Opening this week is Ric Roman Waugh’s new thriller Snitch, based on the true story of a man (Dwayne Johnson) whose son is wrongly accused of dealing drugs and is facing decades behind bars under the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Johnson strikes a deal: he will help lead to an arrest if his son can go free. He convinces one of his workers, an ex-con played by Jon Bernthal, to make an introduction and the two get caught up in a massive undercover mission that could lead to the arrest of a Mexican Cartel drug lord, but at a potentially deadly cost. The film also stars Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt, Rafi Gavron, and Michael K. Williams as a frightening local drug dealer.
Recently, I was able to sit down for an exclusive interview with director Ric Roman Waugh. Waugh told talked about working with Dwayne Johnson and the rest of his dream team ensemble, his days undercover as a parole officer to do research for his previous film Felon, why they chose Shreveport, Louisiana as the home for this film and how his background as a professional stuntman came into play. He also gave me an inside scoop on his upcoming projects: a documentary about a Delta Force operator and the film Currency, which will take inspiration from the documentary and Waugh’s own experiences to tell the story of military vets coming home to an unwelcoming future.
Ric Roman Waugh: The movie before this I made was called Felon which was basically a move of showing that when you, what we’re all scared of – it’s a first person point of view – that you follow all the rules to society and you make one mistake and you have to do prison time. What, not only you would have to go through to survive prison, but what your family would have to go through if you were incarcerated. Whether it’s Mommy or Daddy, doesn’t matter.
I want to make movies that are about authenticity. I want to put you in a real world situation where we feel the real stakes and we’re living in that first person point of view so, research is really important to me. So I went undercover as a parole agent in the state of California for two years. Literally to tell people that I was, make them think I was a rookie cop not a filmmaker, so that they would treat me for real, and tell me all the plights of what would happen in institutions. I would go to the institutions, I’d meet with high-level gangsters, and never used anybody’s name or likeness, it was about just understanding that world. But I always loved the first person point of view of that story, that we always wonder what happens when we go to prison. So then when I heard about Snitch and when I heard about the truth, it became instantly that thing that I had to tell which is the second age-old question of ‘if our kids were in harm’s way, we would move heaven and earth to get them out of, to get them safe.’ And that’s what Snitch is about. The fact that a father who’s 18 year old son was wrongly accused for dealing drugs, and got caught under these mandatory minimum laws, the fact that a real father went into this drug world, and got a U.S. attorney to sign off on this. I wanted to take all my research and knowledge and show you that it’s easy to say, “I would move heaven and earth for our kids,” but let me show you what true hell is, what the real drug world is and how that world works when you can prove that you’re an asset to them. So you think, “Oh that’s all I have to do. And I’ll do this one little thing and it’ll all be over with.” But the problem is once you show that you’re an asset, they put their hooks in you. And they take you on a ride, and they’ll exploit you until there’s nothing left to exploit. And you have the law enforcement side that realizes, “Oh my god they did prove themselves an asset…and they’re leading to bigger fish.” So they have to let you fall down that rabbit hole further and further, and you become the pawn in this whole entire game.
And that’s what I loved about this movie, is that it became about showing that. Unfortunately the war on drugs – whether you’re for the war on drugs or against the war on drugs – I’m not here to paint the picture one way or the other. I just want to put you on the 50 yard line of the story, let you form your own opinion, and show you that there’s a lot of consequences that are happening right now. The fact that there are drug traffickers that are not violent offenders serving much longer prison sentences now than child molesters, rapists and people on manslaughter. Something is fundamentally wrong with that that we have to look at.
Tell me about how you found your cast for this film. You’ve got an amazing cast, you’ve got Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, but you’ve also got Susan Sarandon. Tell me how that came about.
