Essays · Interviews

Director Doug Liman Believes ‘Fair Game’ is More Relevant Than Ever

Director Doug Liman on why he had to return to his 2009 movie and strip down Sean Penn’s performance.
Doug Liman
By  · Published on November 9th, 2018

Doug Liman has hit the zeitgeist bullseye many times through his career. Whether we’re talking The Bourne Identity or Swingers, he almost always captures a time and place, and often with a timeline to go along with all of the damn fine entertainment value. That was the case with Liman’s most vocal and politically charged movie, Fair Game, but despite strong reviews and a successful debut at the Cannes Film Festival, it didn’t connect with audiences back in 2009.

The story behind the Sean Penn and Naomi Watts-led drama – Joe Wilson and exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame’s David vs. Goliath-esque battle against the White House for the truth – was unfinished in Liman’s eyes. When Vice President Dick Cheney’s former advisor, Scooter Libby, was pardoned earlier this year for his crimes, the Edge of Tomorrow director knew it was more important than ever to recut Fair Game, try to make it the best possible movie it could be, and ideally, get people talking.

This cut of the movie has more urgency than the theatrical cut. 

Yeah. It does.

How long has been making a director’s cut of Fair Game been on your mind? What made you want to revisit it?

The impetus came from a creative place or an artistic place. Even though the original film received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, I just felt there was a better movie in there than I had brought out in the editing. I wanted to go back into it and see if in fact there was. And Steve Mirrione, the Academy Award-winning editor, I gave him his first job and he gave me my first job, we came of age together on Swingers, both of our first films.

He came from a place of, “I’m interested in making movies about characters in extraordinary situations. Whether it’s Jason Bourne having amnesia and being chased through Europe, or Tom Cruise having to travel in time, battling aliens, what I’m really interested in is the human being in extraordinary situations, how they react, what they do.” And that was my attraction for Fair Game. It didn’t come from a place of politics or outrage, political outrage. It came from a place of, wow. There are a husband and wife. She works for the CIA, he’s a retired ambassador who’s sent on a mission to Niger by the CIA, and between the two of them, they know that the two arguments that Bush White House made for going to war, are bullshit. It happens to be focused on this couple, on this husband and wife, and so I was really interested in these characters and then choosing to speak up and take on the most powerful man in the world, and the impact that had on both Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame and their marriage.

I’d have been interested in that even if it was a fictional story. I feel like, when I was originally charting the film, the events were so recent, the war was still going on in Iraq when I filmed in Baghdad, and I actually took a crew to Baghdad and filmed in Baghdad.

Which you weren’t supposed to do, right? 

I definitely was not supposed to. And [screenwriter] Jez Butterworth and his brother attended every day of the Scooter Libby trial, and so the events… They were literally writing the film as history was happening, so if we actually… So I wanted to go back in because I thought, I can get a better performance out of Sean Penn and Naomi Watts with a little more editing. Really what’s happened is that there was a better movie to be made. I needed the distance from the events, I needed the distance from the politics from it all. To get that, the thing that inspired me to make the film in the first place, which was, these characters going through this extraordinary situation.

As you said, you can cut together a better performance in the editing room, so how did you alter Sean Penn and Naomi Watts’ performances? 

The one thing that I knew, was that Sean Penn’s character was too emotional, that Sean Penn’s rendition of Joe Wilson was too emotional and it felt unearned, and that was the starting place for me. It was ah ha, I wanted to work on the performances we chose of Sean to put in. It’s like a tapestry. Once you start to pull on one thread, you know, a bunch of stuff comes undone. Or, the other one is a better analogy, once you sort of discover a different approach to Sean’s performance, it changes how you cut Naomi Watts’ performance, it changes how the depth of their relationship on screen, and that changes your whole relationship to the movie.

This is not an Oliver Stone film. This is not a, let’s indict George Bush. Joe Wilson, you know, Sean Penn’s Joe Wilson is not a Boy Scout. I think he’s an American hero for what he did, but he’s very much of an anti-hero in the movie, and you look at all my movies, they all focus on anti-heroes. I love anti-heroes.

And then what happened is, once I started working on the characters and then even just processing my experiences filming in Iraq, and what the impact of or what it really means to go to war. Not that I know the way a soldier knows, but I know more than I knew before I went to Iraq. And because the war was still going on, it took me a while to process that.
My whole approach to the movie changed.

So I re-cut the movie and I did this on my own, I hired Steve Mirrione and brought him in. Ever since Bourne Identity when I had these epic fights with Universal, I always kept a copy of my own movies on the Avid. The studios probably don’t know that and wouldn’t be happy to hear that. I’ve always kept a copy. So I had a copy of Fair Game and I just brought Steve in and started working on the movie without telling anybody. Finished it and said, well, and this probably two years ago, then it was like you have to technically finish it and then have it put out.

