Heart of a Lion: Ric Roman Waugh on Snitch

Directing Dwayne Johnson's first serious drama and looking back at a career in stunts on films like Last Action Hero and The Crow.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Dwayne Johnson has a lot of movies coming out this year: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast and Furious 6, Pain and Gain… We got to talk to the director of Johnson’s first movie of 2013. Snitch stars “The Rock” as the father of a boy who’s busted for receiving a package of drugs. Because of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the kid will face 10 years in prison unless he turns in a bigger dealer, and he doesn’t know any bigger dealers because he’s just a kid who got a package from a friend. So his dad (Johnson) offers to go undercover and set up a big drug dealer to commute his son’s sentence. Waugh was a stuntman and second unit director who became a director in his own right. He called us right after taking a meeting on his next film.

Snitch opens on February 22 (U.S.A.), April 5 (U.K.) and May 9 (Aus).

CraveOnline: What were you meeting on today?

Ric Roman Waugh: A movie that I’m going to do next called Currency with Participant Media again, Steve Golin producing. We’re just having a visual effects call. We’re starting to get a lot of the soft prep done.

Do you have a cast yet?

No, we’re just starting to put it together now.

Was that based on your experience with Snitch that Participant wants your next one?

Yeah, Exclusive Media, who were the originators on bringing me aboard onto Snitch, were just amazing partners. Participant Media, the company that I’ve been involved with for a while, I was going to direct a movie called Bobby Martinez with them after they saw Felon. There’s just a great synergy. I think you can kind of tell by the movies I’m picking, I don’t want to have to hit you over the head with a message but I do want movies to be about some type of social relevance. Participant has just been a phenomenal partnership to do that with, with the sorts of movies they make and the caliber they make so I’ve got a great home and we’re going to go again on Currency which is really about our tier 1 operators in Delta Force and SEAL Team Six and special operations. When the wars are over and they all have to come home, how hard it’s going to be to reintegrate back into society. Some are going to choose to and some are going to choose not to. It’s kind of built along the lines of Heat but with all tier 1.

You’ve got the first The Rock movie of the year. That’s a good position to be in, right?

Yeah, it’s working for me, man. See what happens when you pay people off? [joking] I’m very excited. He is just a tremendous man. What a blessing that I was given to direct Dwayne. He’s just got a heart of gold, so much integrity and he’s fearless. And you get it. When you’re around him, you understand why he is such a megastar from everything he’s done in his career and where he’s at now. It’s because he’s authentic.

You might get some people who mistake Snitch for Pain and Gain so that could work too.

Yeah, exactly.

Did he also want to do a movie that was more of a drama?

Well, what happened is he had seen Felon and was a big fan of it. I had always really dug who he is as a person and the movies he’s been a part of, but I’d always felt like there was a new genre that he could tackle and hit it head on and just blow people out of the water. So we were talking about a number of things to do together. We were in development on another thing prior to Snitch. When I had finished the script for Snitch, we started talking about all the usual suspects that you would see in a movie like this.

Then I just had this epiphany: What if we just stand the whole genre on its head? What if we put the most formidable guy on the planet in the movie and lock him in there and show you that when it’s real world rules and you’re going to go into an inner city and into a drug world that these people are lethal, and they’ll take not only you out but your family, and if a bullet hits you in the head, you die. Things don’t just deflect off of you like if you’re an action hero, and show that the only way that you’ll survive this world is if you have the heart of a lion. That’s Dwayne. That’s what makes him so strong. It’s less about his physicality. It’s more about his mentality and his DNA as a man itself. So they flipped over the idea and we’re so proud to have him lead the charge in this movie.

As a stuntman, you’ve worked with Bruce Willis, Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Is Dwayne, or we still call him The Rock, a different era’s hero?

Yeah, he is. Look, he can obviously crush an action movie. Look at the G.I. Joe franchise, where that’s going to go now, and The Fast and the Furious and he’s going to play Hercules. You couldn’t ask for a better Hercules than Dwayne but he’s also the full package that a lot of the guys aren’t. When you look at where Mel Gibson was able to come off of being Martin Riggs, the most lethal weapon on the planet, and then play an everyday father in Ransom, or you watch Harrison Ford be Indiana Jones or Han Solo and then suddenly be the everyman’s hero in The Fugitive, that’s how I see Snitch for Dwayne. This is a departure from being the action hero and his chance to just be a man of action.

