Doug Liman interview: American Made, Bourne Identity, frozen urine

As American Made comes to DVD and Blu-ray, we talk to director Doug Liman about flying and an incident with a bottle of urine...

We’ve been lucky enough to have spoken to director Doug Liman a few times now at Den Of Geek, and we can safely say he’s a constant source of fascinating anecdotes. Indeed, his delivery of fascinating and sometimes outlandish stories can be so matter-of-fact and deadpan that it sometimes takes us a few seconds to truly appreciate how special they are.

Liman’s latest film is American Made, his second collaboration with star Tom Cruise – they previously made the superb sci-fi thriller Edge Of Tomorrow (or as Liman prefers it, Live Die Repeat) together. American Made is based on the true story of Barry Seal, a former airline pilot who, at the height of his criminal success in the 1980s, was one of the most prolific drug smugglers in the United States – something he managed to achieve while simultaneously running missions for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Liman and Cruise’s passion for flying led to the majority of the aerial sequences being shot for real, which makes for a lively conversation by itself. But later, the conversation turned to another flying-based incident: the time when, back in the late 90s or early 2000s, a young Liman – still a relative unknown in Hollywood – flew out to meet the author Robert Ludlum. Liman’s goal was to secure the rights to The Bourne Identity – a series of spy novels he’d adored since childhood. A novice pilot at the time, Liman set off in his plane to Montana – and realised the journey would be far more difficult than he’d initially thought…

It’s great to speak to you again about American Made. So now you’ve had a few months’ distance from it, what are your feelings about it? How did the experience compare with your other films?

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Certainly the flying aspects of American Made were probably the most challenging thing I’ll ever tackle. You hear people talking about shooting on the water, and the horror stories people talk about are well-earned. Filming with airplanes is a whole calibre of difficulty that Tom Cruise and I had set up from the beginning. Saying, “We’re gonna do these for real”.

Tom has a real belief – he has way more experience than I do in action – but say my experience on The Bourne Identity, I want to give the audience real experiences. To make movies that transport you not only to a different place and time, but also put you in the car that Jason Bourne’s racing through the streets of Europe, or for Tom Cruise, the experience of what it’s like to hang off the tallest building in the world. Some aspects of those experiences have to be filmed for real.

We’re not actually risking our lives to the extent that it maybe appears on screen, but there’s a level of risk being undertaken by the filmmaker and the stars, and the spectacle of that shows up on screen in a way that a CG sequence in a Marvel film can never replicate. It has its own pleasures, but it’s fundamentally different. So Tom and I had a commitment to doing the flying for real without maybe understanding how difficult that would be.

Anyone who’s a pilot is familiar with the adage that anything that you buy for your car, if you need it for a boat, it’s four times as much. A battery for a car, or a screw, will be four times as much as a battery for a boat. If it’s for an airplane, it’s ten times what it would cost for the boat. We both, as pilots, understood that it’s going to be difficult. But on the flip side, having just now completed another movie, it’s just finished shooting, where I got banned from flying during the course of production – it was just last week that I started flying again.

I will always treasure American Made as the only film I’ll ever make where I was not only allowed to pilot myself during production, but it was also part of our daily existence. Tom flew himself to set in either his plane or mine. The airplane got to South American because Tom flew it there. In the rain forest, we were able to film there because Tom flew us there in the AeroStar. That wasn’t for the filming, it was just to get there. To be able to make a movie where the flying is in the DNA of making the movie, we’re living and breathing it, you know? We didn’t just share a house when we made the movie – we shared a passion, we shared a hobby.

Hobby’s too small a word for it. I sometimes fly a flight simulator, like a Nintendo flight simulator, when I’m at cruise in the plane. Where other pilots read a book, or listen to the radio. 

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That’s lying Inception. You’re flying a plane within a plane!

[A half-second silence.] For people who are committed to flying… we can’t get enough of it. Like Barry Seal.

What were the practical problems, then, of these aerial shoots?

Shooting while flying for real?

Yeah.

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We were shooting the equivalent of car chases with airplanes. One of our references was Smokey And The Bandit. The challenge with airplanes is, the one Tom Cruise is flying is in the same vicinity as the one the Drug Enforcement Agency is flying, which could be a jet. It’s supposed to be chasing him, and the helicopter that I’m in, still has to maintain the speed. Usually the DP was in the plane with Tom and I was in the helicopter. Now you have to get a jet, Tom’s Aerostar and the helicopter at the exact same spot in the Gulf of Mexico at the exact same moment to film the chase sequence.