And I’m busy with TV shows and new movies and so time goes by, but I was constantly pushing the ball forward, doing this just all on my own, trying to remix the movie which is a fairly technical process and waking up the people who did it the first time and then just paying for this all myself out of my own pocket, and kind of doing it on the QT. And then Trump pardons Libby this spring? And I realized the story wasn’t actually done until that moment. Things happen for a reason, and the movie wasn’t meant to be released or finished in 2010. The events were too recent for me as a filmmaker to really make the best possible version of the movie. The events weren’t done playing out. Sean Penn’s character in the movie, says that Scooter Libby’s going to get a pardon.

A pardon that happened eight years after the movie was released, but has now happened four months before the director’s cut’s being released. Then I went back in one last time this spring to reflect that. Now I feel like the movie is actually done. I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t get it right the first time, because history sort of bore out that story wasn’t actually done when I told the story the first time.

There’s one performance I want to ask about, Sam Shepard’s. I hadn’t watched a movie of his in a while, and it felt good just seeing him, and in a very good scene. What do you remember about working with him?

Because we’ve lost Sam Shepard, and because in the movie Sam Shepard’s playing a character whose mind isn’t necessarily all there. Those things work together for me right now, watching the movie, it has a sense of nostalgia, which happens to work with the scene. The whole movie was shot so quickly that Sam Shepard went in for two days, the rehearsals were happening on the set, and he was just such a pro. The only thing I did as a director in relation to Sam Shepard’s performance was cast him.

Since you keep copies of your movies on Avid, do you ever go back and recut other movies of yours just for the experience?

Well, I don’t do that, and when we were going to do the 10th anniversary of Swingers, I thought, in that case, I made that movie on my own so I had all the Avid media because there was no studio from whom to steal it from. And I thought we should put out the first cut of Swingers and the final cut, so people can see the differences. We never ended up doing that, but I like speaking at film schools, and I like talking about the process of making movies and being very open about it.

When I was making Bourne Identity, there was a reporter living with me in my apartment for a month, capturing all the details of just what it’s like to make a movie. I like that there are two versions of Fair Game out there, and you can see what an effect editing can have, because there was no new shooting in between the scenes. It’s just editing. Editors are probably the most under-appreciated people in Hollywood. They don’t get paid the way they should get paid, they don’t get the credit they should get. Director, producer, writer, editor. I don’t mean to demean the other people, but an editor is so essential to the storytelling, and this Fair Game shows that.

And this summer, I thought, “Oh, now’s a reason to put the film out because Trump just pardoned Scooter Libby and nobody even knows who Scooter Libby is.” And if you knew who he was, you would be confused or outraged, what could possess somebody to pardon that guy, who was convicted by a jury of 12 regular men and women unanimously. And the most that any of those jurors could say in his defense when interviewed afterward was that he was for sure guilty, but that there were clearly other people there were guilty he was hiding and covering up for. They only felt bad that he was the only person they could convict and these are just regular people.

So sort of I felt this to spring, there’s a reason for putting the film out because it’s relevant because of what Trump did with Scooter Libby and then I screened the movie for an audience. I was just doing this on my own in the editing room, I realized that, who cares about Scooter Libby? That’s not what Fair Game is about. And the themes that are raised in the movie are more relevant today than they were when the movie was made.

And most of all, this speaking truth to power, because that was the thing that drew me to the film in the first place, is two people taking on the White House and that they knew, in particular, Joe Wilson, he knows the White House has lied to the American people, and that if he exposes that lie, he’s going to be jeopardizing not only a presidency, but he’s going to be jeopardizing a potential dynasty. Because it’s not just a president, the president’s father was president, and his brother intends to become president. And then Joe Wilson is going to choose to take those people on.

I was interested in the character making that decision, but this scene on speaking truth to power is terrifyingly relevant today. When you watch the Ford hearings, and regardless of what you think of her or whether you believe her or not, they are humans behind all this. That’s the role, she’s a human being who made the decision to stand up and testify in front of 30 million people. Most of us get up in a room full of 10 people and speak, we get a little nervous. I think that too often there’s a role that movies can play even better than the media can because movies are about characters at the end of the day, the good movies. Movies like Fair Game, they’re not about the politics, they’re about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, who are amazing characters.

What movies can do is show you the humanity behind these world events, and I think it’s a great filter when you look at events happening today. You watch Fair Game, it gives you a perspective on what’s happening today, it gives you the human side of it. I don’t think those people at the Trump rally would be laughing at Professor Ford if they had seen Fair Game. It doesn’t even matter if you believe her or not, they would not be laughing at her if they had seen Fair Game and understood that behind all these stories are human beings. You know, flawed human beings with good parts and bad parts, but human beings.

Fair Game: Director’s Cut is now available on Netflix.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.