Ric Roman Waugh isn't interested in just presenting audiences with action movies filled with stunts but lacking character development. Instead, Waugh - a former stunt man who's successfully transitioned to writing and directing - is determined to make movies with a social conscience and with dialogue that doesn't just serve to set up the next big action set piece.
Waugh's new film is Snitch featuring an impressive cast that's led by Dwayne Johnson and includes Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper, and Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Loosely based on a true story that garnered attention due to a story on Frontline, Snitch uses the story of one family - in particular, one father (played by Johnson) - to examine the drug war and the effects of minimum sentencing laws. And in support of Snitch's upcoming release in theaters on February 22, 2013, Waugh discussed his research process, casting Johnson in the lead role, and what drives him to make films.
Exclusive Ric Roman Waugh Interview:
I was reading an article on the true story that inspired Snitch and the father involved said he never thought about what would happen to whoever he’s setting up or what would happen to their family. It was all about his family. Is that something that’s brought into your movie?
Ric Roman Waugh: "No. Where we kind of take creative license and going our direction is the actual journey into the drug world. But the set-up of our story, of the fact that a real father went into the drug world to reduce his own kid’s sentence, is 100% the way that we do it. Where we wanted to paint a picture is coming from doing Felon and all the research I did in the criminal world and the gangs and prisons and just how all that works, I found out first-hand how dangerous that is, and when you start following down that rabbit hole, you might not be able to turn back because they’ll latch onto you and then they’ll take you further down the hole. They see you as an asset or something that they can exploit. That was something that I wanted to bring into Snitch.
When I came onto this movie, I did a huge re-write on it just to basically bring my spin of knowing that world so well and with law enforcement and the criminal world, and really making it authentic. It’s easy to say as a parent I would move heaven and earth for my kids, and you go into that world, what would you really have to face? We wanted to make it where, again, a father started proving to them that he could be a valid asset to them, that he could help with transportation, he could do the things. And what they loved to do, there’s a great moment in the movie that I actually took right from the headlines. My wife and I were in Austin, Texas at home and we have the DARE program for kids with drugs and what have you, and suddenly there’s this thing that came on talking about how here we’re six, seven hundred miles from the border, and talking about how the ATF and the DEA are going into middle schools, intermediate schools and high schools, to middle class kids and saying, 'You know when that cartel guy comes to you and they try to entice you to just carry that backpack for a bunch of money,' and the excitement and they make it sound so exciting and so great, they can’t wait for you to do it because then once they’ve got you, they put their hooks in you and then they exploit your family. They exploit everybody, and they use you until you’re basically dead somewhere in a ditch. That’s what I wanted this to be in a much bigger way.
I wanted this to be about the fact that if you could convince the drug world that you were an asset to them, they’re not going to let go of you. They’re going to exploit that until the end of time - or until you’re dead. The people that we put him up against in the movie are all people that we know are very formidable and people that should be going to prison. With that said, the top of the food chain, Benjamin Bratt who plays this character Juan Carlos, people have this misnomer that think all the cartels, violence and all the cartel stuff's in Mexico, they’re dead wrong. Every region in our country has a cartel lieutenant in it that runs all the networks up here in the United States for the cartels. He plays one of these guys. I don’t want to tell you what happens until you see the movie, but he has a son. He has a son and he has to make a decision based on his own son. So yeah, I can understand where the real father was coming from, but we actually voice that but actually voicing it from the antagonist side and seeing how they deal with their own family when they’re running in this world on their own."
You're a father so when you're doing this research, doesn’t it scare the crap out of you?
Ric Roman Waugh: "You’ve got to be careful. I don’t know if you’ve heard the stories about me when I did Felon, but I went undercover as a parole agent for two years in California and went into all the biggest institutions. They saw me as a rookie cop, so I’m in Pelican Bay and Tehachapi and Chino and Corcoran and all of these major institutions and they would tell me all these stories of, 'This is what you’re going to be dealing with. This is what you’re going to be facing.' And I had a parole supervisor that would help me meet with gangsters, high level gangsters, but we would meet in dark alleys and it was not for my protection, it was more for their protection so nobody would know that they were snitching or ratting or anything else. And all I was trying to get was accuracy about that world.
