CS: I hadn't seen the movie the last time we spoke but after I saw it, I went back over our earlier interview and was pleasantly surprised to see that you really described the movie as it was.
That's something I was excited about, the fact that they marketed the movie with a trailer that is the movie versus marketing a trailer that's not the movie. Just for marketing purposes that makes it look like straight action fare, like "The Rock version." No, they really stay true to the story and I was really proud of that.
CS: They didn't add a voiceover "In a world…"
CS: One of the things I wanted to ask last time and I got distracted was about the research. We talked about it a little bit. You had the "Frontline" piece and an original script by Justin Haythe, so who did you talk to before you started working on it and figured out what you want to do?
As you know from our conversations about "Felon," I knew the criminal world fairly well and knew the prison world. What I really wanted to do was research the maximum minimum laws, research the federal law enforcement, mostly the DEA. For me, what I learned on "Felon" was "look for the guy stuck in the middle, look at the guy who has to enforce the system and look at the guy that has to deal with the system in general." That really became the Agent Cooper character, the Barry Pepper character. Most of the people that I dealt with were the DEA saying, "I don't care if you're for the war on drugs or against the war on drugs, but if you have to enforce these laws, how do you deal with it? What's it for you?" What I found that was very similar to my research on "Felon" happened in this world again is that they become desensitized because they're dealing with the same amount of "The Liar's Club." With the world of informants, the way it works in prison, is the same way it works out here. When you put somebody's ass on the line and they suddenly can face ten years in prison, they will lie just to get them themselves out of it and that's exactly what happened in this story and what this father's son's friend did to him. Unfortunately, when you start out as a rookie cop, you're trying to decipher if it's real or not and then you get so desensitized by the "Liar's Club" that you forget about what is the truth and you start looking at "This is the case docket, this is what they gave me at my mandate, and I'm just going to do what I f*cking do," which is to go take down bigger fish. It becomes a test about your own morality and it becomes a test about your own morality and it becomes about "Where do you fit into the equation?" and how you keep wiping away that line in the sand that you put down that you'll never cross with your own morality and then it keeps inching further and further down the road until you finally reach a breaking point and saying, "If I cross this line, I don't return. This is when I lost my soul." And that's what we wanted to get out of every character in the movie, but especially the Barry Pepper character that was stuck in the middle and for that matter Dwayne's character.
What Dwayne and I talked about in the very beginning is it's very easy to say that you would be a man of moral integrity when your own life is on the line, that I wouldn't put other people's lives at risk, I wouldn't lie, cheat, beg and steal. But when it's your kid's life on the line, you would move heaven and earth for them so you'd start telling the white lie of coercing somebody of saying "Can you just get me an invitation? Get me to the hot seat and let me go from there" and how that becomes a domino effect of then your morality is really tested of "Am I going to lose the threshold that I'm going to lose my own morality completely or do I find my own balance?"
CS: I haven't seen the "Frontline" show that inspired this so how far did the character Dwayne is based on go? Did he go to the top of the chain?
It's a much more simplified version of it because he went all the way to getting a full drug deal. I wanted to take a more simplified direction that the father went and open it up to my research of this world, showing that if you prove that you're an asset to this kind of criminal world, you might think that it's a one-time deal, that all you have to prove that you're an asset and the hounds of hell from law enforcement will swoop in and everything will be great. What you don't realize is that the minute you prove that you're an asset, they put their hooks into you and they drag you on a journey, whether you like it or not and will exploit you until there's nothing left to exploit. The law enforcement sees that and realize "Oh my God, he did actually pull it off and show that he's an asset and he's revealing bigger fish to us," so suddenly you get stuck as a pawn in that deadly game.
CS: I was surprised by that, because I wouldn't think that the government and law enforcement would want civilians getting involved in stuff that could get them injured or killed. DEA agents are trained for years to deal with that so I'm surprised they would say "We could use this guy to go undercover and he'd be perfect because he's not a DEA agent."
It's a judgment call and it happens. What Susan Sarandon says is how they set up this father, they said, "Look, we can't protect you. We can't stop you either, so I tell you what, we'll sign off. If you want to risk your ass and get us a bigger fish, by all means, but you are on your own. We will not sign protection to you."
CS: Did you get a chance to talk to the original father or did Dwayne?
No, we kind of stayed away from that because that was a very specific story and a very specific journey and town, okay? What I wanted to show with this is that these laws are federal. I wanted to show that you could live in New York City, Mississippi or on the West Coast and it can affect anybody. So we took a leaping off point of "make this about Middle America, make this feel like it could be Americana anywhere," which is why we shot in Shreveport so you have farmlands and industrial and downtown and the suburbs and the ghetto. You have that microcosm that every city has and then you feel like it relates to who you are, relates to your own city, doesn't have to be specific to the region of the country that you live in and then you go down that rabbit hole with this father. Again, it's that first person point of view where you relate to his story within your own self, so you come out the other end and you're wondering, "You know what? I'm either for the war on drugs or I'm not for the war on drugs, but I can see the controversy in this" and that conversation happens.
CS: Why set the story in Missouri? Was that crucial to the original story at all?
No, it was looking at the map and saying that what I wanted to show that everybody thinks these cartel guys and there's this big war going on in Mexico. Well, there is, but there are cartel lieutenants in this city, there are cartel lieutenants in every major hub of the United States. It was me looking at a map saying, "If I want to end up down by Juarez, the most violent place right now on the war on drugs, let me find a conduit that makes sense that's within reach of where this father can live, where you can believe the trajectory where he would have to drive down to Juarez. Missouri just became the hub of a place that I felt was very Americana, very middle class country that would give us context that it could be anywhere in the country.
