Interview: Doug Liman Returns To His Roots with ‘Fair Game’

By  · Published on November 5th, 2010

It’s been a while since we’ve seen director Doug Liman in the world of dialog-driven filmmaking. With Go and Swingers, you got the feeling Liman knew how to make dialogue pop as action, but then he transitioned to actual popcorn action. After spending time on major tentpole releases, the director has returned to his roots.

Fair Game is somewhat of a marriage drama, similar to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but without the gunplay. It’s definitely not the “high-octane” thriller it may, and most likely, will be sold as.

Doug Liman had plentyto say when I sat down with him. His answers were thoughtful speeches when it came how he initially dreamed of only making dumb action movies, his visual style, and what exactly happened on Jumper.

Do you look at this as your return to dialog-driven films?

I never really left it, but I thought I was going to leave it. I always wanted to make big action movies as a kid, and that was my dream. In a way, Swingers was the thing I suffered through the most doing because of all that dialog, so I could eventually be allowed to do a big dumb action movie, honestly. I’m being totally honest, that was my thinking. The strange thing that happened was that I discovered I actually like character and dialog, so by the time my plan worked and I was given the keys to direct a big dumb action movie, I realized I was much more interested in character than I was in action. I had changed as a human being when I got to that point. This wasn’t from a budget point-of-view, but more of a sort of return to my roots.

I feel like this is very consistent for me, even in terms of it being a true story is not as big of a departure as you might think. More of The Bourne Identity’s script was taken from the events of the Iran Contra, which my father investigated for the Senate, than what was taken from Robert Ludlum’s novel.

Robert Ludlum’s novel was written at the height of the cold war, but the cold war is over. The Jackal is the villain of Ludlum’s novel, and he’s been in jail for a long time now. He may actually be dead now, I actually don’t know. With Mr. & Mrs. Smith, that was also a step in the evolution of me making this movie. The relationship between Joe and Val has a lot in common with the relationship of John and Jane Smith. It’s spies living in suburbia.

It’s an interesting dichotomy.

It’s endlessly fascinating, especially when you think about Joe Wilson, who’s this former ambassador and sort of flamboyant and has a beautiful blonde trophy wife and two kids, but little do the neighbors know as Valerie is dropping the kids off at school she’s heading into Langley, where she’s going to be traveling the globe as a top undercover C.I.A operative.

That sounds like I made that up for a movie.

It’s that much more interesting to me because it’s actually real. They’re real people and there’s more people like them who haven’t been outed and are doing this everyday. There’s something endlessly fascinating where the wheels touch the ground or where the sexy wheels of espionage intersect with our world.

Was there anything different for you, like you said, returning to almost nonstop dialog?

Like, did it change for me? No. There are so many good meaty scenes and great actors delivering the lines, and that’s just a really comfortable place to be as a filmmaker. It’s a lot harder sometimes when you’re doing a bigger commercial movie where there’s a scene that doesn’t make sense, but you somehow need to make it work because the plot requires it. You’re trying to make something feel honest when it’s only reason for being is moving the plot from point A to point B.

It’s a question of trying to make it feel honest, and those are the really hard scenes. That being said, the scariest filming I’ve ever had to do in my career was with this movie because there are a lot of intimate scenes. It has some of the most mature scenes I’ve ever had to direct, and those were the days I was the most intimidated showing up to set.

Do you think you would’ve been capable of doing those scenes 10 years ago?

No, I think 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to show the restraint that I believe I was able to show with the film now. I’m really taking my opinions out of the movie, and that only happens because of the life experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years. It’s from working on the Obama campaign and realizing that regular Americans don’t want to hear what people in Hollywood have to say about the world. I mean, they really don’t. That experience was going to color how I was going to approach the movie and also ‐ this predates Swingers ‐ but watching my father investigate the Iran Contra situation. That is probably the largest and most dramatic abuse of power in our country’s history.

I mean, Ronald Reagan setup a secret C.I.A organization to conduct covert missions unaccountable and outside of the law and only reporting to the White House. That was a sexy enough idea that I borrowed a lot of those elements for The Bourne Identity, but what was incredible was that the American public really didn’t care. Ever since Watergate we have really not cared, and that kind of makes sense to me. I didn’t make Fair Game because of politics. I read the paper and keep up with the news, so in 2003 I was outraged about what was going on in D.C. with Valerie Plame, but I was in the middle of makingMr. & Mrs. Smith. I was outraged, but I went back to my life.