You learn real quick to never try to hoodwink anybody and to bamboozle anybody and just to be very straight and to tread lightly and to really walk a very fine line when you’re in that world. Luckily, all my research with Felon I was able to carry all that over into this world, and then I did a lot more research of the drug world in the cartel world, and then in the law enforcement side. How the DA, how they operate, how they’re utilized by these U.S. attorneys with these mandatory minimum sentences, and they become a part of the coercion - whether they like it or not. It’s a world that you definitely have to pay attention to, and there are some projects that I’ve been asked to do - I won’t tell you what they are - that I absolutely flat-out turned down because I just think they are too dangerous."
Were you ever fearful for your life while researching Snitch?
Ric Roman Waugh: "No, because we’re always making sure that everything is on the up-and-up and safe and backgrounding and validating everything. I will say that we don’t use the real names of cartels and what have you. You have to be very careful with that. But anybody from that world, and anybody from this side of the world, will know that the people that we’re portraying in this movie are 100% authentic. You don’t have to have their real names. It’s like Traffic. You see Traffic and everything is kind of a fictitious version of what the Baja cartel was and all that, but we all knew who they were."
It sounds like you do an incredible amount of research for these films. Is it because you are just really passionate about the story and you want to get it right? What is it that drives you to put yourself out there that much, because that’s not normal?
Ric Roman Waugh: [Laughing] "I am not normal."
But it's a good "not normal."
Ric Roman Waugh: "I made a big conscious decision in my life when I was writing all these big action movies and doing different kind of fare but very proud of it, I was finding myself less and less passionate about doing it. And then I really wanted to make a gear change and do stuff that has more of a social relevance to it. I don’t want to hit you over the head and I don’t want to give you my biased opinion. I just want to take you down the 50-yard line and let you experience a very controversial subject matter, something that’s got a lot of relevancy to us as a society, and let you take your own opinion on it, let you form your own kind of take on what that’s about - on the good side and the bad side of things. That’s where Felon came off of, and from that it’s really opened the doors for me to do these types of movies.
To answer your question, my bread and butter is authenticity. We might give you heightened action and I’m going to give you a commercial sense to making it a fun, big thrill ride, but at the core of it, the foundation of it, the story elements, the plotting, the characters, I want them to be 100% authentic. You can’t fabricate that; you’ve got to know it. So, yes, that’s where my research comes in. I want to know things inside and out to where I don’t have to go look at a technical advisor on a set and stare at that person and say, 'Am I right or wrong here?' I need to know if I’m right or wrong. How could I entrust actors to entrust me, or crew for that matter, if I don’t even know what I’m talking about?"
I've got to tell you I'm tired of over-the-top action movies that have no story to them and that are all about setting up the next big explosion or gun battle. I’m glad to hear what you’re doing is making sure that the story is there before the action scenes come in.
Ric Roman Waugh: "Yes, thank you. It’s so much fun. I’m really excited. I gave an interview a couple weeks ago, it was about the state of Hollywood and what I thought about it, just one of several people that were interviewed. I just said, 'You know, I’ve got to be honest here. Everybody keeps talking about all this brainless fare that we’re making and it’s still there,' - and that’s fine, and the big tent poles everybody is looking for and the studios aren’t making provocative fare anymore - and I was like, 'You know, I was the first person that said how are they going to possibly have nine best movies in the Academy Awards now?' There's not nine great movies a year. This year is different. It’s unbelievable. Look at Argo. I’m such a huge fan of Argo, of a movie that you know what’s going to happen in the movie and it’s just such a great thrill ride. It has the action, it has the suspense. Zero Dark Thirty...I could just go on and on and on. There are so many really provocative films out there with great storytelling that gives you the icing on the cake as well, and that’s hopefully what I’m striving for."
And this is not meant to slam Dwayne Johnson, because I think he’s just a terrific guy, but did you ever worry when you’re casting someone like Dwayne, someone who people respond with, "Oh, he’s just one of those action movie people," that you’re kind of negating the story you’re trying to tell because you’re selling it with a guy who is, in some people’s minds, just an action guy?
