Entertainment

The Director of 'Angel Has Fallen' Explains How He Reinvented the Gerard Butler Series

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Gerard Butler in 'Angel Has Fallen' | Jack English/Lionsgate
Gerard Butler in 'Angel Has Fallen' | Jack English/Lionsgate

Ric Roman Waugh didn't think he would ever direct a movie in the awkwardly named, explosion-heavy Fallen franchise. The often ridiculous, hyper-macho action series -- which kicked off in 2013 with the White House siege potboiler Olympus Has Fallen and continued with 2016's more internationally flavored (and critically reviled) sequel, London Has Fallen -- isn't exactly in Waugh's admittedly more restrained, grounded stylistic wheelhouse. But when Gerard Butler dials you up out of the blue, you answer the call.

That's what happened to Waugh, who happened to be friendly with the burly Scottish actor at the center of the Fallen series. His character, the resourceful Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, is hardly a household name on the level of Jack Ryan or Ethan Hunt, but the modestly budgeted movies have done well at the box office, with London grossing over $200 million worldwide, and so Banning keeps returning. The latest entry, Angel Has Fallen, which arrived in theaters in August 2019 and recently came to Netflix, and finds Banning framed for an assassination attempt on Morgan Freeman's President Allan Trumbull, is the rare three-quel that actually improves on the established formula, ditching some of the clunkier aspects of the first two chapters in favor of a more politically plugged-in, character-focused approach. It's easily the best entry in the series.

For Waugh, it was also a chance to reconnect with a part of his past. In recent years, the filmmaker has become best known for writing and directing stripped-down, gritty crime melodramas, like 2017's Shot Caller, a brutal prison epic starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a tattooed gang leader, and 2013's Snitch, a ripped-from-the-headlines drug-trafficking thriller starring Dwayne Johnson as a concerned father. But Waugh got his start in Hollywood as a stunt performer and stunt coordinator, doubling for Mel Gibson on Lethal Weapon 2 and working on other era-defining action hit, such as Road House, Total Recall, and Universal Soldier.

According to Waugh, Angel Has Fallen allowed him to use "a muscle I hadn't flexed in quite a while." On the phone from Los Angeles, he talked about why he was "scared shitless" to work on the franchise, how Russian election-meddling ended up in a late-summer blockbuster, and what he learned from his days of getting tossed around on movie sets.

Thrillist: After making a movie like Shot Caller, which is obviously a little grittier and more grounded, were you looking to make a film on a bigger scale? Did you always have that ambition? 
Ric Roman Waugh: I knew there would be a day where I would want to do bigger action films. There was a moment where I was the first director on Deepwater Horizon, which I would have loved to do but the stars didn't align and schedules didn't work either. I knew it would come down the road, but I didn't think I would ever come into a franchise. Most of the time when you're the second, third, or fourth director for a franchise, you're basically a custodian to what was done before -- and rightfully so when they're successful like this. You don't want to be the director who screwed it up, so you want to be respectful to what was there. 

So to have my chance to have my cake and eat it too, where I could take the fun of the first two movies and then put my own spin on it, you just don't get those chances everyday, especially in franchises today. So, yeah, it's a total fluke for me in my trajectory and where I thought I was going. I think the movie that Gerard and I just finished, a movie called Greenland, which is very much like A Quiet Place --  a disaster film told from a family's perspective -- I would say that was way more in line with where I wanted to go. Angel Has Fallen has been a great surprise and blessing at the same time. 

What type of conversations did you have early on with Gerard and with the studio? 
Waugh: I wanted to humanize the characters and also make the world around them feel authentic. That's what I try to always bring to the table. Most of my movies are works of fiction or at least the storylines are -- other than Snitch, which was based on a true story -- but all the other ones are works of fiction, and what I try to do is do my homework and bring authenticity to it. So I'm giving you relevant things and contemporary issues, and you don't feel like the plot has been dumbed down or the world has been dumbed down. 

Angel Has Fallen has stray references to Blackwater, facial recognition software, Russian interference in elections, and other hot topics from the news. Tonally, how did you try to balance those elements with some of the bigger "action movie" moments?
Waugh: There's a very fine line I tried to dance on. Basically, I tried to bring as much authenticity to the table while keeping it entertaining at the same time. You're trying to bring relevant issues to the screen so people feel like the plot on the screen isn't total nonsense -- instead, it's things that you know.

I've had some people ask if we're mirroring the current administration in some way. I was sitting next to Morgan Freeman when someone asked it, and we both smiled and he put it beautifully: "History repeats itself." Look at this movie and tell me what administration since Abraham Lincoln hasn't dealt with leaks, disloyalty, and all the other things we're talking about. That's the one thing I wanted this movie to be: It's a very Americana-style film. It's about an American President and a Secret Service agent guarding him. But, also, this movie could take place anywhere around the world.

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Director Ric Roman Waugh on the 'Angel Has Fallen' set | Jack English

You have an extensive background as a stunt performer and coordinator, but your other recent movies weren't as action heavy. Did you find you were drawing on your stunt background more while shooting this? 
Waugh: There's that old saying "It's like riding a bike," but I was kinda scared shitless because I'd been out of the action game for so long and I wasn't sure if those muscles would come back naturally. What my whole vision of the movie was, especially with action at this scale, was to remember what I felt like in the action when I was doing it. Where was I scared. Where was the adrenaline rush. What was the plan when things were blowing up around me or I was falling through the air. I've been in car chases at high speeds -- so what did I feel? That was my mandate that I told everyone when we were filming the action sequences. We weren't going to have mindless action where we just blow shit up and have cars doing their thing. I wanted to put the viewer in the sequence, make them a part of it, so they felt the same visceral rush that I felt. 