Also, which is the first time it’s ever happened for him on film and we’re very proud of it, is him being a father, a family man to the point where it’s not a comedy or a kid’s movie. It’s real stakes. It’s his chance to deal with how a lot of this country, 50% of this country is divorced. [His character] John Matthews is a man who’s divorced, that was a blue collar guy working in a construction yard and built his company literally by his hands and is now living a great life, he’s got a new family and has been trying to connect with his 18-year-old son but the son doesn’t want anything to do with him. It’s a very estranged relationship until this crisis happens and it’s a father and son coming to terms with each other literally during the crisis.

It’s a great way for him to flex his chops as an actor and also to really relate to what’s most important to him. For me, when we talked about thematics in this movie, it’s about family. I have twin five-year-old boys. I think we all as parents talked about if our kids were ever in danger, we’d move heaven and earth and kill everybody in our path to make sure they’re out of harm’s way, especially when you see what’s happening in the country now. I think this movie’s a testament to that about how far you’ll go down that rabbit hole. How far would you really go to protect your children. Who wouldn’t want a father [like] Dwayne Johnson coming to your rescue?

It is about the drug war and DEA policies. Where do you have to stop before it would become preachy?

Where I come off, Fred, with movies is I’m never going to be one of these guys that’s trying to hit you over the head with a message or a very biased kind of opinion. To me, I like to be right on the 50 yard line of things. I did that with Felon. Felon is not a movie that is pro prison or against prison. It’s not about reform. It’s about you follow the rules of society and you make that mistake and you’ve got to do prison time, what would you have to go through to survive it? So when I painted that world, I tried to show that there’s good and bad on both sides of that equation. The actual antagonist, the actual evil is the prison itself.

So with Snitch, it’s very much the same thing. These mandatory minimum laws that were designed during the Reagan era, they were designed to ensnare high level drug traffickers and to get them to snitch on each other, and it all sounded great on paper but it’s become a really manipulative tool for prosecutors now to get more arrests. A lot of people are getting caught that are first time offenders, or in this case even a young kid that never had any priors, no problem with the law at all and he gets coerced into this by a friend and basically screwed over. For me, I don’t think it’s about somebody sitting there and talking about how bad [the laws] are and everything else. It’s just showing that you can be ensnared in this.

This could happen to you. This could happen to your kid. This could happen to your family and here’s what you’re going to be facing. It’s really trying to stay down the middle of the road with it and to let you take your own interpretation of whether these laws are good or whether they’re bad or what needs to be changed. The only thing I think is important to highlight and why Participant Media is involved which I really appreciated, is that we never make any excuse that the kid was completely innocent. Even he says in the movie, “I screwed up. I should have never taken that package. My friend set me up and I should be punished.” He doesn’t say it in the movie but what this movie’s about is when you have drug traffickers that are serving far more sentence times than people [in prison for] manslaughter, rape or child molestation, something’s wrong. That’s the only thing we really highlight.

Yet there is still room for some big stunts, right?

Yeah, it’s fun. It’s a great action thriller that hits the ground running the minute this kid’s ensnared into this sentence. It’s a mind blowing thing to know that this story is absolutely true of the setup. A kid who was 18 years old got stuck under these mandatory minimums. He didn’t know any other drug traffickers. They had said, “Well, maybe you want to set up some friends you know that do drugs.” And he wouldn’t do that. “Why would I do that to one of my friends as my own friend did it to me and look at what’s happened to me?” Naive to how bad prison is and what he’s going to have to go through. And then when he got in there and the father saw how scared he was, that he’s probably not going to last 10 months let alone 10 years, he went to the U.S. attorney and said, “What if I go in the drug world and get you a bigger bust?” And they signed off on this. A real father went into the drug world to set this up.

As far as the practical stunts, did it come from your own experience as a stuntman?

Yeah, I grew up in this business. My father who just recently passed away and we’re dedicating this movie to him, especially that this movie’s about strong fathers and how far they will go for their sons, I was really under his tutelage in the stunt world. We were always asked the question of what’s it like to go 200 miles an hour in a car like in Days of Thunder and crash it? What is it like to jump off burning buildings? We just really took this mantra of putting the audience in the driver’s, seat so to speak, of that character and putting them in the ride versus doing just a voyeuristic point of view of it where your eyes glaze over because you can only see so much stuff blown up on screen. You’re actually taking part in the action and being a part of the action. That’s what Snitch is all about.

