Snitch’s Ric Roman Waugh: From Stuntman to Writer/Director

Ric Roman Waugh with Snitch star Dwayne Johnson Ric Roman Waugh with Snitch star Dwayne Johnson

There is no one set way to progress to the role of writer/director, but now – when all it takes to make your own movie is having a DSLR and a Kickstarter account — the story of Ric Roman Waugh’s rise stands out. The son of an old school Hollywood stuntman, Waugh took a path similar to those directors who emerged in Tinseltown’s golden age: learn a craft (writer, editor, production designer, etc.), and then move up through the ranks until you’ve earned the right to have your name on the back of that canvas chair. Waugh followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a stuntman while still in his teens. But his love of movies lead him to break out of the rut of simply doing stunts and second unit work on action movies.

In 2001, he made his debut as writer/director with In the Shadows, an action movie in which the world of stunts featured heavily. After that, he refocused his attention, becoming a studio screenwriter, but found himself mostly penning action fare. Feeling pigeon-holed again, he reinvented himself once more with the gritty, low-budget prison drama Felon (2008), starring Val Kilmer and Stephen Dorff, which proved that he could make films that were thoughtful and provocative, as well as deliver a great fight sequence or chase scene.

After the success of Felon, Waugh is now returning with another film that fuses thriller and dramatic elements: Snitch, based on a true story about a father who goes to incredible lengths to free his son after the teen is arrested on drug charges and given a mandatory 10-year sentence. Starring Dwayne Johnson as the determined father, Snitch is a production of Participant Films, Jeff Skoll’s company which makes narratives and documentaries spotlighting important social issues.

Waugh recently spoke with Filmmaker about his distinctive journey through film, what he has learned from his diverse cinematic experiences, and of course Snitch, which is released in theaters today.

Ric Roman Waugh

Writer/director Ric Roman Waugh

Filmmaker: One of the things I wanted to touch on was the unusual progression of your career, which I think is really fascinating. Can you just talk about your roots in the industry?

Waugh: I was born into this business. My father, Fred Waugh – who unfortunately we just lost last month due to a long battle with cancer – was one of the founding members of Stunts Unlimited, which was considered [to have] the top stuntmen in the world and is still to this day. I grew up on sets. Obviously too young to remember, but I was on the set of McQ with John Wayne. I was on the set of Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood. I kind of grew up in the business where, as a kid, I didn’t really care who the movie star was, I cared about the stuntmen. Those were my heroes, this is the world I grew up in, with the nuts and bolts of it. I watched the actual craft of the filmmaking.

I transitioned to stunts very, very early. My dad had a deal with us where my brother and I could definitely work in the summer, but made sure our schooling was done properly and made sure we had something to fall back on in case we wanted to try something different than the movie business. The minute I graduated from high school I already started [stunt] coordinating movies and television and then advanced to second [unit] directing. And that’s kind of the normal trajectory that stunt people take. There’s been a few of us who have taken the lead beyond that.

What was interesting about my trajectory is I was really lucky to work with a couple different filmmakers. I worked with a lot of filmmakers and have probably done over a hundred movies alone as a stunt person. People like Tony Scott, you know especially Tony, who really helped me form my way of directing. He taught me how to treat people with respect on set, how to demand that respect back. How to lead the charge the right way and really to be bold and confident with your own voice.

Filmmaker: And how did you start to move over to being a writer and director?

Waugh: I started getting into second [unit] directing and wanted to take my leaps. You get kind of labeled as anything that you do. As a stuntman, the movies that I was being offered were still straight action fare. I made a conscious choice to look at the narrative process of filmmaking. I had a huge war chest of knowledge in the production world, of how to put movies together. I’d been on movies that were well over $100 million, I’ve been on the movies that were $1 million. I’ve been on all kinds. So, I really know the difference and how to get things done, but I didn’t have a lot of experience in the narrative process.

Luckily enough I became a screenwriter. I wrote a picture called Hammer Down for DreamWorks. It got me a lot of attention and I went on a writing tear for a number of years, where it really helped me hone my narrative process; to understand tone; to understand character arcs and the narrative side of filmmaking that is so vital. A lot of film students would get that but they wouldn’t have the production experience that I would have.

But I was still kind of getting pigeonholed, even in my writing, as the ex-stuntman writing the action stuff. I was becoming a lot less passionate about that world. Making a very good living at it, so I was very fortunate and blessed and never turned my nose at it, but I came to a point where I said, “You know what, I want to make my own Narc. I want to make a movie that has the grit of the movies I like, but also to be about something. Where people could go into the theater and there’s some kind of relevancy to it.” You know, I’m not going to hit you over the head with my opinion, I’m not going to spoon-feed you some doctrine. I just want to put you in some morally ambiguous world, that’s gray, that’s got a lot of controversy; put you on the fifty line yard of it and walk you through this movie to the point where you come out and there’s a discussion about it. And you might be for the things that are controversial, or against them. That’s fine. Those are the movies that I love.

