Retired Navy SEAL Jason Cabell is launching his Hollywood career as a writer/director with "Running With the Devil," a star-filled action picture that offers insight into the lower levels of the drug trade without forgetting to deliver the thrills.
"Running With the Devil" is opening today in select theaters around the country and is also available On Demand and to purchase or rent from iTunes, Vudu, Amazon or your favorite online video source.
Both Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne take lead roles in the picture, but Cabell has assembled a supporting cast that loaded with many more familiar faces than you usually get in a modestly-budgeted action movie. Barry Pepper ("Saving Private Ryan"), Adam Goldberg ("Saving Private Ryan"), Leslie Bibb ("Talladega Nights"), Clifton Collins Jr. ("Traffic"), Peter Facinelli ("Nurse Jackie") and Cole Hauser ("Yellowstone") all contribute star-quality performances to smaller roles.
Cabell didn't give anyone a name in the movie. Every character is identified onscreen by a title. Cage, whose character owns a pizza parlor that's a front for his drug business, is The Cook. Fishburne, a dealer who's become high on his own supply, is simply called The Man.
Fans of Nicolas Cage know his performances in recent years have become more and more outrageous, edgy and weird. In "Running With the Devil," Nic's surprisingly subdued, but Fishburne more than takes up the slack with a trippy performance that matches anything Cage has delivered lately.
Cabell's movie follows a kilo of cocaine from the fields of Colombia to a nightclub in Canada and examines all the destruction the trade leaves in its wake as the package makes its way to its destination.
The movie runs a tight 100 minutes and Cabell is content to let the action speak for itself when it can. He's showing some real promise as a director here.
Jason talked with us about his military career, what happened when he arrived in Hollywood, why actors signed on to make his movie and what he's got planned for the future.
JB: Tell us about your military career.
JC: Well, I was in SEAL Team. I came in 1991. I was in bootcamp when the “Navy SEALs” movie came out, so before that, I don't think too many people knew very much about [the SEALs]. But I had gone to an airshow and seen the Leap Frogs skydiving. They were driving around convertibles and it looked pretty cool, so I went down and talked to them. They said, "Oh, yeah, we're Navy SEALs. Go talk to the recruiter."
So, I went and signed up and I went home and my roommate said, "Hey, the SEALs do a lot of things in the water and you don't really know how to swim." So, I said, "Yeah, well, I'll figure it out." Everything fell into place. Next thing you know, yeah, I was checking into SEAL Team 5 and did 20 years and seven deployments. A few combat deployments to Iraq and, then I got in, ran BUD/S, and retired.
JB: We talk to a lot of SEALs and the idea of 20 years service and being a SEAL don't really seem to go together that often.
JC: No, it doesn't. To be honest with you, it's like playing football or baseball. You get beat up. I had a couple knee surgeries. I just had stem cell and bone marrow treatments. I ruptured four discs in my back. Just doing training with skydiving and the shooting and ship boarding and all the demolition, it's a grinder, you know?
JB: What gave you your perspective on the drug trade? Is there anything from your SEAL career that gives you some personal knowledge?
JC: Yeah. I worked with the [Drug Enforcement Administration's Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team]. We train with those guys and then I did some missions over in the Afghan/Uzbek border, but that was more with poppies instead of cocaine. You talk to people and I think everybody wants to tell their El Chapo/Escobar story about the kingpin and the mansions.
But truly and sadly, if you think about the drug trade, it's these decentralized ratlines, which is why you can go anywhere in the world or the country and get any drug you want. We spent trillions on the war on drugs and it's a futile effort.
At the end of the movie I kind of make a point of that when the Agent in Charge, played by Leslie Bibb, meets up with The Cook and says, "We spend all this money and yet you can get drugs any time you want."
This is the true story of the drug trade. It's these people just hiding in plain sight. At the beginning of the movie, Nic's character is hosting a pizza party for a youth soccer team and he's the guy moving cocaine through the western United States.
That's kind of the truth of how it is. If you don't get too greedy or too strange, which The Man does, you'll never get caught. Everybody wants the glitz and glamour of Pablo Escobar, of the kingpins, but this is how it moves. It's these little independent ratlines, if you will, and people just hiding in plain sight.
I don't do drugs, but if somebody said, "Hey, I want cocaine or heroin," you can find it. It's everywhere and that seems bizarre because you go, "Wait a second, we have a Drug Enforcement Agency and law enforcement and border control, how does this stuff keep making its way through?"
JB: You've done two things in your life that are almost impossible to do. You've been a SEAL and you've written and directed your own movie, one with a lot of movie stars in it. How do you get from being a SEAL to a career in Hollywood?
JC: It's really hard to reinvent yourself after retirement, because towards the end of your career you're senior in rank and you really know what you're doing and you know everybody and you know the system. The military is an institution, so you know how to do it.
