DVD Watch: 'Snitch'
It's official. There is no bigger film star this year than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Ric Roman Waugh, director of drug drama Snitch, knows why: No-one works harder. "I've been around some people that I don't even know when they sleep, but Dwayne? We would start shooting at 7 in the morning, and he would be up four hours before that."
Between G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast and Furious 6, and black satire Pain & Gain, The Rock has had at least one movie in the US top ten every weekend since Feb. 22. Plus, in the middle of that, he held down the main event at the Wrestlemania pay-per-view in a barnstorming match for pro-wrestling's most prestigious title, the WWE championship.
That box office winning streak began with the Austin-set Snitch (released on DVD today.) Waugh's no stranger to a hard schedule: A former stunt man, he has always looked to notorious work-a-holic Jerry Bruckheimer, but even he was blown away by Johnson's commitment. "He was coming in, working with me for 12 hours, then going home, taking care of his business, preparing for tomorrow's work, calling me at 11 to 12 at night, asking me questions, fully focused. I'm lucky to get six hour sleep and I'm realizing that he's probably only got three, and he's up again and doing it again. That's every day. His work ethic is unbelievable."
If Waugh and Johnson have one thing in common, it's that neither is where they're supposed to be. The Rock gets written off as a failed football player turned pro-wrestler who has now muscled his way into acting. Waugh is a former stunt guy turned stunt coordinator who has moved behind the camera. Waugh said the pair had talked about those indirect paths, "and we talked about how those life experiences become part of you war chest."
Waugh isn't just a guy that falls off tall buildings for the camera: As the son of Stunts Unlimited cofounder Fred Waugh, he grew up on movie sets like Paint Your Wagon and McQ, before he launched his own career as a stunt director helping the biggest name directors and producers – Tony Scott, Richard Donner, Katherine Bigelow, John McTiernan and Steven Spielberg – translate complicated scripts into filmable action sequences. Waugh said, "I was able to sit on set with them, and I was able to develop my own voice."
He describes Snitch is a change of pace for Johnson. He plays John Matthews, a father who goes undercover for the DEA in an attempt to negotiate a reduced sentence for his son. For Waugh, he's trying to get back to the cerebral action films of the 1970s. He said, "Those movies, they were about something. There was some kind of social relevance to them, and I really wanted to get back into that mode."
But Snitch isn't the standard crash-and-smash action movie. It may sound far-fetched, but it's actually based on a true case, and a big part of Waugh's motivation to make the film was his social conscience, and his concern over the appalling use of mandatory minimum sentences in criminal justice. That's a long way from The Rock as Roadblock taking on Cobra Commander but, then again, not many film websites come with a page of infographics about crime and incarceration statistics.
Criminal justice is a subject that fascinates Waugh. He said, "My first movie, Felon had this first person point-of-view that you follow all the rules of society, but you make one mistake. If you have to do prison time, what would you go through?"
What excited Waugh about the project was that he got to explore what happened to the whole family, not just the prisoner. When he was looking around for something equally impactful, he came across a PBS Frontline special about the use of informants, and how mandatory minimum sentencing laws are used to extract confessions. For Waugh, it's become a plague that is decimating families and communities. He said, "It has become a really bad, nasty, dirty business, because these US attorneys and prosecutors are using these mandatory minimum sentencing laws, not only in drug cases but other crimes, really to coerce people into pleading out. You get this mandatory sentence of X years, so what happens is, when you don't have anyone to snitch on, you lie."
Waugh was particularly inspired by one story, and that's the basis of Snitch: Convicted dealer Joey Settembrino, whose father agreed to take part in a sting operation in return for a lighter sentence for his son. Waugh said, "To see a father whose own 18 year old son was wrongfully accused of dealing drugs, was caught under these laws, didn't have any drug traffickers to snitch on – his own friend set him up to reduce his own sentence – and to see a father go to the US attorneys and say, 'What if I go into the drug world and get you a bigger bust? Would that reduce my son's sentence?'"
His plan was to make a movie with a message that was still an accessible action-crime drama. He said, "There have been numerous stories about parents saving their kids from kidnapping or whatever, but they're all been hyper-real. This father didn't have a certain set of skills. He wasn't in the CIA. This didn't happen in Eastern Europe somewhere, or some far-fetched thing about breaking the wife out of prison."
It may seem strange, but his quest for believability is exactly why he cast the erstwhile professional wrestler as the trucker who drives into the lions' den to save his son. Waugh described the part for Johnson as a turning point for the action star, much as The Fugitive was for Harrison Ford, or Mel Gibson in Ransom. During casting, he said, "We started talking about the usual suspects, and then I had this lightning rod idea. I went, 'OK, if we're going to make a world that's truly authentic, and show you just how dangerous this drug world is, why don't we take the most formidable guy on the planet and show you, if it's real world rules, it doesn't matter whether you're 6'5" or 5'6", because when a bullet hits you in the head, you die just the same. Dwayne just completely embraced that."
Having Johnson on board opened the door for other recognizable names, including Benjamin Bratt, Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper to join the cast – plus one name not so familiar to Waugh: "This guy sits down at the table and I think, 'Movie star, unbelievable talent.'" That was actually Jon Bernthal, star of AMC's zombie epic The Walking Dead. Waugh was completely oblivious: "I'm probably the only person in America that doesn't watch it."
The end result was a $15 million independent drama, one that pulled in an all-star cast and made some box office ripples. More importantly for Waugh, it got people in front of his message. He said, "When you're doing it for passion and all the right reasons, hopefully something really good happens."
Snitch (Summit Entertainment) is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Also out today:
How to Survive a Plague (MPI) Featured as part of the AFS Doc Nites series, this harrowing documentary charts the battles over the understanding of AIDS in its earliest, most devastating years (read our interview with director David France here.)
Oz The Great and Powerful (Walt Disney) Do we really need to know how the wizard got behind the curtain? Well, at least it's better than Tim Burton's Alice (read our review here.)
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (Paramount) Apparently the unrated cut puts the story back (read our review here.)
House of Cards (Sony) The Netflix original that was actually a remake.
Lilo & Stitch (Walt Disney) Another of the growing collection of quality Disney double packs, featuring the charming and cranky tale of a girl and her alien, plus the surprisingly entertaining sequel Lilo & Stitch: Stitch Has A Glitch. Also out this week, double doses from two more underrated 90s Disney's animations, The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (see our review here.)
Wild Strawberries (Criterion) Imgmar Bergman's classic meditation on life, death, and acceptance.
The Manson Family (Severin) Director Jim VanBebber will be one of the headlining guests at the inaugural Housecore Horror Film Festival with this blood-stained trip into the death of the hippy dream.