'American Made' Director Doug Liman Talks The Adventure Of The Unknown, Working With Tom Cruise, And More [Interview]

Filmmaker Doug Liman and superstar Tom Cruise have a good thing going at the moment. After making one of the most enjoyable popcorn movies in recent memory, Edge of Tomorrow, the two started working together on a few projects, including their latest film, American Made. As he did with Edge of Tomorrow, Liman focused on bringing out more of Cruise's comedic chops with the rise-and-fall tale that's based on a true story.

As Barry Seal, Cruise plays a happy-go-lucky, adventure-seeking pilot who doesn't give much thought to consequences. The actor makes the character an enigmatic, empathetic, and highly-skilled goof, someone who's easy to root for even when he's making a lot of bad decisions. Seal has a surprising amount of charm – something Cruise can deliver in spades.

When we recently spoke with Liman, the filmmaker behind The Bourne IdentitySwingers, and Go gave us a little insight into his relationship with Cruise, his interest in Barry Seal, and the adventure and uncertainty he desires with each project. Below, check out our Doug Liman interview.

Slashfilm: I walked out of the movie just really liking Barry Seal as a character. It's easy to see why he was beloved by some people. 

Doug Liman: Yeah. People really love the real Barry Seal. Normally, when you make a movie like this, you suddenly put rose colored glasses on and you're casting a movie star, and they're more likable than the real person, but he was one of the largest drug smugglers in American history, and the DEA agents we spoke with loved him. Loved him. They thought he always delivered. You know, his wife never remarried. It's obviously an extraordinary story, it's an extraordinary time in American history, and extraordinary time just in terms of...this was a moment when pilots could be cowboys still. That era has ended. The kind of freedom the pilots had in the '80s, just ended.

You know, I think what I really connected to with the story was Barry's thirst for adventure. Something that Tom Cruise and I share, both in terms of adventure, making films together. It's just kind of uncharted territory for each of us. When we first started working together on Edge of Tomorrow, before the movie's start date everyone was under a lot of pressure and we were getting suggestions for the script that didn't work. I remember Emily [Blunt] said in the meeting, "I've never made a film like this before." I said, "I've never made a film like this before either." The producer's jaw dropped and he was like, "Oh my God, don't let the studio hear that, they're about to spend a hundred-plus million dollars on this movie, they don't want to hear that you don't know what you're doing."

Tom Cruise said, "No, that's exactly why I want to make this movie. I love that Doug doesn't know yet and he's going to figure it out. I want to be on that adventure. He figures it out while he's making them, you know, and he's ready to go on that adventure." Making American Made really was an adventure. I mean Tom and I, it was an incredibly remote location to shoot this film. To get to some of these remote locations, Tom flew the airplane and I was in the back.

We flew to an airstrip that was three hours by plane west of Bogotá. An hour and a half from the closest road. Just a dirt airstrip in the middle of the rainforest. Tom and I camped under the wing of the airplane. The soldiers you see, pointing the guns at his airplane when he flies through the rainforest? Those are real soldiers that we found, and I said, "Please don't pull the fucking trigger. Just act like you're going to shoot at us, but don't."

Even when we were to head out into the rainforest, we needed to get camping supplies, and I wanted to go. I said, "I know a thing or two about camping, I want to go to the shopping mall and pick out the camping supplies because we'll be out there in the middle of nowhere and I don't want to trust some production assistant." Tom said, "Well I'll go with you." I was going to a shopping mall in Columbia, with Tom Cruise, to buy camping gear. By the time we were done getting our supplies, there must have been a thousand people crowded outside the store trying to get to Tom, like a zombie film all pressed up against the glass.

Tom was there with just one bodyguard, and they asked, "Is there a back way out?" "It's a shopping mall, there is no back way out." I turned to Tom and I said, "You know it's going to take you at least an hour to get out of here. I'm gong to go back to the hotel." I left him to fend for himself to get out of there.

That's the nature of our friendship. It's one where I can tell him he's on his own to get out of shopping malls, and it's one where he is doing a scene and it doesn't work right. When you say "cut," you want to somehow give sort of positive reinforcement. But meanwhile, you need to fix it. You're trying to figure out how to gently nudge them without being too critical. I was trying to come up with the right words and I said, "Tom, you know that was...that was terrible." I said, we were talking about his performance in the scene and I said, "yeah, the acting was terrible." Tom was like, "I knew it. I knew it. Let's go again." We can have that kind of relationship. Then it's really a safe place to explore, for me as a filmmaker, for him as an actor, to find the movie and find these really unique moments.

Moments that no screenwriter could have envisioned. Like the burying of the money becoming a problem was something that Tom and I discovered in the making of the film. On Edge of Tomorrow, we discovered that movie while we were making it. That's why I love working with him so much.

Is that a process you usually gravitate towards? Discovering the movie while you're making it?

Yeah, on some level because I want my roles to fit my actors, so it doesn't even seem like they're acting. I want it to fit them on that level. Part of that is exploring the role together, and sometimes as you work on characters it sends the story in a new direction. American Made, by the interactions, we didn't anticipate in the beginning because Tom and I were really wanting to feel passionate about the love story that's at the heart of the movie, and how unique it is. That took the film in some unexpected directions.

