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Evel Knievel Biopic Revs Up With Director Ric Roman Waugh (Exclusive)

The Exclusive Media Group project will be based on Leigh Montville’s "The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend."

Ric Roman Waugh
Ric Roman Waugh

Like many a kid in the 1970s, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh wanted to recreate the stunts of famous daredevil Evel Knievel. Exclusive Media Group is finally giving him his chance.

Waugh, who spent 20 years in the stuntman ranks before writing and directing the 2008 crime drama Felon, is negotiating to adapt for the screen Leigh Montville’s The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, which Random House published in April. Given his family’s Hollywood background — his father Freddy Waugh (Bad Company) was one of the founders of Stunts Unlimited in the 1970s — Waugh has a vocational connection to the iconic Knievel and the bone-shattering fame he achieved in the ’60s and ’70s.

Waugh, who will also direct Evel, was a fan of Montville’s Ted Williams biography and brought the Knievel book to Exclusive, which optioned the rights for him in a competitive environment. Exclusive’s Nigel Sinclair and Guy East are producing the project, which will cover all of Knievel’s major stunts in the 1960s and 1970s (Snake River Canyon, Kings Island) while providing a look at the painful (in many ways) private life of the man.

“This is my Walk the Line,” says Waugh. “Instead of concerts and songs, you’re doing a daredevil guy. But it’s less about the stunts and more about an exploration of a man who let nothing stand in the way of his quest for fame and glory — including his own mortality. What I love about Evel Knievel is I get to do an homage to the action world that I come from, but it’s more about the relevancy of the price of fame and the life that this guy led. His family suffered for it, he suffered for it physically, and yet he became that iconic person that we all admired. What nobody has ever really captured — and maybe it takes an ex-stuntman to understand this — is the sacrifices he made, and the pain. Everybody’s fearless until they get seriously hurt.”

As a stuntman, Waugh specialized in motorcycle and car stunts in movies such as Days of Thunder and Lethal Weapon 2. He plans to use his inside knowledge of that world — and his friendship with the guys who set up Knievel’s original stunts — to bring old-school authenticity to the jumps and wrecks, with today’s lighter, safer bikes dressed as vintage and CGI limited to recreating true-to-the-period backdrops such as the Caesars Palace of Knievel’s infamous 1967 crash.

“We would always say, ‘We’re not Evel Knievel,’” Waugh says of the stunt community and its heavy prep and safety measures in the 1980s. “Meaning that, we all thought he was crazy. But we weren’t doing live stunts, so we were always able to cheat an angle. This guy was doing it for Wide World of Sports, and there’d be 100,000 people sitting in a coliseum. This guy was seriously hurt. Physically damaged to the point where he was never 100 percent again. He was always jumping completely maimed and messed up.”

Waugh says he’s hoping to secure one of the new crop of “men’s men” — actors such as Tom Hardy, Chris Hemsworth and Joel Edgerton, who Waugh thinks looks most like Knievel — to take on the character. At his peak, Knievel was as big a star as Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali, accounting for two of the four highest-rated episodes of ABC’s Wide World of Sports (the other two were Ali fights). He even had his own toy line.

“He’s one of the most iconic brand names of the last four decades,” says Waugh. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, dealing with all the controversy of war and Nixon and all the things of that era, he became Captain America. But there were so many demons behind that man that nobody every really discussed. We’re going to tell the real story of who this guy was and understand why the world fell in love with him.”

Waugh is repped by Management 360 and ICM, which also reps Montville. Waugh will next direct the drama Snitch, which is set to star Dwayne Johnson, for Exclusive and Summit Entertainment.

Exclusive also has George Clooney’s The Ides of March at Sony and the Miley Cyrus action comedy So Undercover at The Weinstein Co., both hitting theaters in the fall.