Doug Liman talks about his new feature American Made which sees him reunite with Tom Cruise. In the movie, Cruise takes on the role of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA during the 1980s and ends up being a drugs runner in South America.
Liman talks about the ease of working with Cruise, the not-so-subtle Top Gun references in the film, and what it means to be an American today - plus he gives us an idea of what to expect in the highly anticipated sequel to Edge of Tomorrow, aka Live Die Repeat and Repeat.
Congratulations on American Made, Doug. First I wanted to ask about your lead, the one and only Tom Cruise, who you have of course worked with before. What is your favourite thing about directing him?
How fearless he is in trying things, and I’m not talking about stunts necessarily but about trying things out in terms of character and pushing the boundaries of things he’s done before. He’s brutal with himself and creates a safe space when directing him. If something ever wasn’t working, and I was trying to figure out how to say that to him, I’d say ‘That was…’ as I was searching for the polite way to end the sentence. He just went ahead and said ‘Terrible’ and I’d say ‘Yeah, right, that was terrible’ and he’d say ‘Yeah, I knew it. Ok, let’s try again.’ When you can get the ego out of the process like that and just talk about the work, what’s working and what’s not working, that’s an amazing way to make a movie, an amazing way to do anything in life, really.
We’re honest, you know. One thing about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is that you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to fall flat on your face sometimes. He and I both felt like we could, in our own ways, push ourselves and risk failure.
I couldn’t help but think of another Tom Cruise movie as I was watching American Made, which is Top Gun, and I think a lot of people are inevitably going to be thinking of that film when they’re watching this. Do you mind that that point of comparison exists, do you welcome it, or is it all intentional anyway?
It’s basically intentional on my part, you know, I’m not living in a cave. I know that if you cast Tom Cruise as a pilot, people are going to think of Top Gun. I wanted to have fun with the fact that people would be going to the movie thinking that way so I use that as part of the entertainment. The irreverence of American Made isn’t just in the facts of the story. It also comes from the fact that I chose to cast Maverick and then put him in a crappier plane and have him do illegal things.
I got that when I was watching American Made, even its title is playful, because while it would seem to be a really patriotic movie, there is this underlying commentary that’s poking fun at American ideology. With the politics and ideology of the movie, even though it refers to the political situation of back in the 1980s, do you see its politics as in any way a reflection of America today?
Well first of all, I see the film as a patriotic movie. I’m celebrating America – that doesn’t mean we didn’t have some missteps. You know, a story like this can only happen in America and a character like Barry Seal could only exist in America. It’s that kind of rebel thinking that led to the creation of Google and Facebook. That kind of American Maverick who’s not conforming to the rules is sometimes criminal, sometimes not, but they’re always American. Then, in terms of what it means to be an American today? I think our presidents come and go; who we are as a nation endures. I don’t think any one president can destroy it.
It sounds like you’ve had some solid ideas coming into the film – was incorporating those ideas what drew you when you came into the project? Or what was your intention with the film and did it change as you made it?
I don’t really make movies with an intention other than asking myself, do I love the character and do I love the story? Sometimes I find a deeper meaning along the way, and what it’s all about for me gets discovered along the way, but my initial attraction was this rebel outlaw pilot who’s recruited by the CIA and runs circles around his handlers. I was really interested, because I’ve done a number of things with the CIA, in exploring an aspect that I’d never looked at before that’s actually the most interesting part of really how the CIA functions. You have people like Domhnall Gleeson’s character, these young Republicans who are truly patriotic, whose job it is to go out and find criminals willing to implement their foreign policy. That’s basically the job of these CIA case officers and that relationship between Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Cruise’s Barry Seal is the most interesting aspect of telling a CIA story.
Speaking of Domhnall Gleeson, we’d love to hear about how he got cast in the film and what was your experience working with him?
I’d seen some of his work and was like ‘This guy is a big star.’ He’s so young and has such confidence which is what I was looking for in the character Schafer. In fact, his confidence was going to be his undoing. Domhnall is extraordinary that way and really created a character for us that I’d never seen before on screen so that’s where Domhnall came from and then I just needed him to do an American accent because he had to be working for the CIA.
I love, love, love his character. Anytime he’s on screen in American Made I think ‘I’m so proud of that character, I’m so proud of what we were able to do together’ because the CIA handler is almost a thankless role now. In film, they’re all starting to look like each other and Domhnall is just a breath of fresh air.
I hope you don’t mind but I also wanted to ask you briefly about Edge of Tomorrow because it’s such a phenomenal film. Everyone loved this film when it came out, critics, cinemagoers, everyone. Have you been surprised at all at how popular it’s proven to be? I mean, I still talk to people about this film.
It surprises me but it’s also what Tom and I set out to do when we go make a movie. We make it for the audiences, we really care about the experience people have watching our movies. We want them to be entertained and we want them to be thinking about it afterwards and for it not to be empty entertainment. It’s way more meaningful to me that people are talking about the film today than if they were talking about it when it came out because that, for me, is the goal – to make movies that stand the test of time, and you don’t know if you’ve done that until some time has elapsed.
In fact there’s been such huge enthusiasm towards the film now that Tom and I have been able to look each other in the eye and go ‘Well what would a sequel look like?’ because to be honest, at the time, the dealing with the time travel aspect of it all was so vexing that we feel like we got away with a lot. We got lucky, and we weren’t necessarily eager to jump right back into that. Sometimes there are films like Mr and Mrs Smith which turned out better than it deserved to be, but in the case of Edge of Tomorrow, there was just such enthusiasm from fans. Tom and I sat down with Christopher McQuarrie, who was one of the writers of the original, and suddenly started hatching a story that I loved more than the original, which I never thought possible. It’s way more character-driven and more shocking in terms of what a sequel is supposed to be. In the same way that I loved casting Maverick in American Made, and I’m aware of what people expect when they see Tom Cruise in airplanes and I wanted to play with that, I know that there’s a certain expectation when people think of sequels. So I’m going to play with that as well.
I have to say, we are so, so excited for this sequel - can you give us any more hints at all about it, even what stage of production you’re at?
We have a first draft of a script that we really like and we’re sort of at the place where we’re trying to just figure out scheduling for Tom, me and Emily [Blunt]. These are not simple movies to go make, they require a lot of time and the co-ordination of all three of our schedules.
But you’re all up and willing to make it work?
Oh yeah, we loved working together.
One more question for you Doug, that’s just for fun. What are your three personal favourite movies, say any that have inspired you over the years?
I really love the movies of Katherine Hepburn, movies like The African Queen. I love Midnight Run and I suppose to pick something out of a different genre, I love Aliens.
Good choices, I especially like the choice of Katherine Hepburn because I’m such a fan of classic Hollywood myself. Sometimes I think ‘They just don’t make them like they used to…’
I say the same thing and I’m actually making them! I’m like ‘I don’t know why I can’t make them like that.’ It’s crazy for those of us who are actually in Hollywood making movies thinking ‘huh, they don’t make them like they use to’ and my response is ‘God knows we’re trying, we really are trying!’
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For the full audio version, see below: