With his latest film Fair Game released later this year, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Doug Liman in the first of a two part feature…
Being the son of a legendary attorney, who represented some of America’s largest corporations such as Warner Bros and served as the U.S. Senate’s lead counsel in the Iran/Contra investigation, allowed the young Doug Liman to meet a variety of powerbrokers and celebrities. “He was very connected in [the] entertainment [industry],” stated the American director, referring to his father Arthur Liman. “Through him I met Steven Spielberg [Jaws] and got rides on his private plane to California. I’d see Spielberg’s people reading scripts. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’” The elder Liman was uncomfortable with the idea. “He thought I should be a studio executive. He wanted me to get married.” Attending Brown University, Doug Liman co-founded the student-run cable television station BTV and served as its first manager. Moving on to the graduate program at the University of Southern California, the aspiring filmmaker got the opportunity to produce the direct-to-video release Getting In (1994). Gabriel Higgs (Stephen Mailer) is on waiting list to attend the medical school at John Hopkins University; to speed up the process he attempts to bribe those ahead of him to drop out only to find himself being the prime suspect in their murders. The cast of the comedy thriller features Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Christine Baranski (The Birdcage), Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s), Calista Flockhart (Fragile), Matthew Perry (The Whole Nine Yards), and Dave Chappelle (Half Baked). Doug Liman had to improvise when shooting the title sequence. The original plan was to film a cat chasing mice; however, the director had to re-edit the footage as the fearless rodents pursued the terrified animal!
“Doug knew he would be okay financially,” stated Jon Favreau (Iron Man) who wrote Swingers (1996) which is loosely based on his own experience of moving out to Los Angeles. “The big thing for him was whether or not he was going to make a name for himself in movies.” However, there was another matter Liman had to address. “Doug’s challenge was to find himself,” continued Favreau. “He had to become Doug Liman, not Arthur Liman’s son. He did that directing Swingers.” Leaving behind New York City and his girlfriend, Mike (Jon Favreau) heads to L.A. to become a film star. When Favreau wanted to star himself and his friends Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) and Ron Livingston (The Cooler), the major movie studios balked at the project. Doug Liman agreed to direct the picture and sought monetary help from his father who secured $200,000 of financing from a client. “Ever since Swingers,” declared Liman, “I’ve been a fan of picking up footage in a real location without a big crew or fuss.” Beyond the acting, Jon Favreau was an active participant in the production; the 1964 Convertible Mercury Comet Caliente that Mike drives and the apartment in which he lives actually belonged to the star of the picture. “It was the one film that was truly not a sellout,” conceded Doug Liman of the movie which grossed $7 million worldwide and enabled him to capture the attention of Hollywood. The MTV Movie Awards lauded Liman with Best New Filmmaker, the National Board of Review handed out a Special Recognition Award, and the Florida Film Critics Circle Awards honoured Liman and Favreau with the trophy for Newcomer of the Year.
Initially, screenwriter John August (Big Fish) wrote Go (1999) as a short film about a drug deal gone horribly wrong from a single point of view; revisiting the material he decided to expand it into a feature length project by adding two other perspectives. Hired to direct and shoot the nonlinear tale was Doug Liman who worked with actors Katie Holmes (Batman Begins), Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead), Suzanne Krull (The Next Best Thing), Desmond Askew (Fabled), Nathan Bexton (Ropewalk), Robert Peters (A Lot Like Love), Scott Wolf (Emmett’s Mark), Jay Mohr (Hereafter), Timothy Olyphant (Hitman), Jodi Bianca Wise (No Tomorrow), and William Fichtner (Black Hawk Down). Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the $6.5 million production grossed $28 million worldwide. Movie critic Leonard Maltin thought the story was too derivative and referred to it as “junior Pulp Fiction .” The homage to the earlier movie directed by Quentin Tarantino was not a problem for Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, “Go is an entertaining, clever black comedy that takes place entirely in Tarantino-land.” The Independent Spirit Awards nominated Go for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Sarah Polley). At the Teen Choice Awards the picture contended for Breakout Performance (Sarah Polley) and Funniest Scene, while at the Young Hollywood Awards, it won Best Bad Boy (Timothy Olyphant).
With a script written by Liz Gumbinner and actors Grace Renn (Downstream) and Sebastian Siegel (The Family That Preys), Doug Liman produced the short film Indie Is Great (2002). After contemplating what would be his third feature length picture, Liman turned to The Bourne Identity (2002). “I’d read the book growing up and loved it,” said the New York City native. “I got a lucky break and discovered the rights were going to expire; I asked Robert Ludlum’s permission to do this film and he gave it to me.” A CIA assassin suffering from amnesia is pursued by the agency that trained him. “The Bourne Identity started with a ridiculous popcorn premise and I tried to make it the smartest movie I possibly could,” stated Liman; he based the character of Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), the head of the assassin training organization Treadstone, on his father’s recollections of Oliver North and the time he spent with the National Security Agency. Faced with the challenge of adapting the novel was screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton). “When he comes to, his mind’s a clean slate,” remarked Gilroy. “He’s in an environment with no frame of reference. So, you say to yourself, if this were me, what would I do? How can I figure out who I am? The only answer seemed to be, what do I know how to do?”
“I met with a wide range of people when casting for the film, people like Russell Crowe [A Beautiful Mind] and even Sly Stallone [Rocky] at one point,” revealed Doug Liman. “Had I done The Bourne Identity with Brad Pitt [Legends of the Fall] and I did my job properly, you would be saying to me, ‘I can’t imagine Matt Damon [Good Will Hunting] ever playing that part.’ It’s almost a work-shopping process to create the characters with the actors.” Seeking to distinguish the title role from previous action heroes, Liman trained Damon in a particular fighting style. “The martial arts actually ended up being the thing that helped us define Jason Bourne and his entire character. Right after Matt agreed to do the film, we arranged for demonstrations of different martial arts and Kali really inspired us.”
“Bourne was overly chaotic,” stated film editor Saar Klein (Almost Famous), “we went into production with a script that was just a mess.” The attitude of the director and his leading man did not help to ease the rising production tension. “On The Bourne Identity,” recalled Doug Liman, “I had a French production manager who was freaking out because Matt Damon and I were constantly changing the script to do things that felt more consistent and honest with what his character would do.” The originally scheduled 2001 release for the action-thriller had to be pushed back as Liman did a series of reshoots which included the car chase that takes place in the middle of the picture. “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.” Featuring the acting talents of Franka Potente (Run Lola Run), Clive Owen (Duplicity), Brian Cox (Troy), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Congo), Gabriel Mann (Born Killers), Walton Goggins (Miracle at St. Anna), Josh Hamilton (Away We Go), and Julia Stiles (Save the Last Dance), the $60 million Hollywood production grossed $214 million worldwide. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films nominated The Bourne Identity for the Saturn Award for Best Action/Adventure/Thriller Film while the American Choreography Awards lauded it with the trophy for Outstanding Achievement in Fight Choreography.
Moving to television, Doug Liman directed the pilot episode of the Fox melodrama The O.C. (2003 to 2007); Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie), a troubled and homeless teenager, finds refuge in the posh community of Orange County. Liman also helmed a regular season episode called Model Home (2003), in the series that stars Peter Gallagher (American Beauty), Kelly Rowan (Hook), Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense), Adam Brody (Thank You for Smoking), Tate Donovan (The Office Party), and Rachel Bilson (The Last Kiss).
Returning to the spy genre, the filmmaker produced a movie about a couple of assassins with serious marriage issues.
Continue to part two.
Visit Doug Liman’s official blog at 30 Ninjas.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.