When one thinks of action movies, complex characterization and human representations of conflict aren’t the first things that come to mind. But, Ric Roman Waugh’s upcoming film “Kandahar” complicates the stereotypes of the action genre. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Waugh described the importance of thoughtfulness and care in his films and how such ideas have worked their way into his newest project.
“Kandahar,” which follows undercover CIA agent Tom Harris’ attempt to flee Afghanistan during the withdrawal of the American military, is primarily an adventure film. However, it also aims to discuss the collective, psychological pain that war causes. Inspired by writer Mitchell LaFortune’s personal experience on tours in Afghanistan, the film is meant to be just as thought provoking as it is entertaining.
“The script that he wrote really gave us the humanity of the region,” Waugh said of LaFortune’s work. “This really shows you a different lens of the Middle East where it’s not just the Westerner’s point of view of what the Middle East is, and then everybody else is a cardboard cutout. It actually humanized all sides.”
This desire to humanize conflict runs through Waugh’s directing career. His 2020 film “Greenland,” which depicted one family’s response to an imminent comet collision with Earth, focused less on the disaster and more on personal reactions to catastrophe. Grappling with the personal nature of collective tragedy, while still providing an action-packed thriller, is a trademark of the director’s work.
It is easy to see how a movie like “Kandahar” came next. Waugh provided many examples of how the humanity of the film’s protagonists shines through the script, regardless of the protagonists’ position in relation to the West. One character, Mo, a local of Herat Province, serves as Tom’s translator. He is also coping with the death of his son under Taliban rule. Mo’s backstory widens the scope of the film, and deepens the ways in which the audience can relate to a conflict that is often portrayed as oversimplified and distant. The sensitive nature of the film’s subject required thoughtful representation of conflict, a fact deeply embedded in Waugh’s directing philosophy.
“I think that as a society right now, on the world stage, we’re starting to lob everybody into the same box,” Waugh noted. “And I think what “Kandahar” does is show that we’re not all the same.”
Waugh is no stranger to the more technical aspects of directing. Beginning his career as a stuntman in the 1980s, he described his early time in the industry as a film school for action moviemaking. The transition into directing followed naturally. “Kandahar” embodies the intersection of storytelling and the more hands-on, logistical aspects of filmmaking.
Shot in Saudi Arabia, production took place in the midst of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project, a massive national undertaking meant to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and open up revenue in areas like entertainment and tourism. Waugh’s crew was the first to work in the country since “Lawrence of Arabia” 70 years earlier.
Working in the desert in Saudi Arabia, according to Waugh, was both a dream come true and a logistical nightmare. However, the experience clearly had a meaningful impact on the final product. In addition to the astonishing beauty of the Saudi Arabian landscape, the modernization efforts behind the Vision 2030 project unexpectedly came into play with the themes of past and modern culture in “Kandahar.”
It was clear that one of the most meaningful parts of this project was Waugh’s relationship with his star, Gerard Butler. The two have worked on several projects together, including “Greenland” and “Angel Has Fallen.” With “Kandahar,” their friendship extended into their professional worlds in the most symbiotic way.
“He was just as passionate about “Kandahar” as I was,” Waugh said about working with Butler. “He also kept multiple points of view of the material, which is great, because most stars only want the camera on them. But he was very much about keeping the integral part of the story with the fabric of all these different characters.”
In almost every aspect of the film, there is an emphasis on three-dimensionality and on the vastness of human relations and how war heightens, complicates and distorts such connections. Waugh’s directing seamlessly meshes the scale of these topics with, to put it simply, a great two hours in a movie theater.
“It’s this big, fun, entertaining ride,” Waugh explained, “But hopefully (the audience) also gets a point of view of people in the Middle East in a different light, and understands a little bit more of the human condition.”