July 10, 2010

Doug-Liman-Covert-Affairs slice

In the new USA Network drama Covert Affairs (which premieres July 13th), Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) is a young CIA trainee who is thrust into the inner sanctum of the Agency when she is unexpectedly promoted to field operative. Although she has been plucked from obscurity for her exceptional linguistic skills, there may be bigger reasons why her CIA bosses (Peter Gallagher and Kari Matchett) have taken an interest in her.  With her new job, Annie has to hide her life from her family and friends, including her intrusive older sister (Anne Dudek), but CIA military agent Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), blinded while on assignment, does his best to make her life at the Agency a little smoother.

During a recent interview, executive producer Doug Liman talked about developing a story for the small screen versus the big screen and explained why the USA Network was the perfect fit for this project. He also gave an update on the status of All You Need is Kill and Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Since many of you might be curious what Liman had to say about his upcoming film projects, here’s his updates on All You Need is Kill and Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter:

Doug: All You Need is Kill is a project that I’m developing at Warner Brothers. It’s an amazing script. It’s a wholly original piece of writing. It delivers all of the wiz-bang satisfaction of a big Hollywood effects movie, but it does it in a completely original way. You can find truly original pieces of writing, but they’re original because you go, “Who would have even have thought of that?,” or, “Why would anyone ever want to go see that?”

Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter is a project I’ve been developing for years because it’s an action movie set entirely inside a child’s nightmare. What I love about that particular one is that it’s an adventure fantasy film, like Harry Potter, but in this movie, anybody can go join the playing field because all you have to do is go to sleep and dream it. It’s an adventure film for the proletariat. It’s accessible to everybody. That being said, I’ve had script issues, so it’s pretty far off still, but the core idea is something that I love.

Here’s the full interview:

There are elements of “Covert Affairs” that are similar to earlier things you’ve done. Arthur (Peter Gallagher) and Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett) could be Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 15 years later. How did you develop “Covert Affairs” for the USA Network?

Doug: I have a partner, Dave Bartis, and together we have a TV deal at NBC Universal, and USA is within the Universal family. The tone of show that we were looking to do with “Covert Affairs” really fit perfectly within the brand of USA. It was like we found each other, as opposed to us modifying something for them. We went to them first, with a specific tone, knowing that it was going to be a good fit. An important thing, as a filmmaker, is making sure that it’s not just getting your thing made, it’s getting it made in the right way. Part of making it the right way is making sure that you’re at the right home and that you’re not constantly going to be fighting because they like oranges and you like making apples. In fact, one of the huge upsides of being at USA is that, because I had a tone in mind that is consistent with other things I saw on USA, and once you go to a place like that as your home, suddenly the feedback you get from the executives at USA is awesome because you’re not fighting each other. You both have the same end goal, and they have years of experience in this tone. I get to bring my years of experience, and it’s been an amazing collaboration with them. Sometimes you might hear filmmakers complaining about executives, but in this particular case, every time we’ve had a note session with them, the show has gotten consistently better.

What is the difference between storytelling for the screen versus storytelling in an hour format for television?

Doug Liman  Doug: Well, it’s hard to get a movie made about characters these days. We’re in a climate where, unless it’s based on a toy or it’s a superhero where somewhere it ends in man – like Spider-Man, Superman or Iron Man – it’s hard to get it made. That’s where movie companies are putting their resources. TV is a safe place to develop real characters. People are going to tune in next week, not because of the spectacle you showed them, but because of Piper [Perabo] and her character. In movies, you can basically buy the audience into the theater. If you spend enough money on visual effects, even if you are lacking in story and character, you might still pull it off. TV has no choice, but to rely on character, and everybody knows that. I love working in it. It’s such a big canvas where, if you’re successful, you go on for years. It’s a much bigger canvas than a movie ever could be. I pride myself on doing character-driven movies and, when my movies have worked, it’s been because of the right casting and the right character, and it just clicks. Not every filmmaker does that with their films. For big Hollywood movies, I’m on the more character-driven side of the equation. So, TV is a natural place for me to be because you’ve got no choice, but to be character-driven.

How do you develop your characters?

