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

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I told Erwin upfront: Look, I'm not interested in the aliens and the science fiction. Let's just get this on the table right now, so there's no confusion. He said, I know what you're telling me when you say that; I've seen your work and I know you will deliver. I mean, The Bourne Identity is not a movie in which people sit around in coffee shops and talk about things for two hours; there is action in it. [Laughs] But the reason I'm doing this has nothing to do with making aliens run around and bite people's heads off. He knew that when he hired me. Most people do, I think.

'Edge of Tomorrow' and Our Season of 'Fierce' Summer Film Preview

So if people know this when they're hiring you, how do you still manage to get the reputation as someone who is difficult to work with? 
I think that's mostly something that sprung out of Bourne. They didn't know what they were buying into; I think they thought that, because it was my third film, they'd be able to bully me. I think they were surprised when that wasn't the case. Because I had a reporter that was trailing me for a piece and witnessed a lot of this, a story came out that did not portray me in a very favorable light. I mean, you do not criticize the studio, especially if they've given $55 million to some kid who only has two independent features to his name. They deserve credit for that choice — after that, I think it was nothing but horrible decisions. That kind of started an all-out publicity war. A story then got leaked when I was working on Mr. and Mrs. Smith that I was a difficult person to work with, which was a way for people to discredit that movie, and I think the damage has been done. 

Was this around the time that the "Limania" thing started making the rounds?
That was something that [screenwriter] Simon Kinberg coined when we were working on Mr. and Mrs. Smith…it was meant as a term of affection.

I don't know that's it's always been used that way….
No, well, things always play better in print when there's antagonism, right? [Laughs] Look, I'm not naive enough to think that I don't get to make films on a grand scale because someone, somewhere wrote a very large check. That was part of why I was so stressed at first: I wanted to stay on schedule and on budget. But I'm an independent filmmaker at heart, and having someone at a studio threaten that I would never get work again, it doesn't work on me. I had a very positive experience making a movie for $200,000 a long time ago. If I have to go back to that, I will. I refuse to be bullied.

Let's talk about the action scenes…these really do feel unlike your usual summer-movie set pieces. There's something a little ragged about them.
Good. When you do real action — real people running around and physically performing — audiences can feel it. They know the difference. I wanted this to feel like an old war movie, not some sci-fi summer blockbuster thing. Do something different. Though maybe don't do it with real exo-suits.

You actually built those, right?
Those things weren't CGI effects; we built them, a decision that I cursed pretty much every day on this production. You might as well be building a fucking Tesla! The initial suits we had started breaking; by the time we got them sturdy enough to do stunts in, they weighed even more than before. I would have film envy whenever I would go home and watch someone else's movie after a long day on the set: "Look at how easy these guys have it, they can just have their actors run from point A to point B!" [Laughs] Once you put Tom in one of those heavy exo-suits, it required cranes, wires and weeks of rehearsal just to have him do the simplest thing. 

But the idea of casting Tom and then having a digital character do all of the action…I wouldn't even know how to have that conversation with him. I'd told him from the outset, "Look: I want to make an honest movie. I don't want some sort of plastic-looking epic here." James Cameron seems to put these in every other movie, and everybody instantly seems to know how to operate them. But what if you threw somebody in there who had no clue what they were doing? That's interesting. 

In a way, it's a great movie about gaming culture as well: You move forward, you die, you start again at the beginning…
…you have to master a level until you can get to the next one. Yeah, we were definitely aware of that. You could say The Bourne Identity shares a lot of elements of gaming as well, actually. It's a first-person experience, and Matt Damon starts with nothing and has to acquire weapons and things. I was already thinking about how to use the vocabulary of video games at that point; Edge of Tomorrow is really just the next step in that, which is that you put the character back to square one until he can work his way up to the next level. [Pause] That's the Hollywood side of my brain thinking. [Laughs] But because you're not actually playing a video game, I needed to come up with a way to make someone feel like there were stakes here…not just the end of the world, but personal stakes to every time you had to go back to square one.

How did you solve that?
By making each one of thousand of deaths incredibly painful. [Smiles] That was the independent-filmmaker part of my brain thinking.

The film starts out about a person who is thrust into this situation he can't control, is burdened with a heavy suit that he has no idea how to operate it…just when the fate of hundreds of people depend on him the most.
Yeah.

It almost sounds like you're making a movie about your own initial inability to make this movie.
[Laughs] Well, I never said it wasn't a personal film. Being thrust into a huge battle where you're not sure what's going on or what to do while things are exploding around you — that's a pretty accurate description of making this movie. I was in over my head, and I needed time to find my way out. Misssteps were made. Tom's character is wrestling with the notion of whether he's really good enough to do what he has to in order to survive, and that's a question I wrestle with on a daily basis. But yeah, most producers would hear that and say "Go work your shit out on a $2 million movie, not a huge blockbuster!" Part of what I'm doing is working it out here. But that's only part of it.

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