HT Talks To... Doug Liman
In less than a decade, Doug Liman has established himself as one of Hollywood's most versatile—and successful—directors. He has nimbly moved from comedy to thriller to a unique hybrid of the two in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, soon to be re-released in a new, unrated DVD edition from Fox Home Entertainment. Here he talks about the challenges of making quality movies in a demanding business.
Director Doug Liman
Now, I can understand how you went from Swingers to Go, and I see how you progressed from The Bourne Identity to Mr. & Mrs. Smith. but how the heck do you make the transition from Go to The Bourne Identity?
I had read the novel Bourne Identity in high school and always thought it would make a great film. After Swingers became such a huge success, I was the flavor of the month, and everyone in Hollywood was asking me what film I wanted to do next. I said, "Well, there's this book I've always loved. . ." and people would respond "Well, what else besides that?" So, the leap from Swingers to The Bourne Identity did seem too big. But I never gave up. I pursued the rights to that property from 1995 to 2000 with rejections lying at the end of every path. Eventually, I took my brand-new pilot's license and flew to Glacier National Park and convinced [author] Robert Ludlum in person to let me have the rights. I then sold the project to Universal, with myself. Since I was the sole producer of the film, I was able to hire myself to direct it.
I imagine that big-budget action movies are very complex to direct, different from all other types of movies. Do you perceive more pressure from the studio?
Of course there is more pressure—more is at stake. Money always comes with strings. I have always said that it is easier to make a great movie when you have less money. But I also love the challenges that come with the big studio films.
You're a cinematographer: How important is the look of your movies on DVD?
Very. Go and Swingers actually look better on DVD than in the theater because I was able to do digital color timing, which I could not afford for the film versions.
Do you ever personally supervise the transfer?
Ever? Always! Every single shot, both for color and for framing for the nonletterboxed versions.
The sound mixes on your movies tend to kick butt, as well.
I love 5.1 movie sound—the immersive experience of great surround. My roots are actually in bad movie sound: I mixed Swingers myself on the Avid, because we ran out of money. We couldn't even keep the picture and audio in sync with each other. After Miramax bought the movie, I thought they would go through and redo the entire soundtrack, but all they did was fix the sync.
DVDs of your movies are typically loaded with special features. As a modern filmmaker, how do you view the importance of DVD?
I think DVDs make us into better filmmakers. I feel much more liberated with my scissors in the editing room knowing that the things I cut out won't be lost forever.
Are bonus materials like commentaries something you enjoy creating?
I do. After working so hard on a movie, it is nice to step back and reflect on the experience. I'm also a teacher at heart, so I view the bonus materials as a great way for others to learn.
Do people still come up to you and tell you that Swingers is the coolest movie ever made?
I get the most compliments for Go, which, in some ways, is my favorite of the bunch.
But you've stayed chummy with Vince Vaughn all this time?
For a while after Swingers, it was awkward for all of us. As Vince describes it, it was like a high-school band hitting it big time, and suddenly everyone is questioning, "Is it the bass player, the keyboards, the lead guitarist—who is responsible?" In our case, it turned out to be the bass player, the keyboards, and the guitarist. It took us some time to see that. The thing is, we grew up together on Swingers, so we're siblings of sorts.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Mr. & Mrs. Smith needed to be a really good movie to avoid getting lost in all of that tabloid nonsense. Were you amused/annoyed by all those headlines?
Brad, Angelina, Jennifer—they're like fictional characters to the public. Personally, I could never get over how difficult it must have been for them to conduct their lives under such scrutiny. After all, maintaining a relationship is hard enough—that's the point of Mr. & Mrs. Smith—without the added attention.
What can you say about the chemistry of your two stars?
Thank god they had it, because I was making a love story. All the explosions in the world would not have saved the movie if they hadn't had onscreen chemistry. I should note that there is absolutely no correlation between onscreen chemistry and off-screen chemistry.
I hear that the love scene that we saw was scaled back from what you shot. True?
True. It was important for me that the film be rated PG-13, because I wanted it to be seen as a romantic comedy, and R tells an audience something else. Given the unique tone of the movie, I needed to use every resource at my disposal, including the rating, to set that tone. Music was the most critical tool.
What's the trick to balancing the action with the comedy?
It's the toughest thing I have ever done, this film, for exactly that reason. The action sequences were worked and reworked and reworked again and again before we shot them to make sure that they would be kick ass but remain within the film's comedic tone.
Which do you prefer: The more serious approach to action (Bourne) or action with a sense of humor (Smith)?
The Bourne Supremacy
The tone of this film put me out on the most precarious ledge of my career. I thought I was pushing the envelope with Bourne, but, at the end of the day, there is nothing revolutionary about that movie other than the fact that a filmmaker who cares about character chose to tackle an action franchise. Smith, on the other hand, is a truly unique movie. Maureen Dowd cited it in her article on modern feminism in [New York's] Sunday Times. This is a movie that spent more on ammunition than the entire budget of Swingers. This is a movie where I actually heard a woman say to her boyfriend or husband after the movie ended, "That was really cute!" as she beamed romantically at him. Mind you, she is saying this not 60 seconds after Brad and Angie have just slaughtered 50 agents, the bodies have barely hit the ground, and she's telling her boyfriend how sweet the movie was. I heard comments like that all over America.
Now that they've worked out their issues, are there Any kids—or sequels—for John and Jane Smith?
We've had one sequel meeting, and the first and only question asked by the studio was, "Do we have a great story for a sequel?" This is a movie that made more than both Bourne movies combined, and Regency wants to know if there is a great story. I wish more studios were like them. We wouldn't be suffering the box-office slump.