Doug Liman has been making movies and TV shows professionally since the mid-'90s, when his debut feature Swingers became a seminal entry into the burgeoning "low-budget films about guys talking fast and having some kind of existential crisis" canon that remade the Sundance Film Festival and the indie film industry (at least for a time). By the time Swingers became one of 1996's breakout hits, however, Liman had been making movies on his own for nearly two decades, showing a steady improvement in craftsmanship after starting off at eight years old with a short, silent film about dogs taking dumps in Central Park.
Now 52 years old, Liman has directed blockbusters such as The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow, while producing shows like The O.C., Suits, and YouTube Red's new Jumper quasi-sequel, Impulse. He spoke with SYFY WIRE about that show — and its pivotal first episode reshoots — and then discussed his career writ large, answering questions from the SYFY WIRE Survey.
What was the first movie you ever made?
My first short, I made when I was eight. I grew up here in New York City and I had a dog. It was called Dogs in Central Park. It was hard keeping the dogs properly in the frame and in focus, because you had to manually focus back then and that is not that easy. They were running around so I tried to film them when they weren't running. So actually at eight I also got my first really harsh criticism, which still sort of scars me to this day: My sister making fun of me that I had made a movie all about dogs shitting, 'cause that's what they do when they're not moving.
What was the movie supposed to be about?
Just dogs in Central Park. But by the time I was ten, I was doing scripted movies. I did a movie called The Mummy. It was about a mummy coming to life. I shot some of it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art because they had this sarcophagus. And my father played the mummy with a sheet wrapped around him in Central Park. I lived off Central Park, so Central Park was sort of my back lot. My sister had a Madame Alexander doll, and I took its clothes off and covered it with white gauze, medical tape. And then I animated it, so I put special effects in my film at ten. That was a silent film, but by the time I was 14, I was doing films with dialogue and sound.
Which wasn't easy back then, because you had to sync film and sound.
No, especially since it was still my family acting in the movies. I even did a film based on a Woody Allen short story called Count Dracula where Dracula emerges to go attack his neighbors at night. Dracula can't be out during when the sun's out, and he discovers that it is actually not night. It is an eclipse and the sun's about to come back out. So he runs into their closet and he's stuck in the closet for much of the film.
I started shooting the film with my sister playing Dracula. And then she got sick of playing Dracula and being stuck in the closet, so she quit halfway through the film. My cousin Liz Hamburg, whose brother John Hamburg is a very successful filmmaker, took over playing the role of Dracula. It was kind of a bold idea, that I had the actor playing the character changes halfway through the film.
By the time I was a senior in high school I was in a creative writing class, and I asked my teacher if I could do a film instead of writing a story. And he said, "No." I said, "Well, actually I was thinking of casting you as the lead." And he said, "Oh…. Actually that may be a good idea." That's a film called Death Knocks starring my English teacher, Bill Werner.
What has been the hardest scene to shoot?
The assault scene in Impulse was probably the most stressful thing I've ever had to shoot, especially because it was a reshoot. I was already shooting Chaos Walking and flew to Toronto for the day to shoot the scene. I didn't even get to have the buffer of all the other fun scenes around it. It was like, "Okay. You're coming in just to tackle your biggest fear."
Shooting sex scenes in any form is really awkward. I would say maybe the actors have it easier because they have each other, and I'm kind of the creepy voyeur. I'm particularly awkward about it. When I was doing this The O.C., which had a fair amount of people making out, I was always so awkward about it. I always charged my director of photography with doing that for me. Because Josh Schwartz would write a moment in the script it says "the protagonist opens the door to the bathroom and there's some kind of orgy going on in the hot tub." And you get there on set, and there's the hot tub, and there are five actors who are in the hot tub, and you have to tell them what to do.
It's just so awkward to do, and I told my director of photography, "I'm too embarrassed. I'll operate the camera. You go in the bathroom and just surprise us. You orchestrate something so when we open the door neither Adam Brody or I know what we're going to see. And just so he's always surprised, each take, just show us something a little different."
I'm somebody who, when I was shooting the sex scene in Bourne Identity, which isn't even a sex scene, Matt Damon and I were so freaked out that Franka Potente, who is German, brought Jagermeister in for us to do shots because she saw that Matt and I were so freaked out. In general, my experience is that women are way stronger, in general, and definitely when it comes to doing awkward things like the sex scene.
I did this drawing class in college where they brought in naked models and you had sketch them with charcoal. It was my first time doing that. I got to the part where you're supposed to draw her vagina and I just sort of took the charcoal, and turned it sideways, and just gave like a smudge. And the teacher came over and he was like, "What the hell is that smudge?" He's like, "You've got to draw everything."
I think the other most challenging thing for me was shooting in Baghdad for Fair Game because the war was going on and I was just scared for my life the whole time we were there. Bill Pohlad, who produced the movie and funded Fair Game, that was a really bold courageous thing on his part when I said I wanted to go shoot in Baghdad with the war going on, given all the liability that exposes the studio to that he appreciated that and supported us doing that.
What's the best day you've ever had on set?
