Hollywood Director Doug Liman
Doug Liman is a Hollywood director, producer, film school drop out, and a farmer. When he’s not flying around the world filming high-action and drama films with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Matt Daemon, Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, he’s playing farmer with full out tractors and pigs on his island home off New England. He began his career in the industry by dropping out of film school and soon after he went on to make the cult favourite Swingers, igniting the careers of Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston and Patrick Van Horn. His next film Go, struck cult indie film status yet again, earning Doug acclaim for his witty, fast-paced dialogue and unique scene jumping chronology. It was with his next film The Bourne Identity that he claimed his footing as a studio director after which he directed big budget Hollywood films such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper, and Edge of Tomorrow, about which we interviewed Doug on set in London.
Despite his Hollywood film status, Doug has the sensibility of an indie director, with his Palm d’Or nominated Fair Game (Noami Watts, Sean Pean) based on the memoir by former CIA officer Valerie Plame, as a testament to his intelligent approach, and striking vision. And even behind the explosions and high-speed car races of his action films, there is an undeniable vein of emotional complexity and nuanced character developments.
As a creative entrepreneur, Doug has reached one of the most desirable levels of success anyone in the film industry could hope for. With a resume and accolades ranging from cult indie films to Hollywoods hits, endless TV commercials, Producer clout for TV shows including Suits and Covert Affairs, and not to mention having his own production house, Hypnotic; it might be hard to imagine where he will go from here.
But that is the thing about Doug Liman, you never know what surprise he’ll bring to the screen next, and it is no wonder that his reputation in Hollywood is that of a risk taker. With a life off set that resembles an action film in itself, ripe with adrenaline toys from his own plane (that he flies himself), to boats, drones and an entourage of best guy friends and antics that put Entourage to shame, his adventurous tendencies clearly translate into his work. And despite the impressive list of films and accomplishments he has left in his wake, he still gives us the feeling that we’ve only seen the half of what’s to come.
“There is very much this pressure on the director to act like you know exactly like you know what you’re doing and I’m sort of the opposite because I’ll be the first want to say I’ve never made a movie like this before.”–Doug Liman
CM: When did you first become interested in film?
When I was about seven or eight years old my father was given a super eight film camera as a present, and it was this inexpensive home camera given to him by a client, and once I picked it up, I just never stopped.
I get bored of most things in life I have a new hobby almost every month, but film has been with me since my earliest memories.
CM: Did you have to convince your parents to go to film school?
I came from a really great, smart family. My father was one of the top lawyers in America, and my brother and sister were both straight-A students. I grew up in a very academic environment and when my parents first heard that I was serious about going into film, they urged me to go to film school.
I don’t think they really understood that film is basically a blue-collar job. They [finally] realised that when I got out of film school and there weren’t really jobs waiting for graduates of film school. It was more that there was a giant disconnect between what I already knew how to do and what my classmates experiences had been. I dropped out of film school to go make a straight to home video called Getting In, but it was a professional film and it was hired by real producers and most of my friends from film school still hadn’t made the first film. Making this film basically was my film school, and the lessons I learned on that movie I applied to the next film which was Swingers. I was the DOP [Director of Photography] of swingers out of necessity. My favorite thing I had done in the first film Getting In was something that I had shot myself, and so that was part of the lesson: that if I was going to go make an independent film, I was going to go shoot it myself. I started being offered studio films and turned them down and chose to make another independent film called Go, which is still my favorite of all my movies and probably will be. Just for all the memories associated with making it, and with how original the film was. And mostly because when I look back on that, the safe choice after Swingers was to go make a studio film because making studio films in Hollywood is sort of like a club, and once you made one you’re on the list.
“I don’t necessarily think that having more money helps make you make a better film. Sometimes having less money is better. You’re forced into being more original you’re forced into hearing something versus seeing it.”–Doug Liman
CM: Is easier to create with a larger budget provided by film studios?
I don’t necessarily think that having more money helps make you make a better film. Sometimes having less money is better. You’re forced into being more original you’re forced into hearing something versus seeing it. Look at Jaws. The fact that they didn’t have as much money as they wanted to have and that the shot didn’t work ultimately lead to Spielberg to make a much better movie than had he had more money.
CM: What makes a good script?
What I look for is a piece of material that if I would make it, would be different than if anyone else makes it, so in the case of Go, which your instinct if you had read the script would have been to make a film that was very judgmental of the characters, but I had an experience when I was 18 where I stole a streetlight and got arrested, and I realize by the next year that getting caught and spending time in jail was actually the single most interesting thing that has ever happened to be in my entire life, it was actually the best actual outcome. So when I read the script of Go, it was about these characters having the worst night of their lives, and I was reading it and say no they will look back on this and say it was the best night of their lives!
I think when I started making movies, I had aspirations to make big action movies, and I discovered on the way I was more interested in character than action. The Mr. Mrs. Smith script was originally way too focused on action, and the characters weren’t developed at all. And I started working on the scripts and basically reinvented the movie ends and that was something that would actually play as a romantic comedy.
