Doug Liman 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.

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