By Jack Rico
Transcription done by Mariana Dussan.
Ric Roman Waugh’s “Snitch” will be known as the movie that saw the evolution of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson from action star to dramatic actor. His perfomance is rooted in acting and not punches thrown or heads cracked and his audience will judge, via the box office, whether he did well or not.
Waugh is confident that they will enjoy it and that the film he created possesses a fine balance between story and entertainment value. His first foray into film was a very lauded movie called “Felon” which received much praise from actors and Hollywood insiders alike. He used to be a former movie stuntman, from a family of stuntmen, who has brought his skill and vision to create some suspenseful action sequences in the denoument of ‘Snitch’.
I sat down with Waugh at his hotel in Manhattan to converse about the risks in having the man known by wrestling fans as “The Rock” do a dramatic role, refurbishing familiar Hollywood storylines, the truth behind the “inspired by a true story” movies, the pressures of not making “Snitch” into a popcorn movie, and convincing Benajmin Bratt to tackle on what many Latino actors consider a stereotypical role – the Mexican druglord.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Thank you Ric for your time. What was your introduction to “Snitch”?
Ric Roman Waugh: When “Snitch” came about and I heard this true story, I though this is amazing. I have 25-year-old boys – and I heard about what this father would do, I said that is the second age-old question we ask ourselves as family, as parents or as children of parents, how far would we go to protect our own children? We would move heaven and earth. Let’s put that to test and that’s what this father did (in Snitch).
For me it was a great leaping off point to show that with all my background and knowledge of the criminal world and then doing more research on the judicial system and how it works on the streets, how law enforcement works, knowing the criminal outreach, how it works from prison to the cartels in Mexico, and how it all gets interwoven here. I’m pretty shocked that most people don’t know, they all think that there is this great big war on drugs and cartel violence going on in Mexico and that it’s not our problem because it’s not going on here in the United States. I don’t know how they can be so naïve and not know that there are “Juan Carloses” like in “Snitch,” in every hub in the United States running their territories. Who do you think it’s going to run the drug trade up here?
ShowBizCafe (SBC): The premise of “Snitch” reminds me a lot of Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days” – “what sacrifices would you do for the person you most love?” Knowing that premises like these have been done before, how do you bring something completely new to a stock storyline?
Ric Roman Waugh: Yeah, it’s a dangerous slope, but you do have to be cognizant of what has come before you and look at the movies out there to define your own path. There have been a number of movies – “Taken,” “The Next Three Days,” – movies that will come out that are about – what will you do for your son or the bad guy has my daughter for ransom money. These are all great escapism movies and the fact that a husband is going to go break his wife out of prison, there is probably a 10 million:1chance that will happen.
What I gravitated towards this movie was, yeah, there have been these movies where it’s about how far would you go to protect a loved one — in this case it’s a father protecting his son — but there’s never been a movie that is so realistic and that can snatch anyone of us.
The bigger thematic threat that I love about this movie – the other movies are more about escapism — we take our time to really show that this is not just a suburban father’s plight like Dwayne Johnson, it’s also a two striker like Daniel (Jon Bernthal) who we demonized people in the inner cities and think that they are all trash when they come out of prison. No, people are trying to do it right, they are trying to get their fucking ass out of the gutter and do it right. Maybe they screwed their life up but they are not going to screw up their kid’s legacy so they’re trying to do it for them.
