Exclusive Interview: Snitch Director Ric Roman Waugh
February 18, 2013
Here at ComingSoon.net, we talk to a lot of different levels of filmmakers from legendary directors who have been making movies for decades to the filmmakers behind the latest studio releases and every once in a while, we see a movie from a first-time director that impresses us so much that we know that we're going to see a lot bigger things from them in the future.
That was the case with Duncan Jones' first movie Moon and Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist and that was also the case with Ric Roman Waugh's 2008 prison movie Felon, starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer. We had a great talk with Waugh back then and we were really excited to see him back behind the camera with this weekend's Snitch, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Based on a true story that was feature on "Frontline," Snitch is not your typical Dwayne Johnson action movie (If there is such a thing), but it's an action-packed drama set within the reality of mandatory minimum laws where those caught for dealing drugs (or with enough drugs to assume they're dealing) could be sent to jail for decades. Johnson plays John Matthews, the owner of a trucking company whose son Jason from his previous wife falls into a DEA sting and is given 10 years in jail by the U.S. Attorney (Susan Sarandon). Trying to save his son, Matthews offers to use his trucking company to set up an inter-state drug deal to help a DEA agent (Barry Pepper) catch some of the bigger drug kingpins to get his son's sentence reduced.
A big deal is often made about Waugh's background as a stuntman, something that comes more into play with Snitch than Felon, but he's also proven himself to be a filmmaker that goes for absolute authenticity through intensive research and expecting similarly authentic performances from his cast. While there've been a lot of action movies over the past few months--and a few dogs--few of them are as grounded in reality in terms of storytelling and the action setpieces than Snitch.
Over the past few weeks, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Waugh twice, once over the phone before we saw the movie, and again afterwards. Considering how much time Waugh puts into researching for the the movies he makes, he's the perfect spokesman for his own movie and we hope that those interested in Snitch will appreciate this comprehensive interview.
ComingSoon.net: Nice talking to you again, Ric. It's been a while.
Ric Roman Waugh: Thank you for taking care of me on "Felon." I've always appreciated that.
CS: No problem. I liked that movie a lot and I recently went back to reread that interview and there were a lot of nice comments from our readers who had seen the movie since then.
Waugh: It's been good. It's been exactly what I was hoping would happen which was it steered me in the direction of doing these movies that I'm doing now that have this social relevant consciousness in them, not hitting you over the head but giving you something to talk about after the movie.
CS: I haven't seen the movie yet but going by the trailer, I saw that it was inspired by true events, so what was it that happened that inspired this?
Waugh: Yeah, it's an amazing story. There were some other movies that I was looking at doing and then this fell in my lap and I couldn't let it go. When you and I talked about "Felon," it's like every law-abiding citizen's worst nightmare is what happens to you and what happens to your family when you go to prison? The second caveat is when you say "how far would you go to protect your own kid?" I heard this story and I was like, "There it is." It's the true story of a father whose 18-year-old son was wrongly accused for dealing ecstasy. He was caught under these mandatory minimum laws, which are federal laws that were designed to snare high-level drug traffickers. What they do is they give you a mandatory sentence of ten to thirty years in prison and in this case, the kid got ten years in prison. They say that the only way you can reduce your own sentence is if you snitch on other drug traffickers. His friend actually snitched on him, but lied about what was happening and that's all it takes. It becomes this thing about the world of snitches and lies and cheats just to reduce their own sentences, so the kid went to court and he didn't have any drug traffickers to snitch on and even his own defense lawyer says "Is there anybody you want to help set up?" And he's like, "You mean set up somebody else like my friend did to me? No, I'm not doing that." Not knowing how hard prison was. The father knew that his kid would never survive so the true story is that the father went to the U.S. Attorney and said, "What if I go into the drug world and get you a bigger bust? Would you reduce my own kids' sentence." And they signed off on it, so it's literally about how far you would go as a parent, how far you would move heaven and earth to protect your children.
