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No 'Tomorrow': Doug Liman on the Blockbuster That Almost Broke Him
"I was training to climb Mount Everest," Doug Liman says, motioning to the slim treadmill desk tucked into the corner of his Tribeca office space. "It was originally for a project I was going to do with Tom Hardy [about Everest climber George Mallory]…compared to the movie I was making, the thought of scaling a mountain seemed restful." The 48-year-old director starts shaking his head slowly. "It was like, 'Well, there won't be any exo-suits, there won't be any aliens, there won't be the challenge of trying to get an honest performance out of someone in a totally computer-generated environment….' It really felt like, after what I'd gone through, trying to summit at 20,000 feet would be a breeze."
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The movie Liman is referring to — a "little" film with a budget of $175 million, a prime early-summer release date and one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world — is one of those make-or-break projects that moviemakers seem to dream about and dread with equal measure. And had he known what he'd be in for when he signed up to make Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 novel All You Need Is Kill that follows a reluctant soldier (Tom Cruise) who's forced to relive the same day of fighting alien invaders over and over again, Liman might not have signed on the dotted line at all. By many accounts, the production was not an easy one: voices were raised, expensive exo-suits broke down, and the director — whose reputation for tussling with producers and making enemies on films like Swingers (1996) and The Bourne Identity (2002) preceded him — was said to be in over his head. A recent Los Angeles Times article on Liman detailed several anecdotes of in-fighting on the set, as well as resurrecting a term used to describe his particular brand of exploratory, play-it-by-ear filmmaking: "Limania."
"He has no filter when it comes to being honest," the film's co-star, Emily Blunt, is quoted as saying in the Times piece, and Liman's blurt-it-out honesty is in full effect when he sat down with Rolling Stone for an hour-plus chat about the movie. "I probably shouldn't treat interviews as therapy sessions," he says at one point, "but I don't keep a diary, so these end up being my way of keeping track of where I'm at and letting it all out." Below are some excerpts from the conversation, touching on everything from Liman's admiration for Tom Cruise's work ethic to why his methodology angers the money men and the origins of the "Limania" reputation.
What drew you to this project initially?
[Producer] Erwin Stoff brought me the script, and I just fell in the love with the idea. Your hero gets killed 10 minutes in. Then he has to repeat the day until he gets it right — we've seen that in a comedy like Groundhog Day, but never in an action film. And I loved that, when all is said and done, it's less about whether he saves the world than whether he gets through the end of the day with Emily's character still being alive. Look, I'm never going to care about a movie where it's only about "Can you defuse the bomb? Can you stop Dr. No's laser from blowing up the moon?" [Laughs] Who gives a shit? I want to make a movie about characters. That's what I do.
I also really wanted to make a film with a strong female character. In the action genre, that's really rare — you have Sigourney Weaver's take on the ass-kicking heroine, and that's sort of it. I thought, this is a chance to really put this front and center. I'd done it before — I'd argue that Mr. and Mrs. Smith is more about Angelina Jolie's character, who is a better spy than Brad Pitt's character — and I kept thinking, it'd be great to look at this story from the female perspective. You have this person who was a great warrior, who had a power and lost it; the world is counting on her to save it and she's unable to do it. She meets someone who can do it, and she has to figure out how to use him to accomplish what she's expected to do. I mean, that's a great story; you could cast Emily Blunt and an unknown actor and this would be amazing.
Right, but you didn't cast an unknown actor…you cast one of the most well-known movie stars in the world. You describe this as Emily's film, but the end result is more of a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, wouldn't you say?
I'd argue that it's both of their stories. Yeah, because it's Tom Cruise, he's going to take up more of the oxygen of the movie, so to speak. But then you get to play around with his brand, and that's great.
What do you mean, exactly?
When you think of his usual characters, they're people who are in complete control of their environments and can get out of any situation. We spend the first 20 minutes or so having fun with the fact that this guy is absolutely, positively in over his head. In a way, it's casting against type. The guy who you associate with being the alpha dog is stuck in an exo-suit that he can't operate, in the middle of a firefight where the whole platoon is counting on him, and he's just floundering. Believe me, the idea of messing with the idea of the Tom Cruise persona was just as exciting to him as it was to me. But I'd still contend it becomes a two-hander once Emily enters the picture.