A movie guy said, "Hey, we'd like you to do this helicopter stunt," and it paid really well. Then I did a spec commercial for Ford that never got released. It was a skydiving thing. They said, "Hey, you look pretty good on camera. Why don't you take some acting classes? We've got these reality shows we'd like you to host." So, I hosted a couple of pilots that never got picked up.
I started going to the film festivals to watch how people bought and sold movies. Someone said, "Hey, I heard you were a SEAL, I have this action movie. Would you help me produce it?" He's real big in Australia. So, I helped him produce that movie and I noticed some disparities with the script, so I started reading thousands of scripts, all my favorite movies.
You do a lot of writing in the military when you become more senior, as you know, and you write a lot of reports. I just started writing, and I wrote this script called "Smoke Filled Lungs" and I got it out there and I borrowed the money. Another SEAL had some movie cameras and we shot the movie in ten days.
I got Frankie Faison, who has done a few big movies, like "Silence of the Lambs." People said, "You can't shoot a movie in ten days. You can't do a movie for a hundred grand." Well, I did and it got distributed and it did its run on pay-per-view and it won 19 awards worldwide. I won the Milan Filmmaker Festival for best picture and best actor and we won some best original screenplays.
Right after I wrote "Smoke Filled Lungs," I wrote the beginnings of "Running With the Devil." It was 36 pages with no dialogue and followed the journey of a kilo of cocaine from the plant all the way to the nightclub in Canada.
I had watched "All is Lost" with Robert Redford and "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks, so I wanted a minimum-dialogue movie. I took it to a couple of big production companies and they said, "We love this idea, but you gotta make it more commercial." So, the script kept growing and growing and I got it to that 120 pages.
Then I took it to Patriot Pictures and they said, "Wow, we want to make this movie." They sent it to Nic Cage and they called me the next day and I flew to Vegas to meet with Nic. He's like, "I love this movie, I want to make it." Two days later I met with Laurence Fishburne and then all the actors just responded to the script.
I just wrote another movie that's going in production in January and I'm about to close a contract to write and direct another movie as well.
JB: You've got a loaded cast. It's not just Nicolas Cage and Laurence Fishburne. You've got a whole roster of well-known actors who took small parts to be in your movie.
JC: Well, they responded to the material. My agent gets me face-to-face meetings with these people and actors have to trust you. In making this movie, I hung Nick and Laurence off the side of a cliff at 11,000 feet.
These actors read dozens of scripts a week. Just to get it to them, past the agents and the assistants and everyone that reads the scripts first is difficult, but if you do something new and fresh that shakes it up a little bit, which I've done, they respond. I understand the syncopation and the beats of a normal studio script, but I kind of like flipping it upside down a little bit and being a little unconventional.
I just finished writing "Opioid Nation" and we're going out to some really big actors. It's gotten good coverage. I wish I could tell you who we're attaching right now, but nothing is official, but we have some really big names. And it's gonna be a really big cast again, if they like the material.
Actors want to act more, instead of just being talking heads, they like to act. There are giant moments of silence in my movie, where there's minutes where nobody says anything and you have to really follow the story. I think that's my emerging style.
JB: Okay. People who have been watching Nic Cage over the last decade or so have gotten accustomed to his incredibly experimental, daring performances. Except in your movie, Nic is the most restrained he's been in years. And then Laurence Fishburne seems to be doing the Nic Cage performance.
JC: It's bananas. That's right. And that's how it evolved. We were sitting and talking about these characters and which actor was potentially going to play which character. Then it just devolved to that. You're absolutely right, but there was a moment, I think, where The Cook and The Man may have been flipped; it might have been Laurence playing The Cook and Nic playing The Man, but it just worked out the way it did.
JB: You've succeeded at pulling this off, something that thousands of people to do and never get the opportunity. You've managed to make this film and you're moving on to another, a hurdle that seems even harder to clear. Is there anything from your military service that prepared you to make this happen?
JC: Oh, sure. A million percent. SEAL Team teaches you how to learn really fast. You'll go from never skydiving before to having 50 jumps and then, within a year, you might be teaching people. I went through the Master Training program and was an instructor. If you use those lessons, you learn how to learn fast.
I think that's why I'm doing okay in Hollywood. You have to have the creative side or you won't succeed. You have to know how to write a script that people like and know how to move the camera and direct a scene. But after that, then you have to understand the business side. It is show business, and a lot of people just want to be creative.
If you walk into a production office and you want them to give you $8 million to film a movie, they're not gonna let you do it if they don't think you're responsible enough to handle that. That's where a lot of people fail as well.
JB: Obviously, you made a law enforcement movie and law enforcement is adjacent to the military. However, a lot of people with your background focus on "inside the military" stories. You're making stories that aren't fixated on your military past. Is that on purpose?
JC: That's a great point and I purposely did that. My next two movies coming up aren't focused on the military, either. People try to silo you in Hollywood: "Well, you were in the military. You can only make military movies."
They say write what you know, but I've been in over a hundred countries. If you observe life and you listen to people and you're creative, then you know a lot of things.
I might eventually make a military movie. There is some stuff in the works that could happen.