Interview: Filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh on Making Kandahar with Gerard Butler, War Movies as Character Studies and a Greenland Sequel

Director Ric Roman Waugh had nearly 50 projects under his belt as a stuntman and stunt coordinator before turning to directing (much like his brother, director Scott Waugh). After a series of prison-related action works (Felon, Snitch, Shot Caller), Waugh began a fruitful collaboration with actor Gerard Butler at a time when Butler was looking to deepen the action characters he was playing, beginning with the third film in Butler’s Fallen series, Angel Has Fallen. But it was the acclaimed 2020, end-of-world thriller Greenland that showed the true possibilities of this actor-director pairing, by giving us a layered and complex Butler character, who was heroic and deeply flawed.

With their new pairing, Kandahar, Butler plays a CIA operative working in the chaotic last days of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. After their covers are blown during a mission, he and his Afghan translator (Navid Negahban) become targets, making them the two most wanted men in the country. Fighting enemies from all sides, including the Taliban, Isis, and the armies of several Middle Eastern governments, the pair are pursued relentlessly with little chance of success.

Kandahar is not a typical action movie nor a typical war movie; it’s a film about the futility of war, and about how, in this day and age, wars are not definitively won no matter how you may look at them. They just begin and end, with no treaties and parades to mark their completion. It’s a harrowing thought, and the film captures the frustration and confusion of modern warfare, with people switching sides seemingly on a whim and very often when money is involved. It’s a very different type of action movie for both actor and director, and it deepens their connection (which will hopefully carry over to their work on the Greenland sequel, Greenland: Migration).

I had a chance to chat with Waugh recently about his working relationship with Butler and the themes they wanted to get across with Kandahar. Please enjoy our talk…

I don’t think we’ve ever spoken before, but I was on the set of your brother Scott’s movie Need for Speed many years ago. It was just a full day of watching him race muscle cars in the streets of Detroit, very cool.

How dare he not invite me to see that [laughs].

One of things that really struck me about this film is that it genuinely deals with the stakes and consequences and price of war, specifically in the Middle East. I believe someone in the film says “You can’t win a war these days.”  Is that one of the reasons you wanted to tell this story, to get that message across?

I’m less about what the message is and more about showing material that’s set in an arena that I’ve seen before but it’s from a different, fresh point-of-view. I thought a lot about Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario when I read this, about how it showed the war on drugs in a very different light. It showed the human factor on both sides. Mitch LaFortune, who wrote Kandahar, he was at a defense intelligence agency for a decade, stationed in the Middle East. This is all inspired by true events, but it’s less about the war and more about the spy game that never ends, and that gave us a unique lens that showed us the adversaries that are on the other side of the equation.

Suddenly, we’re in the movie and feeling empathy for people we never thought we’d feel empathy for, and I loved that three-dimensional feel of it; it showed you the human factor on all sides. We deal with a lot of nefarious people in the world and have a tendency as a worldwide society to demonize an entire faction without disseminating in a way of saying “There are bad individuals and bad actors on all sides, but that doesn’t mean it’s everybody.” There are policymakers and people who enforce that policy, but they’re just trying to get back to their families like we are. I loved that it was about the spy game and had nothing to do with war and fatigues and so forth. It was about what happens in the clandestine war.

The Tom Harris character, the little we get about his background, he’s already lost his marriage to his work, and he’s on the verge of losing his daughter. Why do you think he would risk either of those things?

It’s no different than Tom Brady not wanting to quit the NFL. It’s no different that first responders who will do it until the end of time. We get addicted to what we do, and unfortunately, the people who have been fighting the longest combat campaign in American history, even though the war is over, that doesn’t meant you can shut off that adrenaline rush. So a guy like Tom Harris, who has been in the shadows since the beginning of all of this and living and breathing in the desert as a nomad, he doesn’t understand his own family and is coming to terms with the fact that he’s addicted to war: “War has become home and when war is over, where is my place in life and how do I keep that rush going?”

That was a really interesting quagmire to play with for me. It was not about showing you what happened during one battle or another, the Lone Survivor version or American Sniper version. This had to do with the spy game. The minute the U.S. withdrawal happened, the spy game just began, the land grab just started. Chinese and Russian aircraft all landed at Kabul Airport. It’s the wild west again, and it was about playing in the that tapestry and making a modern-day Western where my bad guy is on a black KTM motorcycle, racing across the desert. It was a way of modernizing the John Ford movies and the David Lean movies of the past.

