By Jeremy Carr.
Doug Liman’s lifelong interest in filmmaking first paid off with the breakout indie hit Swingers in 1996, his second directorial effort (his first was the little-seen 1994 comedy Getting In). The stylishly frenetic Go (1999) followed, then came The Bourne Identity (2002), the initial installment of the action-packed franchise, which Liman directed and produced (he produced the sequels as well). From there, Liman continued working on polished projects of increasing size and scope, with casts comprised of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Samuel L. Jackson and Hayden Christensen on Jumper (2008), Sean Penn and Naomi Watts on Fair Game (2010), and Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt on Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Liman has also been proficiently involved with television, directing and producing shows like The O.C. (2003-04), Knight Rider (2008-09), Covert Affairs (2010-14), and Suits (2011-17), and last year, he launched the innovative virtual reality series Invisible.
Liman’s most recent feature, The Wall, is something a little different. Shot in the blistering heat of the Mojave Desert (standing in for the blistering heat of the Iraqi desert), the film stars John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as two American soldiers assigned to a remote outpost where a team of pipeline contractors were recently killed. Just when all appears clear, a notoriously skillful sniper descends upon the duo and makes his presence known, shooting both the men and pinning them down. As WWE superstar Cena bleeds out in the open, Taylor-Johnson seeks precarious shelter behind an unstable stone barrier. Fresh off his Golden Globe-winning performance in Nocturnal Animals (2016), Taylor-Johnson seizes the film for what becomes an increasingly harrowing one-man-show; Cena’s character drifts out of consciousness while the goading sniper, voiced by Laith Nakli, provokes over the radio but is never fully seen.
Joining forces with the talented Russian cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (see his exceptional work with David Ayer: End of Watch , Fury , and Suicide Squad ), Liman crafts a rigorous thriller, its tension derived from a persistent series of obstacles as well as the depleting condition of its embattled protagonist and the anxiety generated by intense confinement within a vast, foreboding landscape. It’s a taut battle of wills and wits as much as it’s a conflict determined by firepower, and it’s a painstaking formal exercise, unfolding in a restricted space, in a condensed period of time. The modest production also brought Liman back to his independent roots. Released by Amazon Studios, The Wall hits theaters May 12.
Dwain Worrell’s screenplay for The Wall, which was just his second feature-length script [his first was 2010’s Walking the Dead], was also the first project acquired by Amazon Studios. How do you feel companies like Amazon and Netflix are changing the face of film distribution? Or at least, how was the experience for you?
Netflix, because they’re making movies that will go directly to Netflix and bypass the movie theaters, is more of a disruptive technology, a disruptive presence, than Amazon, which is funding independent movies that go to theaters the way many companies before Amazon have done. I think what sets Amazon apart are the people they hire. Because they have such a huge company behind them, they can take chances and hire people like Ted Hope [head of motion picture production] and Bob Berney [head of movie marketing and distribution], who come from the world of independent film and are interested in making great movies and not just cookie cutter franchise movies. They have an agenda that the studios would love to do but they just don’t get to do it anymore.
Was it like going back to the beginning, to the days of Swingers and Go?
Yeah, The Wall was very much like going back to Swingers and Go. It was my first independent film like that. The difference being it was way easier to ask for favors on Swingers and Go. It was a little bit harder to do that when people are like, “Who’s funding the movie? Amazon? Why do you need a favor from me?”
I read in an interview [Los Angeles Daily News, April 27, 2017] where you said the biggest challenges for you are creative and not necessarily technical. Given the restricted setting of this film, what sort of preparation did you have when it came to working out the visual design of the picture?
The challenge for me with The Wall was that I have a really short attention span, which should be obvious from films like Go and The Bourne Identity, so how do I make a film like The Wall for people like me with a short attention span? I don’t have a lot of the tricks that you normally use for people with short attention spans, like you just cut back and forth between two different scenes. I’m going to give you the experience of being pinned down by an Iraqi sniper and I want to give you the experience these characters have without ever boring you. Knowing that it can’t be nonstop action – there are going to be long sections with no action – how do I shoot a movie where the characters are pinned down in one spot and make that an asset, make that even more exciting than if I could have moved around from location to location?
So how did you maintain the momentum and the tension of the film, with its constricted spatial and temporal focus?
Because I made the constraint my asset, it makes the story scarier because you don’t get to escape from it. Also, I was really inspired by 12 Angry Men (1957), which is shot all in one room. There are stories of how the director broke the room down into different spaces in his mind, because suddenly he was all in one location. If you’re in this corner of the room you read it as a different room than if you were in this corner. It was a play, all in one room, the whole movie, and you never realize it until after the fact. I don’t do that spatially with this movie but I did that in terms of breaking The Wall down into different scenes. So even though it’s the same actor and the same space, they’re different scenes, there’s a different agenda, different obstacles, different things are going on. That’s a sort of a layer I added on top of Dwain’s script.
It was almost like there was new plot point or a new dilemma every 10-15 minutes or so, which kept it flowing.
That was exactly the plan. I went through the script and was like, “I’m going to get tired of this thing. We’re gonna need a new thing.” That’s the mapping out I did. In 12 Angry Men, they mapped out the room. In this, I mapped out the movements of the story.
