Andy & Mike Weiss Discuss ‘White Boy Rick’ – More Than A Story About A Kid Selling Drugs
White Boy Rick is more than just another 80’s crime film. More than a kid with ‘lotsa’ bling and a gun in his hands.
It’s the true story of Rick Wershe, a kid from Detroit who decided to help the FBI catch drug dealers. Until he was no longer useful to them.
The screenplay has an interesting background, much like meeting a sibling you never knew existed in adulthood. Twin screenwriters Logan and Noah Miller wrote several drafts of the story in their silo while Andy Weiss diligently penned his version of Rick’s story. Andy’s first draft was written in 2009. Neither knew the other existed. They only met after the WGA arbitration process when their respective contributions to the screenplay was decided.
Then there’s Mike Weiss, Andy’s brother, is Rick’s attorney and the honorary fourth screenwriter of White Boy Rick. Mike has represented the real life Rick for the past 15 years. The real life story of Rick Wershe continues although the film has ended. However, this gripping tale demanded the big screen treatment.
“This is a phenomenal true story about injustice and corruption,” said Andy. In view of current the law enforcement and political narratives, Rick’s story is more important than ever. Mike claims “I hope the public doesn’t view this film as an indictment of the legal system at large.” It only takes a few bad apples to ruin the batch. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to call them out.
White Boy Rick could have been another drug crime story to add to your VOD queue, but Andy took another route. He decided to focus more on the family dynamics of the Wersche family. “It all started with a conversation with Rick, who led me to the family angle” mentioned Andy. When Andy met Rick and discussed ways the story might be told, Rick was playing with baseball cards and talking about his first sexual experience; normal teenager stuff. He was a kid whose youth was taken away from him by law enforcement. “Rick was still a child when these events happened despite him being streetwise beyond his years,” he added. “It was almost an anti-coming of age story.” Andy added, he wanted to shock audiences by juxtaposing Rick’s youthful innocence with stark images of him with a gun in his hand.
The scope of the film stretches far beyond Ricks’ personal story. French born director, Yann Demange pushed for the personal focus of Rick’s story to make it a more intimate film. This was never going to be a movie about the rise and fall of a young drug dealer. Instead, Andy and Yann dived deeper into the complicated father son relationship. Rick Senior was a gun hustler at gun shows trying to provide for his son and daughter. Rick desperately needed the moral guidance of his mother who abandoned the family when he was young. Rick’s moral vulnerability, his naiveté, his poverty, and lack of life options made him a perfect target for the FBI to exploit.
Defying some audience expectations by choosing non-traditional gangster film tropes, the screenwriters adhered to their creative vision. Andy stated that around 70% of the original story centered around Rick’s plight in the drug underworld. Yann Demange reversed this focus so that 70% of the story now centered around Rick’s dysfunctional family dynamics. This vision certainly paid off and added to the movie’s uniqueness. “This is not Scarface or typical cop informant movie,” added Andy.
Mike interjected that calling Rick a “kingpin” was a marketing invention of the media to glamorize Rick’s predicament. His street name was never “White Boy Rick.” He was only a solo drug dealer for 7 or 8 months after the FBI discarded him. Rick was forced to eke a living with the skills the FBI taught him after all other doors had been firmly slammed shut.
Victim or Perpetrator
Rick’s dichotomous character mined a deeply moral gray area. This created a deeply layered main character which straddled good and bad. Andy insists that Rick is more a victim. After he was shot he couldn’t move on with his life. He couldn’t go back to school, he was a danger to the other kids. He had little choice other than to sell drugs on his own. The FBI groomed Rick to become a drug dealer, but failed to accept any responsibility. Andy and Mike hold the FBI responsible for Rick’s plilght because 15-year old Rick would never have found himself in the drug world without them. The FBI denied Rick his chance to live his adolescence. Then they covered it up because he became an inconvenience.
Rick is an unlikely hero. He never set out to protect his community from the drug world. However, he naively fell into that world. Ultimately his cooperation with the FBI led to many drug criminal arrests. Rick did more good to Detroit than harm. “It’s a moral tightrope. Things are not always black and white,” claimed Andy. Mike added that this film was about a sympathetic character who was manipulated by corrupt law enforcement officers who took an oath to protect and serve their community. Rick put his life at risk by assisting the FBI. At one point they wanted to keep Rick in jail because he knew too much about their workings.
Rick’s no snitch. Or a rat. Rick never sold anybody out. Rick never gained any rewards for his service.
Rick’s thirty year jail sentence for a non-violent crime seems unjust to the Weiss brothers. The FBI and powerful government figures conspired to keep him there. This is the crux of the film’s theme.
Empathy vs Sympathy
Andy or Mike would not commit to either term to define Rick’s character. “I want people to empathize with the position Rick was in, but sympathize with the consequences he received,” mused Andy after a long pause. He wanted the audience to experience both aspects of Rick’s character because he was so complex.
Hero or Anti-Hero
Again, Andy or Mike would not commit to a single definition of Rick. In classic cinema terms, Rick is an anti-hero because he’s a criminal. He lived outside normal social rules. He was marginalized. “It was never Rick’s intention to become a hero or an anti-hero,” added Mike. “He was trying to do the right thing in the wrong way.”
Rick sold drugs, but he also took down major drug kingpins and cleaned up the streets of Detroit, so that makes him a hero. They let the audience decipher the richness of Rick’s character. “Rick had the immense courage of a hero to put his life on the line with the drug busts, but he emerged from his ordeal as an anti-hero. He never hurt anybody. Rick pursued a noble, higher cause even though he never realized it,” added Andy.
Mike Weiss states that Rick’s incarceration hasn’t been entirely in vain. Laws have slowly changed regarding convicting and sentencing minors and unjustly harsh sentences. Rick gave such wrongly incarcerated people a voice. As an attorney, he’s fighting to overturn laws of sentencing minors to life imprisonment without parole, or people who have served an unduly long sentence.
Would this film have been any different if Rick was black? Mike and Andy claim that the issues of police corruption are larger than racism. They agree that people of color are disporportionately represented in our prisons, but injustice affects us all as a society. Mike is especially concerned about people of color serving overly-long sentences or being lied to by law enforcement officials by being promised their sentences will be reduced if they cooperate with them. “Victims of corruption are of little means and little opportunities to reject such offers.” said Andy. “Race is not an issue in this film. Rick’s girlfriend is black, His friends are black and Rick’s comfortable with that,” concludes Mike.
Andy and Mike have witnessed injustices their whole lives. They have come from a family of police officers, the majority of who uphold law and order. Law enforcement isn’t perfect. Good officers must hold bad colleagues accountable and call them out to maintain the integrity of the law. One corrupt officer makes the entire force [and by default his extended family] look bad. Police should be heroes not villains. The abuse of their power sickens Mike. He wants to raise awareness of this to create a more just world. They have always fought for the underdog. This was the impetus for Mike to attend law school. He’s represented Rick Wershe for the last 15 years.
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