There have been a lot of great prison dramas, both on television and the big screen, but just when you think all the possible ground has been covered, along comes Ric Roman Waugh’s Felon, a violent drama set within the California prison system that shows a different side of prison life.
The film stars Stephen Dorff as Wade Porter, a family man who accidentally kills a burglar while trying to defend his family and ends up in California’s most dangerous correctional facility, where after being framed for a murder, he’s sent to the prison’s Security Housing Unit (“The Shu) with the prison’s toughest killers. There he makes an unwitting ally in the life-long convict John Smith, played by an almost unrecognizable Val Kilmer, as he’s thrown head-first into vicious gladiator-like games conducted by the unit’s sadistic overseer, played by Harold Perrineau from “Lost” and “Oz.”
For an independent movie with such a low profile, it’s a surprisingly good movie with such strong performances, particularly from Dorff and Kilmer, that it often feel as if you’re watching something real. Even though it’s a harsh and violent film that rarely pulls its punches or softens things up, it isn’t a sensationalistic genre movie like the ones we’ve seen from studios in the past.
Waugh is a really smart guy, a former stuntman turned screenwriter who certainly seems to be coming into his own with a lot of new studio projects in the works. ComingSoon.net talked to him about some of them when we sat down with him to talk about Felon.
ComingSoon.net: How hard was it getting this film financed?
Ric Roman Waugh: I basically did this whole project at spec; I didn’t want to try to pitch the movie. Normally, what I would have done is… the studio movies that I’ve written are all based on pitches or original ideas or intellectual properties. I just took this idea of my own, and I hooked up with Tucker Tooley who is an independent producer I have a good relationship with and I really believe in him. I just said, “Look, I’m not going to go look for money for this thing. I don’t want money to write it. I just want the right producer, let’s just knock this out together.” So he shepherded the script, I wrote it, did all the research, and once we had the script and we both believed it was the right vehicle, then we went out and sought financing by getting the right cast and everything else. What happened is Peter Schlessel at Sony and Adrien Alperovich had gotten a hold of the script really loved it, and we sat down and talked and he basically said, “Look, my problem with this movie is that it’s not really a foreign-based movie. It’s more of a domestic sell based on prison, and I know the actors you want to get, so here’s the deal, I’m not going to ask you to genre-fy it, to put ghosts in the prison and all the different things. I’ll let you make the movie you want to make with integrity, with the authenticity you’re after, but you’re going to have to make it for this number because where is the upside for me in case it doesn’t become that.” He bet on me and I bet on him and it’s been a great relationship, and off of that I think we got a movie that we are all very proud of.
CS: Can you talk about the casting of Harold Perrineau as Lieutenant Jackson? He definitely seems to be playing against type, and it was ironic to see him in that role after playing an inmate on “Oz” for so long.
Waugh: He’s so underrated. If you look at Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo + Juliet” and you look at things in his past, and then he got pigeonholed as that really good guy, but was a great actor. I don’t think he’s ever had a role lately that I can remember that had the legs of what he can withstand, and I knew that it was against type. There was obviously a decision in that, but I knew that when it came to embodying this character, that he would understand the suffering that he has gone through and where a man has lost his way versus just the guys that you’ve seen that would play with the nightstick and the twirly moustache and just be the bad guy.
CS: As far as Val, he literally had to cover his body with tattoos every day, so was he reapplying those every day or was he able to just wear them the whole time?
Waugh: With his whole character, he and I talked about it, and I said, “I want you to really embody the lifers that I’ve met.” First of all, they’re not completely shredded Michael Clarke Duncans. They’re more of these hulking presences. They want to have weight, they want to have size, they want to have strength, and they want to have power walking on the yards, where they have that kind of stature. They all have these really thick goatees and they’re very manicured. They don’t have the long scraggly hair we’ve seen in prison movies before of the guy who’s been in the hole forever. They’re manicured, they’re groomed, they have daily lives and they have this noble warrior sense I see with a lot of the inmates in prison, and we wanted that. I really got lucky, because everybody worked pro bono basically for scratch on this movie including the crew, and there was a guy that came on, Christien Tinsley, who was the prosthetics and makeup person on “Passion of The Christ.” He also did “No Country for Old Men,” and just a number of movies in that space where you’ve seen the tattoo work, they’re as authentic, plus we’re slashing people’s faces and you’re actually looking at the guy’s face and you don’t realize that it’s zero prosthetic. His work is just fantastic, so he developed a process of tattoos. Normally everybody did them with ink pens and then you never really got the fading right, and somebody that looked at it was supposed to have twenty year old tats and they looked fairly fresh. He invented a process where if you look at Val’s tattoos, not only did they look authentic, but they look like they’re weathered, they look like they’re aged, they look like they’re old. What’s nice about them is they can last a day or two, and yeah, you are retouching them at least every two or three days because of the detail and because I was never really shooting if you look at the movie, it’s never really a full-length wide shot from the corner. It’s a very intimate movie that’s very tight, so you see the difference between his tattoos and then what we did with Johnny Lewis that played the Snowman. They’re completely black ink because he’s the fresh kid that wants to be this guy.