Waugh: It’s been great. It all started with this man, (points to a poster) with Dwayne Johnson. When I came onto Snitch and then finished my rewrite on the script and then they green lit the picture and we started talking about all the usual suspects you’d put in a movie like this, and they knew, we all knew that we were going to make a movie like this, a very authentic movie. Which is fun, nowadays, where there’s…the action genre has been split into two forks. You got the big, larger-than-life tent pole movies which I love to go watch. And then you have movies that are like, the Zero Dark Thirtys, the Argos, The Towns, the movies that have this kind of great grounded sense to them and are going to put you in a world that’s different. And I said that’s what Snitch needs to be. Snitch needs to stay grounded and authentic, I said. But when we started talking about the usual suspects you’d put in a movie like this, they were all like boring choices to me because I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve seen that. Then I started thinking about it and Dwayne Johnson and I had been wanting to work together, and this lightning rod idea came up and I said, “If we’re going to show you how dangerous this world is, why don’t we take the most formidable guy on the planet, and walk him into this movie and show you when it’s real world rules, it won’t matter if you’re 6 foot 5 or 5 foot 6, because when a bullet hits you in the head you die just the same. And it’s going to be about how much heart you have, and who has more heart than Dwayne Johnson.” So it was an easy sell to them and sitting down with him, I think the guy had the biggest smile on his face within 10 seconds of “this is a great departure, this is a way to show people that I can, this can be my Fugitive, where Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones and Han Solo, two best action stars of all time, to suddenly be vulnerable, play the everyday man of action the way he did in Fugitive.” And that’s what we wanted with Dwayne. And then to have him lead the charge and we start putting together a cast, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Melina Kanakaredes, Benjamin Bratt, Nadine Velazquez, Rafi Gavron. We just had such an amazing cast that it not only was it a chance to work with Dwayne, because I think everybody were fans of his, but I think it’s also the fact that we all come from families. We’re either fathers, we’re either sons, we’re either daughters, we’re either mothers. And we all, this story really rang true to us, how far would you go down the rabbit hole to protect your kids.
Waugh: We shot the film in Shreveport, Louisiana. Part of it is because of what we do in the film business now is find these tax incentive states, which is important. We did this movie on a budget, we all had to roll up our sleeves, including Dwayne, where we all made sacrifices to tell this amazing story. So you kind of look for that. And what I wanted this movie to portray is, I didn’t want it to portray the specific region of the country that the original story took place, I wanted it to portray Middle America. These laws are federal. So you can live in New York City, Mississippi, or on the West Coast, it doesn’t matter. Anybody can be affected by these laws. So we picked a region of the country that had the farmlands, the industrial thing, where it can feel like anybody’s backyard and Shreveport really lended itself to that. It has the downtown area, we combined other elements of the fact that they had to drive through Texas so we shot down in Austin where I’m from now, and all the way down to the border of Juarez to really kind of paint that whole kind of Americana tapestry.
Did you find any local hangouts down there that you’d want to go back to?
Waugh: As a director you don’t find much. You find your house that you live in with your wife and your kids and you find the set. And you find the pillow somewhere in between. You know, it’s like, when I was a professional stuntman for years, yeah, that was the first thing you did. You went to the location, you figure out where the bars are, the restaurants, where’s the movie theater, where can I just go have some fun somewhere. And as a director, all you’re realizing is what house can they rent or what apartment can I get in that is so close to the production office that I don’t have to fall asleep at the wheel coming home when I work 20 hours.
Speaking of being a professional stuntman, you’ve been a writer, a stuntman, a director…how do you think that all of those experiences help you on a set and what do you like doing the best?
Waugh: I love what I’m doing now. And I loved everything that I did as well. I think that it’s really important, and Dwayne and I talked a lot about that, as men and as fathers and both had diverse career trajectories. Professional football, professional wrestling, different quadrants of the film business now. Me coming from the professional stunt world, stunt coordinator as you said, directing commercials then screenwriting. It’s all an evolution, and what being a professional stuntman did for me, is it gave me a huge war chest of knowledge of production, to really understand how movies are made. And then to evolve and to be coordinating and working directly with great filmmakers, to being a part of that collaborative process, and then directing the action yourself. Then the screenwriting came in, which is a huge massive component in my filmmaking because it gave me the narrative sense of learning the development process, learning characters arcs, really learning tone of movies and how important is. Really finding your voice of what you want to do as a filmmaker even when they’re branding you to think that, “Oh, here’s an ex-stuntman, here’s an ex-wrestler, he’s supposed to only be the action guy, here’s an ex-stuntman he’s suppose to only write action.” To defining your own voice and not being defined by others. It became about taking all of those collective experiences and making this huge war chest of knowledge to make not only my voice as a filmmaker ring true, from Felon and now Snitch.
What do you think you’re going to do next? Do you have anything coming up, or you’re still thinking about it?
