Doug Liman is probably best known as a director for Swingers, the 1996 indie starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. But you’re more likely to read his name in the open credits of the Bourne series – Liman optioned the Robert Ludlum books and directed the first film in 2002 before serving as Executive producer on the two Paul Greengrass-directed sequels.
In 2005 he introduced Brad to Angelina as he bought Mr & Mrs Smith to the screen and this year he’s got Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson and Jamie Bell globetrotting in the high-concept sci-fi movie Jumper. RT caught up with Liman to find out more.
How did you first become involved with Jumper?
Doug Liman: Lucas Foster was one of the producers on Mr & Mrs Smith and he brought me the project. He knew me quite well from having done Mr & Mrs Smith and the thing that appealed to me right off the bat was that David Rice discovers he has a superpower – OK, I’ve seen that in a million movies – and then immediately starts robbing a bank with it. I hadn’t seen that… I fell in love with that character at that moment, and I wanted to follow that guy.
The script was written by David Goyer and it was very conventional and he was kind-of redeemed and I thought, I actually liked the guy who was robbing banks. I want to pursue that character. I don’t want this to become a morality tale of how he learns to become a good guy. So I bought in Simon Kinberg who’d written Mr & Mrs Smith and we pursued developing not something that’s darker but for me something that’s ultimately more honest.
I realised; it’s not that I’m really cynical and I think that if someone had a superpower robbing banks and sleeping with women all over the globe with it would be more honest. Ultimately if you look at the characters in my films you’ll see a lot of similarities going all the way back to Swingers with Vince Vaughn’s character. Ultimately, Vince’s character was just saying what we were all thinking.
People were like, “Oh my God, he’s a horrendous guy and he should learn his lesson and he should change, he should become a better person.” I’m like, “No, he’s actually a great person off the bat, we need to learn to understand that actually he’s the one honest person because he’s willing to say the things we’re all thinking.”
In a way David Rice is just doing the things that we would think about doing. There’s honesty to that, and I love him for being honest like that and not trying to be something he’s not.
At the same time, this isn’t Swingers, which is a small, indie movie. This is a big-budget studio action movie. Was there ever any pressure from Fox not to push that too far?
DL: No, in fact that was one of the emotional challenges for me on the film. Fox were basically saying to me, “We want you to do with the superhero genre – which, by the way, we specialise in making – what you did to the spy genre with Bourne.” They were basically saying, “Hurt us. Make us suffer, and do whatever you did to the Universal folks which drove them nuts.”
In a way that kind-of threw me for a loop. I have a rebellious nature and being told no is almost the surest way to get me to do something. Not unlike David Rice in the film, who doesn’t understand being told no because he has the ability to go around every possible no there could be, except one from a woman. It was kind-of throwing me for a loop during production because almost everything I did during production that could have been considered disruptive on any other set, on this project they were like, “Are you sure you’re being disruptive enough?” It’s hard to be rebellious when people are expecting to be rebellious. It’s like if you’re a teenager and your folks say, “Are you smoking enough pot?”
So do you think the studios are a bit more tuned in to the power of rebellious filmmakers these days?
DL: I think they are. When you have films like Bourne that succeed not only does it beget sequels but it begets people taking chances. It doesn’t mean they take chances with every movie; I think they try to know going into it which one they’re doing and I think one of the reasons there was so much drama going into Bourne Identity was that the studio thought it was going to be one of their safe ones. They thought it was going to be a dumb action movie and they expected to be tortured on some other movie by a much more important filmmaker. I was trying to make a more significant film out of what they had written off as another dumb action movie.
In the case of Jumper they had already put this in the other category. This is the studio that made Fantastic Four, you know, they know how to churn out a dumb, cookie-cutter superhero movie. They had already put this into a different category so they were prepared for it, and I think studios are doing that with more and more frequency. Look at Alfonso Cuaron and Children of Men – there are some really bold decisions being made by studios these days.
By the way, it was pretty bold to begin with that Universal bought Bourne Identity. Here’s the guy who made Swingers for $200,000 and Go for $3 million peddling The Bourne Identity to the studios going, “I want to make a $60 million movie.”
With Bourne, Mr & Mrs Smith and now Jumper you’ve made three really big studio movies; is there a part of you to that actually enjoys working on that scale, to be doing popcorn movies?