CM: Do you studious put his films according to the audiences expectations?
The studios maybe look at the audience but it depends on when you’re talking about because the studios have changed. Maybe the studios of the 90’s were more formulaic, but these days the studios recognize that the audiences are a little bit tired of formulaic and the studio seems to be more open to taking chances.
CM: What triggered your fascination for spies and spy movies?
I think that when growing up I sort of always loved going to see James Bond films. I don’t really have an artsy film resume from my youth; I sort of went to see big commercial movies, and when I was in college my father ran an investigation into their Iran-Contra affair and picking up at the breadcrumbs at his feet, I sort of became fascinated with the real world of espionage as opposed to what’s in the movies.
CM: Do you have a specific genre?
No, I definitely don’t have a specific genre, and I’m not really interested in repeating myself. I’m interested in learning and growing. My biggest fear as a director is finding myself on set directing a moment that might be similar to a moment I directed in something else. That really would be a fate worse than death. There is very much this pressure on the director to act like you know exactly like you know what you’re doing and I’m sort of the opposite because I’ll be the first want to say I’ve never made a movie like this before. I’m figuring it out and I’m trying to grow as a filmmaker while I am making this. I did not know how to make The Bourne identity until I made it
CM: Are you a people person?
I really believe in teamwork. I believe it’s part of why I love them so much. I generally love people, I love all kinds of people, I even love people whose opinions are the exact opposite of mine and fight me on it and, I’m very open to ideas no matter where they come from maybe because I’m go there was somebody on the set who basically didn’t say a word for the entire seven-week shoot–not one word–and then the last night at four in the morning when the other producers had all gone to sleep and they had one hour left on the shoot, he pitched a good idea to me. And I did it because I’m really happy and proud of everything I did in that movie and that was an idea coming from a very unexpected source and at a very unexpected time, so maybe because I’m particularly receptive or maybe because my father always instilled in me a way to live your life in which you shouldn’t just assume you’re right.
“Failure isn’t getting knocked out, it’s not getting back up.”–Doug Liman
CM: Any tips for aspiring filmmakers?
I don’t have a regret because I was really given a great in film school. I have lived my career according to it, and I had a writing teacher, and everyone [in the class] was working on their own individual script, and he said “look, when you finish your script put a grid on the back of your script with 100 boxes”–it’s a different era now now you would email your script everyone but back then you would physically deliver a script to somebody–and he said “when you send the script out to a studio or to a producer and it comes back with them having rejected it, put a checkmate in the grid and then send it to somebody else and what it comes back put another check mark in, and when you have filled the grid, you’ll sell the script.” And what he was telling us was to treat each one of those failures as bringing you one step closer to success. Failure isn’t getting knocked out it’s not getting back up.
CM: What is the most frustrating part about your work? The frustrating part is maybe not getting your way, wanting something and not getting it. Wanting an actor and not getting it, wanting an extra shot at the end of the day and not getting it, it’s not just the out right rejection but the idea of making a movie and all the little things that you can’t necessarily get exactly the way as you want.
CM: What is the big difference been directing TV series and feature films?
TV is a longer format so it’s even more character driven then film, that’s why people tune in every week because they love the characters. It’s really not that different. Obviously the format is different but the process–the writing, developing characters–that are original and smart and that people like it want to follow. I feel really lucky that I have the ability to do both because the films come and go and it’s a very intense experience, and then you say goodbye, and you never see those people again where as Suits, I am working with the same people. I have been working with the same people three years ago since its start; it’s a family that’s always there. Having both, having the excitement of here’s new people, here’s a new movie but also having a safe space of the people you get to see every year.
CM: How do you balance your professional life with your private life?
Some of them become part of my private life, my editor from The Bourne Identity has become one of my best friends we just went skiing a week ago in the Alps, so some people crossover, and they really cross and become close and very good friends who I love seeing.
CM: Do you travel a lot with your films?
It’s a very mad lifestyle. You set up roots in a place. I was in France for a year to make The Bourne Identity. I’ve been in England for two years for Edge of Tomorrow and some places you’re in and out of in a couple of weeks or a month then you don’t really set up much at all, but with Mr. and Mrs. Smith I lived in LA and Fair Game I made in New York which is home, and our TV shows are based in Toronto so it feels like a home too.
CM: Does New York inspire you?
Part of why I love living in New York is that you’re just surrounded by people from all walks of life at all hours of the day and night. The single fastest way to get around the city is the subway, so you’re on one subway cart and you look around and there’s 50 stories in front of me: There’s a young couple in love; there is a homeless guy; there is the older couple fighting; there is a guy that looks lonely; there’s a businessman who looks like he’s maybe about to get fired. But they’re all right there in front of you and they’re all characters and I’m endlessly fascinated by the life around me in New York.
CM: If you were in a filmmaker what would you be?
Maybe a farmer? I really do love farming and the lands or an architect.