckily for the production team, Netflix backed the latter option — which reportedly ballooned the film’s budget from $160 million to $200 million, an all-time high for the streamer. (Netflix declined to comment for this story.)
“Red Notice” began as a hot pitch from writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber with Johnson attached to star. This would mark their third collaboration together after 2016’s comedy “Central Intelligence” and 2018’s actioner “Skyscraper,” and immediately Hollywood was chomping at the bit to land this story of an FBI profiler (Johnson) who’s forced to team up with a thief (Reynolds) to rival another thief (Gadot).
Thurber pitched the idea to Johnson and producer and Seven Bucks Production president of production Hiram Garcia while making “Skyscraper,” and Johnson’s response was swift and definitive. “At the end of the [dinner] pitch, DJ stood up, threw his napkin, and said ‘I F—ing love it!’” Garcia told TheWrap during a recent interview. “Once we wrapped ‘Skyscraper,’ we took it around town, and it turned into a huge bidding war,” Garcia recalled. But before winding up at Netflix, “Red Notice” was originally set up at Universal and Legendary.
As development on the project progressed, it became clear that Universal – with whom Seven Bucks has a long-standing relationship with projects like “Hobbs & Shaw” and “Skyscraper” – wasn’t the right fit. “As we were making the movie at Universal, we had certain ambitions over there where we weren’t aligning creatively with them,” Garcia said. “We have such a good relationship at Universal and have made so many films there that it was one of those things where we all realized, ‘Look, we’re probably going to be better off making this movie somewhere else right now. We want to make a version of this film that is different than the version you guys want to make. We’re clearly not in alignment so let’s do what’s best for the project and pivot.’”
When pressed for details on the creative differences, Garcia said it was “an assortment of things,” including “a little bit of tone, a little bit about character, and obviously the mechanics of making a studio movie are a bit different compared to making a movie for a streamer.” In fact, Garcia acknowledged the initial vision for “Red Notice” was “aligned better for a streaming structure in the way we wanted to approach it,” and Universal understood and allowed them to take the project elsewhere.
Johnson is one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, and “Red Notice” marks his first project made directly for a streaming service. As it turns out, Netflix was involved in the original bidding war for “Red Notice” and Garcia said “their vision of the movie was exactly what we wanted,” adding that Netflix always wanted the project and it was a “very easy transition” to move studios. “Once we moved it, we knew instantly we were at the right home. The movie really picked up speed from that moment on as we headed toward production. It was the best move for all parties involved as well as the film.”
And then COVID hit.
“Red Notice” was about halfway through filming when the pandemic occurred, shutting down production in Atlanta. And unfortunately for the production team, the first leg of production encapsulated their stage-work and the second half of filming was intended to be their location-based shooting across the globe. “We were going to be in Rome. We were going to be in Sardinia, we planned to go to all these exotic places as we started to open up the world in this story,” Garcia said. “We were about two weeks away from going to Italy when all the stuff hit in Italy.” The team then tried to pivot to London, but very quickly it became clear that everything was shutting down.
So with location shooting out the window, the “Red Notice” team spent the downtime figuring out how to maintain the scale and scope of the film all while staying in Georgia. “We built parts of Rome on a back lot in Atlanta. You name it. We did all kinds of ‘movie magic’ like that to make it work, and it’s a great testament to our crew, our production team and our production designers in terms of just being able to pivot and create these iconic sets all on stages and all on a backlot to still bring the fans to these locales.”
Of course, this could not have been possible without additional investment from Netflix. “Our goal with this film was to make Netflix’s most ambitious film and then due to the pandemic there was a COVID cost that came with completing the movie in the safest way possible,” Garcia said. “We were the first big movie back that shot during the height of the pandemic so the logistics of doing that were extremely complex. As you can imagine there was a significant COVID cost that came with shooting during a pandemic. You need to be able to step up, and if you’re going to complete a movie of this scale, do it properly and make sure you’re keeping everyone safe, then those costs are mandatory.”
Indeed, safety was everyone’s number one priority, and producers approached resuming the shoot in coordination with experts. “When you’re building a plan with Dr. Vivek Murthy and the CDC, it’s going to be ultra-tight, ultra-secure, and ultra-focused on making sure everyone’s safe. A lot of that had to do with why the movie was so big, but you can’t predict something like that. What you can only hope for is that you have a partner like Netflix that, when that curve ball comes, they’re going to stand by your side to help you navigate it.”
Despite all of this, Thurber and his production team did a solid job of maintaining the worldwide nature of the film all from soundstages in Atlanta. “We felt very confident in our ability to still create a globetrotting adventure, even though our actors never left. We shot on a very big stage, used a lot of backlot, but we were in one location,” he said. “We shot that whole movie in Atlanta, but you certainly feel the globetrotting elements we wanted everyone to feel. It truly was an example of movie magic.”
Garcia said there could be a fascinating “making of” featurette on what it took to complete the film in conjunction with new protocols, pointing to the big dance sequence between Johnson and Gadot as an example of a scene that seems normal in the film, but was one of the most complex things Thurber ever shot due to “the layering required due to social distancing.” Garcia said it was “a massive amount of visual effects to get that room feeling like it was full of people, all dancing amongst each other, and a band when in actuality it wasn’t like that at all.”
Despite the various obstacles thrown its way, “Red Notice” came out the other side exactly as intended: a fun-loving, globe-hopping, star-studded adventure. And should Netflix subscribers respond, Johnson & Co. will be eager to return for a sequel. “Rawson pitched us the other day a vision that he has for something going forward,” Garcia said with regard to a potential “Red Notice 2.” No doubt the team would be eager to get out of Georgia next time around.
“Red Notice” is currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix now.