CS: Did you do rehearsals with Val and Stephen before shooting?
Waugh: A little bit. My rehearsals are different. I don’t necessarily need to see the scenes as much because I think that the words aren’t really important to me. I don’t really live by my words as much. I think that it’s more about the subtext for me, so what’s more important for me in my rehearsal process is I sit down with the actors and we really understand the character. “Where are you coming from? This is where I’m coming from.” I would be the biggest idiot on the planet to sit in front of Val Kilmer and tell him how to act. I’m not going to do that and that’s not my job. My job is to say, “I understand this character. This is who I think he is, this is what he embodies, this is what my research is, you bring what you bring to the table based on this.”
CS: All of these dangerous convicts are locked up in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) separated from all the other inmates, and yet they’re thrown into this yard together in these make-shift gladiator games. Was this something you learned was happening at real prisons?
Waugh: That’s based on actual events that happened in a California prison in the ’90s. Security housing is a prison within a prison. They’re not just for gang members; they’re for disciplinary problems. Anyone that’s deemed a disciplinary problem will get put in security housing away from the main life, from the general population. That’s what happens to Stephen Dorff’s character, he gets caught up in a stabbing incident where he had nothing to do with it, he has nothing to do with it, and he has a choice, do I rat, wondering how that’s going to affect me, or do I not rat, how is that going to affect me, and knowing it’s a no win situation which is the lesser of evils, and he has to make that split decision choice which is what happens in prison, you don’t get to, “Hey, can you come back to me in about a week so I can give you an answer?”
CS: It seemed like such an extreme thing for Wade to be in there, since he was a first-timer and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Waugh: But prison is an extreme place and it was as simple as, you end up with a bloody weapon in your hands and now you have an extreme choice to make. Everything that I’ve learned in prison, especially from the gangs, everything is an extreme choice, there are no like, “Well, let me just go try this and try this for a little bit and see how it works out for me.” Once you make that decision, you’re on that road whether you like it or not.
CS: Right, you make a mistake and you’re obviously going to pay for it the next day. Can you talk about avoiding the prison stereotypes we’ve seen in so many other movies, even on “Oz,” a show I loved? Are most prisons in the country the same in that sense?
Waugh: Very similar. If you look at the documentary series on the National Geographic Channel and The Learning Channel and all that, you’ll kind of notice that they all start looking very similar. The reason being that this new modern society of prisons, they’re kind of like track homes. They’re all built by these cookie cutter companies that build them the same way. They’re built modular style now which means that there’s different housing units that are detached from other housing units so that if you have a riot situation, or a disturbance, it can’t affect the rest of the prison. The all the things that go with that, for me, to stay away from the stereotypes was important because for example, you don’t see a drug scene in this movie. You don’t see a male rape scene. You know that stuff is going on, but I think it’s more about a personal journey of the bigger issues, of, “Well, how do I actually survive this world, and what would I have to do?” and “Will I be the same person when I come out?”
CS: You have a really impressive resume as a stuntman and that you’re been writing a lot, so how did you find time, even 21 days, to make this movie while still trying to keep up on all that other work?
Waugh: It was tough. I was a stuntman in my early days, in my earlier career, and I was very fortunate to work with Tony Scott for a long time. I’ve worked with Spielberg, I’ve worked with Dick Donner, I’ve worked with a lot of really big directors, and I didn’t really spend time at the trailer. I sat on the set and watched them and watched what worked and what didn’t work, or what I thought worked and what didn’t work and took my own interpretation of things. Coming from the crew side of the film business, it’s allowed me to really understand what can happen in a day. Then I directed commercials for a number of years, as well as directing second unit action stuff before I really did my mainstay as a writer for the last seven years. I came from a point where I understood production and I understood what could happen, so for me, 21 days (to shoot the film) wasn’t an arbitrary number. It was the number that I had to get widdled down to and then I said, “Okay, well I can’t shoot in any less days, so now what do I have to lose budgetary-wise as far as the icing on the cake?” So it’s really a detailed process to do independent movies and everything, to really understand what you can do and what you can’t do.
CS: I’m really curious about that, because you’re coming from a very different place from the directors who come from film school and start making independent movies.
Waugh: I was extremely hands on in that I knew that I would live or die by the sword. I always like this analogy: you’re either the top of the mountain or you’re the bottom of the valley, there’s no in between. You either make it or you fail, and for me, I really wanted to make sure that if I had guys like Val Kilmer and Stephen Dorff and Harold Perrineau in this for very little money I’m asking all these crew people to come in at low-budget scale which is a really low cut in their pay rate well, I better have my craft together. I better know what I’m doing. I better have every day mapped out. I better strategically understand what I can spend the money on that’s correct and not spend money in places that will never be seen on the screen.
