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.

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American Made is in theaters now.

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