As a parent I can tell you right now I’m in New York City promoting my movie passionately because I live this picture, I love the story but I’m not home with my kids right now so it’s about my personal success which puts food on the table, betters their lives, builds them college funds and hopefully gives us a better way of life but it’s that balance of the personal attention that is suffering because I am not there with them. What happens to us as parents is that we lose that balance because of the economy, we have to work more and more and we lose that attention and suddenly a crisis like this happens and we blame ourselves, that guilt rides on us and you know what, I didn’t have my eye on the ball and my kid is in jeopardy right now because I wasn’t there for him. This is not just fathers, this is mothers and that’s why we wanted an honest portrayal of how the family dynamics work where half this country is divorced and the real story is that this father was a divorced parent and he had a new family so now you have all of these dynamics that we build within this country now and especially being very diverse as our tapestry is and having diverse family backgrounds and then a crisis like this happens and people stop being civil because of guilt, their own consciousness and their own protection.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): When you look at pop culture, Dwayne is known for two things: wrestling and an action star. “Snitch” is not the traditional Dwayne Johnson film. Do you feel that this somehow might affect his action star status? This is a new ground he is stepping on which is the thespian ground. He never once took his shirt off, showed off his muscles. How do you put The Rock in a movie like that and not have him punch one guy? What is the audience going to think? Was this a calculated plan or was the whole thing organic?
Ric Roman Waugh: It was both, it was being truthful to an honest portrayal that we wanted to make and to back up a step, he is one of the biggest action stars, if not the biggest action stars of our time and the reason is because he is so real. It is what has transgressed from his football days, to his pro-wrestling days that is why he is so iconic in that world and why he is a four-quadrant movie star here: he can do drama, he can do comedy, he can do kids movies, he can be the biggest action star of all time – which we are going to see this summer again in “Fast 6.”
We wanted an honest portrayal, Dwayne and I talked at the very beginning and I said to him, “you have to know if we are going to be in this road, if we are going to be authentic, your record is not going to be squeaky clean.” We’ve seen those movies, the guy with the special set of skills; we’ve seen the guy that will do everything he can to get his wife out of prison. Us as men, it would be easy to say, if it was my life on the line I would keep my moral integrity, I would take it like a man, I wouldn’t jeopardize somebody else’s life and put them in harm’s way. But when it’s your son’s life or your kid’s life or your family member’s life you would coerce, you would do whatever you have to do to protect them.
What’s great about Dwayne in the movie is that he is the real deal as a human being. He is so grounded and so authentic, he comes from very tough streets, he comes from a very tough background and he knows that even as big as he is that there are people that will knock him down. When its ‘real world’ rules, if you’re 6-foot-5 or 5-foot-6, a bullet kills you just the same. Before we asked him to do the movie we talked about all the usual suspects you would put in a picture like this and I had this lighting rod idea – luckily Dwayne and I have been wanting to work together — and I said, why don’t we stand the whole genre on its head and put the most formidable guy on the planet in the movie and show you that when its ‘real world’ rules, it doesn’t matter how big you are its about how much heart you have, how much you will sacrifice your own self, your own morality to save a child.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): He’s never really done drama.
Ric Roman Waugh: He’s never really had the chance to show that this (Snitch) is his (Dwayne Johnson) “Fugitive,” this is Hans Solo and Indiana Jones becoming the everyday man of action and that is what I want to show, but I said if we are going to do this, then we have to be sincere about it, you can’t bullshit your way through this. I’ve seen too many action stars, we don’t have to name them because you know who they are, go into a movie like this and they won’t let themselves fall down and they ‘John Wayne’ every moment. They have to throw a punch; they have to say, “how about it hits me fucking 15 times before I actually go down. Why does the 7th bullet in the head kill me?” I’ve been there, I’ve seen those arguments as a professional stunt man, and I dealt with it as a writer and as a director now. My thing with him was we are going to tell this honest and we are going to be bold and fearless and he said to me “brother, that’s my fucking whole life is being fearless and lets go down this rabbit whole together.”
When you have a guy that’s allowing himself to be real world vulnerable, not fake world vulnerable, you really sense that, you really feel it. It was about being that sincere to the journey and I can only take him there. He is the one that is going to have to go on the ride and go for it and the man is fearless and that is why he is such a major star.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): How do you think the audience is going to react to him in this type of film?
Ric Roman Waugh: When we tested the movie we wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to polarize the audience of his hardcore action fan base and I had hoped and prayed that it would get the reaction it did and they love him in this movie. They were like, we get it, you know what we love about it is that when he is Luke Hobbs (Fast Five) and fucking blowing a tank up in the middle of a freeway, and jumping and breaking peoples necks, we always love that Dwayne is the real deal, a real guy, he is our people’s champion. He can be the everyday guy too and we love him just the same.
