No 'Tomorrow': Doug Liman on the Blockbuster That Almost Broke Him

The filmmaker dishes on the difficulties of big-budget filmmaking, his bad reputation and why you want Tom Cruise on your side

June 6, 2014 10:40 AM ET
Doug Liman
Doug Liman
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"I was training to climb Mount Everest," Doug Liman says, motioning to the slim treadmill desk tucked into the corner of his Tribeca office space. "It was originally for a project I was going to do with Tom Hardy [about Everest climber George Mallory]…compared to the movie I was making, the thought of scaling a mountain seemed restful." The 48-year-old director starts shaking his head slowly. "It was like, 'Well, there won't be any exo-suits, there won't be any aliens, there won't be the challenge of trying to get an honest performance out of someone in a totally computer-generated environment….' It really felt like, after what I'd gone through, trying to summit at 20,000 feet would be a breeze." 

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The movie Liman is referring to — a "little" film with a budget of $175 million, a prime early-summer release date and one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world — is one of those make-or-break projects that moviemakers seem to dream about and dread with equal measure. And had he known what he'd be in for when he signed up to make Edge of Tomorrow, an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 novel All You Need Is Kill that follows a reluctant soldier (Tom Cruise) who's forced to relive the same day of fighting alien invaders over and over again, Liman might not have signed on the dotted line at all. By many accounts, the production was not an easy one: voices were raised, expensive exo-suits broke down, and the director — whose reputation for tussling with producers and making enemies on films like Swingers (1996) and The Bourne Identity (2002) preceded him — was said to be in over his head. A recent Los Angeles Times article on Liman detailed several anecdotes of in-fighting on the set, as well as resurrecting a term used to describe his particular brand of exploratory, play-it-by-ear filmmaking: "Limania."

"He has no filter when it comes to being honest," the film's co-star, Emily Blunt, is quoted as saying in the Times piece, and Liman's blurt-it-out honesty is in full effect when he sat down with Rolling Stone for an hour-plus chat about the movie. "I probably shouldn't treat interviews as therapy sessions," he says at one point, "but I don't keep a diary, so these end up being my way of keeping track of where I'm at and letting it all out." Below are some excerpts from the conversation, touching on everything from Liman's admiration for Tom Cruise's work ethic to why his methodology angers the money men and the origins of the "Limania" reputation.

What drew you to this project initially?
[Producer] Erwin Stoff brought me the script, and I just fell in the love with the idea. Your hero gets killed 10 minutes in. Then he has to repeat the day until he gets it right — we've seen that in a comedy like Groundhog Day, but never in an action film. And I loved that, when all is said and done, it's less about whether he saves the world than whether he gets through the end of the day with Emily's character still being alive. Look, I'm never going to care about a movie where it's only about "Can you defuse the bomb? Can you stop Dr. No's laser from blowing up the moon?" [Laughs] Who gives a shit? I want to make a movie about characters. That's what I do. 

I also really wanted to make a film with a strong female character. In the action genre, that's really rare — you have Sigourney Weaver's take on the ass-kicking heroine, and that's sort of it. I thought, this is a chance to really put this front and center. I'd done it before — I'd argue that Mr. and Mrs. Smith is more about Angelina Jolie's character, who is a better spy than Brad Pitt's character — and I kept thinking, it'd be great to look at this story from the female perspective. You have this person who was a great warrior, who had a power and lost it; the world is counting on her to save it and she's unable to do it. She meets someone who can do it, and she has to figure out how to use him to accomplish what she's expected to do. I mean, that's a great story; you could cast Emily Blunt and an unknown actor and this would be amazing.

Right, but you didn't cast an unknown actor…you cast one of the most well-known movie stars in the world. You describe this as Emily's film, but the end result is more of a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, wouldn't you say?
I'd argue that it's both of their stories. Yeah, because it's Tom Cruise, he's going to take up more of the oxygen of the movie, so to speak. But then you get to play around with his brand, and that's great.

What do you mean, exactly?
When you think of his usual characters, they're people who are in complete control of their environments and can get out of any situation. We spend the first 20 minutes or so having fun with the fact that this guy is absolutely, positively in over his head. In a way, it's casting against type. The guy who you associate with being the alpha dog is stuck in an exo-suit that he can't operate, in the middle of a firefight where the whole platoon is counting on him, and he's just floundering. Believe me, the idea of messing with the idea of the Tom Cruise persona was just as exciting to him as it was to me. But I'd still contend it becomes a two-hander once Emily enters the picture. 

They were both very invested in developing their characters. Yes, there was a huge production going on around us, but basically, it was really just two actors and their director. Tom has an incredible work ethic; he'd be on the set at 7:45 a.m. every morning and would work with me on developing the character after we wrapped filming for the day. There was an intimacy between Tom, Emily and myself that didn't make this film that much different from, say, Swingers.

It's mind-boggling to hear you say that.

Because one film is a $200,000 indie made about an actor's clique of friends and the other is a $175 million summer blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. The films are almost antithetical!
To me, it's the same. I realize I am contradictory: I have an independent filmmaker's sensibility and a Hollywood director's short-attention span. [Laughs] But I feel like I'm an independent filmmaker. I don't really know how to explain the Bourne movie or Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the context of that, but…inside, I feel like I'm the guy who made Swingers still, to this day. 

The same beating heart that's at the core of my first movie is here. I mean, look, you have a lot of onscreen stuff and a lot of resources you're competing with in a film like Edge when it comes to getting something human in there. The beating heart of your story…that's not what shows up in a trailer. The other stuff is what shows up in a trailer, because that's what gets people in to the seats and that's how studios make their money. The system in general isn't necessarily pushing directors to put character work into their movies; they want you to worry about the 1,000 extras and not the two actors in front of you. And because a movie like this is so ridiculously large and complex… if I hadn't had partners like Tom and Emily, I could have very easily got lost in the spectacle. Entirely CGI sets, CGI creatures — it was really was unlike anything else I'd ever done. Just dealing with those elements will take up all of your bandwidth.

Did this tend to cause friction on the set?
The closest we ever came to friction was when I snapped at Emily.

Was this the incident that's referred to in the L.A. Times article?
It was an incident where…she made a suggestion that I didn't like. I'm human; I'm just not cool when the pressure is on. And there was tremendous pressure on me at that moment. She said, "Relax, I've never made a movie like this before." And I replied "Well, I've never made a movie like this before either!" The room just ground to a halt.

But Tom immediately jumped in and said, "I love that you said that. Look, you hadn't made anything like The Bourne Identity before you did that, and look how it turned out. I want to watch you figure out how to make this movie. This kind of stuff is exciting to me." I mean, we were six weeks out for shooting — the Sword of Damocles was hanging over us. Sets have to be built, stunts have to be choreographed…any decision you make has a lasting effect throughout the next few months of your life. That looming start date does things to your head.

I mean, had I even stopped to take a breath, I never would have said it. It just slipped out. I remember having these epic battles over Bourne…I'd literally get notes along the lines of "Why is Jason Bourne not fighting 200 assassins at the end?" My producer told me "This isn't your film school!" And I thought, well it kind of is. I'd only made two small films at that point, and now I'm being entrusted with a $55 million movie.

You can see why someone might not take too kindly to a statement like that…they are spending money to make a movie, not to teach someone how to make a movie.
They're spending money to make something that's a cookie-cutter product. You know, just copy someone else's movie and get on with it. That's not what I want to do. Thankfully, that's not what Tom or Warner Bros. wanted to do either. Otherwise, I might not have gotten away with a statement like "I've never made a movie like this before."

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