Doug: At the end of the day, it’s 100% about casting. My own personal process with movies is to develop the characters with the actors and, when I’ve done that properly, you can’t imagine anyone else, but that actor, playing that part. Because of all the romantic controversy around Mr. and Mrs. Smith, there was a lot of talk about the casting of that movie. Angelina Jolie was not my first choice. When people hear about the other actresses we were considering, they say, “Wow, you were really lucky that that didn’t work out and you ended up with Angelina.”  What people don’t realize is, had it worked out with a different actress, I would have created a different character, and you would have been saying to me, “I can’t imagine Angelina playing that part because it was so Nicole Kidman.” Or, Brad Pitt was originally Jason Bourne before Matt Damon and you would probably say, “I can’t imagine Brad Pitt playing Jason Bourne.” But, had I done The Bourne Identity with Brad Pitt and I did my job properly, you would be saying to me, “I can’t imagine Matt Damon ever playing that part.” It’s almost a work-shopping process to create the characters with the actors.

In film, that can cause some problems. That’s not an entirely conventional way of going about making movies. I’ve had some fairly public battles, as a result. Whereas in TV, that is inherently part of the process. So, the moment we cast Piper and started working with her, we started to figure out what really clicks and what really works, and you write to that. Eventually, it’s almost like custom-fitting an article of clothing. Because it’s long-form, it goes on. Even in just the first season of “Covert Affairs,” our canvas is bigger than the canvas of The Bourne Identity and its two sequels. You get to see, on a weekly and daily basis, what is working, and then you write to those strengths.

The most extreme example of that is that I once shot a pilot and we discovered that one of the actresses was particularly good at crying, so we just wrote to that and, suddenly, she was crying in every episode, and it worked. You find out what the person is really good at, and then you write to it. By the way, that’s how I edit. Once I’m in the editing room, forget about what I intended to shoot. I take a cold, hard look at what I really did shoot, and then I edit that because, if you try to edit what you intended and you missed somewhere, that will show up. If you actually edit what you did shoot, it looks like you did it perfectly, if that makes sense.

Christopher Gorham Piper-Perabo-Covert-Affairs

Had you had some or all of these actors in mind for the characters, when you started casting?

Doug: Certainly, we had Piper and Chris [Gorham] in mind. With the character of Jai, we knew what the template for that character was, but there were so many different directions we could go. We were looking at all known quantities. When you’re thinking about Sendhil [Ramamurthy], we can sit around the room and talk about, “If we cast him, here are the qualities we can bring to that character. Here are the storylines that would make sense for a character with those qualities to go on. And, here’s what the show would look like if we cast him.” We had discussed other people to play that part and, in the same way, we could say, “Here is the direction that character would go if you cast that person.” You don’t have to wait until you’re on the set with the actor. In the act of casting them, you’re actually making some decisions about how you’re going to tailor the character to fit that particular person.

With Peter [Gallagher] and Kari [Matchett], in the act of casting them, we were committing to a specific dynamic and a specific set of story lines. It doesn’t mean you still don’t discover things, on the day, because you don’t know what the two of them are going to be like, in dealing with this particular subject matter, the same way that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were known quantities when I cast them. But, the first time I ever put them in a room together was on the first day of shooting. As much as you think you know two giant movie stars, the moment you put them in a scene together, you’re going to discover things. I pride myself on my ability to step back and say, “I know we planned on this, but what is naturally happening here?” You have to just take that step back and evaluate.

When we cast Sendhil, as much as we said, “Here are the storylines we’re going to get, as a result of casting him in this part,” until you actually have Sendhil on the set playing Jai, you can’t know 100%. Once you’ve done a couple days of shooting with them, you have to take a step back and say, “How is this really working,” and just constantly do mid-course adjustments. Those never stop.

Christopher Gorham-Covert-Affairs

“Covert Affairs” has a heightened reality to it. How did you define the boundaries of that?

Doug: That’s a good question. My true love of the show and of this world is that special spot where the spy world and the world the rest of us inhabit intersect. I’m fascinated by that, in real life. I’m fascinated by the spies on the Hudson and how those people interact with the world that I interact with, and what overlaps we have. I’m fascinated by that in real life, and I’m fascinated by that in my movies. When I started The Bourne Identity, the first question I said to myself was, “How come you never see James Bond pay a phone bill or the rent?” I just always had that in the back of my head. So, for me, in the hyper-reality of the world of “Covert Affairs,” the only boundary is that she has to be able to return to Earth when she goes home, whether it’s at the beginning of the episode, the end of the episode or the middle of the episode. As long as she can return home to the world that we know, the missions can be as outrageous as our imaginations can carry us. We’ll know we’re going too far, if suddenly there is not a real world to return to. That’s where I draw the line.

