If you love movies, you already know that Doug Liman has, somewhat quietly, and often independently, built one of the more impressive résumés of feature film work over the past two decades. From indie favorites Swingers and Go to action blockbusters The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow, the filmmaker knows more than a thing or two about how to captivate audiences with a blend of character-driven stories and big-budget know-how.
Liman recently took time to discuss his latest film, The Wall, and his career thus far. The film—about two American soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper with nothing but a crumbling wall standing between them and certain death—has the distinction of being the first original spec script (written by Dwain Worrell) ever purchased by Amazon Studios. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Spencer Thomas, the film was recently released in theaters by Roadside Attractions on May 12.
In addition to describing the welcome challenges that came with working on The Wall, Liman talked about his background in indie filmmaking and how his next film, coming out later this year—American Made, starring Tom Cruise—came to be.
What led you to this project, and what interested you in tackling a psychological war film?
For me, it always starts with the script and the story. When I picked up Dwain’s script, I literally couldn’t put it down. Not since Swingers have I read a first draft that was so close to being a movie and a story that I wanted to tell, and I was really excited by the challenges of making a movie like The Wall. To keep myself sharp and keep my films fresh, I change genres—and, also, because I love so many different genres of movies. I see a comedy and I want to make a comedy. I see a great war movie and I want to make a great war movie. I have this bucket list of the kinds of movies I want to make. I love that sort of robust storytelling that’s in the great war movies, and I’m a filmmaker who likes complex worlds but simple and strong characters. Maybe “simple” is the wrong word, but I like strong and understandable characters. The thing about great war movies is they put people in extraordinary situations and bring out what’s most interesting about them. I make movies with all sorts of outrageous events, whether it’s Tom Cruise having to relive the same day over and over again during an alien invasion or Jason Bourne getting amnesia. I’m interested in putting characters in extraordinary situations to bring out the most humanity possible, and the thing about war is soldiers are in those situations every day for real. You don’t have to make up aliens and time travel or suburbanites with automatic weapons and spies with amnesia.
The conflict is automatically built in.
And how people act under extraordinary circumstances—I find that really interesting.
That comes through in a lot of your work. There’s a little bit of humor, a little bit of action, but it’s always been character driven. Did you have any input into the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena? What did you think they could bring to the story?
It started with Aaron. The thing about Aaron is he knew he was going to star in The Wall before I knew it. I say that somewhat jokingly, but long before I was casting he was preparing himself for the role and flew himself to New York and showed up on my doorstep. I saw in Aaron a commitment combined with talent that I’ve been lucky enough to come across in Matt Damon and Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and here’s this 25-year-old who is bringing such passion and work ethic and talent. I’m embarrassed to look back at what I was doing when I was 25.
I suppose that’s probably true for most of us.
Yeah, Aaron really is a force of nature—it shouldn’t surprise anybody that he won a Golden Globe this year. Every movie he’s in, he just makes his role completely memorable. There are two soldiers in the movie, and I was looking for an even bigger personality to play his. And in [pro wrestler] John Cena—he just owns the screen when he’s on it, in anything he does. That guy might seriously be the hardest working person in entertainment. He’s got stiff competition in some of the other people I’ve worked with, but they wrestle 52 weeks a year so he has to shoot movies while wrestling, and they wrestle in a different city every week. We always had him coming off a plane or about to get on a plane, but he brought such heart to the role. I don’t make cold movies, I make really warm movies, and war can get cold. It’s all men, they’re heavily armored, they’re wearing glasses—but I don’t make cold movies. People look back at Swingers and they often talk about how cool that movie is, but it’s actually the opposite of being cool. We literally set out to make the least cool movie ever. I mean, our hero is pining away wondering if his ex-girlfriend is ever going to call. That’s not inherently cool. Or guys talking about their feelings to each other—it doesn’t get less cool than that. When I set out to make The Wall, I wanted to fill the movie with heart and soul. And I don’t think there are two words that describe John Cena better than “heart” and “soul.”
After your recent big-budget films, The Wall has more of a low-budget, “indie” feel in comparison. Were there any challenges related to that transition?
I think of myself as making independent films within the studio system. Yes, I’ve made movies with significantly larger budgets, and I’ve also made movies with smaller budgets. For me, the scale of the budget is part of the creative process. Swingers is the movie it is because we made it for exactly the right budget. Had it been made for a higher number, it would not have been as imaginative as we had to make it, given the budget constraints we had. So I was lucky to have that experience early in my career, and I think about it when I set out to do a movie—to set the scale of the production to something that will challenge me, keep me on my toes, keep my back against the wall, keep me sharp and desperate, and give me the tools to make something I’m going to be really proud of. But I have to show up to work scared every day.
It’s a challenge you’re compelled to take on.
Yeah—honestly, after I made Swingers, I was offered a studio comedy, and I also had an independent film called Go that I was interested in making. Everybody was pressuring me to make the studio film, which was a nice comedy for an $18 million budget, versus Go which was a way more ambitious movie and it was a $3 million budget. And I was like, to be honest, I think I’d just be bored—that’s too much money! Mr. and Mrs. Smith—which had a budget that was north of $100 million, which was huge for me because I literally went from $200,000 on Swingers to $3 million on Go to $52 million on Bourne Identity to north of $100 million on Mr. and Mrs. Smith—my initial shooting on Mr. and Mr. Smith was not good. Some of it was, but some of it was not because I didn’t have my back against the wall. Once I squandered a little bit of the money, suddenly I had the pressure down on me and then I brought my A-game. So ever since then, I’m just skipping the step where I have a little too much money.
