6 Filmmaking Tips From Doug Liman

The director of ‘American Made’ on how to get movies made.
By  · Published on September 27th, 2017

The director of ‘American Made’ on how to get movies made.

Arguably one of the most underrated Hollywood directors, Doug Liman is not easy to pin down as a filmmaker. By his own claim, he’s a rare mainstream director allowed to take chances and try new things, approached by studios when they want something familiar and accessible but also fresh and original. He also admits when he fails to succeed in that regard.

Liman has worked in many areas of the business, breaking out with a hit indie (Swingers), kickstarting a huge action franchise (The Bourne Identity), producing a popular TV show (The O.C.), and helming a VR series (Invisible). Therefore, he has a lot to say about the art and the industry of filmmaking. Out of all that, I’ve compiled six items of wisdom from various interviews.

The Smaller the Budget the Better

Having found his first success with a small movie, Liman has always kept a small-movie attitude. He has brought up his experience on Swingers as much as possible over the 21 years since its release and seems to genuinely use that as a foundation for how he approaches every new project, no matter how expensive. Here he doesn’t mention the movie but does talk of what it taught him:

“I don’t necessarily think that having more money helps make you make a better film. Sometimes having less money is better. You’re forced into being more original you’re forced into hearing something versus seeing it. Look at ‘Jaws.’ The fact that they didn’t have as much money as they wanted to have and that the shot didn’t work ultimately lead to Spielberg to make a much better movie than had he had more money.”

That’s an excerpt from a 2014 interview for Creative Mapping. Below is a quote from a May 2017 interview for Box Office Pro in which he does bring up Swingers:

“I think of myself as making independent films within the studio system. Yes, I’ve made movies with significantly larger budgets, and I’ve also made movies with smaller budgets. For me, the scale of the budget is part of the creative process. ‘Swingers’ is the movie it is because we made it for exactly the right budget. Had it been made for a higher number, it would not have been as imaginative as we had to make it, given the budget constraints we had. So I was lucky to have that experience early in my career, and I think about it when I set out to do a movie—to set the scale of the production to something that will challenge me, keep me on my toes, keep my back against the wall, keep me sharp and desperate, and give me the tools to make something I’m going to be really proud of. But I have to show up to work scared every day.”

Action Movies Are Difficult

Liman has made a number of great action movies, including The Bourne IdentityMr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow, and part of why he’s done them is for the challenges. On each of them, he gave himself extra difficult hurdles to jump over, but he says all action movies start out with one fundamental issue. From a 2014 Esquire interview titled “How to Make an Original Hollywood Blockbuster”:

“I think making a great action movie is one of the hardest cinematic endeavors. By definition, smart characters avoid action. Smart people don’t go down dark alleys, but if you’re making an action movie and you want to have an action sequence, somehow you have to get that character into that dangerous situation.”

Of course, there are fundamental things you need in action movies, too, and look at that he mentions Swingers again in this except from a 2014 The Schmooze interview for

“It is not getting lost in the magnitude of the movie and forgetting that the reason we go see movies is for great characters and great stories. Because a movie like ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is so huge and complex, the spectacle and action is all-consuming, and that on its own is enough of a reason for a lot of people to see it. But if you make movies for adults and you hope people will watch it in 20 years the way people are all watching ‘Swingers’ now, you have to have great characters and great stories. The most cutting edge visual effects movie today is going to look quaint in 20 years.”

VR Filmmaking vs. Regular Filmmaking

Even more challenging then directing action movies is directing VR projects, but that hasn’t stopped Liman from trying and figuring out how to do it best. And while he’s identified the difficulty and overcome it, he says the fundamental element is the same as with any kind of film, just executed very differently. Here is an excerpt from a 2016 Filmmaker Magazine interview on that realization:

“The key is, you have to have a story and characters that are compelling so that you want to look and find them. Even if you are looking in the wrong direction, you are desperately trying to look in the right direction because you care about the story and the characters. That is so much more important in VR. In film, I can make you care, I can shoot a giant close-up. I can manipulate you into caring. I don’t have that option in VR. I don’t want to keep harping back to the script, but if from the very foundation you didn’t care about these characters and what was happening, you wouldn’t feel compelled to care about them in the world and find them. You have to create a world that people watching will be so drawn into that they’ll then do the work to find the story. What’s important are short scenes that get right to the heart of it, with plenty of conflict and drama and visually compelling environments. In 2D film, you do a closeup of a movie star and the background is out of focus, and you can hold the audience. But in VR those tricks are not available to you.”

Watch Liman discuss VR filmmaking (and how Swinger influenced the rest of his career) for an hour in a 2016 Toronto International Film Festival master class event:

Keep Trying

In the Creative Mapping interview, Liman says that “failure isn’t getting knocked out, it’s not getting back up.” What he means, of course, is that you should always keep trying and not worry about failure because failing is actually good for you and your development as a filmmaker (how appropriate that he was mostly talking about this while promoting Edge of Tomorrow?).

In a 2014 BBC interview, he shares the best advice he ever received, which sums up this tip:

“A teacher in film school – who was a writing teacher – told us that when you finish a screenplay, you should put ten vertical lines on the back of it and ten horizontal lines, thereby creating 100 boxes. Then, every time it comes back rejected you put a check in one of those boxes and know that when you’ve filled all of those boxes, you’ll sell it. It’s really just a way of looking at rejection as bringing you one step closer to success. “

Don’t Take No For an Answer

In the Box Office Pro interview, Liman is asked not just for any old advice for aspiring filmmakers but specifically what rule they should break to be more successful. Here’s his answer:

“What rule? ‘No.’ People are taught ‘no.’ I would break that rule. There’s not a day on one of my movies I’m not told ‘no.’ There’s not a point in my career I wasn’t told ‘no.’ Don’t listen to it.”

Ignore All These Tips

Finally, Liman is mostly against any sort of definitive rule, advice, teaching, tip, etc. In the below video interview for The Rough Cut, he explains why, as much as he liked film school, he’s unlearned just about everything he learned there, for the better. Here’s a transcribed excerpt:

“If I was going to go back to film school and teach, the first thing I’m going to be telling my students is, ‘I don’t know anything. I’m going to teach you, but you gotta leave here knowing more than me. You can’t possibly think that I know, that I can tell you how to make your movie. All I can do is basically give you the confidence and courage to ignore everything I’m saying and just do it your own way.”

What We’ve Learned

That last bit sums it up pretty well: Doug Liman doesn’t know anything. Nobody in Hollywood does. But there are certain foundational elements to filmmaking of any sort that you need to know: story and character. And there are certain skills and traits you could probably use, such as being resourceful with any size budget and being relentless without fear of failure. Just live and die for your movie and repeat, basically.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.