Shot Caller – A very authentic picture of what prison culture is like

How easily one mistake can lead inexorably to the next and the next, and that slippery slope, and ending up in a place where we can become a completely different person because of the consequences of one error.

In order to get a real-world grasp of prison and the gangs that run these institutions,  Austin-based director/writer/producer Ric Roman Waugh went undercover as a volunteer parole agent in California.

”What started out as a simple research assignment became a two-year odyssey as doors kept opening, allowing me more and more access into this violent world,” says Waugh, whose film Shot Caller takes us into the hardcore culture of prison gangsters.

Writer/Producer and director Ric Roman Waugh with cinematographer Dana Gonzales during the filming of Shot Caller

”No one knew I was a filmmaker. They just saw me as a rookie cop, so nothing was censored. What I quickly learned is the guards might control the doors and gates, but the gangs run the prisons… And they run the streets as well, directly “from” prison. Shot Caller is an authentic look at our prison gangs and the law enforcement professionals who guard them inside prison walls and hunt them down on the streets.”

What is a Shot Caller?

Generally speaking, the shot caller is the top gang leader. Specifically in prison, the shot caller is an inmate who calls the shots, or as cons say, “has the keys.” The highest ranking shot caller calls the shots for his entire prison gang and race. Next are shot callers for each prison. Then shot callers for each housing unit, yard, and so on.

Elaborates executive producer Gary Michael Walters, “The shot caller is the person who holds the decision-making authority over life and death inside the prison. When the shot caller gives the green light, the trigger can be pulled, the shot can be fired. It takes ruthlessness. That’s the primal need. You have to be ruthless. You have to be a serious alpha dog to rise to the top.”

Proposes actor Jon Bernthal, “If you are the kind of man who gets to the sort of place in prison where you’re a shot caller, you’re very smart and you’re as good a politician as anybody in the public eye, and you know how to work the system, and beat the system, and it takes a lot of brains.”

Actor Emory Cohen agrees, “A shot caller is the boss. The guy who calls the shots and the guy 22 you answer to. The only difference out of prison in the societal world is that bosses have titles like CEO and vice president. Shot caller is the gang form of that.”

In director/screenwriter Ric Roman Waugh’s (Snitch) gritty crime thriller Shot Caller, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”) plays Jacob Harlon, a successful Pasadena financier married to Kate (Lake Bell), with the perfect life and family.

All of that disappears one night behind the wheel when a drunk-driving accident results in the accidental death of Jacob’s best friend Tom (Max Greenfield).

Charged with vehicular manslaughter, Jacob is sentenced to prison, where he’s surrounded by cutthroat criminals. A fish out of water, he is forced to do the unimaginable to survive within the prison gang hierarchy where one wrong move can be your last.

He adopts the persona of “Money” and rises up within the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, his moral center eroding in the process. Upon release,

Money hits the treacherous streets of Los Angeles as a changed man and enters a deadly chess game with no-nonsense parole agent Kutcher (Omari Hardwick) and LA County gang-unit sheriff Sanchez (Benjamin Bratt), as his gang forces him to arrange an illegal arms deal if he wants to keep his family safe from gangster vengeance.

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Shot Caller is the third in a trilogy of prison films

Shot Caller is the third in a trilogy of prison films from Austin-based director/writer/producer Ric Roman Waugh, begun with Felon and continued with Snitch.

As Waugh was finishing Snitch, one night over dinner in Austin in 2012, Waugh told producer Jonathan King of Participant Media that he’d like to do a movie about a successful family man who makes one wrong decision that lands him in California’s current prison system, and there is no going back.

“This guy has a great life, great job. He’s married to a smart, beautiful woman. He’s got a great kid, a big house, good friends. Bad things don’t happen to him. And then he makes this terrible mistake,” says King. “This was a story where anyone could be in the position that Jacob is in at the beginning of the movie. It could happen to tons of people. It could happen to me. And it made me really ask, What would I do in this situation? And everyone I told the story to had the same reaction. What would I do in this situation? And it was a way to engage an audience in the expanding prison population of our country.”

Waugh became an undercover parole officer for two years when he was researching Felon, so he knew California’s criminal justice system with its overcrowded prisons, violent culture, and mandatory sentencing.

Comments King, “This is a very authentic picture of what prison culture is like, both the effects within the prisons themselves and also how they extend beyond the walls.”

