No strangers to filming intense environments, documentary directors and producers Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill (HBO’s Baghdad ER) joined executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch (Lockup) to discuss the making of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s passion project, Rock and a Hard Place.
HBO: How did you come about making this film?
Rasha Drachkovitch: Dwayne told me something I didn’t know, that he was a troubled youth growing up in Hawaii, a juvenile offender who had been locked up eight or nine times. So when he spoke to a class at Miami-Dade Corrections, and saw these mirrors of himself some 25 years ago he thought, “There’s a film here.”
HBO: How did you get access to the boot camp?
Rasha Drachkovitch: When you’re dealing with prisons or jails, access is everything. But once you get in, the stories are everywhere. The first thing we did was reach out to Miami-Dade. It helped they knew of our work, and knew we were comfortable filming in difficult environments, but when you throw in that Dwayne Johnson is involved, especially since he’s part of the Miami community, the permission was granted right away. And it really led to the topic of what Dwayne’s role would be. It’s a passion project for him.
Jon Alpert: He chose to involve himself in the film in an inspirational way. The very act of measuring or observing something distorts the result, and if the Rock had been there every day, we would not have gotten a true picture of the way in which boot camp worked. The kids, the drill officers, we’d all be looking at Dwayne. It would have outweighed everything else.
HBO: This is an intense 24/7 program –- what was the filming process like?
Matt O’Neill: Jon and I have been working together for many years and work in this tag-team style: When I’m starting to slow down, I hand the camera off to Jon and vice-versa. If one of us was there until 3 in the morning, the other was there for the rest of the day. That’s the way we covered it more or less round the clock for the first four or five weeks. We didn’t sleep at boot camp, but we slept only a mile down the road.
HBO: Did the kids ever get hostile about having the camera around?
Matt O’Neill: We are always striving for the camera to “disappear” and become part of the environment. Here, the young men were suffering so badly whether through physical exertion or terror because a drill instructor was in their face, the camera wasn’t there. They were just trying to get through one more pushup, or survive another day. We were able to live with them until they really forgot we were around.
HBO: Could you talk about the inmates who didn’t speak English?
Matt O’Neill: I think it’s probably one of the more controversial aspects you see in the film, in terms of the way the cadets are treated. It’s really terrifying to be thrust into that environment without understanding English. And the philosophy there is, if you’re in the U.S. you have to learn it. There were a number of officers that spoke Spanish, and encouraged them -- Officer Lopez in particular took the time to help them develop their English language skills. In the end, like all of the cadets, they were facing years in prison and boot camp is a better alternative than that.
Jon Alpert: It looks cruel, but everybody is an equal opportunity victim of that kind of cruelty. It’s part of their rebuilding philosophy. One of the ways the boot camp operates is through a form of bullying in a benign sense; they need to identify the weakness and vulnerability of each one of these cadets -- whether it’s a language weakness, physical weakness, or your temper. They are going to put you in a situation where your weakness imperils you, then work with you on a path to resolve it.
HBO: Did you see any of the cadets struggle with substance abuse?
Jon Alpert: By the time they get admitted to boot camp they’ve been locked up for quite some period of time -- if they didn’t have the resources to make bail they would have been locked up in a pre-trial situation for months. The wheels of justice in America aren’t moving at a rapid pace. So most of these kids who had drug problems would have had them out of their system for a long time.
Matt O’Neill: This was the first prison I filmed in where there wasn’t any drug use amongst those incarcerated.
Jon Alpert: And I would say, no sexual activities, no sexual exploitation, no violence within the inmate population.
Matt O’Neill: They are under such an incredible degree of scrutiny from the drill instructors; it’s unlike any other prison I’ve filmed in.
HBO: Two of the inmates ran off during filming -- what was the reaction at the facility?
Jon Alpert: Everybody was shocked. That was the first escape in the history of the program. And in terms of our own personal reactions, we were rooting for every single one of those cadets, so it was devastating when any one of them for any reason had to drop out.
Matt O’Neill: There was a nervousness that Miami-Dade Corrections might try to shut us down -- we were watching something that was at the least, embarrassing, and at the most, a scandal, unfold in front of us. But they kept access open to us, and showed the complicated truth of the work they’re doing.
HBO: What about the project surprised you?
Rasha Drachkovitch: I’ve done a lot of these shows where unfortunately you see the same thing: People become hardened criminals, not rehabilitated criminals. The correctional facilities do little correction; it’s basically a revolving door. This one offers a side of incarceration we rarely see, a program that actually shows results. We saw change almost immediately. They created the program to break the inmates down so they could build them back up, and get them thinking differently about themselves and where they’ve been.
Jon Alpert: We were disinclined to like boot camp. We were disinclined to like the screaming in your face and the push-ups.
Matt O’Neill: We were highly skeptical.
Jon Alpert: But they changed our minds. We developed a respect for the program and the people who worked there. They not only transformed the cadets, they transformed us too.