Ric Roman Waugh: "You know what? I love that. I love that that conversation is going to happen, because people are going to be blown away by this man. When we finished the script, we all sat down and they greenlit the movie and we were going, 'Okay, let’s talk about it.' All the usual suspects' names came up that you’d put in a movie like this. What had happened is Dwayne and I had been wanting to work together, we were developing something else together in a different place, and he was a big fan of Felon and I’ve been a big fan of his, and I just kept thinking to myself nobody is giving this guy his fair shot to show how damn good he is. He is so authentic; he’s such the real deal. He’s fearless not in size but in heart, and he’s so intelligent. He’s got such a voice to project out there. I kind of had this lightning rod idea. I went to the studio and said, 'I’ll tell you what, why don’t we just stand this whole genre on its head? Why don’t we put the most formidable guy on the planet in this movie and show you when it’s real world rules it will not matter how big you are, it about how much heart you have.'
Who’s got more heart than Dwayne Johnson? He’s so authentic. You know what, I love that challenge. And you know what, so does he. We talked about it and I said, 'I want this to be your Fugitive. I want this to be where Harrison Ford went from being Indiana Jones and Han Solo, and then became the everyday guy in the Fugitive, and it can still be a thrill ride. People buy into your everyday action,' as well as Mel Gibson in Ransom, when he went from being Martin Riggs. And that’s where I think Dwayne and I are 100% on the same page with this. It’s like that fearless journey of, 'You know what? I don’t have to put the 'S' on my chest on this one. I don’t have to be the action hero. I can just be the man of action. I can be a mortal man of action, and when a crowbar hits me in the teeth I’m going to go down and I’m going to probably be in a coma.' It becomes a scarier version of the movie. It becomes a more realistic version of the movie. The people we put opposite him, you know this guy Jon Bernthal, oh my God, he’s so fantastic in this movie. And Michael K. Williams...I mean there’s no more street cred than Michael K. Williams as far as I’m concerned. You know, Barry Pepper, and then Susan Sarandon couldn’t wait to get in the movie. Just so blessed that to show you that what we’re talking about right now of that gamble, that gamble of can you take an action hero and show everybody that he can be the real deal. Look at the people that supported him. Like we are talking about Academy Award people that said, 'Hell yeah, I’m on the ride. Let’s go. We loved this. We get what the script is, we get the story, we’re passionate about it,' and that’s where great things happen."
It will be interesting to see Dwayne Johnson in a film that allows him to stretch and sink his teeth into a role in a way that he’s never been able to before.
Ric Roman Waugh: "Yes, absolutely. I’m very, very proud of the movie. Very proud to make this movie with him. I think that it’s a performance that will make a lot of people smile, because they get their cake and eat it too with this movie, and when we tested the movie that’s exactly the response we got. They’re like, 'We love the fact that we’re taking our big action hero guy and we’re putting him in a real movie that’s grounded and yet we’re getting our cake and eating it too because we’re getting the guy that we love.' And at the end of the day he’s doing what he’s always been, which is real. He’s authentic, he’s grounded, he’s the real thing. That’s why he was so big in wrestling. He wasn’t playing a caricature thing. He was playing...he’s him. In this movie, it shows the same thing. It’s that authenticity that comes across."
Audiences seem to just really want to go there with him, wherever he’s going.
Ric Roman Waugh: "Yes. I would go 100 times more with him. Honestly, he’s just such a fantastic human being. He is fearless in his work. It’s just been great. It’s been a great ride, a great journey with him, and there’s definitely going to be more to come from he and I together."
Do you feel that this movie, more so than most action films, will cross over to attract a female audience?
Ric Roman Waugh: "I’ll let you in on something. We’re actually testing higher with women than men. It’s great. I think it’s two-fold. I think that women love Dwayne Johnson. I think that women also, the female audience, also know that he’s real and authentic, that he’s not of ego. And I also think what was great about Felon- another movie that we tested just as high with women as we did men, and it was a violent prison movie - because we showed the family aspect of it, that’s what this movie does. This movie is, yes, it is about a father's journey, but as you saw in the Frontline piece, he was a divorced father. We kept that accurate. Melina Kanakaredes plays the divorced wife, the divorced mom. Dwayne’s character has remarried, who Nadine Velazquez plays, and he has a new life, and yet this tragic thing happens and he has to go and save his son. How it affects all the different families, how people can be supportive until their own lives are on the line.
