Doug Liman interview: American Made, Tom Cruise, being a rebel

Doug Liman on Swingers, getting arrested, American Made, Bourne and much more...

It was only a couple of weeks ago that we last spoke to Doug Liman, who in July was promoting his compact, $3 million war thriller The Wall. Now, he’s back with another thriller, this one taking place over a much broader canvas. American Made tells the story of Barry Seal, a pilot who wound up running missions in and out of Central America for the CIA; taking covert photographs and smuggling in guns. 

The film’s the perfect vehicle for Cruise, given that he gets to fly lots of planes, but then again, Barry Seal’s hardly your typical heroic Cruise lead: Seal earns a fortune running guns for the CIA and cocaine for the cartels, but he ends up as a pawn in a political game that he’s barely even aware of. Liman directs the whole thing with his typical urgency and brio, and in person, he’s just as effusive: full of stories about the real Barry Seal, the Iran-Contra scandal, and his own rebellious streak as a filmmaker.

Here’s what Liman had to say…

Fantastic film. Did the project come before you worked with Tom Cruise, or was it something you chose specifically with him in mind?

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I loved working with Tom on Edge Of Tomorrow, and it was on to the next. I wanted to work with him again; I loved working with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt – I’ve had amazing experiences with the actors I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve been really lucky in terms of the people I’ve gotten to work with. But I just look for material; I was sent American Made by a producer, Brian Grazer, and just fell in love with the character, Barry Seal. I just loved this unapologetic outlaw rule-breaker, who’s doing it with an airplane. I loved the world of the CIA in the 80s; the Cold War – we’re starting to have Russia as an enemy now, but the Cold War was such a fun time. It provoked the United States to put a man on the Moon – you know, like, literally, we did it just because we could do it before they did it. Some extraordinary things came out of this Cold War.

All of those aspects of the story I loved. I’m gonna make this film, so who do I wanna cast? I couldn’t help but think that Barry Seal’s story is the opposite of Top Gun; wouldn’t it be fun to just cast Tom Cruise? But I didn’t know… when I asked Tom about turning his character into a coward for Edge Of Tomorrow, I didn’t know how he’d feel about that, because traditionally, especially in action movies, he plays a very heroic character. He was so excited to play a coward in Edge Of Tomorrow; he didn’t just embrace it, he went really far with it. I thought he’d be pretty fearless about jumping into Barry Seal. So I sent him the script and he loved it, and he loved the idea of it. People think of Tom as being fearless when he comes to his stunts, but he’s even more fearless in terms of his willingness to jump into characters that are so different than people think of him playing. 

Yeah, that’s why I asked. Because on a surface level, if you cut the film into trailer moments, it looks like a perfect role for him, because he gets to smile a lot and fly planes and things. But then when you look at Barry Seal, he’s kind of a pawn, isn’t he? He’s used by the CIA and the government for their own ends.

They play to his weakness. But he plays into their weakness. I mean, everyone in American Made is flawed. There are no heroes in this story. The closest is his wife, who holds it together, [the actress] Sarah Wright. Normally when you do a movie based on true events, you’re like, okay, well the events are true, but probably the characterisations are exaggerated.

In the case of Sarah Wright’s character, Barry Seal’s wife shared with us photos and other things of his life, and one of the photos she shared was a picture of her visiting him in a jail in Guatamala, on his birthday, and she’s cutting a birthday cake with a machete. She’s in a jail that looks just like the prison he’s in in the movie.

We’re like, this is a woman who thought she was marrying a TWA airline pilot! Here she is, years later, and she remained in love with him. We not only didn’t have to exaggerate in any way this Bonnie and Clyde love story, because if you look at the photos, it really was that… the other thing is, sometimes you cast a movie star to play a character, they suddenly become more attractive than the real person was. Think of Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich – the real Erin Brockovich just doesn’t look like Julia Roberts. In the case of Fair Game, actually, Valerie Plame was as attractive as Naomi Watts. But normally, Hollywood tends to cast somebody more attractive both physically and from a character point of view than the real person. But Barry Seal was deeply loved by the people who knew him.

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Even a pilot who worked with us in Colombia, where we shot part of the film, and who had flown for Pablo Escobar, as all the pilots in Colombia seem to have done, said he knew Barry Seal and how much he loved Barry Seal. When he heard the film was about Barry Seal he was, “Oh, I love Barry.” When I said, “How did you know Barry?” He said, “Oh, he stole an airplane from me!”

Oh my God.

Yeah! He came to look at an airplane and asked if he could take it for a test flight, and just took off and never came back. And that guy loved Barry. So his wife, who thought she was marrying a TWA airline pilot, and winds up having to visit him in a Guatamalan jail on his birthday and loved him, and still loves him to this day, and this guy still loves him to this day. The people at the DEA who knew him that we met with loved him. He was like, the largest drug smuggler in American history, probably. And the DEA agents who handled him loved him!