There's a semi-truck chase [in the movie] where Mike Banning is on the run from law enforcement, and he can't kill these people. He needs to evade them in a non-lethal way. Well, how do you do that? I wanted the semi-chase to feel like it was a real world police chase, where you get everyone's perspective and where the cameras are in the middle of the chase. I wanted the sound design to feel like there was a documentary film crew there, and there were shotgun mics on every camera. So when you're in the semi and then the camera pans into the sky and you get the helicopter light super bright right in your face, I wanted it to feel like you were in those environments. What it would feel like if you were in a drone attack or a firefight. The hellacious sound of being stuck behind an armored car with the President and hearing those massive thunks and ricochets going over your head. That anxiety you would feel of "what if one of these bullets get through?"  

Between you, [Hobbs & Shaw director] David Leitch, and [John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum director] Chad Stahelski, it feels like more filmmakers with stunt backgrounds are working on these bigger-budget action films. What makes a stunt coordinator uniquely suited to the task of making these movies?
Waugh: I'm biased because I come from the world that you're speaking of, but at the same time I also know the practicality of how movies are made. A stunt coordinator is so integral to the way a movie is shot. Very much like a special effects coordinator. There are certain departments -- like director of photography, which is why you see so many cinematographers become directors --  that are very much in the fluidity of how a movie is shot and how things are done.

So I often felt like it was a natural course for a stunt coordinator who ends up becoming a second unit director, like Chad, David, and I did. The evolution of going to a feature director, which the people we're talking about have done, involves understanding the story aspect of it too. That's the big leap. There are great technicians coming out of the stunt world but you need to make sure that first and foremost you're a storyteller. We're storytellers first who bring our experience and our technical prowess to the table to support that story. 

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Gerard Butler in 'Angel Has Fallen' | Jack English/Lionsgate

You worked on so many movies from the '80s and '90s like They Live, Lethal Weapon 2, and Total Recall. Looking back, that era feels like the peak of a certain type of action movie. What was that period of your life like?
Waugh: It was very fortunate. I've had a couple mentors in my life that I worked with who became great personal friends. One was Jerry Bruckheimer, who I met on Beverly Hills Cop II and then I worked on Days of Thunder with him and other movies of his. The other one was the late Tony Scott. They were the people who never cared if I asked a lot of questions and allowed me to see how they played in the sandbox, and find my part of the sandbox, my style of filmmaking.

When I shadowed Tony and other great filmmakers, I knew that my place was never going to be in front of the camera. I never really enjoyed it as a stunt performer. I preferred to be behind the camera. To have people like that in your life at a place where you're actually banking as a stunt performer -- I was doubling Mel Gibson and working in a lot of different areas and on different types of movies. It was the right transition for me to say, "I'm not married yet, I don't have kids yet, I'm going to go for it. I'm going to go for my dream and try to be a director." I started working commercials. The thing that really happened in my trajectory that was a blessing was being naive and gullible enough to think I'd write a script and we'd just go make it. I had been offered a couple different scripts to direct and thought they were horrible. And they were probably horrible at the time because I was on the bottom rung and not getting the top stuff. 

There were two writers that I had met who had won Academy Awards for writing and I asked them to read the material I was writing, and if it was shit, tell me why it's shit. And they did that for me. There was a period in my life where I write a script called Hammer Down and it sold to DreamWorks and it was Michel De Luca's first buy. This lightning rod went off where I didn't direct anything for about seven or eight years. Not a commercial. Nothing. I just wrote and went into the studio system of writing scripts around town. It was one of the best experiences of my life because I had this war chest of knowledge to be a filmmaker but I didn't have any experiences in the development game. Also, I just got a much stronger sense of my storytelling abilities as far as character arcs and story structure and tone goes. That period of my life was super vital to who I am as a filmmaker now. I feel like I got both sides of the equation covered. It was an interesting way to come about getting here and definitely not the natural course of things.

What did you learn in that period of developing scripts that didn't get made?
Waugh:
Yeah, none of them got made. The funny thing is I wrote 17 scripts and none of them got made. That part of the studio system is disheartening. But I was very fortunate to have phenomenal producers I was working with. I wrote for Bruckheimer, Mark Gordon, Neal Moritz, and Lorenzo Lorenzo di Bonaventura. I had amazing executives. Even if the movie wasn't getting made, I did everything possible to learn from those situations, and it really helped me figure out how to make scripts be viable and shootable.

I know what they're looking for -- I know what the one-sheet is and how the script reflects that. There's a reason they call it a business, and it's because movies have to be a commodity. It's about making something that's creatively viable that we want and also is economically viable. I get that now because I've been through that process. But the other thing I have is when I'm writing action, I know how to shoot it. I'm not giving you something that can't be a blueprint or wouldn't be feasible. It's in my head.

Recently, there's been more discussion of possibly adding an award for stunt work to the Oscars. Is that something you think might happen? 
Waugh: Will it happen? I don't know. I think the Academy is in peril a little bit right now and they're in a state of evolution where they have to decide what they want to be. Will they streamline further or embrace categories that should have always been there like stunt coordinators? I don't know about stunt performers, but for stunt coordinators, if you have special effects, visual effects, hair and make-up, costumes -- if you have all these technicians who bring their wares to the table to get movies made, how are stunt coordinators not part of that? It's beyond me.

They're such a vital part of it. My thing is if you're going to have these other departments in the categories, then put stunt coordinators in. If you're going to strip it down to just being above-the-line people -- the actors, writers, producers, directors, and Best Picture -- then so be it. But if you're going to be inclusive of other departments, you should include everyone.

​​​​​This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.