The new action thriller “Snitch,” based on real events and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a father who goes to bat working undercover for authorities when his teenage son is looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence on an erroneous drug charge, is receiving fairly solid marks for its action, grounded relatability and exposing some of the hypocrisy of the United States’ war on drugs. Those facts might be less surprising if more people had seen “Felon,” director Ric Roman Waugh’s low-budget prison tale, which had both a certain gritty style and a clear aim to delve into grey morality. A veteran stuntman and second unit director who, like David Ellis before him, pivoted into life behind the camera, Waugh isn’t shy about what drives him and his ambition to meld and shape his considerable experience with storytelling rooted in real-life stories. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Waugh one-on-one about his career, “Snitch,” some of his other forthcoming projects, and what to do when faced with a giant fireball rushing at one’s face. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: “Felon” had a nonfiction leaping-off point, as does “Snitch.” Is that filter, of being “based on a true story,” ever-present as you’re searching for material, and if so what most informs it?
Ric Roman Waugh: It is. After being a stuntman for years, and then second-unit directing for action, I was looking to direct a movie and the scripts that I was getting [represented] what I think [others] wanted me to be — which was the straight action guy. And luckily I was naive enough that I thought it wasn’t that hard, and that I could go write a script. I knew these two guys that were very prolific writers in Hollywood that I’d worked with before and I went to them and said, “If I write my own script will you me through the school of hard knocks and give me feedback, and if it’s crap then tell me why it’s crap?” They took that responsibility on, and it was awesome — which is also why I mentor writers now, and try to pay it forward, like what they did for me. So I wrote a script called “Hammer Down,” which sold to DreamWorks and Michael DeLuca. And I was off and running on this writing tear, and wrote a number of studio scripts around town, and did rewrites and what have you. And the more that I did it, I realized that they were seeing an ex-stuntman, which put me in a stereotype of just straightforward action stuff. It’s fine for a while, but then you realize that it’s not what your true voice is, and your work starts suffering from it because you’re not impassioned. I kind of pulled up the wagons a minute and said, “I want to make my mark — to make a small movie that I’m extremely passionate about.” I knew it wasn’t going to be about the money, but it would be my debut. I knew an independent producer at the time who now runs Relativity Media, Tucker Tooley, and I went to him and said that the one thing that scares me the most is prison, and I want to do this thing where people can sit in theaters and watch this movie and see the most authentic prison movie ever done, watching these characters and at the same time thinking about how their lives would be affected and they would deal with the same circumstances. It becomes less about the social commentary and more about the relevancy — how is it relevant and relatable to the people in the audience even if it’s a world they’ll never be in?
ShockYa: And so those seeds of social conscience came from wanting and needing to be seen as more than “just” a stuntman, maybe?
RRW: “Felon” was my launching pad in that world. I was really hoping that it would pay off, and luckily it became a bit of a sleeper hit and kept getting traction, and it really opened a new door for me. The things that I’m developing now all have that similar message or idea, in the way that you feel for and [connect with] these characters you might not initially relate to, or even question their choices. But I like that moral ambiguity, where we all sit after a movie and talk and think about it. … After “Felon” I wasn’t really wanting to go back into that same genre again — of a gang world and criminals and these hardcore, violent people — but then when I heard about the story for “Snitch” and watched the “Frontline” piece on which it was based and then read Justin Haythe’s original script, it was a lightning rod for me. There was no way I could pass it up. It’s a similar world that it’s set in, but it’s the second-oldest question that we all face — as parents, how far would we go to make sure our kids are safe and out of harm’s way?
ShockYa: If a filmmaker comes to directing from editing, maybe they’d see scene breaks in a very specific way, but given your background in stunts, how do you feel that’s influenced how you see story? And how has it impacted working with actors?
