Snitch: Making the Action Thriller

Snitch as full-blown action thriller: an iconic hero in star Dwayne Johnson, a riveting script by co-writer Justin Haythe and co-writer-director Ric Roman Waugh, and state-of-the-art stunts. But the film, a passion project for its producers at Exclusive Media, also tells a compelling story that addresses a little-known but deadly consequence of the current war on drugs.

“The script came out of a ‘Frontline’ piece about real cases in our justice system where people were given a choice between becoming informants and going to jail,” says Matt Jackson, Senior Executive Vice President and Head of US Production at Exclusive Media and Producer of Snitch. “Justin Haythe, a really great writer, did the first draft and, we developed it over a number of years.”

The finished film is more a dramatic thriller than a typical action movie, says Jackson. “As much as there’s an action element, Snitch is about an all-American family confronted with an unfair situation that our justice system mandates. A kid makes a mistake and his entire life is going to be ruined.”

The story focuses on John Matthews, owner of a construction company in the American heartland, whose 18-year-old son, Jason, is framed for dealing ecstasy by another kid who is trying to save his own skin. The penalty for simply receiving the package is ten to thirty years in federal prison and Jason’s only chance at lessening the sentence is turning in someone else. Since he doesn’t know any drug dealers, his only choice would be to lie and fabricate evidence against a friend. When he refuses, his father takes matters into his own hands.

“Jason is a regular teenager,” says Jackson. “He reluctantly accepts a package for a friend without knowing what the consequences are. We take the position that everyone makes stupid mistakes sometimes and that the laws should reflect the severity of the offense. And in this case, he’s an innocent kid who screwed up. John, our hero, is an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation where he has to act to save his son.”

As the script evolved, Jackson brought in Ric Roman Waugh to direct, based on the success of his previous film Felon, a different, but complementary story about another unfair incarceration.

“Ric’s knowledge of law enforcement and unique understanding of the justice system elevated the movie,” says Jackson. “He found a balance between action and drama that is perfect. Ric really has a handle on that, so there’s something there for everyone. The concept is universal. Would you, as a parent, sacrifice yourself and try to root out really, really bad guys to help your son? Most parents will do whatever they need to do to help their children and John is an example of that.”

Waugh was initially shocked, and then galvanized, by what he learned about the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. “Under these harsh guidelines, the only way to reduce the sentence is to snitch on other potential drug traffickers,” says Waugh. “Since Jason has no one to turn in and he refuses to lie, his father goes to the U.S. Attorney and offers to help find a real drug dealer in exchange for leniency for his son.”

After reading the earlier version of the script, Waugh began to fine-tune the story and the characters. “I learned as much as I could about the true stories that inspired this,” he says. “Then I did a rewrite that I think gives the audience what it wants in terms of action, but in a grounded, realistic way. This is not a pure popcorn movie. You won’t roll your eyes because something is unbelievable.”

Waugh was born into a filmmaking family. “My father was a legend in the stunt world,” he says. “He took me onto film sets when I was a baby and I started working as a professional stuntman as a teenager. I got my training with some of the top directors out there: Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, John McTiernan, James Cameron, Tony Scott, just to name a few. I not only gained a practical knowledge of filmmaking, but I began to form my own creative point of view.”

Part of that process was giving the film the immediacy of a first-person perspective. “You’re not only watching the characters,” says Waugh. “You’re feeling yourself in their positions. For me, the key element was seeing how far a parent would go to save his kid. I am the father of twin four-year-old sons and I believe I would move heaven and earth for them if they were in danger. That is what this movie is about.”

Executive Producer Becki Cross Trujillo, who worked closely with Waugh through preproduction and the day-to-day shooting schedule, has high praise for the writer-director. He was “fantastic to work with. As the writer, he knows every aspect of the story and has every shot in his head—he works so fast it’s almost impossible for everyone to keep up with him. He’s prepared, which makes my job easy because we know what’s coming and we can be ready for it. Things always happen on the set that you can’t control and he’s fast on his feet. He comes up with ways to make things better and make it all work within our time frame.”

Jonathan King, Executive Vice President of Production at Participant Media and Producer of Snitch, notes that his company was developing a different project with Waugh. “As Snitch started to move forward, Exclusive was looking for a partner on it. We knew it was a great script and it made sense for our company’s mission. Since we really wanted to work with Ric, it was an easy yes.

“No one’s easier to work with than Ric,” adds King. “And no one works harder. He has a nose for authenticity. Anything that’s phony he’ll get rid of immediately.”

It was a plus for both sides that Waugh loves research and Participant Media had the resources to help him. “We have partnerships with non-governmental organizations, non-profits, legislative campaigns, all sorts of resources we reach out to find out the reality of a situation,” King notes.

Participant Media is well known for making commercially successful films that seek to compel social change, including the award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming, and the feature films The Help, which deals with race relations, and Contagion, which focuses on the potential effects of a viral epidemic.

“This film fits into Participant’s mission, because it deals with how wasteful, corrupt and unreasonable the war on drugs has become,” says King. “Everyone knows that drug use and the violence surrounding it are a problem in this country. But the way the laws are written and enforced wastes billions of dollars and incarcerates people needlessly. Adding to the problem is the fact that the way the laws are applied can also be politically and racially motivated.”

According to King many law enforcement professionals have strong opinions about the mandatory sentencing guidelines. “They feel that their judgment and discretion are absent from the process, because the laws are written without flexibility,” he explains. “Putting law enforcement decisions in the hands of legislators, or in some cases directly in the hands of voters with referendums on three-strikes laws or mandatory minimums, becomes a political campaign rather than a reasoned approach to the problem.”

The filmmakers hope the movie will start a public conversation about reforming mandatory sentencing laws and decriminalizing certain kind of drug offenses. “So many people locked up in prison across this country aren’t distributors or traffickers in any real sense,” says Jackson. “Some are addicts; a lot of them have made mistakes. Mandatory laws don’t always make sense. Drugs have been a huge problem in this country for going on fifty years. This is not what I would call ‘a message movie’ per se, but I think the takeaway is that we really should look at our laws.”

King agrees that the movie is made not to preach, but to present an exciting and compelling story with underlying social relevance. “This is a movie; it’s not health food.” says King. “I like to go to the movies on Friday night and eat my popcorn and drink my soda like everybody else. But we do want our films to be about real-world issues. To us, this is a very entertaining movie with a movie star we all love. And those things are wrapped around a story that was inspired by true events and deals honestly with something that is a problem in the country today.”