Interview with Ric Roman Waugh on Directing Snitch

Photo Credit: Ric Roman Waugh
December 12th, 2012

I recently had the chance to talk with writer/director Ric Roman Waugh about his new movie Snitch, starring Dwayne Johnson, set to premier February 22nd. Read on for his thoughts on the film, what makes action engaging, and his career path from stuntman to writer to director.

MovieRoomReviews: First off, I'd love to get your overview of the movie, so that we know what we're talking about.

Ric Roman Waugh: Snitch is an incredible story. It was based on a Frontline special for PBS that was all about snitches. The one particular story that really struck me on this one was about a father who's 18 year old son was wrongfully accused for dealing drugs. His friend has set him up and he'd fallen under these mandatory minimum laws that are federal laws. They're designed to ensnare high level drug traffickers. Basically, what you'd do is you'd get a mandatory sentence, in this case, this kid got 10 years, no Good Time, and the only way to reduce the sentence is if he snitches on other drug traffickers. Well, the kid didn't know any other drug traffickers to snitch on, and he wasn't about to set up one of his friends just like his friend did to him. So his father went to the U.S. Attorney... [He] said, “Well, what if I go into the drug world and get you a bigger bust? Would you reduce my kid's sentence?”, and the U.S. Attorney literally signed off on this.

It's about this everyday father who literally went into the drug world, had no idea what he was doing, and fell down that rabbit hole of how far would we go for our kids, to save them? That's what the thematic thread really is about. Even though the vehicle is the drug world, it's really about that old adage of how far will we go to protect our children. In this case, we said, “Let's take the most formidable guy on the planet and show you that what real world rules is, it doesn't matter how big you are. It's about how much heart you have. And who better for that than Dwayne Johnson?”

MRR: Right. That's one of the first things I was wondering, was how close to life that idea of the father saying, “Well, I'll go and get your convictions.” That's really wild that that actually happened in real life. You always wonder when you see “Based on true events,” where that line is. That's really quite shocking...

Waugh: Yeah, it really is. I just knew this was my next movie after doing Felon. Felon was all about that first person point of view of, you follow all the rules of society, and yet you make that one mistake and you got to do prison time. What would you really go through to survive prison? That's a very first person point of view, where you get to watch the characters. You're sitting in the audience, and you're wondering to yourself, how would you survive it? When I heard this story... I have five year old twin boys, and I'm just live everybody else out there, saying I would move heaven and earth for these boys, I would do anything to keep them out of harm's way. Then when you hear about a story where it actually happened, for real, this father risking everything for his son, it's just mid blowing. So it was just the greatest hook that was absolutely real. We took some creative license from there with the action and moving the story forward, but as far as the setup of the movie, it's 100% true.

MRR: This is I think your third feature as writer / director?

Waugh: This is my second.

MRR: Second. Okay.

Waugh: Felon was my debut, and this is my second.

MRR: I was looking at something called In the Shadows.

Waugh: Yeah, don't trust the IMDB.

MRR: Got it. There's definitely a similarity between these two. Are you looking at going in this direction in your writer / director career: True to life crime stories, or the... not darker side of society exactly, but just the problems of society that are shown through crime. That seems to be a theme. Is that something that you're really interested in?

Waugh: Moral ambiguity is. It's about the world of gray. I don't think we live in a black and white world anymore. So when I see stories that have to do with... I'll give you an example. The next movie I'm going to do is for Participant Media as well, it's called Currency. Currency is all about our special operations guys that... Let's say that five minutes from now, both wars are over, they're all coming home from Afghanistan. These guys are going to reintegrate back into society, and it's going to be really tough sledding. I've been doing a lot of in depth research, been embedded with Delta Force operators and SEAL Team Six guys, talking about when you're the tip of the spear and you've fought for 10 years, thousands and thousands and thousands of missions, you're rewired in a different way. Your moral compass has been changed from that of normal society. These guys are all going to come home, and some are going to try to reintegrate back the right way, and some aren't. Some are going to go into what could be a life of crime.

So we thought, “What a great vehicle to do a story where do a big action thriller like, say, the movie Heat.” If you had a couple of these guys go bad, who could take them down with the skill level that they're operating at? Their own brethren. So it's basically tier one on tier one. But, the cost of that, the moral dilemma of having to hunt down your own guys. Where does that fall on your moral compass?

Those are the stories that interest me the most, putting the protagonist, and sometimes as well the antagonist, into a place where, whether they have to go down the left fork or the right fork, they are no clear cut ways of doing it. There's going to be a cost for either path. Those are the stories that intrigue me the most.

MRR: You mentioned earlier about taking some creative license with some of the action in this film. The trailer is obviously very action heavy, but also, it's a trailer. That's kind of part of it's job. Do you see this film as more of an action film, more of a drama? How do you see those two components working together? What was your balance, and what were you trying to accomplish with that balance, whatever that balance may be in this case?

Waugh: Snitch is an action-thriller. For me, the movies that I want to make are always going to have a heavier action component to it, but I think that a lot of the times, what makes the action great is the thriller points that happen before the action, being with that character and riding through those moments of pure jeopardy, and then being with them in the action, where there's an emotional state to the action versus just for the sake of watching action. So that's what really gravitated for this story. So yeah, I do start to flex my muscles as far as my background as a former stuntman and directing action for a number of years, to incorporate that.

With this character, the one thing that Dwayne Johnson's character has is he owns a big construction supply company. He has semi trucks going over state lines. Suddenly that's an asset to the drug world. So we capitalized that and used it to propel the action into something that could be entertaining and have a commercial sensibility to it, but also at the heart of it, still staying true to what the true story was and staying true to how somebody would have to go about winning over the cartel world.

MRR: Absolutely, it doesn't matter how many semis you flip if you don't care about the characters. That's always really critical.

