In a 23-year career spanning films like Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper and Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman has never made a movie specifically about the real-life trauma and terror of modern warfare. With The Wall, he does just that: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Godzilla) and John Cena (Trainwreck) star as soldiers Isaac and Matthews, on a mission to investigate the deaths of civilian contractors at a remote site in Iraq when they are suddenly targeted by a hidden sniper. With Matthews hit, Isaac must hide behind a crumbling wall that is his only protection against the sniper — who begins a game of psychological cat and mouse with the young soldier.
At a cost of just $3 million, The Wall is a return of sorts to low-budget filmmaking for Liman. But whether it’s two men in the desert or Tom Cruise fighting aliens, Liman’s movies have a uniquely personal tone that has become his trademark. And speaking of Cruise, the two have collaborated again on this fall’s American Made — based on a real-life drug runner turned CIA mole — and may team up a third time for an Edge of Tomorrow sequel. Also on Liman’s plate: Justice League Dark (a.k.a. Dark Universe), the live-action foray into the supernatural corner of the DC Extended Universe, and adaptations of the Chaos Walking trilogy, a young adult sci-fi saga set on a human-colonized alien world where all living creatures can hear each other’s thoughts.
We touched on all these projects, and of course spoke at length about The Wall, when we got on the phone recently with Liman.
Den of Geek: Your movies tend to take big ideas and make them extremely personal. How would you say this film fits into that overall view?
Doug Liman: I’m glad you noticed that, because that is what I’m very interested in, is the personal side of big ideas, and usually that means the human side of big ideas. The amnesia for the Bourne franchise is really about exploring, in The Bourne Identity, the relationship between Jason Bourne and Marie under an impossible-to-grasp situation. So when it gets to The Wall, it’s sort of like a boiled-down version of everything I’ve ever been interested in, in any movie I’ve ever made, which is taking characters and putting them up against impossible odds and then seeing what they do. If you’re going to boil down what interests me most in my movies, it’s that. We jump right into the middle of it, no long setup, we’re just dropped into the war and it’s 90 minutes of survival.
Was it challenging and even fun going back to a low budget on this and not having $100 million on the line?
I was interested in working at a smaller budget number because for me, making movies is about taking chances and at a smaller number, I could take a bigger swing. When I was making Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I was having a debate with the studio about whether to score a particular moment towards the end of the movie, and I wanted to play it dry so it was way harsher, and the head of the studio said to me that if he’d made the film for $40 million, that would be okay to do, but you spent $120 million making the movie, we need the ending to be the most audience-pleasing version it can be for us to make our money back.
So if you want to take chances like that, you should just do it at a smaller budget number, but it’s not fair to ask us to take that chance when we need to make back this much money, and I was like, they’re right. And I actually appreciated being shown how the world looks like from the point of view of the person on the other side of the desk who has to write the check. And I did it their way. On The Wall, I took that person’s advice, and did it for a smaller number so I could do it my way and do something that’s a little bit bolder and a little rawer.
The original script was a one-man piece, but you expanded it to include John Cena’s character.
Yeah, I wasn’t really interested in making one of those film school exercise movies where you’re like, “Look, I made a movie with one actor.” Let’s be honest, who wants to see that? I don’t want to spend my money for some filmmaker to show off that they can do something with their hands tied behind their back, I want them to make the most entertaining movie they can make. And so, for me, expanding the story to include a second character made the story a much more complex story. It made it more of a roller coaster. Then most importantly, it took it out of the realm of that “art film, look-at-me, I made a film with one actor” genre of movies.
Aaron still carries a lot of it for a pretty good stretch. What qualities did you see in him that made you think that he could carry a large bulk of the picture?
Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance in the movie is extraordinary when you think about … there’s nothing to hide behind. He does carry the movie and I don’t have any of the tricks you might have to fix a performance. He’s got to just get it right. And Aaron actually knew he was going to star in The Wall before I knew he was going to star in The Wall. By that I mean, he flew himself to New York and showed up at my office, having already memorized the script saying, “Look no further, you have your Isaac.”
