How Director Ric Roman Waugh Brought Veteran Issues to ‘Angel Has Fallen’

Gerard Butler in Lionsgate’s "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit Simon Varsano)

"Angel Has Fallen" is the latest entry in the epic movie series that stars Gerard Butler as Mike Banning, the world's most indestructible Secret Service agent. Director Ric Roman Waugh takes the helm for the new movie, and the former stuntman brings a new, more character-driven perspective to the series.

"Olympus Has Fallen" saw Mike rescue the president and neutralize a terrorist organization that had taken over the White House. "London Has Fallen" had him thwart a terrorist campaign to kill the world's leaders at a British prime minister's funeral, something he did while saving the president.

The new movie sees Banning framed for what's supposed to be the assassination of new President Allan Trumbull, upgraded from VP in the last movie and still played by Morgan Freeman. Mike (of course) saves the president, but then he's framed for the assassination attempt and must go on the run while he tries to prove his innocence and expose the real bad guys.

Along the way, he meets up with his Iraq War buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston) and his long-lost dad, Vietnam vet Clay Banning (Nick Nolte). Mike's got some physical and emotional issues that surface after the traumas he's endured during the first two movies, and he's forced to come to terms with them as his issues are finally exposed.

Jada Pinkett Smith is an FBI agent who's at first sure Mike is guilty, but she starts to see through the conspiracy. Tim Blake Nelson is the vice president who thinks Mike was working for Russia and wants to strike back. And Piper Perabo joins the series, taking over the role of Mike's wife Leah.

Ric Roman Waugh is yet another talented director who crossed over from the stuntman community. He's got a real sense of how to stage action, and he remembers that a fistfight and some well-placed explosions can be just as exciting as a screenful of CGI spaceships.

Waugh directed the 2015 documentary "That Which I Love Destroys Me," a movie that follows veterans Jayson Floyd and Tyler Grey as they learn to deal with their post-traumatic stress as they pursue careers in Hollywood. Grey has gone on to become a producer and actor on the hit CBS series "SEAL Team," and he consulted with Waugh on "Angel."

RELATED: Veteran Jayson Floyd Talks About PTSD & 'TWILDM'

Waugh's director credits include the underrated Dwayne Johnson drama "Snitch" and the prison movie "Shot Caller," starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from "Game of Thrones." He spoke with us about "Angel Has Fallen" in the week before the film debuted in theaters.

Director Ric Roman Waugh on the set of Lionsgate’s "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit Jack English)

I'm sure that some of our readers remember that premiered your documentary "That Which I Love Destroys Me" a few years back.

Heck yeah, I appreciate that. The movie still finds its way into the ether, and I still see comments. We were pleasantly surprised and enthusiastic about how many first responders really attached themselves to the documentary, guys who were not military or maybe were former military. It was great seeing how it really hit that community as well, since some of them are going through a lot of the same issues.

Anyone who's seen the documentary is going to see that it influenced your approach to "Angel Has Fallen."

100%. Gerard Butler and I have known each other for a while, and we've been wanting to work together. He called me to see if I would want to do the third installment of the "Fallen" franchise.

At first, I was reluctant, but when he told me his pitch, I was hooked. He wanted to keep the action-packed ride and the excitement of the first two movies, which were both event movies. The first event is the taking of the White House and the second event, which is all plot driven, is the world leaders being assassinated in London.

This time, Gerard wanted to make a character-driven movie that was about the man. That would be reflected more as an origin story type of a plot. If you had seen the first two movies and were a big fan of them, we would still give you the action-packed ride. But you would now get the origin of Mike Banning and learn more about the person that he is and what a career of service means. We wanted to show the hardships and struggle that comes with it.

If you hadn't seen the first two movies, this could be your entry point in the franchise. It could be brand new, almost like a standalone movie. Once you really understand who these characters are, then you could go back and watch the other movies and have fun.

Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman in Lionsgate’s ANGEL HAS FALLEN (Photo Credit: Jack English)

The thing that hit is that I did see a lot of Mike Banning in the documentary. Mike's a guy that came from Ranger battalion, served early in Iraq, and the first thing he did when he came home was to pick up the gun. He went into the Secret Service, like many of our military do, going into law enforcement, in the first responder movement. That's the only life that he's known.

