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Stunt Man-Turned-Director Wages His Own War on Drugs With ‘Snitch’

Ric Roman Waugh has made another movie about criminals and law enforcement — except this time Dwayne Johnson is the guinea pig

When Ric Roman Waugh screened his new movie, "Snitch," for congressmen, nonprofit organizations and drug-enforcement officials in the nation’s capital this week, there’s a little bit of information he might have left out.

He’s one-quarter outlaw.

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“I am the biggest aficionado on prisons you’ll ever find that hasn’t done time,” Waugh told TheWrap, with only a dash of hyperbole.

The director has spent the last several years of his life studying the criminal-justice system and the characters, some malicious some lovable, that must cohabitate – criminals, cops, lawyers and politicians.

His education began with his 2008 film “Felon,” which starred Stephen Dorff as a man imprisoned for killing a burglar in his home. It offered viewers an uncompromising look at life behind bars.

To research prison life for that one, he persuaded a parole supervisor to deputize him as a volunteer parole officer. For more than two years, he talked to police officers and gang investigators — and to high-level gangsters who were behind bars.

It worked. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden dubbed it “one of the most realistic prison films ever made,” while Newsday’s John Anderson praised its “uncompressing take on the prison system.”

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Now Waugh is back this weekend with “Snitch,” on a very similar subject.

The script follows John Matthews (played by Dwayne Johnson), a successful businessman whose son from a previous marriage gets imprisoned for intent to distribute ecstasy. Though the boy willingly accepted the package of drugs from a friend as a favor, he had no intent to sell.

His only way to escape the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years is to finger another drug dealer — except he doesn't know any.

So the kid goes to prison, and his father tries to save him by turning to a U.S. attorney, played by Susan Sarandon, and a DEA agent, played by Barry Pepper.

The original script for “Snitch,” written by Justin Haythe, was once at New Line and then at Exclusive Media’s prior incarnation, Spitfire Pictures. Directors like Carl Franklin and John Singleton toyed with it, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2010 that Exclusive Media talked to Waugh.

“We were all just really impressed with his energy and knowledge of the world and passion for it,” Matt Jackson, senior EVP and head of U.S. production for Exclusive, which co-financed and produce the movie, told TheWrap. “Ric came in and had a different approach than Justin’s draft based on his extensive research and knowledge of world.”

Waugh expanded the film’s scope, introducing drug cartels to take a broader look at drug trafficking. He delved deeper into the relationship between law enforcement and the legal system, making common man John Matthews a pawn of officials in the drug war.

And then there was his idea of casting. Johnson, as the regular Joe.

“I told him ‘We’re going into a world so formidable, it doesn’t matter how big you are — 5 foot 6 inches or 6 foot 5 inches — they’ll still stick a bullet in you,” Waugh said. “It’s not an action-hero role; it’s not ‘G.I. Joe,’ 'Fast 6’ or ‘Hercules,’ which you crush, but a gear change.’”

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The same metaphor could be employed with Waugh, a stuntman turned writer-for-hire now firmly committed to directing.

Though he's filmed his share of action scenes since stepping behind the camera, including a climactic car chase in "Snitch,” he spends as much time investigating personal trauma as pumping adrenaline. Inspired by directors like Michael Mann, he wants his movies to not just involve violent crime or glorify the criminal life but spotlight social failings .

"When I was one of the studio writers, you write movies for them like a job. You're blessed to have the job, but you find yourself less passionate about the journey," Waugh told TheWrap. "My movies have that studio sensibility, and I can do the action thrill ride, but they have to be about something."

If the war on drugs seems like a thorny issue to tackle, stay tuned for what’s next: psychologically scared army veterans. After "Snitch," Waugh dives into “Currency" for Relativity Media, exploring special-operations soldiers who can’t readjust to everyday life when they return home.

“You’re knee-jerk reaction when you hear stunt man is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants adrenaline junkie,” Tucker Tooley, president of Relativity and a producer on "Felon," told TheWrap. “Really, they are the opposite. Ric is so precise, so scientific about everything he approaches.”

And it’s no coincidence that for "Snitch," Waugh partnered with Participant Media, a company that launches a social advocacy campaign in tandem with movies about climate change (“An Inconvenient Truth”), education (“Waiting for Superman”) and corporate farming (“Food Inc.”). 

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"The story about snitching and mandatory minimum sentencing is one that affects millions of people in this country, and yet awareness about these issues is low," Chad Boettcher, EVP of social action and advocacy at Participant, said in an email to TheWrap. "We are the only country in the world that sentences young people to life without parole."

For "Snitch," Participant has allied with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth on a campaign called "Sentence Change."  (See charts from the movie's website at left.)

The imitative includes screenings and panels targeted at policy makers, law-enforcement officials and families and informational videos and mini-documentaries for public distribution. Participant already joined a coalition that helped pass SB-9, a bill in California that could help reduce sentences for juveniles.

“The War on Drugs isn’t the question here, but how we’re handling it,” Waugh said. “I’m not a fan of the sentencing laws. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is locked up in America — that’s an astounding statistic; 60 percent are drug traffickers, and 10 percent of all mandatory minimum convictions were high-level drug traffickers.

"Where’s the other 90 percent?”