It sounds like you have to give yourself leeway to fail a little bit, like any artist. It’s the I’m-going-to-mess-something-up-but-it-will-enable-me-to-make-this-even-better approach.
Yeah, and I have to have a pretty good chance of falling flat on my face. For me, that’s where art comes from.
How much input do you have in the story development, or does it vary depending on what you’re working on at the time?
Well, because of the peculiarities of how I got my start in making a film like Swingers and then going on to do Go and then going on to do Bourne Identity—in particular Bourne Identity, which I developed from scratch by myself outside the studio system—my first studio experience mirrored my independent film experience of doing it all myself. Therefore, I didn’t have the people around me who had done it before and I think that set me up to be a little bit more original. When I started prep on Bourne Identity, as I said, there were no producers. Then we’re greenlit, and I picked France to go make the film, and now I needed to bring some producers in, and the first thing my new line producer said to me—basically, his role seemed to be from the moment he showed up was to tell me all the things we couldn’t do. I started laughing to myself that we couldn’t afford that guy on Swingers and Go; we couldn’t afford the guy who tells you what you can’t do, so we just did everything we wanted to do. I think Bourne really set me up because it was so unexpected and outside the norm of how these films are made. These films aren’t made by a director who goes and gets the rights to a book themselves and develops the script and casts it and fights the studio—that’s just not how a studio action film is made. And because it succeeded, it set me up for people wanting me to continue to surprise them. It’s a constant refrain, which I’m so grateful I have, of producers and studios telling me that something I’m doing isn’t ambitious enough or outrageous enough or unusual enough. They’re like, “We hired you to do it different from everybody else.” I can imagine that that’s a huge luxury—it’s not lost on me how lucky I am, because God knows I didn’t plan it this way, to be in an environment where people are offering me unusual movies, and even if it’s not an unusual movie, they’re pushing me to make it more distinctive. In the case of The Wall, there are some outrageous things in that movie that were not in the script that I brought to Amazon and said, “What do you think about changing this and this?” I don’t want to spoil the movie for people before they’ve seen it, but I really wasn’t expecting to get a yes all that easily and Amazon went for it. It’s really a special movie because Amazon not only let me take the chances that I took, they encouraged me to.
I can imagine that was a relief for someone who likes to take chances, especially working with a relatively new studio. You also have another movie coming out this year—American Made. How is that going?
It’s basically done. I’ve been editing them side by side, and that’s been a great experience because it’s really kept me fresh. At some points, it’s a little confusing because I walk into the wrong editing room and I’m expecting to see John Cena shooting a sniper rifle and I sit down and suddenly I realize I’m staring at Tom Cruise flying an airplane. It takes me a minute or two to realize I’m in the wrong room, but they’re both really special gems of movies. That’s something Tom Cruise—who is the most unjaded actor I’ve ever worked with, who appreciates every day how lucky he is to get to make movies, which is the thing he always dreamed of doing—and he often has and does say to me how lucky we are that we’re in a position where Universal is trusting us to make a film—and allowing us to make a film—as special and unique as American Made. In the climate of franchise movies and comic book movies—which obviously Bourne is one of—these big-budget, bespoke movies are rarer and rarer objects. Being around somebody like Tom Cruise, who is constantly reminding me of how lucky we are that we got the money to go make American Made and make something that special and that we love that much, it connects to my father—who this July it will have been 20 years since he passed away. American Made is the movie is I’m going to dedicate to him.
Why that movie in particular?
It connects to some of the work my father was most known for. [Liman’s father, attorney Arthur L. Liman, was chief counsel to the Senate committee during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. American Made tells the story of a TWA pilot (Cruise) who is recruited by the CIA for the covert Central America operation, working as an informant for the United States government.] Also, it’s exactly his sense of humor. He knew this story. He first told me the story, he told it to me with his unique sense of humor, and that’s what I tried to bring to the movie.
It’s your way of honoring him.
It was a story I loved and loved how he told. I didn’t set out to honor him. But when I saw the finished result, I was like, “Oh, this he really would have been proud of.”
In addition to American Made, there’s also the Edge of Tomorrow sequel. Any developments on that end?
It’s a world I’d love to go to back to, as would Tom and Emily Blunt. But we’re also heart-broken at the thought of not having our sergeant (Bill Paxton) on the journey with us. That’s a loss for the world.
It absolutely is. That wraps up our time except for one final question. Because you’ve seen every corner of the industry, you’ve worked in different genres with a lot of great success – if you could give any advice to aspiring filmmakers or anyone trying to make it in the industry today, especially as the business shifts in multiple directions on a seemingly daily basis, what would you say? Or, phrased another way: of the rules that you know people are taught to adhere to, which one have you broken to help make you successful?
That’s a great question. What rule? “No.” People are taught “no.” I would break that rule. There’s not a day on one of my movies I’m not told “no.” There’s not a point in my career I wasn’t told “no.” Don’t listen to it.
The Wall is in theaters now. [Trailer]