Waugh: I came from the world of not worrying about that, because they were paying me to do all those things, flip all those trucks. Then when you become a filmmaker and you start writing these types of movies, especially now when you're directing them, it does become about that. My whole mantra is, “Never let the audience be a voyeur.”, not let them sit there and just watch a bunch of s*** blowing up. I want them to be within the action. I wanted to shoot it from the inside out, to where they're on the ride together, almost like watching an IMAX movie, but it's done from an emotional point of view, where you're with the character, you're on the character's journey, and you're seeing the action unfold through his or her eyes, until where you feel it and sense it and you become a part of that.

MRR: You touched on part of your bio that I found pretty interesting. For a number of years, you were a stuntman, pretty prolific in fact, and now you're a writer/director and you've been on that side of the equation for a while.

I'm just always curious to see these changes in people's professions and these different phases of careers, what prompts somebody to go from one to the other. Then also, movies are such a collaborative process, where somebody does stunts, or visual effects, or all these different components. Then as a director and as a writer, you're looking at the entire picture. I was curious what that was like, going from working a very small component of it to having an eye for the entire production.

Waugh: Dwayne Johnson and I talked about that, because we have very similar careers in a way. He went from being an all-star in college football, winning the national championship with Miami. Didn't make the NFL, but he didn't take that as a failure. He took the war chest that he learned from college, from football, and he put it into the wrestling world. Then from there, he built his war chest, and he put it into being a movie star.

My path is very similar. I was a professional stuntman for a number of years. Fortunately enough, I had a father who really ingrained in my head, “Don't sit at the trailers, and don't be lazy. Sit on set and watch.”, and I did. I would watch. I got to work with Tony Scott on a number of movies. I worked with Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, John McTiernan, the list goes on, a number of great, great directors. I would watch them. I'd watch the process. As a stuntperson, a lot of times, you're first person in that process. You're working with the movie stars. You're working with the director to make that action happen the right way, especially when you're coordinating.

From there, I took that war chest of knowledge and transferred it over into action directing and commercials. I worked in commercials for a while and still directed a lot of second units and action stuff.

Then from there, I really wanted to understand a little bit more of the narrative side of it. It was kind of a coincidence, but I thought the easiest way for me to direct my own movie was to write a script, for me. Who was going to give me a script, when I've never really directed a picture before? I'd met these two guys that were very prolific screenwriters in Hollywood, and I'd ask them to give me some feedback, “I'll do all the work, I'm going to learn how to write, and I just want you to very straightforward and honest with me. Take me to school as a working writer.” Luckily, they took the time to do that for me. I mentor people now in writing.

I became a writer for eight or nine years, didn't direct anything, didn't come near anything, was just writing. It was great, because I took the war chest of production and then learned about narrative: About narrative storytelling, about character arcs, the tone, overall arcs in movies, where the three acts are, how scenes structure really works, and then made that part of my war chest as well. That's when I directed Felon. It was where everything fit together.

So for me, you take all that knowledge and all that experience and then you fold it into the next level. I want to direct movies for the rest of my life, and I'm sure I'm going to want to produce things, and who knows where it goes, but you take all that knowledge and you move it forward for the next level and try to raise the bar.

MRR: When the movie stars somebody as well known as Dwayne Johnson, I have to ask... How did you get him on the project, what was it like working with him? Also, the fact that both of you have kind of a similar vibe as far as, you were doing one thing, now you're doing something else. So I'd love to know anything about how it was working with him, getting him on board, and how the two of you were able to collaborate and figure out where this character comes from and where he goes.

Waugh: I was very fortunate that Dwayne had seen Felon and was a huge fan of it. We had sat down and talked about definitely making a movie together. I'm a huge fan of his. I knew that there were a lot of new arenas to put him in that he hadn't done before, to the degree that he did in Snitch, and really make him shine. The man's fearless. What he also is, is he's very sincere and grounded. I think that's why he was such a massive sensation in the wrestling world and still is to this day, and why he became a huge movie star, because you know you're getting the real deal with him, that kind of positive energy that I feed off of.

When this project came along and we were starting to cast it, Dwayne and I were talking about doing something completely different together. I was in the midst of finishing the script on Snitch, we started talking about casting it, and all the usual suspect's name came up. Then it just was like an epiphany. I just said, “Why don't we stand the genre on its head?” Everybody kind of looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” I go, “Let's put the most formidable guy on the planet in this movie, put him in real world rules, and show that it doesn't matter how big you are. It's going to be about how much heart you have, and who has more heart than Dwayne Johnson? The guy's got the heart of a lion.”

That became the mantra of the movie. When bullets hit you in the head, you f***ing die. This is not an action movie. He's prolific in that arena, with the G.I. Joe franchise coming out, and the Fast and the Furious's. He's going to be Hercules. He blows those apart, and he's amazing, but also, he can transgress into being this guy.

It harkens back to what he and I talked about. I said, “I see you as where Harrison Ford was with Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and suddenly doing The Fugitive: Showing that you can take an action hero and make him an everyday man of action, and you still get the same recipe, which is a profound performance that you're emotionally attached to.” Same thing with Mel Gibson: Take him from those Lethal Weapons playing Martin Riggs and suddenly make him an everyday guy in Ransom, and watch him go. That's what we try to do in this movie with Dwayne.

MRR: That's really interesting. All the times I've seen all three of those movies with Harrison Ford, I've never quite made that connection. That's actually pretty fascinating, which makes this movie really interesting in a way I hadn't thought about. So that's really great.

And with that, I think we're done.

Waugh: Cool. Thank you so much Jacob.

MRR: Yeah, thank you very much, and thanks for taking the time.

Waugh: Absolutely.

Snitch premiers in theaters February 22nd.

Tags: Snitch