Angel Has Fallen Director Interview

It isn’t often that movies blow things up – metaphorically, of course – the third time around, especially when the first two installments are a hit with their intended audience. In 2013, Gerard Butler starred in Olympus Has Fallen, a mid-budget blockbuster where one intrepid Secret Service agent defended the White House against an invading force. In 2016, Butler and company found even more success with London Has Fallen, this time putting Butler’s Mike Banning – and his President-defending ways – on foreign soil. After two movies and more than $370 million at the box office, it would not have come as a surprise if Angel Has Fallen was just a simple twist on a familiar formula.

Instead, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh stepped and made the franchise his own. “It needed to have my stamp on it,” Waugh explains, noting that he took the structure of the existing Angel Has Fallen script and added elements more in keeping with his own filmography. Following That Which I Love Destroys Me, his 2015 documentary on the effects of PTSD in the military, Waugh had plenty to say on the impact a lifetime of service could have on both the body and the mind. The traumas of the modern military quickly became a focal point for Angel Has Fallen. “They’re dealing with a very different type of post-traumatic stress,” Waugh continues. “They’re dealing with war addiction. They’re dealing with being in battle for so many years now that their brains are becoming wired to it.”

This premise required a different type of performance from the series lead. With a recent flurry of action titles to his name, Butler has proven himself one of the most reliable leading men in the business for films clocking in at $100 million or less. This prowess requires a particular type of character; it’s surprising, then, that Butler is so willing to show weakness this time around. Pitting characters against their own limitations is where Waugh does some of his best work as a filmmaker. For every Dwayne Johnson in his filmography, Waugh has also worked with actors like Matthew Modine, Steven Dorff, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Talented performers? Certainly. The kind of actors you expect to engage in a shirtless prison brawl? Not exactly, but then again, Waugh has always been more interested in his actors’ dramatic skills than their action chops. “The first thing I look (for) is the guys that aren’t just action stars, or the women just aren’t action stars. They’re actually great actors,” the director explains. “Because then you get something that’s more complex.”

Take the character of Clay Banning. Granted, no one would suggest that 78-year-old Nick Nolte is an action icon. While his body of work does include seminal action films from the 1970s and the 1980s, Nolte has spent his storied career working as a versatile actor across many genres. But Nolte is a great actor, and by adding him to the movie, Waugh can take a limited concept on the page – Mike Banning’s wacky survivalist father – and turn him into an example of how living with decades of post-traumatic stress can slowly break a man’s mind. It may not be the final word on the character – in the grand scheme of things, this is a summer movie, and Nolte doesn’t shy away from a few gags about being a politically incorrect and doddering old man – but Nolte makes sure that the importance of this character is not lost within the noise.

Meanwhile, this time around, the survival of Mike Banning depends less on his physical endurance and more on his emotional fortitude. Just as in Snitch – where Dwayne Johnson plays a character who cowers at gunpoint for maybe the last time in his career – these characters are nowhere near the action demigods we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. “I think we’ve gotten into this dangerous place where our characters and our heroes are impervious to pain,” Waugh explains. “They’re impervious to danger, they’re bulletproof, they’re flawless. And that’s not who we are.” Waugh views his characters as throwbacks to a more sophisticated time in Hollywood, where action movies were more about finding the right actor than the biggest one. “I think that when you look at the heroes of 50s and the 60s and even the 70s – look at Spartacus, Kirk Douglas. There are people of heart. It was always about the characters’ courage and valor than it was about their physicality, and their bronze, so to speak.”

One of the ways to accomplish this is to give audiences a more grounded look at action sequences. Waugh wanted to bring his audience directly into the action of Angel Has Fallen, and that meant bringing in people who understood what it means to create immersive set pieces. “The first thing a good director does is hire great people,” Waugh says matter-of-factly. While Waugh is as experienced as anyone at what goes on behind-the-scenes in action sequences, he knew that bringing in the right people would allow him to focus on creating scenes that would suck the audience in. “The first person I wanted on this movie was Dick Armstrong – who’s a legendary stunt man, stunt coordinator, second unit director, and director – and Greg Powell, another big legend.” Powell’s career dates all the way back to the 1970s and includes everything from prestigious television – he was a stunt coordinator on all ten episodes of Band of Brothers – and blockbuster filmmaking (for good measure, he also previously worked with Butler on 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera).

In introducing concussions as Mike Banning’s Achilles heel, Waugh also provides his character with a decidedly modern – and entirely terrifying – degenerative issue. Research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a mental disease caused by repeated head trauma, has become an increasingly important part of our broader conversation about physical activity. In 2018, for example, UCLA published a study showing that military veterans and retired football players suffered from a similar extent of damage to brain cells. Waugh does not see this as a problem going away anytime soon. “I think that why you’re seeing more severe concussions now in athletes and professional sports, and you’re seeing more concussions on the battlefield – and you’re also seeing ’em in our business, too – is that things are becoming more extreme.” While Waugh knows firsthand the number of precautions coordinators take to ensure the safety of their team, he also knows that performers must always shoulder some element of risk with any new stunt. “Do people still get hurt? 100%. They could get hurt. It’s real. A very dear friend of mine, who’s in his early 50s – he was a boxer for many years. And [we] just found out he’s been diagnosed with a version of CTE. It’s hard.”

Stuntmen, soldier, or first responder, Waugh has a deep respect for anyone who puts themselves in harm’s way. In one of the movie’s sustained gunfights, for example, a group of Secret Service agents barricades themselves in a hallway to provide a defensive perimeter for President Trumbull. In most action movies, these characters would be given only unintelligible shouts and sudden, heroic deaths. In this one, Waugh lingers, giving each soldier a moment to grieve or reassure as their numbers dwindle. “We didn’t want robots,” he explains. “We have another term in movies called ‘meat puppets.’ The people that, you know, you’re not really following. I wanted to humanize everybody in the movie.” Waugh remembers how hard it was to host a screening of Angel Has Fallen for law enforcement officers in Washington D.C. shortly after six Philadelphia police officers were shot by a barricaded gunman. “We live in a dangerous world right now. As much as I’m trying to create forms of entertainment and have a big action-packed ride – and there’s a body count in this movie – it weighs on me that we’re dealing with real human beings. I want people to understand that as well. You’re watching this movie, and you know that the Secret Service, they have families, they have kids at home, they’re real people.”

The result is a film with a little bit for everyone. If you need your action movies to favor practical effects, you’ll find that here. If you need a little bit of geopolitical depth to your subplots, there’s that, too. And if you just need a theatrical escape from some of the hottest days of the year, Waugh hopes you’ll find Angel Has Fallen in line with everything you enjoyed from the rest of the franchise. “It’s a big action-packed summer movie,” Waugh says, “but hopefully it has something to say. It has characters that are relatable, and there’s an emotional thrust to the whole thing.”

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