They love the thrill ride of this, it harkens back to those movies of the 70’s that we all loved and endeared for where he had characters that we took time and we got to know and we got in their souls, felt their anguish, felt their fear, rooted for them and when the action was happening we were in the action with them versus watching the spectacle, sitting here and watching half of Manhattan go through a tidal wave or something. Our eyes glaze over and there is this great crossroad of things happening in the action genre which I ‘m so proud of, is the fact that the action genre is finally split into two roads: You have the road of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, the marvel comic movies, “The Dark Knight,” these big larger than life, 200 million dollar spectacles — and I tell you, I am the first guy in line to go see them, love those movies. But you have this other fork in the road now that they are allowing us to make and they are making money, people are wanting to see these movies: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo,” “The Town,” the movies that are back to those 70’s movies that come back to that authenticity. The action is authentic, the characters are authentic, the world is authentic it’s a world I’ve never experienced before. I think that is really cool that it’s finally split and that those movies are paying off; they are not just one every few years, we’re seeing them happen now.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Is this an action movie?
Ric Roman Waugh: It’s an action thriller, there is no mistake about it. I’ve always seen this movie as an action thriller. I think that thriller is such an important component of this. What would you call “The French Connection”? An action thriller. If you put “The French Connection” against another car movie, police drama of that ilk, like a “Fast and the Furious 6.” There are straight big action tentpole movies and there are these action thrillers we were in that ride and that rush and that anxiety of those car chases.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Every year there are the “inspired by true story” movies. One of the questions I always get is, how true are these “true stories”? What is the percentage of poetic freedom that a creative team has in “tweaking” the real story? At the end of the film, was it even true, did you have like 10 percent of truth and make the rest fiction? What is the percentage with “Snitch”?
Ric Roman Waugh: That is a very fair question and I think we chose not to do the “based on a true story version” because I didn’t want to be specific to the journey of the father which was a more simplistic route of what happened. I wanted to take more of the inspiration of the 100 percent truth of an 18-year-old son of a father who was wrongly accused of dealing drugs, his own friend set him up to reduce his own sentence. The father went to a U.S. attorney and asked if he could get a bigger bust and that U.S. attorney signed off, that is 100 percent fact. From there, I just wanted to open up the world; I didn’t want to be married to a specific region of this country. I wanted that kind of relatable feeling and we talked a lot about this to the studios and I know that you are probably going to get more people inspired if it’s based on a true story, but I rather do this version and really open it up in a way to show how dangerous this world is.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): If Dwayne had crushed one head, would that have destroyed the integrity of what you wanted this movie to be?
Ric Roman Waugh: Yeah, I absolutely think so. He and I talked a lot about it and I said, “in a real world, let’s just be very candid about this, if you were this character and your own life was on the line what would you do?” He said, “Bust fucking heads.” But what if it’s your kid? Why would you punch this DA officer in the face when that officer can say, “fuck you and your deal, you’re done, your kid is going to do the whole ten years.” When is suddenly that type of stakes, you have to tread those waters so finely to make sure that you don’t either muddy the water so much with the law enforcement side that they pull the plug on you or that you get sniffed out by the other side and they realized that you are working basically for the government and then they kill you. It’s a very fine line you have to walk.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Let’s talk about fine lines. There is a fine line between “Snitch” being your own passion project and the entertainment value audiences are paying to see. Did you have pressure to make this into a popcorn film?
Ric Roman Waugh: No, not once and the reason being is because of companies like Exclusive Media, especially Participant media and Summit Entertainment. We all saw the movie for what it was and I said look, there is always a balance of commerce and creativity and passion and what I want to show is that we can do authentic movies, but we can also make entertaining movies. Look at the movies that Participant has made from “Contagion,” they funded “Lincoln,” they have “No” that is going to come out now, “The Promised Land,” it’s just goes on and on, “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Things that we are really entertained by, but they also have a social conscience to them, they make you think about things.