What is the importance of having flaws in characters who are the centerpiece of action films? It seems like it would make us care more about them because they aren’t superheroes; they’re a little more like us.

Last night, I came home and my 15-year-old twin sons and my wife were watching Rebel Without a Cause, and I sat down and got engrossed with it and appreciated all the nuance. And my sons afterwards were like “That was kind of a boring movie. I didn’t really get it.” And of course, a part of that is age, but we’re living in a land now that we’re spoon-feeding 10-ft.-tall, bulletproof action heroes who are impervious to pain, don’t have flaws, and aren’t relatable to us. They are these mythic, out-of-body characters. I grew up on the 1970s and the 1950s, when we dealt with people with real issues, and I related to them. I could say “I’m not perfect either, and they’re showing me it’s okay not to be perfect. I’m going to go through these struggles.” It’s why we love Stallone in Rocky. We are the underdogs, and we fight too.

When Gerard Bulter and I teamed up on Angel Has Fallen, that was our biggest mandate. He was very bored and tired of playing the guy that can kill 50 people with a single blow and not have anything happen to him. We wanted to have Mike Banning show the human factor in him, so we made him a pill-popping Secret Service agent who was defying his own mortality by not hanging up the gun. Tom Brady is defying his own mortality and marriage because he doesn’t want to let go of that adrenaline rush on the field, and we can all relate to that, and I wanted that to be relatable with this character as well.

Let’s talk about your relationship with Gerard Butler. What is the key to that working relationship? Why do you two work so well together?

We’re both stubborn and passionate. We both love this form of filmmaker, of showing real human characters in extraordinary circumstances. We love the big action ride; he knows I love to do it all real. When people ask what defines my action, I’m hoping I’m giving you an emotional integrity and an attachment to what the action is doing. If the character is thrilled, I want you to be thrilled with them, because you understand what they’re going through. If they are scared beyond belief, I want you to feel that dread and fear as well. He’s after the same thing, so movies like Kandahar are very important to us and hopefully they’re important to a lot of people right now because we’re kind of a dying breed right now. We need people to really embrace the theatrical experience of these adult-driven movies that we have taken for granted because we used to get them every weekend, and now they are fewer and farther between the big animated pictures and the Marvel movies, which are fine, but hopefully audiences will embrace these type of movies and show up, grab a tub of popcorn, and have fun for two hours.

A big part of this screenplay is about how the U.S. frequently uses people from other countries, like translators or guides, and makes promises to them that they can’t always live up to. Did you want to explore that in any way?

That is true. The irony is, that wasn’t the case. What was the case was two men coming from opposite sides of the equation, one who has been forced to become a refugee in another country called the United States of America, who is doing everything he can to get back home, until he realizes all is lost. “Where is my life now? How do I pick up the pieces? Am I still a refugee, or am I becoming an American?” The other man feels like war has become home, and he doesn’t even know how to go home and be there to celebrate his daughter’s graduation. But it was also about the other characters, about putting a face on the Iranian who is just trying to enforce policy, or a young Pakistani operator who is the hunter in this case but is the mirror image of Tom Harris but a bit younger and realizing “Is this all there is for me? The war is over, and what am I really doing here? Is this all I’m going to do for the rest of my life?” I was far more interested in that level of exploration. 

To me, my favorite thing in Sicario was the police officer I didn’t know much about, who ended up being part of the corruption, who was a father, and that tragic scene at the end when the father is killed and the son is playing soccer and hears gunfire and is so desensitized to it that the kids go back to playing soccer. I was more interested in that idea that you become desensitized to the sounds of violence—the same way I tackled these issues in my films Shot Caller or Felon, the prison movies I’ve done.

Okay, that’s the second time Ali Fazal’s character has been brought up, so I have to talk about him. He’s the coolest guy in the movie, by far. He thinks he’s the star of his own movie. Tell me about the importance of that character. He’s different than everybody else, more frustrated perhaps.

Everybody has to have their own point of view. The Farzad character [Bahador Foladi], he’s always embraced around his peers and the colleagues he’s trying to keep safe and trying to get them back to their families, just like he’s trying to get back to his wife and kid. Then when people perish, their death matters to him. Ali’s character was more about representing the spy game where you are by yourself and living in this constant state of being the hunter to try to preserve any form of normality—for him, that’s trying to get a date on Tinder or trying to think going to London or Paris is going to solve his issues of who he is. And seeing the hunter he’s going after is like looking in a mirror. “Is this where I’m going to go? What is my purpose in life?“ So yes, he did have a different lens than everybody else, but I tried to do that with all the characters.