They were both very invested in developing their characters. Yes, there was a huge production going on around us, but basically, it was really just two actors and their director. Tom has an incredible work ethic; he'd be on the set at 7:45 a.m. every morning and would work with me on developing the character after we wrapped filming for the day. There was an intimacy between Tom, Emily and myself that didn't make this film that much different from, say, Swingers.
It's mind-boggling to hear you say that.
Because one film is a $200,000 indie made about an actor's clique of friends and the other is a $175 million summer blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. The films are almost antithetical!
To me, it's the same. I realize I am contradictory: I have an independent filmmaker's sensibility and a Hollywood director's short-attention span. [Laughs] But I feel like I'm an independent filmmaker. I don't really know how to explain the Bourne movie or Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the context of that, but…inside, I feel like I'm the guy who made Swingers still, to this day.
The same beating heart that's at the core of my first movie is here. I mean, look, you have a lot of onscreen stuff and a lot of resources you're competing with in a film like Edge when it comes to getting something human in there. The beating heart of your story…that's not what shows up in a trailer. The other stuff is what shows up in a trailer, because that's what gets people in to the seats and that's how studios make their money. The system in general isn't necessarily pushing directors to put character work into their movies; they want you to worry about the 1,000 extras and not the two actors in front of you. And because a movie like this is so ridiculously large and complex… if I hadn't had partners like Tom and Emily, I could have very easily got lost in the spectacle. Entirely CGI sets, CGI creatures — it was really was unlike anything else I'd ever done. Just dealing with those elements will take up all of your bandwidth.
Did this tend to cause friction on the set?
The closest we ever came to friction was when I snapped at Emily.
Was this the incident that's referred to in the L.A. Times article?
It was an incident where…she made a suggestion that I didn't like. I'm human; I'm just not cool when the pressure is on. And there was tremendous pressure on me at that moment. She said, "Relax, I've never made a movie like this before." And I replied "Well, I've never made a movie like this before either!" The room just ground to a halt.
But Tom immediately jumped in and said, "I love that you said that. Look, you hadn't made anything like The Bourne Identity before you did that, and look how it turned out. I want to watch you figure out how to make this movie. This kind of stuff is exciting to me." I mean, we were six weeks out for shooting — the Sword of Damocles was hanging over us. Sets have to be built, stunts have to be choreographed…any decision you make has a lasting effect throughout the next few months of your life. That looming start date does things to your head.
I mean, had I even stopped to take a breath, I never would have said it. It just slipped out. I remember having these epic battles over Bourne…I'd literally get notes along the lines of "Why is Jason Bourne not fighting 200 assassins at the end?" My producer told me "This isn't your film school!" And I thought, well it kind of is. I'd only made two small films at that point, and now I'm being entrusted with a $55 million movie.
You can see why someone might not take too kindly to a statement like that…they are spending money to make a movie, not to teach someone how to make a movie.
They're spending money to make something that's a cookie-cutter product. You know, just copy someone else's movie and get on with it. That's not what I want to do. Thankfully, that's not what Tom or Warner Bros. wanted to do either. Otherwise, I might not have gotten away with a statement like "I've never made a movie like this before."
I told Erwin upfront: Look, I'm not interested in the aliens and the science fiction. Let's just get this on the table right now, so there's no confusion. He said, I know what you're telling me when you say that; I've seen your work and I know you will deliver. I mean, The Bourne Identity is not a movie in which people sit around in coffee shops and talk about things for two hours; there is action in it. [Laughs] But the reason I'm doing this has nothing to do with making aliens run around and bite people's heads off. He knew that when he hired me. Most people do, I think.
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So if people know this when they're hiring you, how do you still manage to get the reputation as someone who is difficult to work with?