CS: I was curious about shooting in the confined space of the prison cells. Were you just given a wing of a prison to shoot in for 21 days?
Waugh: There’s a prison called Old Main in New Mexico that is now state property. In 1980, it had one of the worst riots in U.S. history, and a lot of guys were killed and they shut the prison down a few years after that. It had the bones of what I needed, and the more expensive thing on construction is raw construction, so I was able to utilize the old look for San Quentin. I was able to build into areas to make it look like Men’s Central Jail, but there was nothing in the United States that looked like the Security Housing in Corcoran or Pelican Bay, so even on this shoestring budget, Vincent Reynaud, my production designer, with countless photographs and research of studies that I’ve done, we built basically an integrated version of between Corcoran and Pelican Bay’s security housing unit. The whole entire security housing unit cell block, the cells, the sally ports and the yard is a hundred percent a set. I think that’s a really good tribute to Vince and his team on no money to build something that looks, what I think, is spectacular and feels a hundred percent real. Here’s the interesting thing: we built what I called the “hero set,” we built a cell where the walls could all fly away so you could have more room. We ended up using it very little because both we and the actors liked being in the real cell where it could be handheld with the lens right in their faces and feel like you’re confined. The more I felt like could you get out and take a wall away and you’re using longer lenses to compress, you get a bigger movie look but you lose the sense of what this movie is, an internal look of how it would be to be an inmate.
CS: I know you’ve been writing for a long time and developing a lot of screenplays. Do you have any idea what you might direct next or are you basically just writing scripts right now for studios and producers for others to direct?
Waugh: I don’t necessarily have to write the things that I direct, but I think it’ll tend to be that way. I’m going to do a movie called “Manhunt” most likely next for Relativity Media on a much bigger budget.
CS: Are you writing it and directing it and everything?
Waugh: Yeah, and it is set in the world of the special forces, especially Delta Unit that are coming back into our society and trying to integrate back into the civilian world. It also deals with the extradition laws of Mexico right now where basically anybody that’s wanted on a capital one murder charge in the United States, they don’t even have to be convicted, they just have to literally be able to get the death penalty, they can have safe harbor in Mexico. There’s a lot of murderers living down there, so it’s all about those two worlds coming together. What I did with the prison genre, I’m trying to redefine a little bit of the Special Forces world of really understanding the mentality. It’s a lot like movies that I’m a huge fan of like “Heat” that showed you the world criminals and the guys that chase criminals and how their lives are either constructed or destructed living in that society that are part of the chase.
CS: I like the fact that you are taking a similar theme and going in a different direction with it.
Waugh: I think for me and for my studio background, I’m looking for the one-sheet and then I go from there and say, “Well, how can I make it real? How can I make it organic? How can I make it relevant to where you and me can sit in the audience and say, ‘I might not be a part of that world, but I understand that world now. I’m in that world and I get it, like I get what it is and it feels very real and organic to me.'”
CS: Based on what you had to do to research “Felon,” (see below) does this mean you’ll spend two years in the Special Forces preparing
Waugh: (laughs) No, I think that we all have to pay the rent. I was writing a movie for Jerry Bruckheimer at the time that I was doing my research on “Felon,” so it allowed me to keep a roof over my family’s head, but also take my time and really do the research the right way. I had a contractual obligation on that I think that now that the movie is getting bigger, hopefully whatever I’ll direct next, I’ll be able to speed up the research and everything else, but also I won’t turn a single foot of film until I understand that world.
CS: I saw you were writing something called “The Last Apostle” which I thought was really interesting. Was that something you pitched and can you talk about it a little?
Waugh: “The Last Apostle” is a movie much more in the vein of “The Crow.” It lives in a hyper real world of basically you find out is purgatory where these people are living and it’s a very classic story of good versus evil.
CS: Is that something you’re going to be moving on soon?
Waugh: Yeah, there’s also a movie called “Hammer Down” that I wrote over at DreamWorks that Phil Joanou is going to direct that they’re moving on, “End of the Road” at Fox which was another really cool, classic, ’70s style movie that was a remake of “Vanishing Point,” the original horror movie. Most of the stuff that I did in the studio game as a writer was more of these bigger tentpole action movies, so for me “Felon” was a very much more personal journey and it really is a departure of where I’m going to go with my career now or hoping to go into the more of these kind of authentic movies that can live in the real world, but can have the action of the “Bourne” movies, have the action of the Michael Mann movies, but really have this kind of authenticity that I’m looking for to be in a world where I go, “You know what, that’s a place that I’ve never been, but now I understand that.”
CS: Is it hard to switch heads that much when you’re directing a movie and having to think about it every minute of the day and have to switch gears and do all these other things?