Filmmaker: Slightly before that writing tear, you made you directorial debut as a writer/director with In the Shadows. It seems like making a film like that, which dealt with the world of stunts, was an easy way for people to give you entry into being a writer/director.

Waugh: I think people really paint you into a box that they want to paint you into. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re all trying to get our mark in this game and find out where our voice is. But, for me, and why I didn’t direct for a number of years after that, I still felt like I wasn’t doing the movies that I truly wanted to do. I was still trying to fit in their box. And for me, writing all those different movies and kind of taking a step back and really assessing, “What am I going to want to do that I am going to hold my head up high for the next few decades (because I never want to quit)? How can I hold my head up high and make the movies that I want to make, that I’m going to be excited to go to work each day?” That’s where Felon came about because these were the movies that I was so excited about making.

For me, what I am going to spend the next year, year-and-a-half of my life on has to be something that I’m passionate about, and luckily the gear-change has been towards people seeing me in my vision and as my voice. When I mentor screenwriters or filmmakers coming up, I get that question, like “What would be the best advice?” And my advice is “Make sure that whoever you are, hold onto that voice and be passionate about what you’re making. Don’t worry about fitting into their box. Be cognizant about what commercial cinema is. Marketing people have jobs to do, but what they’re expecting you to do is bring a voice that is fresh and innovative. And that can only come from your heart. That can’t come from grasping at straws of what’s out there.”

Filmmaker: And it was after In the Shadows that you really started writing?

Waugh: Yeah, they were offering me scripts and, God, it was hilarious. There was a getaway driver script that came my way. It was horrible, it was so horribly written, but I naively went to my manager at the time and said, “I don’t even want to rewrite this, I’m just going to write my own getaway driver movie.” And I went on that journey with a guy named Tag Mendillo, who was my writing partner for a number of movies. We wrote it, and immediately it sold to DreamWorks. It was Mike DeLuca’s first buy when he became president and it was weird because I was always going to direct that getaway driver movie. Then it became something where I got really excited about writing.

I had written prior to that to direct, but suddenly I was so excited to write just to write. It was something new in my life that was really a interesting avenue. Luckily I went off after that and did a movie for Mark Gordon, called End of the Road. It was a remake of Vanishing Point for Fox. And started getting all these great writing assignments—pitching things and getting them bought.

I got to go into the studio system full bore and it was an amazing experience. A lot of people talk about development hell and, yeah, you do get that. But at the same token, I got to work with tremendous producers and tremendous executives. I got to learn so much along the way and elevate my game. Suddenly I found myself toward the end of that “studio writer trajectory” without directing, I found myself getting suddenly back into that mold of what they wanted me to be. Branding me with what they wanted me to deliver, which were these straight action movies. That felt well and good but it felt like I was getting my passion diminished.

That’s where I took the gear change of Felon. Like, let me get back on course. And now, I think because of all these different lessons (and that’s what life’s about, learning from your lessons and moving forward) I really knew what I wanted to make and I’m sticking really hard to that. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a bunch of different genres I can play in, but there’s always going to be something that’s relatable for the audience and I can’t wait to tell.

Ric Roman Waugh with Val Kilmer on the set of Felon

Ric Roman Waugh with Val Kilmer on the set of Felon

Filmmaker: You touched on something that I find really fascinating and isn’t talked about too much. It’s that thing of the writer within the studio system who makes a good living from scripts, but the vast majority of those scripts don’t get made.

Waugh: Yeah, I think that it’s weird. You become a working writer and then you become a produced working writer. If you look at some of the screenwriters out there that have one or two credits, people would say “God, they’ve only done one or two movies.” But you wouldn’t believe, and wouldn’t know, that there are thirty studio scripts that are in town that haven’t been developed. And I was so honored just to be a working writer. I was a working studio writer and it was fantastic.

But then I was starting to get that directing itch again. And that’s what really started my gear change, because as a sole screenwriter—and I’ve only written one thing after Felon for other directors, and it was this script for Mark Forster and Leonardo DiCaprio about the rise of the Aryan Brotherhood. And I remember starting that project and I said to myself, “I have to remember what I was when I was a studio writer,” which is I’ve gotta put my voice in this but I gotta listen to what they want because they hired me. They just wrote a check for me to deliver the movie that they’re expecting. Not for me to write the movie that I’m going to direct and put my own voice in.

So I sat with Forster and really wanted to hear his thoughts about the tone. What was the message and angle, what was the hook about it. Then really try to infuse his take on that world with my voice of it too. And the guys that are out there, screenwriters like Eric Roth, who’s one of my favorites. I got to direct a stage reading of one of his episodes of Luck before it went down. The body of work that that man has done, with all these huge high-caliber directors and movie stars, and yet you can always tell it’s an Eric Roth script. You can hear his voice, but he’s found the meld of giving them what they need and want and also staying true to who he is. I think that’s a real craft.

Filmmaker: I believe when you decided to make Felon, the film that caught Hollywood’s attention, you approached it in a very unconventional manner.

