With a staggeringly impressive back catalogue of movies to his name, Doug Liman has returned to his roots somewhat with his latest endeavour The Wall – a lower-budget affair driven the characters that inhabit this brutal landscape.
We discusses the appeal of this narrative, and the pressure that derives from depicting modern warfare. We then got onto the subject of Live Die Repeat and Repeat – a sequel to the immensely popular Edge of Tomorrow. Liman explains what compelled him to return to this world, why the studio weren’t quite so keen to begin with – and exactly why he believes this film will be ever better than the original. On the subject of sequels, he also discusses why he never made a follow-up to Swingers, though admitted it was a thought that crossed his mind…
I love sending my characters in my films on extraordinary adventures. Usually that involves a fair amount of fiction, like Tom Cruise confronting time travel, and sometimes it’s a little more grounded, like in Swingers and Jon Favreau going to Vegas to try and meet girls. But it’s always about adventure for me. Reading the screenplay, I was transported on this terrifying adventure that was also deeply profound because it’s actually honest. An adventure that soldiers confront on a regular basis. So I hate to talk about the sacrifices of many men and women in uniform in terms of entertainment value, but I’m not talking about entertainment, I’m talking about why I go to the movie, which is to be transported into another world for an hour and a half. I also was drawn to the story because it’s a movie set in Iraq during the war but it’s not about the war. The movie relentlessly stays at ground level with the soldiers fighting it. There’s something liberating for a liberal New York filmmaker to tackle a film about the Iraq war without commenting once on the war itself.
The film blurs the line between good and evil, there are no winners or losers here. Was that something you wanted to get across?
Yeah, it was really important to me to not glamourise the war. I know I talk about the script in terms of entertainment value, but the film is by no means a recruitment tool for the military, it’s the cold heart reality of war where nobody wins, even the winners don’t really win. I’ve made superhero films, not classic comic-book superhero films, but Jason Bourne is a superhero. Tom Cruise has a superpower in Edge of Tomorrow, and I consider The Wall to also be a superhero film, because the reality of soldiers in combat is that they go into the field with so many supplies on their back and so much training and ammunition individually, that each one of them is like Iron Man. That’s not exaggerated for the movie, that’s the reality of being a modern soldier.
When you’re dealing with military, there must be an added dose of pressure to make sure you get everything right, there’s no room for errors when there are people worldwide who have lived through experiences just like this.
That is true, and what I loved most is I get to go to extraordinary places to shoot our films, in fact I shot in Iraq during the war for Fair Game, and you get to meet extraordinary people from all walks of live, and depending on what the movie is, you get immersed in a new world. If you’re doing Edge of Tomorrow you’re meeting high-level astro-physicist scientists to talk about time travel, and if you’re doing The Wall, you’re meeting a lot of soldiers who open their hearts and their stories to you, to help you make the best possible film. We had a military advisor on the set named ‘The Reaper’, and that’s because of how many kills he has as a sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan. People walk around with photos of their children and their pets on their phone, and he has photos of all the people he’s killed. When we premiered the movie in New York, it was exclusively for the military, and it was the most touching and meaningful screening I’ve ever had of any of my movies, because of all the attention to detail John Cena, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and myself put into capturing the real life experiences of a modern soldier in combat, that didn’t need to be exaggerated at all to create a riveting movie.
When I make a movie, each film immerses me into a different world. For The Bourne Identity I met someone who was supposedly an assassin, and he told me that he always has a roll of duct tape and a screwdriver with him, because he can do anything with a roll of duct tape and a screwdriver. So when Jason is at the farmhouse, he’s looking for weapons and he picks up a screwdriver and a roll of duct tape and puts it in his pocket. It’s a little detail that maybe 15 people watching the film will pick up on. The Wall is filled with details like that, related to modern combat. But there’s a million soldiers so a bigger audience to pick up on the attention to detail, so when you make a movie like this, which is so sparse, it’s all about the details, and I’ve always believed you can get great drama, the best drama, out of details – and that’s what sets The Bourne Identity apart from the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises. We focused on the little details. Even in Edge of Tomorrow, I’m concerned with when the batteries are going to run out in their suits of armour. Many filmmakers don’t think about spaceships running out of fuel, or futuristic weapons running out of batteries, but I see all of those annoying details as a great source of drama. The Wall is all about those little details.
Did The Wall feel like a bit of a return for you to the more character-drive indies like Swingers?