There’s this huge semi [truck] chase sequence at the end of the movie. Not only for budget, but really more just creative [reasons], I think I would have had the same M.O. with this chase if I had $100 million. It’s to literally put you in the seat with Dwayne Johnson, but not only that. Imagine that you’re going down the 405 or the 101 freeway or any freeway in the country and suddenly this huge shootout happens with you on the freeway, it’s from everybody’s perspective. The chase is shot from the inside out, from the perspective of Dwayne, from the cartel cars, to the civilians that are in the way. You get something that’s really interesting and gut wrenching to watch because it feels real. You’re within the action and that was kind of our mantra for everything in the movie: be in this father’s point of view.

So when we see a crash outside his window, that’s not CGI? That’s a real rigged crash in the background?

You can quote me on this. Here is a stunt man that doubled a lot of the major stars in the business and always heard everybody saying they’re doing their own stunts, and you do the eye roll going, “Well, go with it. Go with the marketing.” Dwayne Johnson was never doubled in this movie other than the literal final crash of the truck tipping over. In fact, there’s only two people in the world that can do that piece of it live. There was no green screen in this movie. The entire chase was done live. Dwayne is behind the wheel every single step of it, all the way through all the sequences of cars crashing.

In fact, I’ll give you one even further. I had told him, “Look, you trusting me to put you in a truck that we’re going to jackknife at 70 miles an hour, and we’re going to put you behind the wheel but we’re going to make it safe” and he trusted me with that. I said, “I know that some people are going to look at this and they’re going to say, ‘Oh, they did some green screen stuff, they comped in some backgrounds.’ So we’re going to beat them at that. I’m going to do a shot with you.” So we rigged me with a harness at the front grille of the semi truck. One of the first things you see in the chase is where one of the cartel cars gets up next to Dwayne in the semi and starts shooting at Dwayne and Dwayne has to swerve into him, crash him off the side of the road. I am hanging on the front of the truck with a camera shooting him through the windshield watching him hit this car, car flipping through the air and the camera swings right back handheld. There’s Dwayne Johnson, 100% live.

In the last 10 years, action movies have gone handheld. What has that meant for stunts?

Well, there’s two forms of handheld. There’s the Bourne franchise type of handheld, the Paul Greengrass type of thing which is less handheld, it’s just more super long lens, very erratic kind of filmmaking which is very effective. And then there’s a little bit more of the Michael Mann approach, and then some of the more handheld stuff that’s gotten that way now with the dramas where for me, what I like about handheld in the movies that you’re going to see me do, is you can become immediate with the actors. You can literally get in their faces. It feels real life. My whole bread and butter is about authenticity, taking you into a world that you might know nothing about but it looks and feels real. You can sense it.

Handheld gives you that but I think it also does it in the action where if you are running with somebody or you’re inside the car with them and it’s got that organic sense of feeling like even the camera guy is hanging on for his dear life with a camera in his hands filming something that is happening for real, that is not locked off on a crane or locked off on a bunch of safety rigs and everything is really clean and safe, that’s not my style. My style is much more letting the audience feel that inertia and feel that energy. That’s why I think it has enhanced it a lot, but that’s not to say that there’s the other versions of movies right now like The Avengers and all the Marvel movies. I can’t wait to see Man of Steel. I’m a big fan of those movies as well that are doing a lot of big CGI work and everything else. There’s both sides of the equation and the good news is they’re both working. Look at Argo. Not an action movie but you’re at the edge of your seat watching that movie. Zero Dark Thirty.

To talk about your stunt career a little, in Sudden Death were you by any chance the mascot Van Damme fights?

Uh, no.

What did you get to do on that movie?

Don’t even remember. The IMDB is kind of a weird thing. I think it really only became factual in the last probably six or seven, eight years. Before that it was like they were trying to fill in the blanks with what people had done before. I did well over 100 movies, let alone television and all that stuff. It’s hard to remember everything. I think the one thing I did do in Sudden Death because it was more of a passion thing for me is I played hockey my entire life. So one of the things that I did do on Sudden Death is I did a bunch of the hockey sequences when they were down on the ice rink.

What then are some of your highlight credits from which you have memorable stories?

Loved being a part of Days of Thunder because I was a racer so to be on Daytona speedway for a couple months and doing 200 miles an hour every day and wrecking cars and jump in another one and go again. Then Darlington, I got to do laps with Cale Yarborough who was one of my idols. I was working for a guy that was definitely probably the biggest mentor in my career as a director, Tony Scott. I’ve done a number of movies with him including True Romance. Who I am as a filmmaker today, less about style and my vision and my voice, but more importantly I think which is treating people with respect and the etiquette on sets and how to lead a crew and to be a part of the crew, a blue collar sense of things I really got from Tony.

