[Interview] ‘GREENLAND’ director Ric Roman Waugh captures action with authenticity

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s always a celebration when an actor and a director enter into a creative marriage together, collaborating in a harmonious symbiosis. Filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh has found such a dance partner in star Gerard Butler. ANGEL HAS FALLEN marked the first of hopefully many pairings for the duo – and now they’ve returned with another character-driven action film, GREENLAND.

In the disaster flick, the apocalypse becomes a grim reality when a comet approaches Earth, threatening to destroy the planet and humankind. John Garrity (Gerard Butler) is tasked to get his semi-estranged wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and their young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) to a safe haven – a bunker located in Greenland. What erupts is a gripping, visceral quest for survival.

At the film’s press day, we spoke with Waugh about the prescient nature of the film’s themes, creating interesting action set pieces and working with Butler to deliver a character worth rooting for.

Has it been surreal to see some of these human behaviors shown in the movie mimicked – like mass hysteria and fires – in These Times?

It’s crazy and such a sense of irony in that we made this movie, edited it, tested it with audiences, locked it and were just going into the final throes of finishing before anyone knew what COVID was. You’re dealing with all these things that are hypothetical situations that then become a reality. It was very surreal to sit on the mix stage in March. I had a sense of dread at first and then I watched the movie and it made me weep, in a good way, remembering what the message of the movie was.

I wish the media would do a better job of blending that. There are so many things we need to be paying attention to right now that are happening that are very heinous – a lot of ugliness and divisiveness. But there’s also a sense of humanity that’s happening as well – and that would be really good to capture.

The thing when I first read GREENLAND, and this was when I had finished ANGEL HAS FALLEN, I remembered the sense of hope I got from it. We’re living in a very divisive world right now. This husband and wife represent that. They’re a million miles apart, we don’t know why. They can hardly stand to be in the same room together. They think they have all the time in the world to figure it out and then that time is taken away. It goes on this journey of where life or death has a way of knocking the rust off to remind you what matters the most. That’s what we’re dealing with in this pandemic. There are so many parallels. But I hope what comes out of it is that there’s a sense of honor, respect and hope that will survive longer than the cockroaches.

Is there a trick to balancing the human struggles with the, forgive the term, popcorn entertainment aspects? I think you do that so well here.

My first agent called it, “Hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes.” It’s the idea that Sidney Lumet did phenomenally – and other filmmakers, as well – where you have this amazing sense of cinema, like DOG DAY AFTERNOON, but there was a message inside of it. It wasn’t pounding you over the head with it. You were entertained during the experience and then you walked out and you had that watercooler conversation about life. I love those movies. Those are the movies I gravitate towards and hope I bring that to this.

To answer your question, I think it’s coming from a truthful and honest place and never going for the joke, never going for the entertainment. But if you’re rooting for people and are emotionally attached to them, the action and the visceral experience is just that much greater. The joke between Holt McCallany and Gerry Butler – the whole thing about weight – those things come out and give you forms of levity, but they’re done in such an honest way that you know it is. It’s two people being honest with each other in the height of great stakes.

The documentary that I did – THAT WHICH I LOVE DESTROYS ME – when I find out that Delta Force and these upper league people that are dealing with extreme amounts of violence and loss and death, that they find gallows humor within that because it’s their way of venting the darkness. I try to find that narrative in movies. It’s very hard.

How do you keep character at the forefront of your action sequences?

It comes from the question I was asked constantly, which was “What’s it like to do stunts?” They wanted to understand how you can drive a car 200 miles an hour and crash it on purpose, or light yourself on fire. What I’ve always had a mantra of is, not only putting the audience in a first person point of view within in the action, so that they’re participating in it, [but] to give action an emotional attachment. I think the more that you learn character work, the more that you understand the human experience. You’ve [got to be] emotionally attached to that action [of] Gerard Butler defending himself with a hammer in a horde of people on the back of a stake bed [truck]. I’m always from how does action convey emotion, whether it’s nail-biting and gripping in a way that makes you cringe, or excitement, or a sense of rush of inertia. It’s finding those tonal things that’s really important where it’s not action for the sake of action.

A lot of leading men these days, if they’re the hero, they don’t like to see their characters get their hands dirty.

Thank you!

It’s baffling. They don’t want to show their characters as flawed. I’m wondering if this was discussed with Gerry?

I have to go back and talk about ANGEL HAS FALLEN for a second. I grew up in the business in the 70’s and 80’s where you’re dealing with a lot of the likes of the Steve McQueens of the world, who applaud the plagued, flawed, mortal human beings under extraordinary circumstances. When we did ANGEL HAS FALLEN, I told Gerry that it was about getting away from being 10-foot-tall, bulletproof and impervious to pain. I’m tired of the superhero characters where nothing ever happens to them and they won’t show any flaws, or fallout. The journey started with Mike Banning of showing a man who’s addicted to pills because of concussions and trying to beat his own mortality.

When GREENLAND came about, we both just grinned ear to ear, because it was a way to go further with him. What I love about Gerard is he’s fearless in showing his own vulnerabilities and own sensitivities that are maybe coming from truth of his own DNA – things he’s dealt with. I think that a man is more masculine as a man with complexities rather than hide them and act like John Wayne walking through the door every time. It was really fun to put him in mortal clothes and have no special skillsets. He’s not a former Navy Seal. He’s a man dealing with great forms of redemption and atonement for mistakes made – failure as a husband, failure as a father.

Was that close quarters fight scene in the back of that stake bed truck something that you’d always wanted to do? And how was Gerry’s physical aptitude taken into consideration creating those stunts?

He is so impressive to me. Gerry’s on a different level. I have become more and more comfortable with Gerry doing almost everything. He’s so gifted athletically, but he’s also cerebral. He thinks things through and conscientious of what’s around him so when we’re going 60 miles an hour on the back of that stake bed, and we put a safety cable around the wooden slats… we’re not stupid. We’re not going to hurt anybody. But we were at 60 miles an hour with a handheld camera and doing a fight for real, he was never doubled. He gives it such good integrity. You get a dance partner that you have this whole conviction of telling action through an emotional point of view of the character that doesn’t work unless the character is in the action.

You’re with John Garrity. You’re with Allison Garrity. Morena [Baccarin], the things I gave her – being ripped from a car and on the sides of highways. She did all of that. That was another thing I loved about this movie. In the first script that I read, it was a parallel journey of a man and a woman. It was never about a man winning his woman back. It was a husband and wife trying to win their love back and both thrown into the pits of despair.

GREENLAND releases on demand on December 18.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.