One of my favorite movies this year was “Argo.” I know the outcome, they get away, they get out and I am still at the edge of my seat watching that movie because of the filmmaking of that action thriller. That thrill ride put me in the edge of my seat and even when they get on the plane and they are about to go, I’m like, “shit maybe I don’t know about this part, maybe there’s a whole thing that happened here!” You are just so engrossed in the characters and that is hopefully what we are capturing. We’re hopefully capturing that type of essence where it’s a movie that is provocative, it’s going to ask questions, we are going to have water cooler conversations and we are going to come out satisfied feeling that you know what, we put our money on the table and we had a great action thriller ride.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): Let’s talk about stunts. Audiences are jaded nowadays with CGI stunts. I’ve been told that the action sequence in the highway where Johnson is being chased in a big truck is “state of the art”. You were a former stunt person. Did you up the ante?
Ric Roman Waugh: Why these are state of the art is because Dwayne Johnson, was never doubled in this movie, the only little shot where he was doubled on was the file crash of the semi-truck because there is only two people in the world that can actually do that by themselves. We did that all live its 100 percent real, when the truck is going 70 miles/hour Dwayne Johnson is behind that wheel, when he is crashing cars out the freeway Dwayne Johnson is behind that wheel. I hung myself out the truck with a hand held camera to tell him, you entrusted me with this, I’m not going to have some aficionado going this is bullshit this is green screen. Let me show you that it’s not green screen because when we go hit this car and it goes flying off the freeway I’m going to hinge right back over and I’m going to see sitting right behind this wheel that just hit that car and good luck to them trying to figure out how we did this hand held.
I think us as an audience we are pretty freaking hit so when you go and watch action sequences and all this mayhem happens and it cuts back to same shot of the hero in the car, you know it’s a processed trailer and they are weaving him through everything that happens. Boring, I don’t want to do that, there were no processed trailers in the semi-truck sequences, they were all shot with the real people in them and we did it safely because of my experience and my background.
For me “state of the art” means let’s throw all of the movie magic bullshit away and let’s make it as real as possible and we’re going to make it so real that we are going to put Dwayne Johnson behind the wheel and we are going to show you how real it gets.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): As a Latino film critic, I’m always asked if the very pro-white Hollywood is at some point going to wake up and reflect the real diversity of America on screen. I actually think it’s happening. We have you who’s doing “Snitch” and not casting your typical “Growing Pains”Alan Thickeactors. You have Latino actors Nadine Velazquez and Benjamin Bratt in the cast, but looks like the some other members of the supporting cast and production crew are also Latino. As an anglo director, what made you go this direction?
Ric Roman Waugh: Hopefully what you get from my movies, from “Felon” and now “Snitch” is that I’m all about diversity. This country is not about black and white and brown living in different sections, we are all interwoven it’s all become this kind of diverse landscape and I love that and I embrace it and I think films are finally embracing it. I never had a problem with this movie in showing a guy that is a multi ethnic hero with a Hispanic wife, who had a white wife before that, who has a mixed race kid from there. Then a white ex-gang member or gangster who has a Latino wife and a mix kid. That’s who we are, that’s what makes this country great.
ShowBizCafe (SBC): One of the biggest criticisms that Latino actors have, and they voice this all the time, is being casted in stereotypical roles like thugs or leaders of a drug cartel. How did you convince Bratt to put that to the side and and really embrace this role?
Ric Roman Waugh: Because of the authenticity that we wanted to go to and to have the dimension that he was a family man, he was sophisticated, he was ex-military, he fits the bill with a lot of what’s happening with the people in the cartels now, and define it from region as well. The film “Traffic” was very specific to the Baja cartels, there is a very specific look, a specific demeanor about them and then when it comes to the Mexico City pipeline when it comes up through that region. Ben and I very much talked about that his character Juan Carlos who came from Mexico City, he came from the money, he was brought up in this world and this was his legacy and where he is now.
Also watch the interview I did with The Rock himself on his drama turn in Snitch…