In all honesty, I love that character. It’s part of why the tone of the film is judgemental. You’re kind of like, in a way, it’s nice to feel like there are some people out there who are just free, kind of like a cowboy. The flying that he was doing in the 80s is not something you could do today. That era doesn’t exist anymore, because of GPS and all the technology that exists today, you couldn’t get away with the kind of flying that he was doing in the 80s. So it’s not just celebrating a character who’s free, it’s about celebrating a time when characters like that could get away with the outrageous things they did. It’s reminiscent of the wild west, the kind of outlaws we’ve often celebrated, like Butch and Sundance. 

It’s interesting you talk about all this research and looking at photographs, because I get an impression there’s a journalistic quality to the way you make films. That you enjoy that discovery in research.

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I’m really interested in real people in extraordinary situations. The detail and reality to that. So there is a kind of journalistic approach of, like, how things would work, how they did work, or how they would work in the future like Edge Of Tomorrow. How would people really react in those situations.

The more Hollywood version of American Made would’ve made the CIA complicit in the drug trade, but the reality of how it worked was, the people who work at the CIA are rule-followers. They believe in their mission, they believe in fighting Communism, but they’re recruiting from the top universities; they’re the honour students, you know. They’re not criminals, as much as people would want to brand people at the CIA as criminals, they’re not – their crime may be that they believe so much in their mission that they ignore facts that get in the way. But they’re genuinely good people that believe in their mission.

That ultimately is a more interesting movie for me because it takes a little digging to go beyond the superficial, “The CIA are trafficking in cocaine.” No, when you dig in a little bit, that sort of journalistic approach that you talked about, you’re like, the reality’s more interesting. You have people at the CIA who are decidedly not criminals, but the people they go and recruit are criminals. Because if you’re going to find somebody who’s willing to break the law and fly guns into Central America, then the person willing to do that, to break the laws and rules that are required to be broken, they’re gonna be a criminal. So now you have the rule-followers at the CIA in business with these criminals, and the criminals are criminals – they’re not just gonna break the rules the CIA wants them to break; they’re going to break whatever rules they wanna break. That’s a more interesting dynamic.

I’ve often found, as I did with Bourne, where I was inspired by the events of Iran-Contra when I designed the CIA for the Bourne franchise, that the reality of how things work is usually more compelling than the superficial, made-up version that Hollywood sometimes does.

I get the impression that your father must’ve been really important to the way you tell stories in your films. Because obviously, he was involved in the Iran-Contra investigation.

Yeah, well certainly my father gave me exposure to the inner workings of Washington. Which was interesting just on the mechanical level, whether it’s in The Bourne Identity, and also the absurd level of it, which very much went into American Made.

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When my father conducted the hearings into Iran-Contra, there were public hearings and then there were classified hearings. At the public hearings, the State Department asked my father not to identify countries by name, because we had relationships with countries that were implicated, like Israel and Iran. They were like, it’d be better if you didn’t identify them by name for the public, so just call them Country A, Country B, and they came up with a list for the public hearings.

But the New York Times, after the first day of public hearings, published a guide for viewers that said, “Country A means Turkey, Country B is Israel, Country C is Russia” so now everybody knew, but meanwhile, they still had to continue… and everybody was confused, the senators were confused over which country was which, but they had to just continue this ruse.

There was no shortage of these little absurdities. Before my father’s security clearance came in, but his work was classified, he was dictating a memo, because he dictated – you know, a different era of being a lawyer. He didn’t type at a computer, he just dictated stuff out loud.

He had an FBI agent who had a top-secret security clearance, and my father was dictating a memo to that guy, and that guy had his computer facing him. And my father said, “Okay, read that back to me.” Because that’s how he would work – he’d dictate to his secretary and she’d read it back.

But the guy says, “I can’t read it back to you. You don’t have your security clearance yet.” It was just, like, whatever’s on that computer screen is now top secret. There were so many things like that.

The Contras that Barry Seal is equiping in this film, like, the reality of the Contras is even more outrageous than we alluded to. They had no interest in fighting. There are little easter eggs for people who wanna dig through. Yes, we are aware that the story is even crazier. But, you know, I wanted to make a film about Barry Seal, not about the contras. But Adolpho Collero, who was the head contra, he’s wearing a Coca-Cola t-shirt in the film. So if anyone wants to dig a little bit, they’ll discover that, not only was he trying to overthrow the government in Nicaragua, but he also had the Coca-Cola bottling franchise for Nicaragua at the same time. So he’s no Che Guevara! I mean, he was not a revolutionary at all. In fact, the day the Cold War ended between us and the Soviet Union, the contras all moved back home. Adolfo Calero just moved back into his home. The war was so ridiculous.

