Doug Liman on Making ‘The Wall’, Leaving ‘Gambit’, and ‘Justice League Dark’
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.
What’s the status of Justice League Dark? Is that something that you’re still looking to get to work on?
LIMAN: Yeah. I have a really amazing take on it, that is in keeping with my approach to superheroes. Jason Bourne is a superhero, of sorts. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena, in The Wall, are superheroes. They’re very grounded, but the amount of training and stuff that soldiers bring to the field, they’re like Iron Man. If they open up another pouch, they’ve got another thing. It’s amazing, how resourceful they are and how much stuff they bring into the field. They’re like superheroes. So, I’m really excited, with Justice League Dark, to actually look at what it’s like, if I actually tackle a real superhero, but it’s not gonna look that different from my other superheroes.
Do you know when you’ll get that into production?
LIMAN: No. I have to have a passionate connection to my films, which I do with Justice League Dark. I have a way into the story that’s personal, the way I have a connection to The Wall. Not that I’ve ever been a soldier or been in the field, but the level of perseverance and the fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena just keep picking themselves up when all seems lost, I feel a connection to that. I feel like I have a little understanding of that because, in my own way, I’ve had moments of despair and that all is lost, and I’ve picked myself back up. I feel a real connection to Justice League Dark. But part of my process is that, when I finish a movie, the movies I choose to do after it are guided by the experience I had on the previous movie. I chose Mr. & Mrs. Smith specifically ‘cause I had just made The Bourne Identity and made a film that glamorized being an action hero, and I wanted to make the exact opposite. I wanted to make a movie that glamorized maintaining a marriage, and that made the action hero part seem easy and made the marriage part seem hard. The Wall is a reaction to Edge of Tomorrow, where I was like, “I don’t need time travel and aliens to take a hero and pin them down in an impossible situation. I can do it in a much simpler way.” And that was The Wall. The paint is still wet on The Wall. I’m not sure what I’m going to take away from it, and therefore what I’m gonna want to do next.
Why did you ultimately decide to leave Gambit? Was that a timing thing, or was that more of a creative thing?
LIMAN: I never formed a connection. Many of these movies, I don’t have the connection on day one, but I find the connection. I just never find it. I don’t always find a connection. I want to make a movie that, if anybody else made it, it would be different. When I went to make Swingers, I showed the script to a friend of mine, and she said, “Why would you want to make this movie? The Trent character” – who was played by Vince Vaughn – “is totally unlikeable.” I was like, “Oh, my god, I love Trent! That’s the reason I’m making this movie!” She was like, “You’re crazy! He’s totally unlikeable!” And then, I made the movie and she saw the movie, and she was like, “You’re right, he is likeable.” And then, I went to make Go and I showed the script to the same friend, and she said, “I don’t know why you’d make this movie. Nobody in this film is likeable!” Right in that moment, it clicked. I was like, “I get it! I need to make Go, for the same reason that I needed to make Swingers. Somebody else making Swingers might have made Vince Vaughn’s character into an asshole and been judgmental about him.” My specific take on that character is what the audience then took away, so I knew that I needed to make Go because my version of Go celebrated those characters instead of being judgmental of them. I knew that everybody would like those characters because I liked them. And ever since Go, I’ve looked for that personal connection where, because of the experiences I’ve had in life, if I tell this story, it will be fundamentally different than if any other director tells it, even if the experience I’m talking about is the previous movie I’ve made. My version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith would be fundamentally different than any other director’s version of Mr. & Mrs. Smith because I just made The Bourne Identity. I made a movie that celebrated someone being an action hero, and no one else is going to have had that experience, going into Mr. & Mrs. Smith, to then reject it and choose to embrace the exact opposite. That’s part of what didn’t click for me on Gambit, in finding that unique way in.
Are you still looking to make Edge of Tomorrow 2?
LIMAN: Yeah. We have an amazing story! It’s incredible! Way better than the first film, and I obviously loved the first film. It will be called Live Die Repeat and Repeat. Tom [Cruise] is excited about it, and Emily Blunt is excited about it. The big question is just when we’ll do it. But it’s not an if, it’s a when.
The Wall is now playing in theaters.