King developed Waugh’s script for Shot Caller with Waugh for the next three years.

King recalls, “We talked a lot about movies that delve into a culture in a really authentic way, everything from Mean Streets to End of Watch, which is a very authentic movie about police culture in a way that we hadn’t seen before. We talked about transformation movies, because Jacob goes through this incredible transformation through the story, so we talked about Dallas Buyers Club, where you see Matthew McConaughey’s character become barely recognizable, both emotionally and physically. And there are prison movies that we love, like Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophete. And we loved the TV series `Oz.’”

As Waugh presented King with more and more research, King realized, “The most surprising thing to me about prison culture and gang culture was the organization and the extent of respect for the hierarchy within the organization, and the alliances. That sort of rigid structure that operates both within the prison walls and without. And the other thing that I found surprising is the impunity with which they operate: the control they have where it’s almost like the guards are taking their orders from the prisoners. In many ways they are. It’s sort of where the power lies.”

Waugh and King attached “Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to the film in the lead role of Jacob/Money.

The Danish actor was deep into his research of American prisons, discovering, “You expect people to be punished, but what I found when we did the research was that the word rehabilitation is being thrown around in the system, but I saw very little proof of that. I saw a system that completely dehumanizes the inmates and from what I saw, in many ways treats them worse than we treat farm animals. The thing is almost 2/3 of people that are put away, reoffend and often they go on to a worse crime.”

Shot Caller

In February 2015, they asked producer Jeff Stott to do a budget for the movie.

A month later, in March 2015, Waugh and King brought the package to Bold Films. Bold CEO Gary Michael Walters responded to the script immediately, becoming an executive producer on Shot Caller.

“For me, it was about the empathy, about thinking how that could happen to anyone. That could happen to me. How easily one mistake can lead inexorably to the next and the next, and that slippery slope, and ending up in a place where we can become a completely different person because of the consequences of one error.”

The more he learned about the prison environment, the more Walters wanted to make the movie: “What’s really interesting is that we are so affected by our environment as human beings, that it’s easy to lose your moral compass when you’re set in certain circumstances. What happens in the film isn’t that Jacob has an overnight transition, but each time a task is given, he has to keep descending into this criminal lifestyle until ultimately he becomes a criminal. And there’s also a social commentary aspect to the film in that prison in America is designed to punish. There is no longer this notion of reformation or rehabilitation. In reality, the prisons are crime schools and the soft criminal comes out a hardened criminal.”

Bold president Matthew Rhodes agrees, “It’s a world I’m not part of, most of civil society is not. For me, looking into that world is fearsome and scary and awe-inspiring and raw and real.”

Everything moved quickly now. Bold agreed to fully finance Shot Caller and put it into pre-production, lining up Relativity Media as the US distributor.

Bold brought the project to the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015.

Remembers Walters, “When we got to Cannes, we sold out in four days. I don’t want to say it sold itself, but in many respects the script was so strong and Nikolaj is such a rising star, and with the power of the US distributor already committed to a wide release, everyone wanted on board.”

With a tier 2 working budget of just under $10 million, it was decided that production would take place primarily in New Mexico, due to the state’s financial incentives for filmmaking and the access that was obtained to film in real, working prisons.

Producers Jeff Stott and Lisa Zambri would oversee production on the ground in New Mexico. Reflects Stott, “I liked the Greek tragedy of it – – human error that ultimately leads to a whole bunch of different choices. None of the choices are good. It ultimately leads to an existential choice of, `This is my lot in life and I’m happy here. I am living in this prison cell knowing I’ve  done everything I could for my family.’ In the larger scheme of things, we all make choices in our lives and we all have to live with those choices. You can fight it or you can learn to accept it.”

Reasons Zambri, “Obviously not everybody has been to jail. But I do think that everybody has been in a situation where they were a fish out of water, where they had to kind of fit into a situation that was completely over their head or foreign to them. This is probably one of the most extreme examples I’ve ever seen of someone needing to go through extreme changes to survive a situation. It kind of blew the doors open for me on just how the prison system works. It’s a very close, very accurate, very studied, very measured account of what would happen to an everyday man if he got put into prison. His choice is to either be this warrior or be this victim. And that’s the choice that anybody would be faced with. And he just can’t sustain the relationships that he had before this experience. Something in him gets too damaged and too hardened.”