It’s the most ambitious film I’ve ever attempted, because I’m giving myself so few tools to work with, and yet I’m making a commercial movie. Where resources are lacking, I’m using that for drama. Swingers, which I shot in a similar number of days, I had lots of different characters to rely on, and lots of different locations. In The Wall you’re using one spot and you’re not letting go. I’m someone who has a short attention span, and I wasn’t prepared to give up on that. In terms of returning to my independent roots, I never left them. No matter how big the budget of the movie, the independent spirit has always been alive and well, whether it’s an irreverence for the traditional way in which things are done, which is synonymous with independent cinema. In The Bourne Identity I didn’t conform to a studio system, I made a singular vision movie that is more expected in the independent world. Also my style of filming, the shaky camera work which became a hallmark of the Bourne franchise, literally stemmed from the fact I was stealing scenes with Matt Damon, running into locations with just a camera on my shoulder. I didn’t have any other option but for it to be shaky like that. I once snuck into Central Park to shoot a scene in The Bourne Identity, and in Edge of Tomorrow, the whole opening I shot myself with Tom in my editing room with Tom doing his own hair and make-up. Not even Vince or Jon did their own make-up in Swingers. In The Wall I went and got a few extra shots for the movie in a playground a few blocks from my editing room one February morning. I pushed the kids out of the way and got in there with my assistant editor in Aaron’s military attire, with a mock-up of a weapon and a radio and got my inserts. You can get arrested for being in a playground without a kid. It was gonna snow that afternoon though so we had to go then and who knows when it was going to melt. So we just had to get in and get out.
You’ve got tons of incredibly exciting projects lined up – Live Die Repeat and Repeat is one. What can you tell us about that so far? Are there any plot details yet, or cast announcements?
We have a script I love that is so original and it’s as though as we made the first film just to set up this movie, because this is the movie where you really can have the most fun in this world. It’s Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, and to talk about who else would be in it would give away the big idea which we’re not ready to give up yet. We’re just trying to figure out between our schedules when to go and do it. I’ve never made a sequel before. I saw a parody online where they were talking about sequels as the same thing but of a lesser quality – which is not always true, there are the occasional sequels that are better than the original, and this is one of them.
At what stage was the sequel spoken of? You said the first felt like it was being made to set this up – so were there discussions to do this prior to finishing Edge of Tomorrow?
To be honest after the first film, I thought I was never going back to that world, that was so hard on all of us. You do a film involving time travel, you don’t need to console with a scientist about whether humans will ever travel through time, just talk to a filmmaker who made a movie about time travel. The paradoxes are so gut-wrenching and mind-numbing that there was no way we were going to do a sequel, somehow we got in and we got out and we lived to fight another day. Trying to make the film work with the time travel device was so challenging that at one point during development I got a note from the head of Warner Bros. saying ‘do we need the device where he dies and wakes up and relives the day? Could Tom maybe just fight the aliens without the whole dying and repeating the day part?’ That was a serious note. That was how challenging it was to develop and make that movie, that smart executives were suggesting that maybe the movie just shouldn’t get made.
So we were not thinking about sequels, and for Tom Cruise and Emily blunt, those suits were so heavy and so uncomfortable it made the shooting so physically taxing on top of the script issues that we were wrestling with, that it was not something that anyone wanted to think about doing as a sequel. It was one of those things where the fans first put the idea in our head. So many people approached Emily and myself and Tom with such passion about the movie that we started thinking about what a sequel would look like, then I sat down with one of the original writers Chris McQuarrie and had a heated story argument, it literally seemed like we were repeating the experience of the first movie, which is ironic given that the whole concept is about people repeating the day. We came out of that with an idea I loved so much, and that Tom and Emily loved so much, that suddenly the thing we never thought about doing, we were talking about doing.
You say fans were behind it originally, as they wanted to see these characters again – but I’m assuming across your career you’ve dealt with that sort of pressure before, particularly on Swingers? So was this just the first time it felt right?
Fair enough, there was a lot of fan interest in a sequel to Swingers, and I did think about it, but the conclusion I came to, was that Swingers was almost a true story. Jon Favreau is a great writer so he made it a great script, but most of the story is based on things that really happened. I was an unemployed director, Jon and Vince and the gang were unemployed actors, and we basically unemployed but happy. As we started thinking about a sequel, and I looked at us one year after the success of Swingers, I was like, now we aren’t unsuccessful and happy, I’m looking around and we all seemed to be successful and unhappy. That would be one depressing sequel. So thinking about a sequel began and ended right there. Obviously Bourne Identity, Matt and I talked about a sequel because the book had sequels, so the idea has come up, Mr and Mrs Smith the idea of a sequel came up on many occasions. It comes from a place of people loving the movie, fans coming to us and saying they love the movie and they wanna see another one. But I’ve got more passion for a sequel for Edge of Tomorrow than any of those films. And that combined with the fact that we actually came up with a great idea, it’s just a great story.
I can’t wait to see where this story is going to go.
Tom and Emily were so much fun to work with, I’ve been really lucky in my career that I’ve had such great actors and people to work with, showing up onto the set and seeing Tom and Emily made everything a little better, because production is brutal. Same thing showing up to the set of The Wall, which was really horrendous conditions, we shot last summer in the desert in July. But John Cena was so much fun, and Aaron was so much fun, that the camaraderie got us through. Filmmakers can get in a lot of trouble by likening the making of a movie to combat, because as The Wall shows, nothing we go through as filmmakers comes even close to what soldiers have to deal with, but the thing we do share in common is the camaraderie and the teamwork and I had great teammates. Aaron is so wise beyond his years and John is so smart and funny and charming. They were just fun and inspiring to be around.
The Wall is out now.