You don’t need any great insight to cast. I think anybody sitting in my position, having Aaron audition, would realize that they’re witnessing emerging greatness. And what was really special about it for me was how young he is, because the authenticity of detail in The Wall is such a key component to the movie, and you realize that for all this character’s been through, he’s basically just a kid. That’s not only true to the reality of who fights our wars, but it’s way more emotional and impactful.
That also gave me the ability to have contrast with the second character, with the second soldier, John Cena, who can bring weight and stature and experience and life experience and the kind of confidence that comes with a little more age, which is a great contrast and makes watching the two of them on screen together so much fun.
The title to me is a metaphor in many ways. It’s the physical wall that Isaac’s hiding behind, it’s the wall between these two countries, these two peoples, and it could also stand for the lack of communication between people. Did you see it in those terms?
Yeah. I kind of make films for different audiences, I make Hollywood movies but I live in New York City, so I’m thinking about both audiences in every movie I make. I want to make something that is really satisfying to a broad audience, the way Hollywood films do better than anyone else in the world. But I also have to face my friends in Brooklyn. When I’m working on Edge of Tomorrow and someone asks what I’m working on and I say, “Oh I’m doing a film with Tom Cruise,” I get people rolling their eyes. I’ll never forget a party in Brooklyn, a young woman heard I was doing a film with Tom Cruise, and in Hollywood, people pat you on the back, in New York they’re like, “Sellout!” And then they’re rolling their eyes and going, “I bet he’s in the movie with a woman half his age and they live happily ever after.” And I was like, “Actually no, at the end of my movie, she doesn’t know who he is.”
Because I know I have to face that sort of intellectual scorn constantly in New York, I can’t help but think about both audiences, so when I made The Wall, first and foremost, it’s a film for America, a film about American soldiers doing what they do best under impossible circumstances. But at the same time, there’s complexities to war, there’s complexities to that particular war, and the title The Wall does in fact allude to the other aspects of that story.
You’ve got a second movie coming out this year, American Made, starring Tom Cruise. What can we expect from that?
Tom Cruise and I in our second collaboration really flourished. I’m so proud of American Made, it’s Tom’s most extraordinary performance in years, and it is such an original movie. It’s the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. It’s big budget and so unbelievably original and fun and funny, and Tom Cruise plays a pilot flying for the CIA, and Tom and I are both pilots so the flying in the film is outrageous and extraordinary, and it’s all Tom doing all the stunts. You’ve seen movies where Tom has done extraordinary stunts, and you’ve seen movies where Tom has given an extraordinary performance. In American Made he does both.
You’ve got a few other irons in the fire and the Justice League Dark/Dark Universe project has come up a lot. You came on board to direct it last year, where does it stand?
I finally have a take on it that I love, and it’s going to be about scheduling for me, but as you might expect, if I’m going to tackle something in the superhero arena, it’s not going to be like anything that’s ever been done before. It’s not my first time doing superheroes, I mean Jason Bourne is a superhero, so I don’t plan on doing something that’s any less original.
Do you have a script that you’re happy with?
For me, the movie’s in my head before it’s on the page. So I have the movie in my head. A lot of it’s on the page, but it’s way more important for me to emotionally feel it in my head. My movies have such specific tones, I have to feel it in my bones, and I feel that one.
What’s the tone you’re feeling?
Well I don’t want to say how I’m going to make the movie before I make it!
You’re also working on adapting the Chaos Walking books.
Yes, I’m actually working on that as well. That would be by far, not only the most original movie I’ve ever made, it might be the most original movie out of Hollywood maybe ever…there is nothing like it and it’s therefore an extremely exciting challenge and I have amazing actors attached to it and it’s a terrifying movie. If The Wall pushed me in one direction way outside my comfort zone, Chaos Walking pushes me equally far in the other direction. But I do my best work outside my comfort zone. I follow a motto Tom Cruise told me when we were making American Made, which was, if you’re not terrified on the way to the set, it’s time to retire.
The Wall is out in theaters this Friday (May 12).