CS: I was a curious about the mix of actors with non-actors which worked so well in "Felon" and here you have real DEA agents working with Barry Pepper doing raids. I was curious about how you get non-actors to perform in front of the camera.
It was fun. Out of all our DEA guys, Barry Pepper is our only real actor. They're all real people. In fact, the next movie I'm going to do, which is "Currency" which is all in special operations, one of his guys is a Seal Team 6 operator that just became inactive and another guy is a Ranger Battalion who was a private contractor. The entire team that raids the Juan Carlos house, those are all real SWAT and DEA operators. You go into the neighborhoods and Malik, the character that Michael K. Williams plays, a lot of real guys in his house. Authenticity breeds authenticity, so if you're truly trying to show that you could go to a movie that's full of escapism and you're not going to really worry about the rules and how logical things are or you're going to do a movie like "Snitch" and "Felon" and say "No, I want you to believe everything here because this is the way it is, it's true authenticity." Then it's bleeding some of that real world into that so it feels more docu-drama style so you feel like this is tangible and real and accessible.
Now prepare yourself for the most awkward question that gets even more awkward when we hear his answer.
CS: If you didn't like the movie and don't want to comment, I'll take this off the record, but I was curious what you thought of last year's "Act of Valor" because that was a good example of two stuntmen who directed a movie, real Navy Seals…
That's my brother's movie.
CS: Oh, it is? Oh, wow. I interviewed him last year and I'm not sure I ever put two and two together even though you both have the same last name.
Yeah, very different kind of film. I'm very proud of Scott, my brother and the picture that he made, but it was really interesting and I don't think there will ever be a movie like it made again that was kind of started as a documentary, then it was a fictional thing and it kind of took this whole manifestation unto itself where it became this great look inside of our Special Operations community and how they operate with putting guys that aren't actors in the real situation.
The next few questions deal with the film's climactic action sequence and may be considered somewhat of a SPOILER if you haven't seen the trailer and want to experience it for yourself.
CS: I want to talk about the action in the movie because you do have a background in stunts and I want to ask about flipping a semi, because that's something you might see in a much bigger movie, like "The Dark Knight." How do you go about preparing for something like that? I assume you only get one take?
There is only one take. (laughs) My whole idea of the semi chase, given my stunt background, I was part of the movies where you wreck everything you can on screen and top the last stunt and make something even bigger. The movies that I'm making now, maybe it's my personal taste that I get a little over-sensitized to seeing a wall of action on the screen where it becomes more about being in the action and being in that first person point of view where you feel like you're in the action. To kind of tackle that, I took the mantra that we're not looking at the action from the outside in, we're going to be on the inside out. We're going to be in the driver's seat with Dwayne Johnson, we're going to be in the cartel cars. We were in civilian cars on the freeway and this cartel shootout happened and we're a part of it. When I take that type of mantra on, then it informs how you're going to do the action, so what we did is as an ex-stuntman will tell you, we never doubled Dwayne in the movie except for the final crash. When the truck is jack-knifing at 75 miles per hour, Dwayne Johnson is behind that steering wheel.
CS: Wow. Did he already have experience driving a big truck?
Yeah, we were working with him. When you see him crash off the freeway, Dwayne Johnson is behind that wheel. In fact, there's a shot in the movie early on in the sequence when he crashes one of the second cars off the freeway that you see the car flipping in the air and the camera hinges over and there's Dwayne Johnson behind the windshield. That's me strapped to the front hood because I told him, "If I'm going to risk putting you in here and we both know I'd never put you in harm's way, then I'm going to prove to all the afficianados out there who say ‘It's all green screen and all bullsh*t.' Let them figure out how to comp in a handheld shot. This is real." We're really proud of the sequence where we never used a process trailer. It wasn't like we had all the stunt guys doing the action and blow sh*t up and then bring the actor through all the mayhem later. They're all through it. There was literally no second unit. We just shot everything live as it was happening.
CS: Did your producer know you were doing that? I don't know any producer who would allow both the lead actor and director to be involved in such a crazy stunt.
I let them know at the last minute. (laughs) It took me reassuring the production for a little bit of how we were going to shoot the sequence, how it was going to be completely safe to put all the real actors in the scene. Not only is Dwayne behind the wheel of the semi truck but JD Pardo and other actors are in that car chase. They're all part of it bumping and grinding, so I said, "This is how we're going to do it, this is how we're going to make it safe but it's going to be real" and that way we don't have to worry about doubling all the coverage because it's all happening spontaneously. So when you see a guy flinching, he's flinching for real because a f*cking 200,000 lb. semi-truck wheeling into them. We wanted that type of inertia and we wanted that organic feeling of action happening versus the set-up of "Here's the actor's face, here's the wide shot of the big crash and here's the actor dusting himself off again. Let's watch it all unfold while it's happening."
CS: It's really impressive, especially with a film like this that's so dramatic, you really get invested in the characters so to see them in this kind of situation, you're like "Holy crap!"
I wanted the audience to hopefully feel the anxiety that John Matthews was feeling, to be back in those ‘70s movies that we love where we were invested in the characters and we were rooting for them and we felt like we were in their shoes and they were relatable to us and then by the time the real action unfolds and the thriller sense of it, we were riding that adrenaline and that anxiety rush with them.
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opens theatrically on Friday, February 22. Look for our video interviews with Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal and Barry Pepper very soon.