RRW: I think anything you do in your past — if you don’t see it as a war chest of knowledge, where you just keep putting more things in your toolbox, then you’re making a big mistake. I was fortunate enough to be on set with some very famous directors — Tony Scott, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, John McTiernan and Kathryn Bigelow. When I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t be sitting in the trailer playing cards and shooting the crap with the guys, I’d be on set and I’d watch. They would set up a shot or talk an actor into taking his or her performance in a certain direction, and I’d say, “Gosh, I didn’t think of that, what an interesting choice.” And with my jobs then, you work hand-in-hand with the directors, but you also work with the actors. I doubled Mel Gibson for a long time, I’ve doubled Patrick Swayze and Willem Dafoe, and I was with Tom Cruise on “Days of Thunder.” You start realizing that all actors are different animals, and that they each have a different process for getting their performance. So you become a good manager of how to deal with personalities, and show them that you have their back, know what you’re talking about and have done your research — so that they have trust in you and can do great things. And that’s carried over to me in directing. I think I’m so good with actors because I understand them and I don’t interfere with their process. I try to elevate and support their process, and let them know that I have their backs. You show them you’ve done your homework and research, and that then you’re starting at a point where you’re collaborating and building something up from there. Earlier, I had this tremendous production experience — well over 100 movies or shows that I’d been on. What I didn’t have was narrative sense. But when I became a writer I understood what God’s plan for me was, because writing those movies and not being a part of those actual productions — but instead just the story part — gave me a sense of character arcs, tones, scene structure. I was able to combine that with the production experience and … then I could write for execution versus just writing generic scenes for action. And on “Snitch,” I learned even more about myself and the things that I want to do.
ShockYa: What was a memorable stunt for you that went sideways, where something was extremely dangerous or went wrong?
RRW: My father was a legend, and he just passed away recently. He was one of the founding members of Stunts Unlimited, and really paved the road not only for my brother and I but so many other people. We all felt like there wasn’t anything that crazy because we wouldn’t have done it in the first place if it was. Like with Evil Knievel — who I really hope to do a movie about — the interesting thing about him was that he was a daredevil, he [risked his] life without abandon. There weren’t t any safety measures, he was just going on guts and glory, and that’s not for us. Everything for professional stuntmen is calculated measures, and we can cheat the angle with a camera because you really know your craft. That doesn’t mean people don’t get hurt and killed — they do all the time — but what respect we all have for that man is that we knew how hurt he was and yet he’d always get back on that iron horse and go jump again. And as far as my career, I’ve done “Days of Thunder,” wrecking things at 200 miles per hour. “Tango and Cash” was another movie that I did, and it’s always the little things that shouldn’t be that dangerous [that get you]. We’re jumping trucks and crashing big earth-movers for the big finale of the movie, and there’s a sequence where an earth-mover is going to go over a cliff and burst into a big ball of fire. So I was going to be right near the edge and run away from it, and it crashed and a tremendous amount of gasoline was released into the air and immediately crawled up the side of the cliff that I was standing on. And I realized that [the flame] was going to search for new cold air above it and not to the side, so there was this huge mushroom ball of fire — real fire, not the fake Hollywood fire that we use that dissipates really quickly. I knew it was chasing me, and yet I knew being prepared from guys like my father, who mentored me the right way, that the way you most typically die from fire is not from being burned but if you breathe in fire it then it singes all the hairs in your lungs and you can no longer breathe and that’s how you die of smoke inhalation or whatever. So it was me running toward the camera, taking a big huge breath and then just holding it, feeling myself being surrounded by fire and running and running and running until I could feel cold air back on my face. … The stunt world is about calculated risk — being aware of everything around you and never, ever taking anything for granted. Dar Robinson, one of the most amazing and famous stuntmen ever, died just taking a motorcycle around a corner where there was some loose gravel and his bike slipped off a cliff, and he fell and died.
ShockYa: Is the sci-fi-tinged “Tipping Point” next for you?
RRW: The next movie I’m doing is most likely called “Currency,” with Participant Media. Imagine the movie “Heat” in structure. I’d been doing a documentary on a Delta Force operator who was blown up in 2005 and trying to reintegrate back into society, and how hard that is when you’ve been subjected to that amount of violence and you’re wired a different way, having been on thousands of missions and being like the Michael Jordan of the military. He’s a technical adviser on movies now, and we were talking about how if you think the violent things are only going to happen over there, or somewhere else, you have another thing coming, and that some people are going to come back and get into a life of crime. So who could stop them, the most skilled operators on the planet — other than their own brethren? (NOTE: this conversation occurred before Christopher Dorner) So he’s going to be in a movie that’s going to show both sides of the equation — about guys who’ve returned and are trying to fit into federal law enforcement or whatever it may be, and then the other ones that choose not to fit into society. “Tipping Point” I’m extremely excited about as well, and something that 100% I’m going to make. But Hollywood is a Rubic’s cube and so things come together in certain ways. But I only put myself into things that I’m extremely passionate about, and I [see "Tipping Point”] as kind of a reverse “Children of Men.” I’m looking forward to tackling that one.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.