Waugh: I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it would be wrong for me, but these guys direct movies constantly and the script is being written while they’re directing, I don’t even know how that’s possible. I really do live by being on the page and not on the stage, so for me I really make sure that the script is rock solid as possible, the actors have all signed off, I cast and we all understand, “Okay, this is what we’re going for, now let’s refine it and let’s move things and improvise as we go.” The structure and the core is there so now we’re building the house instead of trying to reassemble the house as we go.
Here’s some more with Waugh from earlier roundtables talking about how he prepared to make the movie:
CS: Can you talk about your personal experiences with the prison system and how it led to this film?
Waugh: For me, I was looking for something that would be very provocative but I also wanted to do something that’s a little bit more personal that I could invest myself in. One thing that’s always scared me was if you ever had to do real prison time, what you’d have to go through. I wanted to start from complete scratch. I didn’t want to rely on documentaries or technical advisors. I wanted to become my own aficionado in the world and understand the mentality of how it gets to where it does. In order to do this, I became a volunteer parole agent in the state of California, and it was a way for me to never be seen as a filmmaker walking into institutions or talking to gangsters or correctional officers. Some people did know who I was but most of them didn’t, and what was great was that they would never have that censor of “Ah, it’s a filmmaker. Don’t tell him what’s really going on. Don’t tell him about taking an inmate I had enough with into a cell and fighting him one on one.” The controversies, all that stuff, I wanted to go beyond just the corruption. I wanted to find out the root of it. For me, I think the movie lives on the 50-yard line. It’s not slanted towards criminals, it’s not slanted towards the system. It just shows what it is and it shows it from you following all the rules of society, and yet, you make that one mistake and you gotta do real prison time, how would you survive this world? It could be white, black, Hispanic, it wouldn’t matter what ethnicity or racial profile you’re from, everybody would be in the same boat, because you’d have the same pressures from your own race once you entered the system. I also wanted to show the guards’ side of it as well, because one of the things I found through my research is that not only is there a reason why the prison population in America is well over 60 to 70% repeat offenders, and you wonder why this happens. The thing is that when you live in this kind of society and you are subjected to this amount of violence, you become desensitized, and what I found is that it happens with the guards as well, because they’re walking the same beat, seeing the same amount of violence. They are not police officers on the street who have an altercation with somebody and basically have them arrested, sent to the county jail, walk away from it. As a correctional officer, if a guy threw feces and urine on you, you’re going to see him every day for maybe the next thousand days. Every single day in your face or the guy who says he’s going to kill your family or walking over the blood in the yard, you’re subjected to that every single day. Val’s got a line in the movie that I think rings true, which is kind of what we wanted to do, which is to show that make no mistake, we’re all in prison: guards, correctional officers, civilian workers and of course, all the inmates.
CS: What was the most shocking thing you saw or heard during your research?
Waugh: I got desensitized. I’m actually a good case of what happens because when I first came in, I think there was a lot of things that did shock me right away. In the L.A. County jail system, most people will tell you is the most violent places in America to do any time, and the main reason being that it’s so overwhelmed with jail population of inmates that they just don’t have any more room, so you’re in a cell that’s completely integrated with white, black, Hispanic, six men to a cell and you might have gone in there for a DUY, but you’re in there with guys who have committed murder and everything else and it’s anything goes in this room. The first thing I had to do is walk down one of the cell blocks and it’s the old iron bars, not mesh, so me knowing now that they can make spears out of the wood broom handles and there’s all these weapons, I was scared sh*tless to walk down this tier because they’re either going to see me as the ACLU or they’re not, and there’s a badge of honor to get a civilian in there. When they first opened the doors, my knees buckled and I said, “Don’t let them know you’re scared, keep walking” and I walked all the way down to the end of the hall, walked back, learned respect, nod at people, try not to disrespect anybody. That was where I started from. Now I’ve been in every house there is, and there’s nothing that really shocks me anymore.
CS: Are you worried that any of the convicts or guards you interacted with might see this movie and get mad that you deceived them?
Waugh: I don’t think that’s going to be an issue because one of the things I did was I didn’t want to portray the real gangs. If you noticed in “Felon”, beyond the Aryan Brotherhood that’s been so indoctrinated into our minds in the society of film, I don’t think anybody takes it seriously what they are, but they are the older guard. I wanted to really stay away from the real gangs, and I didn’t want to glorify gangs in the movie. I wanted to show exactly who they are and you live in those neighborhoods or if you’re from that environment, you know exactly who everyone is. None of them are glorified or named, but I had a lot of test screenings in Los Angeles, and I invited a lot of major gangs to come see the movie, mixed in with law enforcement, mixed in with people from the District Attorney’s office and everybody’s come out of the movie saying it’s the most accurate movie ever done in prison.
Felon opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, July 18.