Waugh: I went to Tucker Tooley, who was an independent producer at the time and is now running Relativity Media, and said, “Look, I want to make a real small, gritty movie. I want to put my studio hat on of knowing what a one-sheet is and knowing what the hook of a movie is, but I want to throw those conventions out and just make a movie that kind of leans more into the indie spirit.” And that’s where balance came about.

I told Tucker, “The one thing that everybody asks me, is what scares you the most being an ex-stuntman?” And I always say, “The one thing that scares me the most is if I ever had to do real prison time, because I don’t know what to expect.” And so, on that trajectory, I just said, “Look, I will write the script at spec, you produce it at spec; and if we feel like we have the right material, we’ll go make this thing.” And I became a volunteer parole agent for the state of California and, literally just to do my own research, I went into the biggest institutions in California, met with high-level prison gang members, correctional officers, cops on the street; just to immerse myself in that world. To really understand, if you did follow all the rules of society, what Felon is about, you make that one mistake and you had to do prison time, what would you have to go through? I wanted to make it truly authentic and be not only relatable to us as law-abiding citizens but to be relatable to the people that are in those prisons, both on the law enforcement side and the gangster side. You know, the gang world.

I had a lot of anxiety after Felon about, will this movie be perceived the right way? Will people really truly buy into what I’m doing or will I be one of these people, probably more notoriously for actors, like the big comedian who took their shot at dramatic work and everyone went “Oh, that’s great but starting making me laugh because I’m not into you being this drama guy.”

You worry about that as a filmmaker. You worry if they’re really going to buy into what you want to do. So, the fact that Felon really had this great underdog status and to this day, is still constantly talked about and people appreciate it and it’s where I wanted to go. We made that movie for $2.2million. We made it for nothing. I’m really proud of it and I’m proud that people did hear my voice and see it and say “Yeah, we want more of that.”

Filmmaker: Off the back of Felon, Participant came to you with Snitch.

Waugh: When I heard the story of Snitch, a father whose eighteen year old son who is wrongly accused of selling drugs, [I felt that] the real story is that he got caught under the mandatory minimums; federal laws that are designed to ensnare high-level drug traffickers. They say, “Look, we’re going to give you mandatory sentences of 20 years, 30 years, life sentence, and the only way you can reduce your sentence is if you snitch on other drug traffickers.” And it was a way from the Reagan era on to get these guys to hopefully snitch on each other and get them off the streets. But, unfortunately of up to 90% of their convictions were first-time offenders. And then you get into the liar’s club, where everyone is lying just to reduce their own sentence. So this kid’s friend lied and got him indicted on this charge and the father went to the U.S. attorney and said, “Look, my kid does not know any other drug traffickers. He’s not going to set up one of his friends like his friend did to him. What if I go on the drug, to get a bigger bust. Will you release my son?”

And this lightning rod went off in my head of: that is the other age-old question that we ask ourselves. One is our own trajectory in life, what if we had to do prison time? But also, how far would we go for our kids? I’m the father of five-year-old twin boys and I always say I would move heaven and earth, including losing my own morality—whatever it took to keep my kids out of harm’s way. And this is the true story of a father who actually put that to the test.

So, we brought in Participant Media on it, because of the social conscience message. It was a dream come true, I had the right people involved where we got to make another movie and be passionate about it. We had to roll up our sleeves, we did not have the budget that you would normally have on a big Dwayne Johnson action film. Because this is an action-thriller that is much more a dramatic fare with his performance, the budget went down and I’m okay with that. I’d rather roll up my sleeves and be passionate about what I’m making than have all the money in the world and make something that I’m not passionate about. That’s kind of the long roundabout of how my trajectory has gone, to making the movies I am now. And luckily people are seeing that I can give you the thrill ride and the commercial sense of what’s exciting in that world but also hopefully make it provocative enough where we can have a conversation after the movie.

Filmmaker: You were talking before about advice you gave to filmmakers. What have you learned from taking this unconventional upward trajectory within film?

Waugh: The mentors of mine that taught me really for screenwriting – Bruce Evans and Ray Gideon, who wrote Stand by Me – the first thing they told me about writing is they said, “Don’t write a word unless you know what the hook of the movie is.” If you can see the one-sheet and can pitch the movie and why people would go see it, then put all the energy behind it and see it through. But that’s the biggest lesson that I learned, that was the core reason of what I do now: there are two things that I’m looking with each project. I’m looking at, one, what is the business side of it? Why would people want to see this movie? Why would studios want to make this movie? Would actors gravitate towards these characters? What is the nature of this movie? Why are people going to go want to make this movie?

Two, does it fit my voice? And those are the two things that I am always looking for. There have been things that fit my voice but I couldn’t see in a million years a studio making it or financiers getting behind it, because I didn’t know what the hook of it was. Great tone, great voice, but that wasn’t there. Or it’s the reverse. A great hook, great tone, big commercial movie, but I don’t see my voice in it. I don’t see where I make that different and redefine it. You have to really walk hand in hand with those two principles. One doesn’t go without the other.