Doug Liman is Hollywood's most successful failure.
On one hand, the director can claim more than $1.3-billion (U.S.) in worldwide box office receipts, thanks to his blockbusters The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumper and Edge of Tomorrow (now better known as Live Die Repeat.). On the other hand, a Doug Liman movie has never been an easy exercise, his methods sparking massive production headaches and waves of studio nausea. On his second film, the lively indie Go, Liman was a "complete mess who [could] barely keep track of his possessions," according to star Sarah Polley. On The Bourne Identity, the director blew through his budget to the point that Universal banned him for directing any of the franchise's sequels. Similar problems plagued Mr. & Mrs. Smith, where he also made screenwriter Simon Kinberg churn through upwards of 50 different endings.
Each new Doug Liman film is a success, financially speaking. But each new Doug Liman film might also be his last – at least, according to Doug Liman.
"I've had moments of complete despair," the 51-year-old filmmaker says. "One of the problems I face today is that I can't find a sympathetic ear because, you know, there isn't a movie I worked on where I didn't get to that moment and say my career is over, it's awful, it's never going to work. And then people around me say, 'Well, you said that about Bourne. And you said that about Mr. & Mrs. Smith. And about Live Die Repeat.' But just because it worked out in the past doesn't mean it won't work out today. This could be the one where I finally fall flat on my face."
Which might explain why Liman decided to take on The Wall. The new Iraq War drama involves just three characters, one ramshackle set and was shot in 14 breakneck days – the movie doesn't scream low-profile so much as it whispers it softly across the desert winds. It was, in other words, the ideal breather for a between-blockbusters Liman. The perfect place to safely fall flat on his face, if need be.
"What happened on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I was given a big budget and given too many choices and I made a lot of mistakes and missteps early on until I squandered all that extra money. But then, once my back was up against the wall, I made what I consider a really good movie," Liman says. "That's part of life, part of getting to know yourself, though not that I'll ever really know myself. But now I know under which conditions I do my best work and I'll try to create those conditions from the beginning. I knew that on The Wall, it was this kind of schedule and this kind of production, where from the first second I'd have my back up against the wall. No pun intended."
Easy as the puns come, they're also apt, as the film finds Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena playing two U.S. soldiers who seek shelter behind the titular structure, an unseen Iraqi sniper lurking nearby. Liman builds the tension slowly and carefully, all while creating a war-torn reality that seems much larger than it actually was – a refreshing challenge after years of building fussed-over, too-big-to-fail tentpoles.
"When you're making a film in such a short time frame, I wanted a certain level of intensity and cleverness to the filmmaking, and a shorter schedule would force me to come up with that," Liman says. "I would have to make decisions in advance to know exactly how we were going to cut the film and live with it."
It also helped that Liman, so familiar is he with the fear of impending failure, latched on to the dominant theme of Dwain Worrell's screenplay.
"In hindsight, everything in my life looks a little rosy," Liman says. "But the reality is that with, say, Swingers, when we finished, it was considered a total failure. It didn't get into Sundance, it was never going to see the light of day. But after a few days of moping, I picked myself up and I figured out another way to sell it. The odds seemed impossible, but accepting that defeat and picking yourself up to try again is something I related to here, with The Wall. Every time I see Aaron or John's character pick themselves up again to keep fighting, when lesser men might give up … I relate to that because I feel it in my own career, that resilience."
Not that Liman is devoting the rest of his career to low-budget genre exercises. In addition to Liman's second film of 2017, the forthcoming Tom Cruise CIA drama American Made, the director has five films in pre-production, including two massive franchises (Justice League Dark and a sequel to Live Die Repeat with Cruise titled … um, Live Die Repeat and Repeat). But working solely outside of the big studio system – The Wall comes from the upstart Amazon Studios and marks the company's first spec-script purchase – is tempting.
"Amazon may be the only studio that's run by people who come out of making independent movies, real hands-on moviemaking," says Liman, referring to Amazon's Bob Bernery and Ted Hope. "I've really pushed the limits of what you can get away with at big studios and I've been extremely well-supported. But even in that context, Bob and Ted showed a level of courage to the movie itself and not just the movie business. The kind of support they're giving to filmmakers is extraordinary."
And what did Liman do with that extraordinary support? Well, he used it in the most Liman-esque of ways: he filmed a new ending.
Every Doug Liman film, it seems, needs just a little bit of drama.
The Wall opens May 12 across Canada.