What was interesting to me when making the documentary is that we have people addicted to war now. We're seeing it more and more as a lot of our Special Operations Command is starting to talk about it. We're fighting the longest combat campaign in American history. People are now going to be wired to thinking war is home, and they're addicted to the adrenaline rush and the fight.

I thought that was a really interesting parallel to put into Mike Banning. This is the only life that he knows, and it's the life that he wants for himself, and he will do everything he can to preserve it. That's very much like a professional athlete will do everything they possibly can to stay on the proverbial field.

You create a character who is empathetic and relatable to all of us; we all struggle in life to be who we used to be. Finally, we come to the conclusion that we need not keep chasing the past, but accept who we are now. That's very much the message of "That Which I Love Destroys Me" from Tyler and Jason. As we brought that arc into this movie, I thought it was a really cool and unique way to mix my sensibilities. I could bring my action background to the forefront again, while giving you this big action-packed summer movie ride, but at the same time give you the dramatic and complex storylines that I love to capture.

Gerard Butler in Lionsgate’s "ANGEL HAS FALLEN"

In the first two movies, Mike is almost a machine. It's like he's a superhero; there's no depth to his character. When I first heard about your approach to this movie, I was wondering how you were you going to make it work. It's really impressive that you keep what people like about the first two movies and then actually make Mike a much deeper character.

The thing that I had to believe in was Gerry Butler, to make sure that Gerry was not just selling me a bill of goods, that he wanted this gear change, that he believed in it and was wholeheartedly into it. I knew he meant it from the minute I heard his voice talking about this -- that he was passionate about the way that he wanted to humanize Mike Banning.

We thought this movie could be a day in the life of a service member and show the real-world struggles that we face today. We wanted to contemporize the hot button issues without being opinionated about it, just showing what they are so we can create debate. And at the same time, Mike is on this journey, trying to do everything he can to be this warrior that he is but also facing the struggles of family.

Gerard Butler as "Mike Banning" and Piper Parabo as "Leah Banning" in "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit: Jack English)

Gerry had the great idea of turning the thing into "The Fugitive." In the early movies, Mike Banning, who is the No. 1 on the president, is just a robot killing machine who would weigh carnage on anybody. We suddenly humanize him and then split the whole thing on its head and make him America's Most Wanted when an assassination attempt is pinned on him.

You suddenly get to see a more empathetic and vulnerable side of Mike Banning than you've ever seen before. He is now on defense, running like a rabid dog, obviously concerned about a family who's been afflicted by this at home. They're stuck and worried about their safety.

We get to play with all these complexities. Knowing Gerry and hearing that confidence in his voice, I bought into it completely, and I think that's why we got something great. He's not afraid to get back to the great actors that we used to love, the William Holdens and the Jimmy Stewarts and the Steve McQueens, and the people who really did movies where they weren't impervious to danger, impervious to flaw. They felt relatable because they would allow themselves to be vulnerable and allow their demons to be shown, so that we could empathize with them and go on a journey with them.

I'm really happy that you felt like that paid off.

Nick Nolte as "Clay Banning" and Gerard Butler as "Mike Banning" in "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit: Simon Versano)

One thing that really pays off is his relationship with his father, played by Nick Nolte. I haven't seen Nick this good in years. The chemistry between those guys is amazing. You use their relationship to bring up some stuff about different generations who served in the military.

The first thing I did was have Tyler Grey meet with Gerry and Danny Huston. Then I had him meet separately with Nick Nolte, who lived through that whole era. We did want to show the generational differences of serving and wartime, but also the similarities. You see the connective tissue of post-traumatic stress, but that they can manifest in completely different ways. And so we thought it would be a really interesting contrast.

RELATED: Why Former Army Ranger Tyler Grey is Working With a 'SEAL Team'

That's not to say that every single person who served in Vietnam or every single person who's served post-9/11 deals with stress, but we were able to show you there's a wide variety. We're dealing with post-traumatic stress after Vietnam. Mike's dad Clay deals with the traumas of war and the shellshock of war, and he's been trying to run away from war to the point that he puts himself into a dark hole and thinks he's helping his family by leaving them. Clay has regretted that ever since. He realizes that he has a son out there who has a sense of abandonment and his life is now in danger.