It’s interesting that the CIA was not going to be supportive of Fair Game, the film you directed about the CIA, and yet they were very supportive of “Covert Affairs.” Why is that?

Doug: I had a brief window before Fair Game was announced to personally have access to the CIA. Both Fair Game and “Covert Affairs” are very pro-CIA. In fact, I just learned last week that, while complaining that The Bourne Identity movies are not realistic, they said that they are good recruitment tools for the CIA. In my particular case, I like to see things firsthand.  So, I personally wanted to go to Baghdad and see with my own eyes before talking about an operation that took place in Iraq in Fair Game. I had never been to the CIA, so I wanted to go inside and see with my own eyes. Once I was associated with Valerie Plame, my access to the CIA, in terms of my being able to go inside that building, was going to probably never happen again, at least under that administration. In fact, we are in conversation with them right now, about filming inside the CIA for “Covert Affairs.” So, in general, my relationship with them is very positive. Fair Game was a touchy subject. There is still litigation going on associated with it. It’s the kind of subject that people don’t really want to touch.


In the pilot, the relationship between Arthur (Peter Gallagher) and Joan Campbell (Kari Matchett) is strained, which is interesting because they work so closely together. Is that relationship going to be a factor throughout the season in the show?

Doug: It is definitely a running through-line. We cast amazing actors. Peter Gallagher and I go back to our days on “The O.C.” and, even on that show, one of the breakthrough things was that normally, with a show like that, the parents would just be the foil. They’d be like those characters in Charlie Brown that are just like, “Waah, waah, waah, waah.” We actually said, “No, just because they’re parents, doesn’t mean they don’t have their own loves and desires. That doesn’t go away just because you grow up and have kids.” That parallel universe brought the same thing to “Covert Affairs.” You don’t have to be in your 20’s to have interesting, romantic challenges. Obviously, anyone who has seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith knows that husband and wife married spies is something that I find particularly interesting. There are some similarities with Fair Game too. Only one of them is a spy, but it’s still a husband and wife maintaining a marriage against the backdrop of all the lies that come with that kind of job.

“Covert Affairs” feels like the Bourne trilogy, in the way that Annie was tossed into this deadly situation where she had to get out. Did you consciously take some of the way you constructed the Bourne series, in terms of the action and keeping the momentum going, when developing this series?

Doug: The casting of Piper was critical, in terms of sympathy. It was as critical as casting Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. These are actors who just bring an enormous amount of empathy.  They just have that“it” that makes you want to follow them and root for them. The other thing is that, like Bourne, I just wanted to come at the genre with a very specific point of view. In the real world, if you’re in a car chase, you’re going to hit a million things and your car is going to end up a total wreck by the end. In The Bourne Identity, I decided to film that he skids. He just looks like he’s going to miss hitting, and then he does hit because it’s human. So, for “Covert Affairs,” Piper is playing Annie Walker, who is new to the CIA. I didn’t want her to be all that good. She’s talented and she’s got promise, but it was important to me, and it remains important to me, that our specific point of view is the things she tries to do to get away that don’t always work.

Once you have a singular point of view, like I had for Bourne and now have for “Covert Affairs,” it gives you a roadmap, it makes the action very specific and it makes it part of the character storytelling. One of my roles, as we go through the series, is to sit down with each of the directors and go through the action sequences, and go through the specific point of view for this show. Once we’ve been on the air and, hopefully, by Season 2, the directors can just see the action from Season 1 and understand the specific point of view. In the case of working with Alex Chapel on Episode 106, there is a fight sequence that takes place in a boathouse. At some point, Annie picks up a flare gun, and he said he was going to make the flare gun metal. I happen to know a thing or two about boating, and flare guns are never metal. They’re always fluorescent-colored plastic. He said, “If she hits somebody with a plastic gun, that’s not going to be that effective.” Well, that’s where this show lives. We have to own that she grabs the plastic gun and punches somebody with it and it breaks, and then the person turns on them. That is the very specific point of view for the show. It’s a roadmap for designing all of the action sequences.