We put this movie together with Exclusive Media and Participant Media and Summit for theatrical and we started talking about all the usual suspects that you'd put in a movie like this. Dwayne Johnson and I had been wanting to do a movie together and he was a big fan of "Felon" and I just knew that he's never gotten his due of having a true performance and where he was trying to take his career. I just had this lightning rod idea. I said, "Guys, what if we take the most formidable guy on the planet, lock him in this movie and then show you that when it's real world rules, it will not matter how big you are. It's about how much heart you have." Because when a bullet hits you in the head you die. Dwayne loved it, they loved it, and it's a way to take Dwayne Johnson and give him his "Fugitive," the way Harrison Ford was Han Solo and Indiana Jones but to make him a mortal man and an everyday guy, or Mel Gibson in "Ransom" after doing the "Lethal Weapon" series.
CS: It's funny because seeing the trailer it seems more like a drama with some action than an action movie. Is that generally the case?
Waugh: It's definitely an action-thriller and it's got its dramatic moments, but I think what makes you say that and I'm very proud of it is that he gives the performance of his career and he's surrounded by true thespians. Susan Sarandon couldn't wait to get into a movie with him and Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal from "The Walking Dead" is just phenomenal in this movie, Michael K. Williams and Benjamin Bratt, Melina Kanakaredes, the list goes on and on. It's been a great experience of doing what we wanted to do, which is show that he is not an action hero, he's an everyday man in action, the way that Branson was, and he's going to have to move heaven and earth to save his kid so we do have these big action sequences. We have a huge semi truck sequence at the end of the movie and cartel shoot-outs and what have you, but yeah, there's some great dramatic performances which I'm proud of but I hope that people know it's once of those thrill rides. I don't want to compare it to "Argo" but I think that's just a phenomenal movie in its own right but you already know what happens in "Argo" and you go in, and it's still a great thrill ride. That's what I want "Snitch" to be.
CS: Was this a project that you originated or was it already in the works?
Waugh: It started on a "Frontline" PBS special and it was a whole series about snitching, so one of the segments was about this father that went into the drug world to get his kid out of jail. Nigel Singlair and Guy East had a company called Intermedia, and when they sold Intermedia, they were going to make it over at New Line. Justin Haythe, who just wrote "The Lone Ranger" and "Revolutionary Road," wrote the first draft. I guess it never really panned out so when Nigel and Guy ended up leaving their producing deal over at New Line and formed Exclusive Media - they're doing the new Ron Howard movie "Rush" and this movie and they're just on a freight train right now. They had showed me the Justin Haythe draft and Justin left me in a great place. It had the dynamic of where I wanted to go, but because of what you know about my background and what I did as far as going into the gang world, into the prison world and the criminal world and really understanding law enforcement. I was already so far ahead of the game of understanding what this movie could be in terms of authenticity, like a true drug world. Then I continued to do my research from there into the DEA and the legalities of stuff and how federal laws work vs. state laws. That's what's so scary about this - it doesn't matter where you live in the United States. Anybody can be victim to these federal laws. I already had all that research and background from "Felon" and went further with my research because I'm a research fanatic and then wrote the draft. They greenlit the movie off my draft and we were off and running
CS: Were you able to get help from the actual DEA because from the way you talk, it may not be that complimentary of the DEA and some of these laws they're enforcing.
Waugh: Actually, you'd be surprised, Ed. When you see the movie, all the DEA agents in the movie that do the raids with Barry Pepper, 98% of them are all real DEA agents. They all came in on this and it was just like "Felon." 98% of those guys in the yard, they were all real and some of the guards. That's kind of what my bread and butter is. I don't want to be the guy that's hitting you over the head with my agenda or my biased opinion. I just want to take you down to the 50-yard line and let you take your own interpretation of how these laws have affected people. That's what we did with "Snitch." I think if anyone got egg on their face on this, it's more the judicial system than law enforcement. It's just how the US Attorneys are using these laws to their advantage because the last thing they want to do is go to court. They don't want to go to trial. They want you to take that plea deal. They want you to go "Look, we'll tell you what, you're going to take ten years unless you snitch on anybody. Oh, you don't have anybody to snitch on? If you go to court, I can up it to thirty years." It's really a grotesque way to be using these laws and I can tell you by validation of who is really serious about it are the federal judges, because they become custodians of the court. They have no power now on sentencing. It's all done through U.S. Attorneys and that's whyI think Susan Sarandon was really interested in the movie. We all know what her political thoughts are, but she's actually playing the complete opposite in this movie and she does it heroically. She does it straight to the order of somebody of this ilk, a U.S. Attorney.
