Doug Liman is not afraid to take chances. He’s gambled in
Hollywood, using his career as collateral, and emerged victorious
each time. But Liman’s winning streak has nothing to do with luck.
His success is owed to a hybrid philosophy of moviemaking comprised
of equal parts entrepreneurial spirit and personal interest. Admittedly,
he chooses projects with his heart, not always considering the professional
Born in New York City, the allure of moviemaking took
hold of Liman at a very young age. Like Steven Spielberg and George
Lucas, the directors he grew up idolizing, he began making short
films while still a teenager. When it came time for college, though,
he decided to play it safe and attend Brown University, where he
earned a degree in European History. His interest in the communicative
arts never subsided; Liman co-founded the school’s first student-run
cable television station, also working as its first station manager.
Seeing that the infrastructure was already in place, he proposed
partnering with other college stations to form a network that could
At the same time he was given the go-ahead (and a
sizeable grant) to do just that, Liman received word that he had
been accepted into the graduate program at USC’s School of Cinema.
They would not defer his enrollment, but Liman’s responsibility
to the idea that had originated with him was too great to turn his
back on. Forgoing the grad school experience, he stayed on to establish
the National Association of College Broadcasters. He did eventually
attend USC, "but stopped following the traditional curriculum
after one year because it started getting very technical and I already
knew the technical."
His first film, the straight-to-video feature Getting
In, didn’t make much noise. But the extraordinary–and unexpected–success
of Swingers, about the nightlife of a group of struggling LA actors,
made instant stars of its cast, including Jon Favreau (who also
wrote and produced the film), Vince Vaughn and Heather Graham (in
a career-changing cameo) and secured Liman’s reputation as one of
the past decade’s most talented young directors. With the door to
Hollywood open and a slate of big-budget projects to choose from,
Liman quietly declined, opting to make Go, a character-driven ensemble
piece, intertwining three stories around a Christmas rave.
This summer Liman is taking on his most ambitious
project to date, the $60 million spy thriller, The Bourne Identity.
Based on Robert Ludlum’s novel and backed by the star power of a
who’s who of young Hollywood players, including Matt Damon, Franka
Potente, Clive Owen and Julia Stiles, the film will put Liman to
the test as a director. He doesn’t seem concerned. MM spoke with
Liman recently about his meteoric rise, his knack for choosing budding
talent and taking on The Bourne Identity.
Jennifer Wood (MM): What was the
experience of making your first film, Getting In?
Doug Liman (DL): I learned to trust
my instincts because when I looked back on the film, the things
I was most proud of were the things I had stuck to my guns over.
I wouldn’t have done anything differently because learning to trust
yourself is a process of trial and error.
MM: You have a knack for ‘discovering’ undiscovered
young talent–or at least heightening their visibility. What is
your attitude toward casting?
|Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley in Go
(1999); Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996);
Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity (2002).
DL: I think of making films as an adventure
and I want to work with people who see it that way, so working with
new screenwriters and actors is one way of achieving that. Working
with Matt Damon, I discovered that it’s possible for someone to
become a major star and not become jaded to the process; to be as
excited by the process as if it had been his first movie. Go
was a great experience because even the really seasoned actors like
Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf had never worked on a production quite like
that one. Go followed my Swingers style of never stopping
on the set–keeping the energy going.
MM: Has there been one actor who surprised you
in his/her range or ability?
DL: I could never single out a single actor because
I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the greatest talent working
today. Matt Damon and Franka Potente come to mind right now because
I am reminded on an hourly basis how amazing they are–not just
as actors, but as people.
MM: How surprised were you by the enormous success
DL: We obviously were blown away by the reception
of Swingers. After all, it was just a resume film.
MM: You must have faced a number of challenges
on that film, considering its $250,000 budget. Do you think that
true creativity is put to the test when you’re working with restraints
DL: I do believe that constraints can help creativity,
because it’s the natural tendency of filmmakers to be inspired by
the movies that came before–and that can lead to imitation. Constraints
can force you to find your own voice.
MM: You worked without a DP on both Swingers
and Go, opting to get behind the camera yourself. What
was it like working with Oliver Wood, the cinematographer on The
DL: First of all, I was behind the camera on
The Bourne Identity. Oliver was my creative partner in terms
of the look and feel and style of the cinematography, but I do my
best directing when I am operating the camera. On Go, I learned
to trust my gaffer so there was not that much difference. The huge
difference is whose name is going on the movie. With Oliver, his
name was going to be on Bourne, so he was passionate about
how the film looked. On Go and Swingers, there was
no other passionate voice, just professionalism.
MM: Does it ever worry you that working as director
and DP, there’s nowhere for you to hide? That all mistakes come
back to you?
DL: I like both styles. It was really comforting to
On the other hand, people who know me know that I don’t always seek
comfort–I actually like being exposed.
MM: Having so much control over your films, do
you think you have a clearer idea than most directors going into
the editing room?
DL: I was unrealistic in my expectation that Go
and Swingers prepared me for the challenges of The Bourne
Identity. Editing for me is the process of learning to trust
the editor, because I do go in there with very specific ideas in
my head about how my shots should go together.
MM: Today, more than ever, we’re seeing a ton of
sequels and remakes of older films in theaters. The Bourne Identity
was made for television in the late ’80s. Did you use this version
of the film as a reference at all?
DL: I didn’t watch the original. I saw the first 10
minutes and turned off the VCR because I could tell right away that
not how I wanted to adapt the book. In general, my attitude is that
a director should bring something personal to the movie she or he
is making. My assumption was that the target audience for TBI
would barely have been born when the TV was made–that they, like
me, missed it.
MM: Swingers was made on a budget of $250,000;
Go was $6.5 million. TBI‘s reported budget is $60
million, which is quite a leap in just a few years. In a past interview
I read, you talked about the possibility of making a studio movie
and there being "too much time and too much money, and I would
just be bored." Did you prove yourself wrong?
DL: There is no way TBI–shot in seven countries,
having to speak French to be understood by my crew, having to learn
how to manage two full crews simultaneously shooting two completely
different scenes, working on the script every night–there was nothing
boring about this.
MM: Many moviemakers see a clear distinction between
‘independent’ and ‘Hollywood’ movies. Having done both, where does
your preference lie?
DL: Indie is more fun because you are alone; you are
not as dependent on the whims of others. I guess i’s more fun for
me, because I’m a very self-sufficient guy; I like rolling up my
sleeves. But I also like the opportunities that are available when
a studio is behind you. I like the collaboration with the studio–I
like being challenged by the studio.
MM: After the success of Swingers, you were
essentially given the key to Hollywood. Yet rather than take it,
you made Go, another fairly small, independent film. Were
you nervous that you would be passing up opportunities that would
not be presented to you again?
DL: At the end of the day, all of that is just theory.
I choose my movies with my heart, not my head. MM