Was it important to also have Annie be able to think on the fly?

Doug: Those are The Bourne Identity moments. A group of us sitting around brainstorming, so that Piper’s character can, on the fly, think of stuff that makes her smarter than the rest of us. She is the combined intelligence of the entire writing team. We try to have at least one of those moments, in every episode. There is a later one where Auggie gets involved in a fight, and Auggie is a blind guy in the middle of a scrappy fight. He’s got a split second to think and he kills the lights because a blind guy against a sighted guy, with the lights on, is going to have the sighted guy kicking his butt. But, once the lights are off, that is the environment in which suddenly Auggie is going to have the advantage because he’s used to not being able to see. It more than levels the playing field. Now, it’s Auggie’s home field. At the end of the day, I like the spy genre, as opposed to the action movie genre, because spies are smart. The successful spies are the smarter spies. That, obviously, was important for Jason Bourne, and it’s equally important for Annie because she’s not going to start out with the best operations skills. She’s new and that would be unrealistic. But, in a pinch, she will think of a smart way out. She’s clever.

How much of the Bourne trilogy do you bring to “Covert Affairs,” in terms of the spy gadgets and the action sequences, and stuff like that?

Doug: This isn’t a sequel to Bourne. It is not Green Zone, which tried to rip off The Bourne Identity. I did Bourne. I created that. But, this is me doing something new. USA has a marketing team, and they’ll talk about The Bourne Identity a lot because it is obviously in the spy genre, but I don’t try to repeat myself. “Covert Affairs” is definitively not Bourne Identity. Having been through the process now, there are certain things that I know work, that I learned on The Bourne Identity, like having a very special and very specific point of view, when it comes to action that works. If I hadn’t had the experience on The Bourne Identity, I might not have been so adamant about how critical that was to us. I said, “In the middle of the shoot-out, she leaves her Blackberry behind because that’s human. Our character is going to make mistakes. Let’s own that.” Jason Bourne never makes a mistake. That’s what is specific to him. For Annie, we had to own that it was her first day. What would your first day really be like? Obviously, it’s heightened.

With The Bourne Identity, we were defining a specific style of action that, in a way, came from some of the limitations involved with shooting the movie. With “Covert Affairs,” because it’s a television show and because there is outrageous action for each episode, and the later episodes have action that is significantly more outrageous than anything in the pilot, I had to re-approach it and say, “We’re going to have to come up with a different way of shooting action, just to be able to afford this.” Then, it suddenly becomes about style. Because that works, I totally engage it.

A director named Rod Hardy did Episode 108, where they’re having a fight on the dock. In the script, it lands in the water, and it’s really dramatic and scary because Annie is in the water with somebody that’s trying to kill her. I was talking to Rod and he said, “It’s TV. We can’t really afford to drop her in the water because of the time that it’s going to take, and how difficult it’s going to be to shoot the fight in the water.” We have adopted a style of shooting action in the show that enables us, no matter how outrageous the scene is written, to pull it off. It’s both by using new technology, like the Canon 5D Mark II. It’s a still camera that shoots 24 frames of hi-def. I used it a little bit on Fair Game, and we have five of them on the set of “Covert Affairs.” It actually brings more Swingers to the table than Bourne, in that particular situation. In the case of Swingers, I was shooting film, but it was high speed film stock. That really came from the fact that I had shot a short film in film school on 35 mm. I noticed that when the camera was rolling, and before it panned onto the set, it was aimed off the set and I could see everything fine. I could see that there was the brightly lit set, but I could see into the shadows and I could see the crew walking around. I said, “Why are we going through all this trouble to light the set, when this film stock evidently seems to be able to mirror the human eye?” So, the lighting equipment on Swingers came from Home Depot. Because they were movie lights, they could be in the shots because the lighting equipment consisted of 100 watt light bulbs. You’d just go into a location and change out the light bulbs for 100 watt light bulbs, and that defined the style for that movie.

