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Filmmaker finds himself right at home in Austin

Director, writer first became movie stuntman like his dad

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Ric Roman Waugh moved to Austin in January from L.A. for the lifestyle he wanted to give his family. He's working on a movie with Dwayne Johnson and Susan Sarandon.

Ric Roman Waugh's time spent on movie sets goes back further than his memory. As a baby he cooed and cried on the set of the Clint Eastwood-starring "Paint Your Wagon." Around the time he learned to spell, he was in the presence of John Wayne on the set of "McQ."

But proximity to the world's biggest stars didn't offer his greatest thrill. The young Waugh was more awestruck by the men for whom the spotlight was never the main thrill. Guys who valued grit more than glamour. Guys like his father. The stuntmen.

"Growing up, guys like him were my heroes," Waugh said recently at the Violet Crown Cinema in downtown Austin. "I would be around all of these major stars, but I didn't care about them. I was more impressed by the stuntmen who were doing all these major stunts, and it wasn't with wires and everything else they have now. They were doing it for real, with hardly any safety at all."

Though his dad served as a stuntman and coordinator on countless studio films, Waugh grew up outside the Hollywood bubble. At age 8, Waugh and his family moved from the Los Angeles area to the small town of Agua Dulce, Calif.

There, in the shadows of the Vasquez Rocks, Waugh could ride his bike for miles, enjoying the freedoms of life outside concrete Los Angeles. His fond memories of a childhood and a desire to escape the myopic nature of Hollywood are what propelled Waugh and his wife to move with their twins (now 4 years old) to Austin in January.

Waugh, who is currently in pre-production on his sophomore directorial effort "Snitch," credits friend and Austin Film Festival board member producer Barry Josephson with introducing him to Barbara Morgan, director of the festival that kicked off Thursday and continues this week. And those relationships opened his eyes to Austin's potential.

"As cliché as it is, I wanted them to have the life that I had," Waugh said of his family's move to Austin. "Everybody knows each other. I don't have any film friends here, I'm sure I will. I really do want to be part of the film community here, and I want to bring movies here. But I don't think the film people here put the competitive nature of our business first, and unfortunately when you live in the hub of any scene it becomes much more of a business, and anywhere you go people are in competition, and I don't find that here. And I find my kids growing up a lot more normal. We just really fell in love with Austin."

Despite protestations from his father, as a kid Waugh could not resist the allure of stunt work. He entered the profession barely a teenager and spent much of the next decade doubling for action stars such as Willem Dafoe and Mel Gibson.

As with his childhood, however, the acting talent wasn't what excited Waugh about his time on set. He realized that he did not enjoy being in front of the camera. Working on more and more films, he came to appreciate the brilliance of the men behind the cameras.

"For me, that was my film school. I was on the set with Steven Spielberg, and I was on the set multiple times with Tony Scott," Waugh said. "And I wouldn't sit at the trailers, I would sit on set and I would watch them. And I realized that's what I wanted to do, I wanted to direct."

Waugh eventually earned work as a second unit director and began directing commercials. As he fought the perception of simply being an ex-stuntman, Waugh realized that if he wanted to make feature films, he was going to have to write a script of his own.

Humbled by his lack of experience and motivated by a desire to tell his own stories, Waugh approached writers Bruce Evans and Ray Gideons, the "Stand by Me" scribes whom he had met while working on the 1992 Christian Slater film "Kuffs."

Guided by the two men, Waugh wrote his first script, a chase film called "Hammer Down," in 1999 and eventually sold it to Dreamworks. Though the movie was held up in production, Waugh finally considered himself a writer. He had a foot in the door, but he would spend much of the next decade honing his craft, writing more than a dozen scripts before finally getting the chance to direct his debut feature, "Felon."

In making the intense 2008 prison thriller starring Val Kilmer and Stephen Dorff, Waugh called on the lessons of watching directors and actors on dozens of films. He had seen some stars trample timid young filmmakers and also watched as directors charged too hard and suffocated the talent.

His time on set taught him that having a vision and staying true to it mattered as much as communicating with actors and gaining their respect.

"What's interesting about being a stuntman and a stunt double for all these big egos is they're all different animals," Waugh said. "It teaches you to understand different actors and their personalities and their DNA makeup. And every actor is completely different, and it's really the director's first job to assess their personality and custom tailor your own way for engaging that specific person."

With each of his films, Waugh says, he hopes to create relevant stories that can engage an audience on a level of social commentary and make them think.

His current production, "Snitch," tells the story of a man (Dwayne Johnson) who enters the world of organized drug trafficking in order to save his son from a wrongful 10-year prison sentence.

"We're taking a real practical approach to the movie and standing the action genre on its head: Taking a guy as formidable as Dwayne Johnson and putting him in real-world rules," Waugh said. "How far would you go to protect your kids? It's about falling down that rabbit hole and going deeper and deeper and deeper."

While his days of crashing cars and jumping off buildings might be behind him, Waugh is also getting a chance to return to a subject close to his stunt man roots.

The Austinite is working on a script for a warts-and-all biopic about legendary daredevil Evel Knievel, based on Leigh Montville's biography "Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend."

"The script very much captures what we all loved about him, but it also captures the demons of the man and what I think is the epitome of the struggle for stardom at any cost," Waugh said. "His family suffered for it. He suffered for it. But he was not going to be denied."

For Waugh, the commitment to family and career aren't mutually exclusive.

In a sense, coming to Austin has been akin to going back home. He gets to continue to work in movies while raising his family in a city that values both community and culture, away from Hollywood.

"The great thing about writing is that I can still do rewrites and still do a lot of different things to make a living and I don't have to live in Los Angeles," Waugh said.

"It's been great for me to be hubbed in the middle of the country in a place I absolutely love, that I call L.A. without the attitude, because every form of culture of Los Angeles is available here. There are other places to move in the country that are cheaper, there are other places in the country that still give you a small-town life, but I wasn't ready to lose the culture of Los Angeles or what I love, which is film and art. I get the best of all worlds here. Austin allows me to have my cake and eat it, too."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986