I would say the first day of shooting on Mr. & Mrs. Smith. I had this idea that we were shooting these scenes with Brad and Angie with their marriage counselor and that the film starts with the marriage counselor. It was going to end with the marriage counselor, and even though Brad [Pitt] and Angie [Jolie] hated the marriage counselor idea. We really had to force them to do it. My idea was to shoot the first marriage counselor scene that opens the movie, where they're estranged from each other, on the first day, and then shoot the marriage counselor scene that ends the movie on the last day of the production.
Normally, you would shoot them together because you shoot scenes on the same set at the same time. It's very inefficient to have to go back four months later to the exact same set. But I really was like, "I really think ..." Especially because when I cast Angie, she was in like Thailand. I just cast her over the phone, and so I never saw them together. I had no idea what was going to happen when I put them together, so I thought whatever's going to happen, I want to film it.
Clearly, you had good instincts on that one. Why did they hate the idea of the marriage counselor?
I was interested in making more of a comedy than they were interested in making.
What's been your worst day on set?
It would have to be American Made when there was an airplane crash with the airplane we were filming with. Two pilots were killed.
That's just such an awful thing to happen, and then as the director, you have to be a leader on set during that crisis.
I really had amazing producers, Ray Angelic and Kim Roth. When something like that happens, and you see your producers jump into action and do what they can do — unfortunately they don't have superpowers so they can't bring people back to life, but they were extraordinary people. For the rest of my life, I'll know how extraordinary those people are as human beings. It's your worst nightmare.
What's the best creative advice you've ever received in your career?
The best single piece of advice I ever got was in my brief tenure at my USC film school before I dropped out. I had a writing teacher who told us when we wrote a spec script and sent it out to producers, to put a grid on the back of the script — because back then you physically sent the script to people — and every time it came back rejected, put a checkmark in the grid. And when the grid fills up with checkmarks, you'll finally sell the script. And what he meant by that was that every rejection would bring you one step closer to finding the person who was going to buy it.
Really what he meant by that was that failure isn't getting the rejection. Just put the checkmark, "That's okay, I got rejected." Failure's not getting back up. And that we all get knocked down in the business in every form. I don't know what reviews Impulse is gonna get. I don't know what the reaction will be. I mean, when you something creative and put it out there, you expose yourself to criticism and rejection. Even as successful as I am, I get rejection all the time.
What is your dream project?
I have an idea — it actually makes perfect for SYFY — I want to do something about people going into outer space that's not in the future. People today going to an asteroid, going to the moon, going to Mars, and not the fictional version of it. What could you do today?
First of all, I'm interested in the idea of adventure. I think you see that in everything I do, and Impulse at the heart is an adventure. So I'm really interested in adventure, and I think we've really explored so much of Earth, and there's a whole universe out there, and I'm like, "Why do I need to watch a film that's set in a galaxy far, far away? Why? Why can't we go there now?" Elon Musk talks about it practically in terms of SpaceX, but I think of it more in terms of storytelling. Why can't a character today say, "I want to go to a moon?"
Who is your artistic hero?
It would either be my mother's a painter or it would be Katharine Hepburn. I just think she breathed to live in her characters where they just jump off the screen. And I don't think there's anybody alive or dead who's done quite what she accomplished.
What's the craziest thing you've done for a shot?
On Swingers, I organized then shoot not around interior locations first and then exterior vice versa, or something that there could be some logic behind it. I ordered things by putting the most likely to get us arrested at the end of the shoot. Vegas was at the end, and the stuff we shot around I-15 was the second to last day of the shooting. The driving stuff we did at night was the last day of the shoot because it was totally illegal to be towing a car on a highway with us filming from the back of a pickup truck. I mean, there's so many laws you're breaking.
When we were shooting along I-15, a cop came up to us and asked us what we were doing, because we had just pulled over to start shooting and the cop was there in like a second. But we hadn't pulled the camera out yet, and we just said, "Oh, we're a convoy of cars heading to L.A. We lost one of the cars." Which was true. The sound guy didn't get off at the right exit so we were waiting for him to loop back around on the highway. So we were in fact waiting for somebody. So the cop left.
The sound guy showed up and we started shooting. And then another cop pulled up and goes, "What the hell's going on here?" We were literally on the shoulder of a highway shooting. And we said we had a film permit. He says, "Where's the permit?" We said, "Oh, our producer has it. He's on his way to L.A. If you want, we can call him on his cellphone, get him to turn around." The cop's like, "Sure." And so, my assistant director came up to me like, "Just keep shooting." I said, "I don't know how long I can keep this rouse going." Every time I looked back, there would be more cops. At a certain point the cops' walkie talkie chat was sort of bleeding into the audio.
Luckily John and Vince's car was pointed away because they were faced in the direction of traffic and the police cars were all behind them, so they couldn't see what was going on behind them. It would have been at a certain point been impossible for them to keep acting. Eventually that first cop that we had lied to about that we were just waiting for somebody, joined the group. And then they realized we had told two different cops two two stories. They could have arrested us, and instead they said, "If you leave right now, we'll let you go."