In the same way, we have these really small cameras. We’re not going to use them just in place of a traditional movie camera. What is doable today, wasn’t doable a year ago because these cameras didn’t shoot 24 frames per second then. In the case of this water sequence, we were able to shoot the sequence with these cameras because, if one lands in the water, who cares. Suddenly, you can get the camera operators in the water with these cameras. If you were using older technology, like The Red, which is only two years old, you’d be having to figure out how not to have the camera land in the water. The amount of equipment involved in protecting the camera would basically make shooting a fight sequence in the water prohibitive, or you’d have the camera far away and it just wouldn’t be exciting. Suddenly, we can do a fight sequence in the water and the cameras can be inches above the water. We’re being inventive about what you can do with technology today that wasn’t doable a year ago, let alone 10 years ago.

How do you prepare the action sequences with actors who may not have done them before?  Are there any challenges that come with that?

Doug: One of the things I learned on The Bourne Identity was that, if you can possibly do it, cast a stunt person. It’s better to find a stunt person who can act. It’s easier to do that than to find an actor who can do a stunt. The other thing is that it’s much easier to do a fight sequence between two people, if one of the two people in the fight is a stunt person, or you’re going to risk somebody getting hurt. Piper can do the fight herself, if the other person she’s fighting is a trained stunt person, in the same way that most of the characters surrounding Matt Damon, that he fought with, were stunt people. That way, you don’t need to have stunt doubles. That’s the main philosophy for putting Piper into the action. Now, she’s done eight episodes, so she’s almost a stunt woman herself. She has more fighting experience now than probably a lot of female stunt people have because she’s been doing it for months.


You went to Haiti with Sean Penn’s Jenkins-Penn Relief Organization. What was that experience like?

Doug: I went twice, once right after the earthquake and then once about a month and a half ago, each time for a week. We stayed in tents on a tennis court, overlooking a golf course, in which about 60,000 displaced Haitians are living with poles, fabric and tarps as their homes. Sean has made it his personal mission to look after these people. The world can’t possibly ignore these people as long as he’s there. If the world ignores these people, the level of misery and suffering is inconceivable.

The really interesting thing is that, when I first got there with Sean, it was right after the earthquake and nobody was living inside. Everybody was living in a tent. Most people were living on one of the taxiways at the airport because that was semi-safe. When I went back a month and a half ago, almost all the other non-profits down there have all moved into homes or hotels. Sean is still, literally, in the exact same tent he was in, in mid-January. It gives a real sense of urgency to be helping these people when you, yourself, are living under the same conditions they are.

I had the same eye-rolling attitude about, “What is a movie star going to possibly accomplish in Haiti?,” that I’m sure everyone had. I’m as cynical as they come. I hear about Edwards going down there handing out food and I’m like, “That guy’s just trying to take focus away from his marriage.” But, what Sean is doing there is simply remarkable and inspirational. I live in New York City and I’m surrounded by people who work in non-profits and lawyers who do pro-bono work on the side. I’m like, “I’m a filmmaker. What can I really do?” But, seeing what Sean is doing in Haiti, you realize that the two kinds of people that are operating best in that war zone are the military and the filmmakers who are down there. Filmmakers know how to go into an environment with minimal infrastructure and get shit done.

jumper_movie_image_-_doug_liman_directorAs a director and a producer, what attracts you to a project?

Doug: Characters, first and foremost. When I read [Jez & John-Henry] Butterworth’s first draft on Fair Game, I got to page five and was like, “I love the characters of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. I just love these characters. I’m going to follow them on a journey.” That’s my bedrock. It’s also about whether I love the world. Occasionally, I love the characters, but I’m like, “The world feels familiar.” God forbid the character feels familiar, then I’m really not going to be interested. For me, “Covert Affairs” is all the things that I love because it’s a world I love and it’s characters I love.

What can you say about All You Need is Kill and Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter? What is the status of those films?

Doug: All You Need is Kill is a project that I’m developing at Warner Brothers. It’s an amazing script. It’s a wholly original piece of writing. It delivers all of the wiz-bang satisfaction of a big Hollywood effects movie, but it does it in a completely original way. You can find truly original pieces of writing, but they’re original because you go, “Who would have even have thought of that?,” or, “Why would anyone ever want to go see that?”

Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter is a project I’ve been developing for years because it’s an action movie set entirely inside a child’s nightmare. What I love about that particular one is that it’s an adventure fantasy film, like Harry Potter, but in this movie, anybody can go join the playing field because all you have to do is go to sleep and dream it. It’s an adventure film for the proletariat. It’s accessible to everybody. That being said, I’ve had script issues, so it’s pretty far off still, but the core idea is something that I love.