You’ve got a helicopter that isn’t a fast as the Aerostar that isn’t as fast as the jet, and it isn’t easy to see each other until you’re relatively close. And if you’re relatively close, you have the danger of hitting each other. There’s no road marks out there. You’d be like, okay, you’ve formulated the plan on the ground, and everyone would agree to fly over this particular oil rig, but even then, if you  don’t fly over the oil rig at exactly the same moment, you still aren’t going to be lined up with each other. Just to get everybody in position… there’s no ‘find my friend’ to identify where everybody is. But it was exciting, and again, I’ve always believed in focusing on the details when it comes to action.

In Live Die Repeat, focusing on whether the suits run out of battery power, you know, even though we’re in the future and fighting aliens, batteries are still gonna be an issue. Bourne Identity, maybe in the first car chase, people put their seat belts on before they started. I’ve always been intetested in details, and things get way more exciting if you just ground them to start with in the practical limitations of doing it for real.

I wanted to embrace that in the flying sequences. If you created them in a computer with CG airplanes, you could do anything. There’s some aspect of the audience knowing it’s for real that adds a level of excitement. And because it’s set in the 80s – you really could be a cowboy in the 80s. The kind of flying Barry Seal back then just isn’t possible today because of the way the world’s changed. So he was the last of the Wild West.

Instead of riding horses they were flying planes, and there’s still an analogue component to that. If you’re doing a modern version of Butch And Sundance, you wouldn’t want to use CG horses – there’s something about shooting it in the west with real horses that’s going to transport audiences more completely into another universe. The movie’s set in the 80s because that’s when it took place, but also part of your ability to enjoy Barry Seal and his extremely questionable morality – if he has any at all – it’s because it’s not today. 

What do you think Barry Seal would be doing today? An opportunist like that, what would he get up to?

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The internet is not as much as it was, but it’s kind of the Wild West. I’d imagine Barry Seal would have either founded Napster or Facebook, or he’d be hunted by the authorities because he’s been trafficking drugs on the dark web.

That strikes me as an interesting subject for a film in itself.

The internet… the wild west that American Made portrays, the internet’s the wild west as well. There are moments in time when characters like Barry Seal, like real opportunists, can step in and take advantage of a situation and exploit it beyond their own wildest imaginations. Tom and I loved him for it, but we had to come up with a mechanism for someone who was the largest drug smuggler in American history, and we thought of him in this regard, which is that, for Barry Seal, if there’s a hundred dollar bill lying in the street, it would be a crime not to pick it up. If the CIA is asking you to fight Communism and giving you an empty airplane, and the technology to avoid law enforcement on the way back into America, the crime would be to NOT fill it up with drugs.

I get the impression that you can’t help but admire Barry Seal. I wonder whether you think in Hollywood that there aren’t the same risk-taking directors these days.

Um, I think Hollywood is… still filled with mavericks. Because obviously there are movies that aren’t that original, but there are still original voices. It isn’t an industry that… when I was making my first studio film, The Bourne Identity […] I was just with Clive Owen last week, and we were reminiscing about a scene we shot in the Czech Republic with him and Matt Damon, and the scene just wasn’t working.

At wrap, I figured out what was wrong and I thought, I’ve got to do it tomorrow. The producers were like, no, you have to move on. And I said, But we’re here. I can fix it tomorrow morning. They were like, no, you have to move on. I said, this is crazy. It’ll take me 20 minutes to fix it and then we can move on – otherwise we’re recreating this field in Los Angeles for a huge amount of money, and it’s not good enough […] I turned to Matt and Clive and I said, I have to fix this. I knew exactly what I needed to fix it, so I said I can do it in one take. So I shot the whole scene with me running around with the camera without ever calling “cut”, just to get the three shots I needed.

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Here I am all these years later with a career I’m really proud of. I guess if you can get away with it, it’s okay. That’s how I relate to Barry Seal – that’s how he made it.

We’ve seen a number of films recently that have gone through reshoots. How hard is it ot go back and shoot something after the fact and maintain the same tone?

I love to reshoot. How often in life do you get the opportunity to go back and fix a mistake? And maybe there were moments like that on Bourne Identity, where 20 minutes while we’re on location fixes an issue, and I’ve surrounded myself with producers who understand that I don’t always get it right at first, but I’ll keep going until I get it right. Hollywood’s one of those places where there is no quote-unquote right way to do it. Whatever works is the right way. 

I have to ask, going back to The Bourne Identity, about the time you went to get the rights form Robert Ludlum. Could you tell me a bit about that?

I’d loved The Bourne Identity since high school. After Swingers was a pretty big hit, people were asking me what movie I want to make. I said The Bourne Identity. And Hollywood said, no, what kind of small comedy do you want to make?