DL: You know, I guess it’s one of the things I worry about. From a production point of view I still have one foot firmly planted in the independent film world and much of the shooting on Jumper was done Swingers-style because that was the only way we could afford to do it. I’m in Paris now and the scene where Jamie Bell is in traffic stealing that bus I really shot on the streets of Paris with Jamie Bell and it was just the two of us with the camera on my shoulder and my assistant holding a little battery-powered light. We ran out in the middle of traffic and that’s akin to some of the things we were doing on Swingers.
There are tonnes of those moments in the movie. Hayden Christensen surfing was just myself and Hayden and I’m out on a little rubber boat with the camera and my Assistant Director from Swingers is operating the motor on the boat – that’s the extent of the crew.
But I think one of the things I personally wrestle with is that when you do a film with a high concept, like a spy with amnesia or husband-and-wife assassins or the teleportation of Jumper you get a mass audience – knock on wood – coming to see it. It becomes more of an event and it’s a little bit like a drug to create. You don’t get an event out of an independent movie. So it’s one of those things I realise I need to wean myself off of because the cart could get ahead of the horse.
But as you say, you do seem to inject a certain amount of independent spirit into these productions…
DL: Because I’m full of inner turmoil and I don’t really know that many other directors but of the few I know I seem to be far more neurotic and have far more angst about what I’m doing. I live in New York City and I’m making huge action movies. The people that make huge action movies live in LA and they’re surrounded by other people who make huge action movies. I’m surrounded by people making documentaries! I am just acutely aware of, like, “What am I doing?” There’s a conflict that rages where I think I just want to go make a little issue movie or something.
But on the other hand I still love movies and I’m thinking, “How cool would it be, this thing with teleportation? Think of all the things I could do and explore. How cool would it be to do the effects? Imagine the fight sequences.” Suddenly I’m all caught up in the spectacle of the movie.
And my family is all quite intellectual they’re always challenging me and saying, “What are you doing?” My aunt has a radio programme in New York City, a very big radio programme, and she had me on as a guest with Sarah Polley, a very close friend who was in Go and who’s just directed Away From Her. There’s really no reason for Sarah and I to both be on this radio programme together except that we’re friends and she was like, “I have with me Sarah Polley who makes small, important, character-driven, issue-focussed movies, and Doug Liman who makes big Hollywood movies.” Of course I’m filled with inner turmoil because I’ve had this stuff layered on me since I was a kid!
But if you look at the first movie I ever made, it was called The Mummy, it was an action movie and I made it when I was about ten. I got in trouble in film school at USC because one of my Super-8 movies there, in the first semester, involved a snowmobile chase scene. I made an action scene and they were like, “That wasn’t what you were supposed to be doing.”
Ben Affleck said that the reason he went out and made a bunch of big, Hollywood movies as soon as he started getting offered them was because those were the films he grew up watching. He grew up with Star Wars, not Truffaut.
DL: Definitely, when people ask me who inspired me; I got into film when I was ten so I was inspired by Spielberg and it wasn’t Scorsese. I can’t impress people with the pedigree of obscure, French filmmakers that got me into film. It was Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. I really thought I wanted to make dumb action movies. Swingers was the thing I had to suffer through, the little resume film, so that I could eventually make Die Hard in a hockey arena, the script I was peddling at the time I made Swingers.
And right after Swingers I decided I wanted to make The Bourne Identity and it just took me years to get the rights. After Swingers people said, “You can do anything, what would you like to do?” I said, “I want to direct a James Bond movie.” They said, “Well, you can’t do that. They’re not going to let you do that. They have a specific kind of director they hire, so just forget it.” I said, “Well I’ve got a spy book I read in college, The Bourne Identity, what about that?” They said, “You can’t do that either. Do something else. How about a romantic comedy?” I ended up not doing that and making Go before I did end up getting the rights to make Bourne Identity.
And at that point I was like, “OK, now I get to do my big action movie. I’ll cast Harrison Ford and it’ll be like one of those Clancy films.” What I discovered when I started adapting the book was that as much as I enjoyed those movies I wasn’t interested in making a totally mindless piece of entertainment. It was a horrific realisation because life would have been much simpler, but I lost interest in it.
It’s interesting you say that you approached Bourne wanting it to be your Bond movie, because Casino Royale was essentially reinvented to fit the mould you and Paul Greengrass had set with Bourne…
DL: It really is surreal that all I was trying do to was direct a James Bond film and I ended up changing the James Bond franchise. [laughs] That being said, I’d still love to direct a James Bond film and I heard Steven Spielberg quoted recently saying he’d always aspired to direct a James Bond film. I think that is one of the spectacles that sitting there as a young boy in the movie theatre and being swept away to these exotic locations and the sexiness of it is one of the things that made me fall in love with cinema in the first place.