This is not Taken. This is not a movie where it’s suddenly just all about a father going to save their kid. This movie really delves in family, it delves into family on the Jon Bernthal side of what’s at stake for him. And like we were talking at the beginning of the [interview], it’s like even the point of Benjamin Bratt has a son in the movie who is the top of the food chain of who is pulling the strings on this character’s journey, John Matthews. I think that’s why women are really attracted to the movie. I like diversity in movies and I want to hear the whole well-rounded story of it as well. I want to see the ripple effect, the ripple and the cause effect. And by the way, Rebecca, I’d do the same thing if it was a female protagonist. If this was a mother’s story of going through it, I’d want to see the fall-out and the ripple effect across everybody in the family."
Is this amount of work, this amount of research, something you will do for every film you're attached to? Do you have to this passionate and put as much background work into every project that you do in the future? You’re not ever going to be a hired hand, in other words.
Ric Roman Waugh: [Laughing] "Maybe when I’m old and feeble and very wealthy, hopefully, and I decide to phone it in. No, I’m just honestly joking on that. I wrote a lot of movies and I was a gun for hire, and I know what that is, and by the way, I was so blessed to write all the things that I was working with and all the big producers that I got to work with in studios. There’s no slight there for me. But there’s a different direction in my life now where I want to be passionate about the things I make. You can’t be passionate about it and then just not put the work in, I think.
Dwayne and I talked a lot about it on set. You talk about a guy with dedication. There’s people of his size and stature that they’ll train up for a movie and then the rest of the time they’ll kind of slough off. He is like that 365 days a year. It’s because of his work ethic. He says, 'I’m going to take on something, this is my tool, this is my trade, this is my craft. I’m going to be a perfect fit in every way.' He is up three hours before everybody else, training, then he comes to the set and works for an entire 12-hour day. He does all of his business stuff. He handles it, he gets it done. He’s doing his research, he’s doing his homework. That’s got to be how I operate.
I mean, if I’m going to say that I’m going to be passionate about the movies that I’m going to do and I want to make them authentic, then I have to do the research. I have to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. By the way, I love it though. It’s not something that I go kicking and dragging myself to go to do the work. I love it. I love what I do. I think that it’s harder to go sit at a computer and in front of that keyboard when you’re not passionate about it. It started getting a little bit to that point of the gun for hire feel. I just don’t want that feeling again. I love having fire in my belly and I love having that work ethic that I just can’t wait to see what’s next.
There’s a movie I’m going to do called Tipping Point. at Relativity Media, this great sci-fi idea. It’s the opposite of Children to Men. Instead of all the women on the planet becoming infertile and no more babies are being born, and then that one mother that has a child that becomes fertile, what’s the fall-out, what are the implications, who would try to save her, who would try to kill her, who would try to exploit her - this is the opposite. It was this great idea that I just could not pass on, but it’s a massive undertaking of research. It’s about what if five minutes from now where we’re heading is true which is that the world’s population is going to get over to 10, 12 billion people and it’s going to be at the point where we’re not even able to sustain our own planet anymore. It’s a story about a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, a lot like Oppenheimer with the atomic bomb, he came up with a quantum theory and said, 'Look, we as a society, as the people of this world have to know if we pass the 12 billion mark we’re not going to be able to sustain ourselves.' He was doing it more as a warning sign and unfortunately the politicians of the world took it to draconian measures and implemented a law that you had to have a child with a permit. If you didn’t have a permit and then you have a child, you’re considered an illegal and it’s life for life. It’s the parent’s life for the child’s.
It becomes this really harsh look at society, and one of these guys that becomes a population officer, like a blade runner, that’s got to go chase down these illegals and put these kids in the child’s protection and the parents are terminated. Until he turns the corner and he’s staring at the love of his life he lost eight years ago and it’s his seven-year-old son that’s standing in front of him. He goes from being the hunter to the hunted, because he goes onto their side of it.