I really wanted to make The Bourne Identity, and Hollywood was not ready to give me the opportunity. I never stopped pursuing the chance to do the book myself. I crashed a wedding where Terry Semel of Warner Bros was because I thought Warner Bros had the rights. I was shameless in my pursuit of the rights, and I eventually found Ludlum’s lawyer and he told me the rights were about to revert to Ludlum from Warner Bros. I arranged to meet him in Glacier National Park, and I’d just become a pilot – I’d just bought an airplane.

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I was doing my flight training in Texas, and when I was done, they were like, you go fly it alone for 25 hours, and then you’re a certified pilot. I thought, it’s the perfect flight if I go to Montana, and then I’ll combine it with visiting Robert Ludlum. And I didn’t really appreciate that Glacier National Park is in the Teton Mountains, and what that would mean for trying to fly in, and also how turbulent it was. The mountains are higher than the plane could fly, so I had to fly through the valleys, which are loaded with clouds. You have to try to avoid the clouds and avoid the mountains, and you’re like a Martini being shaken.

So by the time I landed, Ludlum had called the National Guard, because I was an hour and a half late. It just sort of gave my arrival a level of excitement that I think helped me convince Ludlum to give me the rights. Because who am I? At that point I had one small film under my belt – I think I’d just finished Go at the time. Two independent films under my belt. I spent the weekend with him and his wife, and he’d never call me by my real name – he’d only call me Hollywood. He thought the arrival was so Hollywood, which was ironic because I flew in from New York, not Los Angeles – it would’ve been an easier flight if I’d flown in from Los Angeles because it’s a lot closer to Montana than New York is.

Then the flight home was just as perilous. I almost ran out of fuel. Coming back from New York, I realised I wasn’t going to make it to White Plains, which was the airport I was based at, so I thought I’d make it almost to White Plains and pick an airport that was almost 40 miles short of it, which meant I was going to have almost no fuel in the plane. And when I went to land, the airstrip was tiny, surrounded by mountains – way smaller than any runway I’d ever landed on. I took two tries trying to land on the runway. And I was like, “Now I’m really out of fuel.” I eventually put it down, but I was shaking. 

That was a hell of a first solo flight, then.

When I landed at the airport, I called my instructor and told him what happened, why I was out there. I said, “I think I made the classic rookie mistake”. He said, “What’s that?” I said, when I took off from Glacier National Park, it was two four-hour flights back to New York – turns out it was three, because I had to make the fuel stop. And an hour into the first flight, I had to pee really badly. I brought with me an empty Snapple bottle to pee in, for such an emergency. I filled it up, but I was so terrified that a half hour later I had to pee again. I still had three-and-a-half hours left of the flight, and I’m looking at this bottle that’s almost full, and I’m like, “Shoot.” It was more than half-full, and I had to go more badly than I did the first time. So it’s going to overflow. I was, like, I need to empty the bottle. And there’s a little window in prop planes that’s for communicating on the ground, but you can open it in the air if you slow the plane down.

So I thought, I’ll slow the plane down, open the window and empty the bottle out, and then use it again. But the thing is, you’re up at 14,000 feet, the air temperature is something like minus 14 degrees out there, and the wind’s whipping by at 100 miles per hour. So I put the bottle out the little window and unscrewed the cap, but before I could turn it upside down, the suction sucked all of the urine out of the bottle, and it froze on contact and created a giant snowball around my hand. I was eventually able to shake it off, but when I told my instructor when I landed that I tried to empty a urine bottle at that altitude, he was like, “Actually, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that. I’ve never had a student try to empty a urine bottle in the air.”

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I mean, honestly, in seven hours flying from Ludlum’s house, I probably had to pee six times. I was so scared.

My god. But it was all worth it in the end.

Yeah, and to spend a weekend with such an influential writer – before filming had started and all that – was just a filmmaker’s dream. He was in retirement, and he died  before the film came out, so nobody involved in the movies had a chance to meet him. None of the producers, none of the actors, nobody from the studio, so I was especially appreciative of having [met him].

It was worth the risk, not for my career, but for having the opportunity to meet somebody who I idolised in high school. In our business, you’re put in surreal situations every once in a while, like, I’m hanging out with Tom Cruise. I grew up watching Risky Business and Top Gun while I was in high school. In a million years I never thought I’d meet that person, let alone work with them.

So there are moments in our business that are very surreal, and I grew up reading Robert Ludlum novels, and I idolised him. I was like, wait a minute, this guy whose name is embossed on these spy novels… I’m a guest in his house, and he’s calling me Hollywood! He’s making me breakfast!

I hope I never lose that sense of wonder.

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American Made is available on Digital now, and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD December 26th.