I understand that it’s a huge luxury for people to dwell on the problems in Washington. Things have to be pretty tidy in your own life that you have the time to worry about what’s going on in Washington. Most of us spend our time worrying about the things that are directly around us: our love lives, our careers, and our baking accounts. I’m not judgmental whatsoever that the American people aren’t more fixated on politics, and I accept it. It’s understandable and it makes sense to me.

Between those two life experiences I wasn’t going to approach Fair Game and make a political diatribe and ask people to spend 12 dollars to hear what I have to say and express my political views. In reality, it should be the other way: if I want to express my political views, I should be paying you to hear them. I should be running political ads and buying up airtime for you to be hearing my views.

Do you feel much more confident as a filmmaker now?

Yeah, I feel like there’s a confidence and maturity to the filmmaking that is appropriate to the material and reflects the material it’s covering. Probably my favorite shot I’ve ever done is in this movie, so it’s not totally restrained ‐ the scene in Iraq when they’re in the traffic jam and the gunshot erupted.

This is also your first DP credit since Go, correct?

Well, credited, but I also shot The Bourne Identity.

Why weren’t you credited?

Because the studio put a DP on the movie to look over my shoulders.

What makes you want to work as your own DP?

Because I liked how The Bourne Identity looked, and I thought that would be an appropriate look for this movie. I only do one look as a DP, but I do it really well. If you want it to look like The Bourne Identity, Swingers, or Go, nobody does that look better than me. So, who am I going to hire but me? If I wanted it to look like a Vanity Fair spread, which is the look I wanted for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I would have to hire someone else to do that look because I can’t.

How do you think you’ve changed as a director since Go and Swingers?

You know, I sort of just go through phases, and some of it is just based on my recent experiences. I had just come off doing a lot of commercials when I did Go, so a part of the fast pace and efficiency comes from the discipline I had to learn from telling stories in 25 second increments, and that type of discipline is insane. You’ll have a script supervisor saying, “That was a great performance, but instead of 7 seconds, you need to get that performance in 5 seconds,” and that was great training. I did almost 2 years of commercials between Swingers and Go.


The reality is that I did it because my father was sick, and I didn’t want to take a movie. I didn’t want to go away from home when my parent was dying, which is what a movie really requires. With a commercial you’re able to go away on 4 days and be able to comeback.

There were a lot of changes on Jumper. What exactly changed or got cutout?

It did change a lot. The reality of Jumper was that I had a very specific idea that didn’t work. I went out on a limb and was pushed to do it, and that’s one of the luxuries of my career. I took a lot of chances early on, and they worked, so when people hire me, they hire me to take chances. If I try to do something that’s a little conventional they literally say to me, “That’s not Doug Liman enough,” and my response is, “How? I thought of it and I’m Doug Liman,” and then they say how when they hired me, they hired me to take chances. I’m now not only encouraged, but required to take chances.

On Jumper, I was going to take a really bold chance and just have a totally unlikable protagonist and he’s never redeemed. In the finale, he uses his powers to abandon the girl. You never see that. The reality is, there’s a reason you never see that because the audience will hate you [for it]. It was a really cool movie with the way I cut it, but then the people at FOX said, “That’s fine if you made the movie for 1 million dollars, but this is a big budget movie and you gotta put a hero back in the heart of this. You’ve taken anti-hero way too far,” and that was my whole point. I told them, “He’s got a superpower, but why does he have to be a superhero? Why is having a superpower mean you have to be fighting for truth and justice?”

If you look at Fair Game, the people in the White House have superpowers. They’re the most powerful men on the planet, and they’re using that power to do something very evil. It seemed to me like I was doing an honest treatment of a superpower and being reflective of the world we lived in, but audiences were not willing to go with me on that particular journey.

Do you see yourself doing the sequel?

Normally, I wouldn’t do a sequel, but I feel like I gotta fix this one and I am inclined to do it. We’re working on it.

Fair Game is now in theaters.

Related Topics:

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