As a stunt coordinator and now as a director, you said you want to go for something that is realistic and not necessarily over-the-top. Has that always been the way you operate? You want us to feel these punches or crashes?

Oh yeah. Coming up through the business and starting to direct, the first questions I always got was “What was it like to be a stuntman?” It was always about the emotional impact that I went through—the thrills, the dangers, the fear, and then overcoming that fear. I was always asked if I was afraid, and I’ve always believed that’s what action is about. I don’t like action for the sake of action in any movie, whatever size it is. I want to be on that emotional thrust with that character, so it’s setting up the emotional integrity of that character. So if you’re being chased by a helicopter at night, you should be feeling the fear that these characters are felling because you’ve built up enough character time with them that you actually relate to them and understand what they’re going through. To me, that’s what makes me different and how I try to contribute my past into my work. I’m less about showing you my technical prowess of how badass I can blow shit up; I want you to feel what I felt, but I also want you to feel it through these characters and feel what they’re feeling.

I think I read somewhere that you attribute Tony Scott with being the one who encouraged you to get your own thing going as a filmmaker. Can you tell me about what it was he was encouraging you to do.

He taught me what real courage is. It’s living or dying by your own sword. We as artists—whether we’re painting on a canvas, making a movie, an athlete out on the field—the biggest danger is having heroes we look up to and trying to emulate them. We shouldn’t try to emulate them. Tony Scott is a visionary to the point where you knew what a Tony Scott movie was whether you liked the outcome or not. He lived and died by his own sword, and that’s what he taught me. Wherever you decide to go in this sandbox that we get to play in, behind the camera or in front of it, don’t emulate others. Don’t try to be the next Tony Scott or Michael Mann or David Lean or John Ford. Be you and be fearless with that, because that is hard. To this day, it’s still having that confidence and courage of going “Are they going to like what I just made or not? I’m going to do it anyway and do it to what my brand is.” I try to take what Tony gave me and instill it in the next generation. Be fearless and be courageous in what you’re doing, and understand that your voice matters.

I wanted to ask you about two things I keep hearing about that you’re involved with. Greenland was one of my favorite film from a couple years ago. I keep seeing that you might be working on a sequel now. What is the timeline there?

We’re sorting it out, probably with the other movie you’re going to bring up. The thing with Greenland, we were never dealing with an IP like Dune. Dune is a very big IP, and they always knew they were going to make two movies that were going to have this intermission point that would take you to the final chapter, and I always saw Greenland that way, but we had to prove ourselves. Then suddenly we were in the middle of a pandemic, and I was like “Who the hell is going to watch a disaster movie in the middle of a disaster?” But it really found an audience, and we are now ready to tell the final chapter. So the first movie took you up to the extinction event; the second movie will take us to who survived and how do they rebuild the earth, or do they not. How do you rebuild an earth that has been completely decimated? That will be the next incarnation.

I would love to see a movie where Earth doesn’t survive. That would be so ballsy. “Oh well, we tried.”

[laughs] You’ve seen my movies; it could happen.

So then you have a Cliffhanger movie with Stallone. So what is this exactly? A sequel, reboot? What is the mission here?

Isn’t it funny all of the names we have for it? What it is not is a remake. I was never interested in that. What I do love about this next installment of Cliffhanger is similar to what Top Gun: Maverick did, of carrying the nostalgic part of the story forward and brining it to a new audience. But for people like you and I, who lived on the original movie, we get to live vicariously through those moments where Stallone will play a man of his age who has a daughter now and an heir-apparent son, and tragedy happens, very similar to the beginning of the original movie, and how do you overcome these tragedies, one that Stallone’s character has already been through? The bad guys come to the Italian Alps and all hell breaks loose. It’s about bringing the action to another level with the technology we have now, the way Top Gun: Maverick took you into real fighter jets with new technology.

Also, I think what makes Stallone really unique is that not only had he given us some of the most iconic characters of all time, it’s his humility and willingness to pass the torch, the way he did with Michael B. Jordan in Creed for the Rocky franchise. And that’s what we’re doing here; this is really about passing the torch to a new generation to carry Cliffhanger forward, but carry it forward with a story about a father named Gabe Walker.

That’s amazing. Ric, thank you so much. Great talking to you and meeting you. Best of luck with this film.

Thank you, bud.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.