I think that's mostly something that sprung out of Bourne. They didn't know what they were buying into; I think they thought that, because it was my third film, they'd be able to bully me. I think they were surprised when that wasn't the case. Because I had a reporter that was trailing me for a piece and witnessed a lot of this, a story came out that did not portray me in a very favorable light. I mean, you do not criticize the studio, especially if they've given $55 million to some kid who only has two independent features to his name. They deserve credit for that choice — after that, I think it was nothing but horrible decisions. That kind of started an all-out publicity war. A story then got leaked when I was working on Mr. and Mrs. Smith that I was a difficult person to work with, which was a way for people to discredit that movie, and I think the damage has been done.
Was this around the time that the "Limania" thing started making the rounds?
That was something that [screenwriter] Simon Kinberg coined when we were working on Mr. and Mrs. Smith…it was meant as a term of affection.
I don't know that's it's always been used that way….
No, well, things always play better in print when there's antagonism, right? [Laughs] Look, I'm not naive enough to think that I don't get to make films on a grand scale because someone, somewhere wrote a very large check. That was part of why I was so stressed at first: I wanted to stay on schedule and on budget. But I'm an independent filmmaker at heart, and having someone at a studio threaten that I would never get work again, it doesn't work on me. I had a very positive experience making a movie for $200,000 a long time ago. If I have to go back to that, I will. I refuse to be bullied.
Let's talk about the action scenes…these really do feel unlike your usual summer-movie set pieces. There's something a little ragged about them.
Good. When you do real action — real people running around and physically performing — audiences can feel it. They know the difference. I wanted this to feel like an old war movie, not some sci-fi summer blockbuster thing. Do something different. Though maybe don't do it with real exo-suits.
You actually built those, right?
Those things weren't CGI effects; we built them, a decision that I cursed pretty much every day on this production. You might as well be building a ****ing Tesla! The initial suits we had started breaking; by the time we got them sturdy enough to do stunts in, they weighed even more than before. I would have film envy whenever I would go home and watch someone else's movie after a long day on the set: "Look at how easy these guys have it, they can just have their actors run from point A to point B!" [Laughs] Once you put Tom in one of those heavy exo-suits, it required cranes, wires and weeks of rehearsal just to have him do the simplest thing.
But the idea of casting Tom and then having a digital character do all of the action…I wouldn't even know how to have that conversation with him. I'd told him from the outset, "Look: I want to make an honest movie. I don't want some sort of plastic-looking epic here." James Cameron seems to put these in every other movie, and everybody instantly seems to know how to operate them. But what if you threw somebody in there who had no clue what they were doing? That's interesting.
In a way, it's a great movie about gaming culture as well: You move forward, you die, you start again at the beginning…
…you have to master a level until you can get to the next one. Yeah, we were definitely aware of that. You could say The Bourne Identity shares a lot of elements of gaming as well, actually. It's a first-person experience, and Matt Damon starts with nothing and has to acquire weapons and things. I was already thinking about how to use the vocabulary of video games at that point; Edge of Tomorrow is really just the next step in that, which is that you put the character back to square one until he can work his way up to the next level. [Pause] That's the Hollywood side of my brain thinking. [Laughs] But because you're not actually playing a video game, I needed to come up with a way to make someone feel like there were stakes here…not just the end of the world, but personal stakes to every time you had to go back to square one.
How did you solve that?
By making each one of thousand of deaths incredibly painful. [Smiles] That was the independent-filmmaker part of my brain thinking.
The film starts out about a person who is thrust into this situation he can't control, is burdened with a heavy suit that he has no idea how to operate it…just when the fate of hundreds of people depend on him the most.
It almost sounds like you're making a movie about your own initial inability to make this movie.
[Laughs] Well, I never said it wasn't a personal film. Being thrust into a huge battle where you're not sure what's going on or what to do while things are exploding around you — that's a pretty accurate description of making this movie. I was in over my head, and I needed time to find my way out. Misssteps were made. Tom's character is wrestling with the notion of whether he's really good enough to do what he has to in order to survive, and that's a question I wrestle with on a daily basis. But yeah, most producers would hear that and say "Go work your shit out on a $2 million movie, not a huge blockbuster!" Part of what I'm doing is working it out here. But that's only part of it.