CS: You had Summit involved while you were making this so did it feel like a very different experience from making "Felon"?
Waugh: You know, Ed, I think the movies you're going to be seeing me make beyond this are always going to be the ones where I have to roll up my sleeves, because I just refuse to do straight popcorn fare. There's nothing wrong with that and I'm the first guy to go and see "The Avengers" and the big, big movies and the fan fare. I'm a fan of going to things, but as far as what I'm going to want to make, I'm going to want to make things I'm really passionate about. They're the harder and tougher stories to tell and even though this is a bigger budget, this movie should have been double the size of the budget. We shot this movie with Dwayne Johnson and this whole entire cast for 35 days and luckily, everybody was as passionate as I was about this story because we all rolled up our sleeves and went at it. What made it a great journey is all the partners we had on the movie, between Participant Media and Exclusive Media and even Summit. Everybody involved always believed in the movie. They let me pretty much lock on my director's cut. There were no battles. It was just a really great experience and I'm about to go again with Participant Media and they're just all good people, so I've been really blessed with whom I've been jumping into battle with.
CS: You have a background as a stuntman and you've worked with a lot of greats including Tony Scott and others who make popcorn movies. Did you feel the action had to be bigger to match up to other movies in theaters or just what was necessary to the story?
Waugh: No, I think it's just the stories that I want to tell. One of the movies that we're talking about doing and I'm attached to direct is "Deepwater Rising." If you talk about an event movie, that's the size of "The Perfect Storm" with Lorenzo di Bonaventura producing. It's nothing about the aftermath. It's all about the 115 people that were on that oilrig 40 miles out at sea when it blew up. 11 people were killed in the initial explosion and the rest of them were saved by their own. Blue collar people stayed out there and helped each other before the Coast Guard and James Bond and Superman could get there. So it's a huge, huge undertaking and a big big budget, so I'm not going to steer away from action or those types of films. I just want it to be provocative stories and provocative concepts.
But Tony was one of my true mentors and Jerry Bruckheimer and the guys I grew up with coming through the ranks doing the action stuff, so I get to use my chops in that way and bring that to the screen, but I also want to have a narrative sense of the movies that I want to have people walk out of the theater and have a conversation about them. Some of the chatrooms about "Felon" were you'd be in a chatroom and somebody would go "You know this movie is bullsh*t, you'd never go to prison for this, it's totally fabricated" and then within 10 minutes, there'd be like 35 responses. "What planet do you live on? This happened to my father. This happened to me." I love that conversation so I think it's about making some type of awareness or just having something that there's a thought process going on. No one is going to hit you over the head with it and at the same I want to give you a commercial ride. I want it to be a big fun personal movie.
CS: What's it like working with Dwayne on a movie like this? I've met him a bunch of times and he's a really intelligent guy and fairly grounded in real life from the persona he portrays in wrestling and the action movies.
Waugh: You know what? I'm pretty biased, because I'm just such a massive fan of him as a human being, but what I think what has defined Dwayne Johnson since he was a football player and still to this day as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and a huge mega-star in the film business, is that he's fearless. He has this heart and this belief and this drive that he always wants to excel. He came into the film and he sat down and said, "Look, I really want to dive into the deep with you and have this trust factor where you and I both know where this character is going and we're on this ride together," and he just never fought it. He was with me hook, line and sinker all the way through it and I'm very proud of his performance and I think he's very proud of his performance. I think people are seeing it as well. When we tested this movie, it was great because I was concerned that it might polarize some of his fanbase that are used to the new "G.I. Joe" coming out and he's in the "Fast and Furious" series, a franchise, and people love those movies because they're getting to see him be that giant nut inside but more at heart what we love about him is that he's a grounded authentic person, but also seeing him flex his acting chops and see him put on a performance that's just great and it's substantial and it's authentic. I think that's the key word to this man. He's so authentic and I knew that was going to come across in this character.
A few weeks after that phone conversation, we got to sit down in-person with Waugh after we'd had a chance to see the movie and you can read that part of the interview, where we talk about one of the film's big stunts, on Page 2.