Shot Caller filmed for 25 days during spring-summer 2015, mostly on location in numerous New Mexico settings, then moving on to Southern California. Many days, filming took place at more than one location, with more than 40 different locations featured.

Keeping It Real

Authenticity was the director’s mandate across the board. Says executive producer Gary Michael Walters, “The authenticity factor is sky high on this project. It gives you such a `you are there’ feeling. Ric did a lot of research and got amazing insight as to how the prisons and prison gangs operate.”

Recognizes production designer Guy Barnes, “Ric had a whole world in his mind already. It was just a matter of extracting that world from his mind, and getting it built. He had done a lot of research and had a look book all prepared to guide us.” Philosophically, says Barnes, “I think the whole thing about prison is you lose your moral compass, and unfortunately the environment contributes to that loss because it is not meant to rehabilitate. It’s the loss of the moral compass that is really the most important part of the whole story.”

Waugh brought intensity to an often testosterone-dominated set. Acknowledges Juan Pablo Raba, “He’s a man’s man, you know what I mean? He will just go on the set and say, `Everybody together, this is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to do it. If you’re with me, you’re with me. So let’s go.’ It’s like a big brotherhood. Like everybody’s going in that direction and he’s the captain, he’s the leader, and he knows what he wants.” “It’s just realism, realism, realism,” comments Jon Bernthal. “Ric’s a soldier of authenticity. Just keep it real. Ric is not shy.”

By the end, “It’s a story that happens to a lot of people in the prison system and the fact is it’s a story about a broken system,” asserts Coster-Waldau. “It should be a place where we make sure that these people, once they reenter society, won’t reoffend. And the fact is the system does exactly the opposite. We believe we have prisons and law enforcement to keep us safe. The fact is, it’s not working. People go in for minor offenses. They come out and they reoffend and they go on to worse crimes. We like to think, `Hey, that could never happen to me.’ Or, `If I was in there, I would do it differently.’ But this is a story about a guy who has those beliefs and suddenly he’s just caught up in circumstances and just tries to survive. We all want the same things, you know: we want to be happy, we want to be able to take care of our family, we want to be loved, we want to love. It doesn’t change because you’re an inmate.”

By the end, “It’s a story that happens to a lot of people in the prison system and the fact is it’s a story about a broken system,” asserts Coster-Waldau.

“It should be a place where we make sure that these people, once they reenter society, won’t reoffend. And the fact is the system does exactly the opposite. We believe we have prisons and law enforcement to keep us safe. The fact is, it’s not working. People go in for minor offenses. They come out and they reoffend and they go on to worse crimes. We like to think, `Hey, that could never happen to me.’ Or, `If I was in there, I would do it differently.’ But this is a story about a guy who has those beliefs and suddenly he’s just caught up in circumstances and just tries to survive. We all want the same things, you know: we want to be happy, we want to be able to take care of our family, we want to be loved, we want to love. It doesn’t change because you’re an inmate.”

Reflects Jeffrey Donovan, “We’re all capable of making a mistake one day. You’re not paying attention, driving, texting, and all of a sudden you kill someone who was crossing a crosswalk. You take a plea deal and you say, `Okay I’ll take 10 months of prison.’ But because you killed someone, you go to a Level 3, which is where all the murderers are. And your life is over. I don’t think there’s been a movie that shows you that is a possibility in anyone’s life, today.”

Producer Jonathan King likewise ponders the social issues, reasoning, “The movie takes us through the process of this person transforming into someone who has to deal with prison to survive. I think it says that we have in some ways divided society into people who expect prison to have something to do with their life, and people who expect it not to. And this movie says, 23 `You can’t do that.’ There is no divide. This is all of us.”

“The theme,” identifies Benjamin Bratt, “is the possibility of redemption in the face of losing your moral center.”

Agrees executive producer Lisa Zambri, “It’s about how an extreme situation can change somebody forever, to the point where things that you love the most become casualties, and how unfortunate that is because it’s through one of our tried and true systems that we try to believe in as a society. When you look at it through Jacob’s eyes as he turns into Money, the story becomes a journey of a man who has to cut ties with his old life in order to survive this new version of how he sees the world.”

Producer Jeff Stott believes the movie’s philosophical underpinnings elevate it into a tale of adversity that resonates universally: “One day you’re playing basketball with your friends and the next day you’re locked up in an 8 x 10 cell. You can’t get any more existential than that. It’s Sisyphus with one hour a day in the sunlight.”