Without giving too much away, the characters are shot and basically pinned down about 11 minutes into the film. And from there, their situation only gets more strained. How difficult was it for the actors to sustain such a high degree of excruciating anxiety? How did they cope with it?
Aaron and John are both giant star presences. They just are. Aaron in particular has to really hold the movie, which Tom Hanks did in Cast Away (2000) and Robert Redford does in All is Lost (2013). But they were way older when they did those movies than Aaron is in The Wall. So, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment on his part. And it was important for me to cast someone who was young because those are the people who are in the military. Someone who is 25-26 years old, that’s the age of somebody who has done five or six tours. When I made The O.C. it was important for me to cast 17- and 18-year-old actors and not cast 30-years-olds as high schoolers. For the authenticity of the movie, I wanted Isaac [Taylor-Johnson] to be age appropriate and I needed to find an actor who was age appreciate, who could hold a movie down. I’m not sure there was a plan B if we hadn’t found Aaron. And then I wanted somebody opposite him who was like a rock, somebody who you thought was going to save the day, whose presence tells you everything’s going to be OK, somebody with movie star presence. And John Cena just had that. If he walked into the room right now, you’d just be like, “everything’s going to be OK.” That’s a quality that’s sort of alien to me, because I’m like a neurotic Jew from New York, but he makes you feel like everything’s going to be OK, he tells you everything’s going to be OK. And that really was key to The Wall, because I’ve got nothing to hide behind. You’ve got to get the casting right because you’ve got nothing else. I’ve got no tricks. We’re as exposed as actors and a director in making The Wall as those characters are in the story.
In Todd McCarthy’s review of the film [The Hollywood Reporter, April 28, 2017], he writes that Worrell “serves up a situation rather than a plot.” One, do you agree, and two, how important is plot versus a situation, or is there even a distinction as far as you see things?
That’s just somebody who didn’t get the movie. It’s filled with plot. As you yourself pointed out, every ten minutes there’s plot evolving with new objectives. It’s that or every one of my movies is a situation.
His comments did make me think of Edge of Tomorrow a little bit, because that’s a movie that is very heavy in plot, of course, but is also largely dependent on this very interesting, original situation.
The whole movie review thing is interesting, but the key for me is what audiences feel. That’s who I make the films for. When I go watch the film in theaters next weekend, and hopefully for many weekends to follow, that’s when the process ends. Especially if audiences are taking the film the way I hope they will. I don’t really know how to react to a comment like that, other than I think about it because I like to grow from my movies. When I was making The Bourne Identity, Stacey Snider, who was running Universal, was exacerbated by my constantly changing the script, that I kept trying to make it better and better while we were shooting. She said studio films work better when the scripts are set in stone and everybody can just be on solid footing. At some point she said to me, “This isn’t your $50 million film school,” referring to the budget of the movie. And afterwards I began to realize, you know what, it was my $50 million film school and I got an A. And I’ve treated every film since then as a film school. I do care about how audiences react and how reviewers talk about it because I’m trying to learn and grow and be a better filmmaker. I try to do that in the course of making the movie. I screen The Wall for many audiences before we release it, and I make adjustments; I even reshot the ending based on one of those screenings. So, I go to the film school while I’m making the movie. I don’t want to learn the lesson after the movie is done and make the next movie better. I want to learn the lesson while I’m making the movie I’m making and make that movie work. I want to get an A one each of those movies.
Speaking of your prior films, you’ve obviously taken on some large-scale, big budget projects, and now you’ve done something relatively low-key, still just as intense, but you’ve got a smaller team, a shorter shoot [14 days], there’s no score, you’re working on 16mm. Did you feel more pressure or more relief to scale things back somewhat?
It didn’t really feel different for me. I preferred the shorter time frame given that we were shooting in the desert and it was 130 degrees – I’m not sure I could have made it another week under those conditions. But I make independent films within the studio system. Even with Edge of Tomorrow, as big as it is, there were scenes in that movie that Tom Cruise and I shot just the two of us, where he did his own hair and makeup. It’s not as big a line as some other filmmakers who, when they leave the studio system to make an independent film, are suddenly roughing it. Because I’m roughing it the whole time I’m making a studio film.
Looking ahead, if the Internet Movie Database is to believed, you’ve got an awful lot on your plate. Your second Tom Cruise collaboration, American Made, is due out this year, and there’s an Edge of Tomorrow sequel, Justice League Dark, and another Tom Cruise vehicle, Luna Park. What can you tell us about how these films are progressing or what we can expect next?
Well, American Made is coming out in September; it’s almost done. Tom Cruise is extraordinary in it. I think the main skill of a director may be creating an environment in which actors feel safe to do their best work and push themselves the most, and certainly, Tom and I have developed a closeness that allows me as a filmmaker to take chances. American Made is unlike anything I’ve ever done and it’s really original and exciting and I felt safe doing that because Tom Cruise made it a safe environment. And Tom Cruise gives a performance in American Made that may be his best performance ever, and I feel that’s because our collaboration created a safe environment in which he could do that kind of work. That may not be as important for him because I’m not sure Tom Cruise is afraid of anything. But still, for me as a filmmaker, working with actors who make me feel comfortable to take chances is really important. Life is about taking chances.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.