Writer/director Ric Roman Waugh, whose credits as a stuntman include “Hook,” “Total Recall” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” recently spoke with Phoenix Movie Examiner about his new crime thriller “Snitch.”
In “Snitch,” which opens Friday, Feb. 22 at movie theaters throughout the Valley, Dwayne Johnson plays a father whose teenage son is wrongly accused of a drug distribution crime and is looking at a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years. Desperate and determined to rescue his son at all costs, he makes a deal with the U.S. attorney to work as an undercover informant and infiltrate a drug cartel on a dangerous mission.
Answer: It is kind of funny that you say that because my wife keeps wondering when I am going to do a romantic comedy. Usually, with the research I am doing, I am going into very dark and dangerous worlds. But what “Felon” was about to me was that personal point of view that you get within a movie where you are watching these characters but you cannot stop thinking of yourself. If you have followed all of the rules of society but you make that one mistake and you had to do real prison time, what would you do in order to survive? So I had been looking for another movie that had that kind of first person point of view. It is very rare to find those type of stories. I came across this story which was from a “Frontline” piece on PBS and it was all about snitches. This one particular story really grabbed my attention. What really grabbed me about this story is that it was about fathers and sons. I am a father of 5-year-old twins and if my kids were in jeopardy, I would move Heaven and Earth for them. I would go to the bowels of Hell and kill everybody in my path if it meant protecting my kids. This was a chance to really see a true story of how far you would go down that rabbit hole.
Q: That is an interesting idea. So, what else can you tell me about the story behind “Snitch?”
A: “Snitch” is about a father whose 18-year-old son is wrongfully accused of dealing ecstasy. He gets caught under these federal mandatory minimum laws where you get 10 years in prison. They were designed to ensnare high-level drug traffickers because the only way you can reduce your sentence is if you snitch on other drug traffickers. Well, this kid does not know any other drug traffickers so his father goes to the U.S. Attorney and says, “What if I go into the drug world and get you a bigger bust?” I just thought that was so profound. By the way, in the true story, the U.S. Attorney signed off on it. This father did go into the drug world and it was a very difficult journey. But once you become a commodity to them, then you become pulled into that rabbit hole further and further and further. That is what resonated with me - that chance of sitting in the theater and watching these characters yet you cannot stop thinking of yourself. “Would I do this? How far would I take this to make sure that I can protect my own kids?”
A: I think that our judicial system has gotten completely out of whack with these mandatory minimum laws. People are serving longer sentences for drugs than for molesting children. We have something wrong with our system. I mean, we have to take a good look at that. But, as parents, all racial lines are crushed. Any ethnicity is crushed. Any demographic, any social class or where you come from - it is all crushed. We are all struggling to do the same thing, which is to protect our kids.
Q: What key decisions did you make to weave those messages into the movie?
A: When I came onto this project, I said, “Why don't we just flip the genre on its head and put the most formidable guy on the planet in the movie to show that it does not matter how big you are, if you are going to go into a world like this, it is going to be about how much heart you have because when a bullet hits you in the head you die.” This is not action hero time. This is everyday man of action time. But this is not just about some suburban father whose son got wrongfully accused and now he is trying to do the right thing. On the other side of the tracks, you have a character named Daniel, played by Jon Bernthal. He is a two-striker from drug trafficking, did major prison time and is working at Dwayne Johnson’s character’s construction yard trying to better his life. He is trying to get his kid out of the inner city and all of that same peer pressure. These two fathers from completely opposite sides of the tracks have the same thing at stakes. Their kids are in jeopardy.
Q: And are there any lessons that you would say that you learned from the film?
A: I think that the thematic thread of “Snitch” for me is - and I know that I am facing it as a father - we have to have a balance between personal attention and personal success. That is very important nowadays because your career puts food on the table. It betters your kids’ lives. You have a chance to put them through college. So it becomes about can we have that eye on our kids and be close to them so that we know that we can keep them out of harm’s way while we are also trying to put food on the table. That is a balance that we all play as parents.
Q: So tell me, what was it like to work with Dwayne Johnson?
A: I learned that the truth will always stand above everything else. When I got to know Dwayne, I completely understood why he is such a megastar. He is not playing a character as much as he is being himself. He is always real. He is always honest. He is always sincere. And he is a man of high morale. He is always playing it from a real point of view. And that is what we wanted with this character. We did not want some kind of fictitious action hero. Let’s just say Dwayne Johnson was 120 pounds and 5-feet-tall. He would have to go through the exact same things. It would not be about the physicality. It would be about the heart. How much heart, how much wits and how much you are willing to bend your own morality to save your kids. I think that is what was great about working with Dwayne. This is a departure from some of the big action movies that he has been doing - from “G.I. Joe” to “The Fast and the Furious” - and this is his way of really flexing his muscles in a way that we have not seen.
Q: What is your biggest self-imposed challenge as a filmmaker?
A: It would be much easier just to be a proverbial sell-out and not worry about being passionate about the stories that I want to tell and just going for the straightforward action movies with the big budgets where you get to blow crap up and you have all of the time in the world. But I am much more attracted to things that I am extremely passionate about - stories that have moral ambiguity to them and stories that put characters into situations that it is not easy to get out of. There are decisions that are going to have to be made that are not black and white. With that said, you get a smaller budget. But I would rather roll up my sleeves and figure out a more interesting way to do things and be passionate about the story that I am telling.
Q: Yet there is an exciting action sequence in “Snitch” that involves a semi truck. What can you tell me about that sequence?
A: I wrote this semi sequence and everybody who read the script said, “How are we going to pull this off?” I was like, “We are going to take the audience along for the ride.” This was a mantra that was passed down to me from my father, a very famous stuntman who just passed away. This movie became a dedication to him as torches are passed down from fathers to sons. How many movies have you seen where your eyes glaze over no matter how much they blow up? We put you in the driver’s seat. We put you in the character’s point of view so that you are sensing it. That is what we did with this semi chase. We did it in a way where Dwayne Johnson was never doubled. He is behind the wheel and the cameras are with him. They are inside of the truck. They are inside of the cars that are chasing him. They are inside of the civilian cars. You are watching a sequence where you could be on any freeway in the world and actually witnessing it first-hand, feeling the jeopardy that the characters are feeling. Rather than just watching the mayhem, you are part of the mayhem.