‘There’s no way they’re going to let me take Tom Cruise camping in the jungle’

Doug Liman on his guerilla filmmaking techniques in American Made

The official trailer for "American Made", starring Tom Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson. Video: Universal Pictures


Arthur L Liman, the former president of the Legal Aid Society of New York and the chief counsel for the US Senate’s investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair, died in 1997. Yet he continues to exert considerable influence on his filmmaking son Doug. It was Arthur who introduced Doug to Steven Spielberg, and it was Arthur who secured $200,000 from a client in 1995 to finance Swingers, a film written by Jon Favreau, and directed by Doug Liman.

 Swingers, which was based on the real life antics of Favreau, Liman and their chum Vince Vaughn, was snapped up by Miramax for $5.5 million and went on to inspire an entire generation to adopt the phrase “so money”. Doug Liman made enough cash to start negotiating for the movie rights of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity.

“When I went to make The Bourne Identity I drew on my father’s work on Iran-Contra,” says Liman. “The stories my father would bring home – that he could share – made me realise that how the CIA really works is far more interesting than how Hollywood depicts it. That’s why the CIA is decidedly low tech in Bourne Identity. Because it’s more fun to see the extraordinary things they accomplish in a very low-tech way.”

He pauses and smiles out the window of his London hotel suite. “I thought I had milked all that there was to milk with the Bourne franchise. Until I read Gary Spinelli’s screenplay for American Made.”

American Made is the extraordinary true story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a TWA pilot who was recruited by a CIA handler (Domhnall Gleeson) to deliver weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua in order to quash the revolutionary Sandinista government. He also makes his money flying drug shipments from the Medellin cartel.

The mission

“The people the CIA recruits are valedictorians,” says the director. “They look for people who are strait-laced rule followers, who will never cheat on their taxes or run a stop sign, and who believe in the mission: in the case of Domhnall’s character they believe in fighting communism.

“But to get the job done they’re sent out into the field to recruit criminals. It’s not like there are boy scouts who are willing to fly guns to the Contras. The CIA have no choice but to get into bed with these drug traffickers. And that odd-couple relationship between characters like those played by Tom Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson is how the CIA works.”

Viewers should prepare to be gobsmacked by parties thrown by Pablo Escobar, brief appearances by Oliver North and George W Bush, a crack military training facility operating secretly beside Seal’s Arkansas airport, and so much money to launder that cases explode with excessive cash.

You don’t know the half of it, says Liman. “Federico Vaughan, who is the Sandinista that is captured on film dealing drugs was almost certainly working for the CIA. So it’s not that the Sandinistas were in the drug business. We planted somebody in their government to get involved with the drug cartels so that we could photograph them and say their government was in the drug business.

“In many ways we had to underplay things. Even aspects that filmmakers tend to embellish like the love story. Barry Seal’s wife, who worked with us on the film, showed us this photo of her visiting him in a Guatemalan jail on his birthday and she’s cutting his birthday cake with a machete. This is a woman who thought she married a TWA airline pilot.”

Last shot

Rather fittingly Arthur L Liman appears in the last shot of the movie. “As deadly serious as my father’s work was, he couldn’t help but laugh at some of the details of what the CIA was doing in central America,” says Liman Jr. “With these guerrilla warriors that had no interest in fighting, and who couldn’t shoot straight anyway.”

Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Cruise enjoying the great outdoors in American Made
Domhnall Gleeson and Tom Cruise enjoying the great outdoors in American Made

Barry Seal is perhaps ideal material for Liman, a director famed for his madcap methodology (screenwriter Simon Kinberg calls it Limania.)

Liman went into production of the 1999 teen comedy Go with a copy of The Sunset Guide to Basic Home Movie Lighting and without knowing the ending. He filmed parts of The Bourne Identity in Paris without a permit. He secretly shot in Baghdad during the conflict for his 2010 Valerie Plame biopic Fair Game. Last year he shooed children out of a New York sandpit for reshoots for his one-set war drama The Wall.

“Of all the things I’ve done that was probably the closest I ever came to getting arrested,” he says. “You can’t go into a playground without a kid. With Fair Game the empty camera cases were moving on to the next location but I had the camera. There was that much subterfuge.

“With American Made, Tom and I flew to a remote Colombian airstrip and lived in tents. I’m thinking, there’s no way they’re going to let me take Tom Cruise camping in the jungle three hours from the nearest road.

“Tom’s security person rattled off the top the things that could kill us out there. Our line producer sent Tom and me a photo with a note: ‘Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to the apex predator of your jungle: the Colombian jaguar.’ Tom wrote back: ‘Can’t wait to meet him.’ And they let us go.”

Deep end

Cruise previously worked with Liman on The Edge of Tomorrow. On that film the actor did his own hair and make-up, and turned up to Liman’s editing suite for surreptitious green screen reshoots. It’s an ideal partnership, says Liman.

“He plans so methodically. I’m more willing to jump into the deep end and see what happens. He does so many stunts and you can’t do that with stunts. So that influences how he thinks about things. But we have a similar sensibility in other ways. A lot of American Made happened because we’d say, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be funny if that happened?’ ”

Cruise also shared a house (and camping facilities) with the director during production, an arrangement that made for some footloose, not at all methodically planned filmmaking.

“Those shots of soldiers pointing their guns at us?” notes Liman. “Those are real soldiers we found out there. With real ammunition. That wasn’t in the script. There were no producers around. They were a little concerned when they found out.”

So age has not impacted on the madness of his method?

“I’ve grown up a bit. When I went to Baghdad my agent warned me not to piss the studio off, so I called up my producer Bill Pohlad and said: ‘I’ve been lying to you and I don’t want to violate out friendship.’ And he said: ‘I can’t condone what you’re doing, but I wish I could go with you.’ Sometimes it’s just business. They can’t be seen to let me do these things.

“I’m finding ways to do it so that everybody can enjoy me breaking the rules.”

Rogue reshoots

That hasn’t always been the case. The chaotic production of Bourne Identity, a shoot replete with (more) rogue reshoots and over-budget European vacationing, horrified studio executives in 2002. The finished film scared them even more. They quickly cut the advertising budget. Industry watchers marked it down as a turkey and Liman was banned from directing the sequels.

“They thought the film was going to be a disaster,” he recalls. “They thought they’d lose their jobs. They thought they were getting James Bond. But they got my version of Bond.”

Did they ever apologise?

“Oh no. Studio executives are like politicians. They never say sorry. They never say they were wrong.”

He shrugs: “It’s infuriating but they’ll never change.”

 American Made is on general release


Now that Bond looks awfully like Bourne, how, if Barbara Broccoli were to come calling, might Liman differentiate the two franchises?  

“I didn’t grow up like Quentin Tarantino, watching all esoteric art films at the video store. I’d go to the multiplex and see big, mainstream movies like Bond. So I always wanted to make a James Bond film, and when I was making The Bourne Identity I thought that I was making a poor man’s Bond.  I would love to go back to the Bond films when they were always sunny and people were in bikinis and scuba diving in the Caribbean. I love that fantastical world of the Sean Connery. ”

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