It’s just a great look at our society. How we sustain ourselves, where we’re going, and I get to have fun. I’m going to lunch with all these futurists and all these forward-thinking architects talking about green technology and our own sustainability and where the problems are with the world and what are new ways that architecture is going to work in the future. So instead of me relying on what I’ve seen in the past with sci-fis with a bunch of LEDs and plasma screens and people walking around in shiny suits, I get to create a world that’s going to be fresh and innovative that’s actually lending itself into authenticity of what people are already thinking, these futurists. It’s fun. I love my job."
When you consider just the very basic plot lines for Felon, Snitch, and Tipping Point, you wonder how you as a filmmaker get from A to B to C. Yet the way you just described Tipping Point, now it makes total sense as to why you're attracted to it and how it falls in line with your other films and your goal as a filmmaker.
Ric Roman Waugh: "Yes. I love moral ambiguity. I want to take you down that 50-yard line and just put you into a world that’s very controversial, that has a subject matter that you walk out of the theater and there’s going to be a discussion about it. One of my favorite things about Felon was I looked in one of the chat rooms after the movie and there was a chat room where one person said, 'This movie is bullshit. This would never happen. Nobody would ever go to jail for this.' In 10 minutes, there were 35 responses, 'What planet do you live on?' 'This happened to my father.' 'This happened to my father.' ' This happened to my brother.' 'This happened to my husband.' 'This has happened to our family.' I love that. Those are the conversations I want. I want people to talk about things and take their own interpretation on it, and hopefully at the same time entertain them. So it’s one big thrill ride on a big fun movie, but have it be about something."
Did you ever find yourself, after devoting so much time to Felon and then Snitch, just in need of a break?
Ric Roman Waugh: "No. I think that there is that lull in between that you’re trying to assess what is going to be next, what’s really hitting you in the gut that’s got to be the next movie and pushing that forward. And yes, you end up going, 'Okay, I’m sitting around, I’ve got to get going.' Tanya, my wife, she’s always laughing because I always say, 'Yeah I need to take a break,' and by the next morning I’m like, 'I’ve got to get to work.' But when you love what you do, that’s okay."
At this point in your career, how easy is it for you to do what you want to do? Is it a tough sell to studios most of the time or how does that work?
Ric Roman Waugh: "I think it’s a combination of all of it. I think luckily I’m getting a lot of good response and people that are passionate about the movies that I want to make, Participant Media in particular, that I’m hopefully going to go again and again and again. But I’m picking subject matter that you and I both know that yes, you have to fight the fight. These aren’t plug-and-play movies. These aren’t 'go stick a big star on a movie and it’s just a great action fare' and sell it and it’ll be good to go. I’ve turned down a ton of those. The movies that I’m going to want to do, I’m not going to get the entire budget that I want, so I’m okay with that. I want to roll up my sleeves and get dirty and go make something that I’m passionate about. We did that with Felon. Felon, a couple years ago, would have been twice the size of the budget. We shot that movie in the teens, and I’m fine with that. I’m so excited about the movie that we made."
One last question, if there’s something that you hope sparks a conversation from Snitch, what is it that you want people to be discussing on their way out?
Ric Roman Waugh: "The much bigger theme than the actual laws. I have five-year-old twins and I’ve said to Dwayne, and I’ve said to all the cast, the theme of this movie, the thematic thread of this movie, is the price of our own success versus the price of our own personal protection of our family and our kids. Personal success is extremely important because it puts food on the table, it provides for our family, it builds futures for them, it puts them in the right environment. But you become a workaholic where you start hoping that you’re not taking your eye off the ball with personal attention and know what’s happening with your kids, and that’s what this story is about. It’s about when a kid becomes ensnared in something that’s tragic like this that we all blame ourselves. We’re all wondering how did we take our eye off the ball? You’ll see that in the movie. It’s fathers, it’s mothers, it’s everybody. It’s everybody included that this is … these are our treasures. It’s that balance that we’re all facing, especially in a tough economy, in a country that’s struggling right now, of how much we’re having to work or, by the way, it’s the lack of work. It’s going into other avenues. I think that has to be the bigger conversation than just about the laws and everything else. I think the laws, how they’re being utilized in the judicial system, kind of speaks for itself. I think there’s a bigger message that we should all be thinking about in this movie."
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Snitch hits theaters on February 22, 2013.