When they finally get back together, Mike and Clay, father and son, the father sees his trauma in his son's eyes. Much to his chagrin, Clay realizes his son is the antithesis of him, that his son is not running away from war; he's doing everything he can to stay in it and stay in the chaos and stay in the adrenaline rush.

When Tyler and I talked about it, we thought that it would be a great contrast to show the generational differences of the different conflicts that we have been in over the last 50, 60 years. At the same time, we also show the parallels, that war is war, but it still manifests the outcome of the effects on the individual, and you know that it is an individual's journey.

Danny Huston as "Wade Jennings" and Travis Cole as "Frederick Schmidt" in "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit: Simon Versano)

Danny Huston in his late 50s now and Nick Nolte is getting close to 80 now. It's nice to see the old guys really operate in a movie.

That was fun. I like that the action plays as age appropriate for where everybody would be at in their lives. I always thought it was a very interesting parallel to play with the Danny's Wade Jennings character and the Mike Banning character. Here are two guys who were in Ranger battalion together and came home, and both knew that the parallel they had was the addiction to the adrenaline rush, the addiction to war.

Mike chose law enforcement, and Wade chose private contracting. They're both dealing with being unleashed as lions and predators and knowing that it's very hard to shut that off, but they don't want to, either. But they have a very big difference of opinion on things.

But I think that's the world we live in today. We're all living in a divided world and everybody has got their opinions and choices, and we don't want to voice any of that with our own opinions. We just want to show it all, warts and all, so that people can go on the ride, feel like it's a relevant movie that's dealing with relevant themes and relevant tones, and also give you this big spectacle at the same time.

Jada Pinkett Smith in Lionsgate’s "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit: Simon Varsano)

Well, I think you offer a real opinion in the movie about the spiritual cost of fighting for a cause versus fighting for money.

That is for sure. The privatization of war is a hot button issue that needs to be addressed more. I think that there are pros and cons to that, things that we could have definitely got in-depth on. But I think it's about laying ideas out there so that people can create debate.

I love '70s movies, where you would go see "Dog Day Afternoon" and you'd be entertained as hell and into it, but then you'd be talking about the movie outside. Hopefully, my job as a filmmaker is to entertain you, but then create the water cooler conversation so people can start having those debates and talking about things but doing it in a constructive way so we can start having real discussions.

I'm very fortunate to live in Austin, Texas. Here's the capital of one of the biggest states in the country. Even though we're very divided by our politics, there's still a very communal sense to that town, where everybody always remembers that we're humans first and we're each other's neighbors first, and we can have a difference of opinion and a difference of politics. At the same time, what is most important? At least, I really feel that way about Austin, and it'd be great to get more places like that.

I hope that the things that we portray are relevant, but the thing that I do have a definite opinion on is that I love my military, I love the people that serve. I will always back them 100%. I appreciate them being on that wall, and I appreciate our law enforcement and first responder community here more than anything.

I was in Washington, D.C., screening the movie for the Secret Service and first responders there. On the news that day, there was a story about several Philadelphia law enforcement being gunned down. These are really hard things to deal with, and they're obviously touchy when you're promoting a big action movie. But at the same time, I think that making things that are relevant to today can help inform discussion. Hopefully, we've done that.

Director Ric Roman Waugh on the set of Lionsgate’s "ANGEL HAS FALLEN." (Photo Credit Jack English)

We haven't had a chance to talk about how good the action is, but I think we have to wrap up. I've heard that you and Gerard Butler are making another movie now.

I'd like to give you a bit on the action, because I think they dovetail into both movies. I wanted to make a movie from the inside out, meaning it wasn't this big action spectacle with mindless action. I wanted to put the audience in the action, make them feel what I did when I was doing stunts, so that you felt a part of the adrenaline rush. You weren't just watching it like a voyeur on the screen and weren't attached to it. I wanted to put you in the seat. I wanted you to feel what it was like to be in a drone attack or to be in a semi chase, to be in a gunfight. Hopefully, we did that.

Gerard Butler and I just finished a movie called "Greenland." It's a disaster movie, but it's the same kind of model, meaning it's from the inside out. It's all from a family's point of view. In a life or death situation, a catastrophic incident that could be ending the world, how would we treat each other, how would humanity treat each other? Would good people do bad things and would bad people do good things? I like to live in the grey of life, and I think both these movies do that.

Maybe Greenland will be part of the USA by the time your movie comes out.

You never know.

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