Doug Liman interview

Tom Cruise seems like an actor more invested in the bigger picture than his part in it. What's it like working with an actor with a good grasp on storytelling, someone who's thinking about what's best for the end result instead of just the performance?

It's extraordinary. He's a huge resource. I think Steven Spielberg said about him, "He may be the greatest working director not currently directing movies." He's not somebody who thinks he was anointed a movie star. He understands that he's a movie star because people love his movies. His movies entertain them, and he's always thinking about his audience. He loves movie premieres, not for the VIPs who are inside the theater, he loves them because he loves being out with his fans. If you've ever seen him out signing autographs, he's in his element.

If you go to a restaurant with Tom Cruise, it's like walking in with Santa Claus. Everybody is in a better mood because he's there. I mean, I haven't drunk the Tom Cruise Kool-aid, I recognize the good and the bad of the Tom Cruise brand, and I love that he allows us to make movies that fly in the face – even saying a brand is...he's somewhere between Vodafone and Coca-Cola in terms of a brand. Most brands are really protective of their identity. He's fearless about...It's why he went to Coca-Cola and said, "How would you feel about Barry Seal drinking a Coca-Cola in this movie?" They'd say, "Hell no." He's been an extraordinary actor. He's such a big movie star, but he's actually a movie star because of how many great roles he's played. From Risky Business to Jerry Maguire to Tropic Thunder, he always delivers. You know today movie stars are kind of, they're made. They're put in a franchise and then they're an instant movie star. Tom became a movie star the old fashioned way – he really earned it.

What's a day like on set with the two of you? Is there a lot of talking in between scenes or do you two like to work more instinctually? 

Tom and I lived together making America Made along with Gary Spinelli, the writer. The day would start with Tom banging on my door telling me to get up, and me telling him to go away because I would shower and dress for the next day, and then get into bed in the next day's clothing so that all I had to do was get up and brush my teeth and go out the door. Tom gets up an hour earlier than we're going to leave for set. He's working out in the gym, he's having a healthy breakfast, and I'm telling him to go away, my alarm isn't going to go off for another 40 minutes. That's the start. Then on the way to the set we're talking about the script, we're talking about the scenes, we're talking about the movie and talking about casting, we're living and breathing the movie.

There's an environment on set that is a safe environment for everybody to suggest good and bad ideas, but also to criticize. I was shooting a scene with Tom and Sarah Wright, and it wasn't really working, it was a problem with a structure of the scene. No matter how many times we tried, it didn't take his performance. It wasn't working and it's getting later and later on a Friday night. We'd been shooting for 14, 15 hours, and just can't make the scene work. At some point my director of photography, Cesar Chalone (City of God), just announces to everybody on set, "This is the scene where I go to the bathroom." We're like, "What does that mean?" He goes, "In the movie theater, when this scene comes on, this is where I leave and go to the bathroom." Then we're like, "It's as bad as we think it is." A lot of times it's unspoken, but I'm like, "Let's try again, let's try again." We're all thinking it, but nobody said it out loud [about the scene] and then we're like, "We should just go home, we got to rewrite this scene, we got to figure." By the way, that scene is now my favorite scene in the movie.

Which one is it?

It's the scene where she hits him when he admits he's working for the CIA and throws the money on the kitchen floor, where the appliances should be. That's the thing about Tom and I, is we're both relentless about making it work. We're just not going to stop until it works.

Earlier, you mentioned not having made a movie like Edge of Tomorrow before, but you could say that about most of the projects you've taken on. 

I'm really interested going on an adventure, and going to parts unknown. It's why I was so drawn to a character like Barry Seal, and the kind of adventures he went on, and taking off in these small planes and flying 10, 12 hours into remote airstrips where maybe somebody would be waiting with a pickup truck to light it, or maybe they won't and you'd have to ditch the airplane. That sense of venturing out into the unknown is what I love about Barry Seal, his sort of fearlessness. I'm not nearly so fearless about it. I do it, but I'm way more neurotic. It's something that Tom and I really related to. We're both pilots, we understand the sort of quest for risk taking, a thirst for risk taking that may not be within the norm. Tom obviously way more than me. Probably than anybody.

We were going to this remote airstrip in the Columbian jungle, an hour and a half from the closest road, and the producers were really trying to keep Tom and I from going. They were rattling off the 10 dangerous reasons not to go. Next to fog control territory, there was just...it wasn't working. Everything they said just got Tom and I more excited. It got to the point where my line producer sent a photo to Tom that said, "I'd like to introduce you to the apex predator of the Columbian jungle, the Columbian jaguar." Tom just wrote back, "Great, I can't wait to meet him." The next day, Tom and I were on our way in our little twin engine plane to this ridiculously remote airstrip where we got some of the most extraordinary flying footage, certainly the most extraordinary flying footage of this movie.

***

American Made is in theaters now.