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My father would come home and regale me with these stories of Oliver North’s interactions with these contras, who the president was tasking to get him to overthrow the government in Nicaragua, and they had no interest in fighting and no ability to fight. Barry Seal found himself in the middle of that and was able to exploit the situation for something like $80 million. That was a lot of money at the time – a lot of money today, but in the 80s, it was a lot, lot more. 

The way you describe it like Catch-22, where war’s this absurd thing where everyone’s out for personal gain.

Yes, yeah.

There’s a lot of flying in this film, and I know you like flying, so how much of it was done for real?

It’s all real.

So even the part where you lose gravity, almost, and the contents of the plane start to float…?

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So like that particular scene, Tom and I were flying out to a very remote airstrip about three hours from Medellin, and he’s flying in the AeroStar, which is the plane he’s flying in the film, and I’m in the back of the airplane, and there’s no seats back there because it was all cleared out for moving guns and cocaine. So I just took a pillow from the hotel and I’m lying in the back of the airplane with a book, it’s like a three-hour flight, and at some point I fell asleep. And Tom, for a joke, put the airplane into a parabolic arc, and I woke up as I was being slammed into the ceiling of this airplane. I was pinned up against the ceiling, which I did find funny. It hurt, but I found it funny. From there, Tom and I were like, wouldn’t it be fun to do that in the movie? That was it.

That was my process with Tom Cruise. “Wouldn’t it be funny, or wouldn’t it be exciting, or wouldn’t it be funny and exciting…” So like, “wouldn’t it be funny if Barry was making out with Lucy on the plane and he put it into an arc”. So we did some of that for real, where he really pinned it, and then for the closeups, we had to do it on stage. But there is no flying double for Tom. He does all that flying on his own. Where you see he lands the airplane and flies it right into the soccer game at the end of the airstrip, if we hadn’t cut the shot up, you’d have seen it go fully through the scene as he comes down through the air.

Even things where we landed the plane at night at the airstrip lit by pickup truck, that’s Tom doing that. It’s pitch black, you can’t tell it’s Tom. But Tom Cruise doesn’t have a stunt double. Every other actor has a stunt double – like Daniel Craig has a stunt double, Brad Pitt has a stunt double. Over the years, they’ve found somebody who looks like them and is a good stuntman, but Tom Cruise does not actually have one. He did all his own flying in the film, and he doesn’t need a stunt double because he’s a great stuntman and he’s an extraordinary pilot. He did flying in the film that the professional pilots couldn’t do as well.

If you tell Tom, “Land the plane there, right on that mark” he’ll land it right on that mark. It’s the precision with which he can fly is extraordinary. I can appreciate that because I’m a pilot. Everybody knew that. He’s really serious about it. He may have this reputation of being this daredevil because of Mission: Impossible, but I can tell you the level of training that goes into everything he does – there’s nothing daredevil at all, other than the end result, that he’s willing to do extraordinary things. He does it with such care.

You talked about your admiration for Barry Seal; do you think of yourself as a rebel, in filmmaking terms?

Um, I do. You know, it’s one of those things where, when I was making Swingers, I’d organise my whole shoot based on the things most likely to get us arrested. Even though I asked. I kind of have a sense of… I was actually arrested in college for a stupid prank and got away with it. Then 10 years ago I got stopped by the police, actually with the same friend I got arrested in college with.

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In college, we ran from the police and got away; but then we had to turn ourselves in because the third person didn’t run. Ten years ago, we got arrested for ice-skating in Central Park on the boat pond. I turned to my friend and said, “Should we run?” You know, like we did in college, and he was like, “I think we’re too old to run from the police.”

I said, “You’re probably right.” So we just turned ourselves in.

So I do have this sense of like, you know, my rebellious nature has to evolve. Because maybe the things I could get away with on Swingers are not as acceptable, or maybe, because of my stature now, people may be more willing to follow me. So I have to be more careful about where I ask them to go. But it hasn’t stopped me from doing the things, it’s just maybe I’ve thought about it more.

Like when I went into Baghdad in Fair Game. I was gonna do that no matter what, even though the war was going on. I maybe did it in a less rebellious way, because I called the head of the studio up and said, “By the way, I’ve been lying to you. I’m going into Baghdad tomorrow morning”. Whereas the earlier me would’ve not made that phone call. So I’m still breaking the rules, but I’m apologising in advance to the people.

Well, that’s progress, isn’t it? That’s progress. Doug Liman, thank you very much.

American Made is out in UK cinemas on the 25th August.