Being in the stunt world is probably the best film school you can ever go to because you’re so part of every aspect of the filmmaking. You’re working with movie stars hand in hand. I worked with Mel Gibson and Patrick Swayze and Dafoe and all these guys. You’re working hand in hand with all the directors and you’re helping putting sequences together when you start coordinating. It really helped me understand how to deal with actors, knowing that they’re all different animals. They all have their own methods and their own processes of doing things. To adapt and fit into that, I watched the train wrecks of directors being run over. I’ve watched the train wrecks of directors being far too ego driven and strong and crushing the crew and crushing the actors. I’ve worked with all those guys. So it was a great, great place to be and to learn and really watch a lot of the masters do their thing.

Were They Live, Kuffs, Last Action Hero or Total Recall significant credits for you?

Last Action Hero was because my father was the second unit director on it and it was really fun to work together on that. I think that I’m less about what the movie was or what the box office ended up being. It was much more about the overall experience on it. To be able to first of all work for your father and to learn under his tutelage and then to get to a point in your career where you’re working with your father hand in hand, whether you’re co-coordinating or you’re on the same shows together. Then suddenly that torch is passed and you hope you got your sh*t together where suddenly he’s working for you, which was great. He would work with me on things that I would coordinate or second unit direct. A lot of those personal relationships and the people I worked with matter more in the movies I was a part of than actually what was being done a lot of times.

Were you on the set of The Crow when the accident happened?

No, I was hurt on that show a week beforehand. Brandon [Lee] was a fantastic guy, fantastic guy. We had gotten to know each other just as everybody on the set. Everybody was kind of family on that and unfortunately I got injured on that movie a week prior to the point that I wasn’t going to be able to continue so I went on home. When a week later I heard about the accident that happened, it was devastating. It was devastating to all of us. I couldn’t even imagine being on set because it was hard enough to hear about it sitting in California. We were shooting that movie in North Carolina.

On what sequence did you get hurt?

The big shootout. The one where he ends up landing on the table, the whole massive gunfight shootout where everybody’s going at it with Brandon.

What happened to you?

I’m not going to say. It’s something that’s all a very personal journey with them but there were a lot of accidents that happened on that movie. It was just one of those kind of freak things that felt like a domino effect, but unfortunately somebody got killed and somebody that was a remarkable young man that I think we’d be watching his movies today and loving them.

I liked Rapid Fire quite a bit too which is listed in your credits.

I don’t even remember it. I’ll tell you another one that was one of my  favorites is the Lethal Weapon series. Working with Mel Gibson was a great experience and Richard Donner. One of the big sequences that we did in Lethal Weapon 2 that I was very proud of, I have a foster brother in the business, Matt Johnston who was actually driving the tow truck. It’s where Martin Riggs is trying to get to the South African’s house and this tow truck’s about to take off with a car on it and he jumps onto the back of the car and he’s got to make his way from the car all the way up to the tow truck and fight this guy and the whole thing. We did all that completely real with no cables. I was hanging off that tow truck, underneath it and jumping over cars, onto the roof of it and everything else, flying 70 miles an hour down windy roads and we did it all real and practical. To do it with my foster brother and it was all part of the family, that was a great experience.

These are all movies I watched over and over again so you were a big part of my life.

Yeah, loved the Lethal Weapon series, had a great, great time with that. Working with Tony Scott was always such a pleasure. I did Hook with Spielberg. A lot of different things I’ve completely forgotten about. The personal experiences are always the most amazing part.

You must have been a pirate in Hook.

Yup, we all were pirates. I was a French soldier in Last of the Mohicans. That was the fun part of the stunt world. You end up playing all these different characters. The interesting thing, Fred, is when I really hung up the bag so to speak and moved on to second unit directing, then directing commercials and moving forward, it really was more about that everything came full circle with me in stunts. I felt like I did everything I was supposed to do. Number two, I never liked being in front of a camera. It’s just not my place. I like being more on the filmmaking point of view, playing in the sandbox and creating something. When you see actors that are able to do these unreal performances and be in front of the camera, it’s just not me. That’s not what I do best.

I did watch In the Shadows to prep for this. Was that based on any real stunt experiences you had, like the accident with the hydraulic ramp?

No, that was an interesting experience for me because it was very early in my career. It was pulling from some personal experiences, just that walk of life, but it took a number of years to really decide what I want to do. I felt like with that movie I was trying to make things that people wanted me to do versus me wanting to do what I wanted to do. That’s where it all came to fruition with Felon.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.