Despite its Middle Eastern setting, topical relevance, and depiction of sociopolitical conflict, Ric Roman Waugh doesn’t view Kandahar as a war movie or a political polemic. Rather, the Texas filmmaker wanted his latest action thriller to capture the human cost connected to the ongoing instability in Afghanistan, even after much of the fighting has subsided.
“We’ve seen the Middle East before, but we’ve never seen it through this lens,” Waugh said during a recent stop in Dallas. “This is not a war movie. When the war is over, the spy game continues, and everybody tries to make a land grab to control the region.”
The film follows an undercover CIA operative (Gerard Butler) whose mission involves sabotaging a nuclear reactor in Iran. Although he initially eludes detection and capture, he eventually becomes stranded behind enemy lines along with an Afghan translator (Navid Negahban) whose son was killed by Taliban forces. Together, they try to flee across the border for flight to safety.
It marks the third collaboration between Waugh, who’s based in Austin, and Scottish actor Butler. Their last film together, Greenland, introduced Waugh to screenwriter Mitchell LaFortune, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who served multiple deployments during the war in Afghanistan.
LaFortune’s script for Kandahar features characters loosely based on his own experiences overseas, which Waugh hopes adds to its authenticity.
“They never talk about the politics. They’re just going to do their job,” Waugh said. “When they meet someone on the opposite side, they have no idea what their culture is about. Then sooner or later, they’re like family. We wanted to capture that. All of these people are so very different at the beginning, and by the end, the lines have been blurred.”
After reading the screenplay and gaining a new perspective, Waugh told his producers he wanted to film in the region, but not in an area that had been used extensively before.
As a result, the film became the first Hollywood production to shoot entirely within the country of Saudi Arabia, as part of a government initiative to enhance culture as a nod toward progress.
“There’s this clash going on in the Middle East. You’ve got these ultra-conservatives who do not want anything to change from the last hundreds of years — work, pray, sleep, and that’s it,” Waugh said. “This new generation wants culture. They want music, to be able to go out to places, and women’s rights.”
Waugh said there was no government interference or oversight during the shoot, which took place primarily in a desert region near the coast of the Red Sea. However, there also was little infrastructure in place, so the production brought in 450 cast and crew from 25 countries and incorporated some aspiring Saudi filmmakers as apprentices.
“We dumped everybody in this melting pot in the middle of the Arabian desert and we had the greatest time. All these people were just coming together to make something,” Waugh said. “These are landscapes you’ve never seen before on camera.”
That sense of cross-cultural collaboration was appropriate for a film that seeks to convey a sense of humanity through turmoil across physical and sociopolitical boundaries.
“It never was about the politics, but the people who are sent out to enforce politics no matter what side of the equation they’re on,” Waugh said. “We show the culture, warts and all, of what’s going on. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. They’re real people.”
Kandahar opens in theaters on Friday, May 26.