Waugh: Yeah, no, it’s a movie called Currency that I’m going to make for Participant Media again, that we did Snitch with. And it’s something I’m very, very passionate about. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a Delta Force operator who was blown up in 2005, severely enough that he couldn’t be an operator anymore. Hundreds and hundreds of missions he did for our country and how hard it is to reintegrate back into society now. So we’ve been filming a documentary on him called Return of the Shadow Warriors and he’s the first ever to go on camera and talk about this, especially when you’re like the Michael Jordan of the military.
And so we were looking at a movie that really would capture, when the wars are over, and Afghanistan is winding down, and we might go into some other hot spots but the majority of the war is going to be over, and all of our men and women are going to come home, and we’re seeing in California what’s going on right now. We just saw in Texas a PTSD case kill one of our Navy Seals, one of our true heroes. That there’s going to be a massive fallout of PTSD cases and people trying to reintegrate back into society, understanding them. Currency is a movie that takes on that message and tries to hit it face-on for what it really is and a big action thriller. It’s going to have the big spectacle, and it’s about that, there’s going to be people that unfortunately fall on the wrong side of the law, as we’re seeing in California with an ex-police officer literally happening right now. And it’s very easy for the media to say, “These cops can’t wait to put a bullet in his head.” No, I can tell you right now from being around a lot of law enforcement and being around a lot of military, there’s a price to pay to hunt down your own. And to the empathy that you feel where somebody’s saying, “He snapped but what if I snapped? I could very well be that person.” So Currency is going to be like a Heat. It’s going to be about our own coming home, trying to get in federal law enforcement and realizing that there are others that are our own brethren that are creating these criminal acts that we suddenly have to hunt down, and what price do we pay to have to achieve that.
That sounds really interesting.
Waugh: I’m really, really excited about it.
What point are you at in that process? Are you writing, do you have a script, do you have cast?
Waugh: Casting. We’re just casting now. The script is finished, Steve Golin from Anonymous Content is producing the movie, Participant Media is financing it, and we are off and running. So now we’re just trying to put, hopefully like we did with Snitch, to put not your usual suspects in the movie, to put a great cast together and if I’m showing anything with my filmmaking from Felon and now Snitch, it’s that I’m about diversity. Look at our country. Our country is not black and white anymore. It is a tapestry of, it’s a thing of colors, I want my movies to portray that as well, as well as our military does. So right now we’re just really sitting down and talking about how to build this out as the proper cast. And do it properly, and do it justice, the justice it deserves. So hopefully people are truly entertained, they’re on a huge thrill ride, and they come out of the theater asking questions of, “You know what? We gotta do something about this. We gotta put some skin in the game of our men and women coming home and really trying to help them because they are lost and they shouldn’t be. Because they sacrificed themselves, let me put my own skin in the game, put some sacrifice on the table, the way we did in World War II.” This is not about watching something on the news and seeing people over there anymore. They’re going to be over here.
Do you have a dream team assembled in your mind for that?
Waugh: Well if I could work with this cast again led by Mr. Dwayne Johnson, I would take it in a heartbeat. It is, it’s about finding the timing of slots of we’re going to make this movie this summer, so it’s about finding the right cast that fits in the equation. It becomes…movies are Rubix cubes. It’s about, we have all of our wishful thinking, but it’s about who fits that equation in that given time, sometimes you have to wait a little bit to have the right things line up. But we’re on the right track.
So you’re not going to tell me who you’ve got in mind.
Finally, I just heard you recently joined Twitter. What are you looking forward to about that?
Waugh: I think that I like the personal connection with Twitter, I wasn’t a big social media person. But I think now with Twitter, what I love about it is a way to have a connection with people that you work with, or the people that might follow you as fans, or the way to help spread the word on something you’re passionate about. I only want to make movies that I’m passionate about. If I was just going to make exploitation movies, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with making just straight fanfare that’s escapism; I’m the first person to go see those movies. But if there’s a social message or there’s some type of relatability it’s a great forum for me to talk about. If I’m going to ask you to pay money to sit your butt in a theater to watch the movie I just directed, let me tell you about my passion. Let me, let’s take you on the journey as we’re putting it together. So I think what I’m going to start tweeting about now is talking about not only the last experience of Snitch and putting that movie out, but really about Currency and letting you be a part of the process of seeing how the movie comes together, being on set and seeing production shots. To where by the time you come to the theater, you’re not only experiencing my passion but you have a little bit of skin in the game as well of what it took that movie to get together. That’s the part that I love about filmmaking is we all have to…there’s a commerce here. And we all know what the commerce part of it is but I think it’s finding the balance of the creativity and the passion that comes with it.