From director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity), the psychological thriller The Wall is a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that follows two soldiers (played with expert skill by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and WWE superstar John Cena) who are pinned down by an Iraqi sniper. Their fight becomes a battle of will and wit, and as they learn more about each other, all that stands between them is a crumbling wall that can only last so long.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Doug Liman talked about what made him want to sign on to direct The Wall, why the wall itself became a character, why he decided not to show the Iraqi sniper, and how lucky he was to have performers like Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena to work with. He also talked about where things are at with Justice League Dark, why he’s no longer directing Gambit, and that he’s still moving forward with the Edge of Tomorrow sequel.
Collider: When this script came your way and you read it, what was it that made you want to sign on, as the director?
DOUG LIMAN: It had so many of the qualities that I’ve been drawn to, in the other movies I’ve made, such as heroes, or action heroes, pinned down in impossible situations against impossible odds. In the case of The Wall, there’s a sniper that’s a thousands meters away, which is almost a mile away. It’s such a distance that the bullet that you’ll be done for two seconds, by the time the sound of the gunfire reaches you. How do you survive that? That sounds like something that Hollywood would make up, but that’s real. How do you prevail against an adversary like that? And I was drawn to the simplicity of the story. It had so many of the qualities that I’ve embraced in my more outlandish scenarios, like Edge of Tomorrow or even Jason Bourne’s amnesia, but it actually exists for real. Even as we speak, there’s probably an American soldier fighting for his or her life, in a tale that, if properly put on screen, would be as epic as anything Hollywood could create. I was really interested in the story for those reasons.
Because the wall itself actually evolves, throughout the movie, and crumbles to varying degrees, did that approach that like a character, as well?
LIMAN: Given how little I had to work with, everything that I had was a character. The wall is a character. We got to the location about a week before we started shooting, and I went to visit the set as they were building it and the wind was whipping up. One of the art department people said, “Yeah, every afternoon, the wind has been whipping up.” So, I went back to the script and was like, “If this is going to be the weather pattern for the next few weeks, let’s own it and make the dust a character,” and it became a major character in the movie. When you don’t have a big, giant paintbrush to paint with, like aliens or the CIA hunting you, you end up painting with a much finer point. I found, when I was making Bourne Identity, that I got just as much tension from the little details as the big ones.
Did you ever think about showing the Iraqi sniper, or was it important to you to not do that?
LIMAN: I like making movies that have some of the qualities of first-person shooter games. That was very important to me for the Bourne franchise. Part of what sets it apart is that you’re kind of in Jason Bourne’s shoes. You’re not watching him, you’re playing him. With The Wall, I wanted to give you the experience of being a soldier, pinned down under impossible circumstances. If I showed you the sniper, I would be showing you something that Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena don’t get to see, and you would lose some of that first-person experience.
How was your experience of working with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena, throughout this production?
LIMAN: I was so lucky to have the chance to work with them, and I really mean that. In many ways, making films doesn’t get easier with experience. It’s not like other professions where you feel like, after awhile, it gets easier. Every film poses its own unique challenges, and each film is as hard as the first one I made. One of the few ways in which films get a little easier is in a situation where, like with The Wall, Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows up on my doorstep, having already memorized the script and says, “Look no further, I’m your guy!” And he was right. He was my guy. When I was starting out, actors were not tracking me down and knocking on my door. And then, opposite Aaron, I wanted to cast somebody against his youth who, because of his experience, you know everything is going to be okay. John Cena just exudes that. I’ve had the good fortune, in my career, of putting Matt Damon in his first action movie and of putting Angelina Jolie in her first comedy. I put John Cena in that same pantheon of getting to put him in his first dramatic role. And their chemistry is so great together. Casting soldiers in combat is like casting a buddy film, or a love story. The chemistry between them is essential and can’t be made up. The actors have to have that. And then, we were shooting under really rough conditions. We were out in the desert and I didn’t know the earth could get that hot, but Aaron and John never complained. There’s no way to get out of the heat. They were just out there with the rest of us, but they also had to look good on screen. The rest of us can look like shit, and we did. You take a lot of chances, and there’s no question that, making The Wall, I took a lot of chances and I didn’t have a lot of back-up. There was no Plan B. Aaron either had to deliver, or there’s no movie. There’s no way to cut around that, in any way. John Cena had to deliver. He literally has nothing to hide behind. I’ve never made a movie where I’ve been more exposed. That, in and of itself, was a really exciting challenge and opportunity.