YouTube's Impulse: Inside the total reshooting of the pivotal sex assault scene

Contributed by
Jun 7, 2018, 3:45 PM EDT

Doug Liman still remembers Stacey Snider, then an executive at Universal, yelling at him on the set of The Bourne Identity in 2001 when production on the franchise-starting film was going too long and getting too expensive.

"She used to scream at me that Bourne Identity wasn't my $50 million film school," Liman, 52, recalls. "I used to be self-conscious about that, but I've come to embrace that, and part of embracing that idea that I'm constantly trying to grow as a filmmaker is to grade my tests."

As it would turn out, the final product of The Bourne Identity passed that test with flying colors, even if the arduous shooting process meant he did not return for the subsequent sequels. Then came Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which if not critically acclaimed was still a box office hit and genesis of a cultural sensation. But when it came to 2008's Jumper, a sci-fi film starring Hayden Christensen, the right answers were suddenly less obvious.

"Jumper was one of my films that I felt like I could do better if I did it again," Liman admits. "And I thought that the ideas I had for how I would do it better really made more sense on television than as a movie. Pretty soon after Jumper, I was like, ‘I'm going to do this as a TV series.'"

A decade after Jumper failed to take off at the box office, Liman, who went on to later direct Edge of Tomorrow and American Made, is getting another crack at that test. The filmmaker is the executive producer on Impulse, a YouTube Red show based on the third book in author Steven Gould's Jumper series, and directs the first episode, which began streaming for subscribers on Wednesday. The show is the product of a decade of growth and learning, both for Liman and hopefully, Hollywood at large.

After a career of making mostly movies about difficult men, Liman's new series focuses on a young woman. The show is also run by a woman and had its most pivotal and uncomfortable scene rewritten and reshaped by women.

Impulse on YouTube

The inciting incident in Impulse comes midway through the pilot, when series protagonist Henry (Maddie Hasson) discovers she has the power of teleportation. In Gould's book, she has this realization in the midst of a snowboarding accident; Impulse's pilot episode makes the revelation as Henry is being sexually assaulted by an acquaintance from school. It's a huge change, to say the least, and was the subject of its own significant reimagining.

"I liked Steven Gould's idea that your superpower develops, it manifests for the first time during a stressful event," Liman explained. "And really, for a young woman, we couldn't think of something that would be more impactful and stressful than a sexual assault."

For some background: shooting any sort of sex scene has always been a weak point for Liman. When it was time to call action on a sex scene in The Bourne Identity, he says he had to take shots with Matt Damon — co-star Franka Potente brought Jagermeister to the set for them — before he could get the camera rolling. On The OC, which he executive produced and often directed, Liman would make his director of photography choreograph hot tub orgy scenes and other sexually suggestive moments.

Make no mistake, we are not suggesting that the scene in Impulse, in which Henry is assaulted is a sex scene. It is a depiction of a terrible crime. But it begins with consensual kissing, and what came next so spooked Liman that that Hasson felt compelled to coach him through it.

YouTube greenlit the series based on the pilot episode with that scene, but that version of the assault is not what audiences will see when they stream the show. Because after Liman and his producing partners brought on Lauren LeFranc (Agents of SHIELD, Chuck) to be the showrunner on Impulse, she made it clear to Liman that the assault needed to be rewritten and re-shot.

"Lauren said that I had shot it in sort of a superficial way because I found it very awkward and painful to watch," Liman said. "She was like, ‘We can't hide from that. We have to go into that full force.'"

"I wanted to keep things honest, and in order to do the things that I wanted to do this season for the character's journey, I felt that the scene needed to be more visceral," LeFranc told SYFY WIRE. "It needed to be more from her perspective and it needed to make us feel a little bit more uncomfortable, to realize what it is that Henry would herself be feeling in that situation."

With LeFranc on board, the production team met with assault victims, seeking to learn not just about the experience of being so cruelly abused, but also to understand the moments that lead up to the act and the aftermath of the assault. That research in turn helped shape the scenes that sandwich the attack.

In the show, Henry spends the first half of the pilot shooting down the advances of a jock named Clay (Tanner Stine). Later, she turns to him for help because his dad owns a used car lot and she needs a ride. He helps her swipe a car from the lot, and their conversation soon turns into a consensual kiss. That was in Liman's original script and shoot, but the new version altered the scene's transition from sweet teenage moment to assault in important ways.

"The original assault scene turned very quickly, and I wanted to have it feel more accurate, so I tried to layer in Henry playfully protesting," LeFranc explained. "Not to generalize, but I think a lot of women tend to a rebuff attention they don't want from men in a kind, polite manner before they ended up having to say something more definitively. I felt that personally too. So I wanted to try to create a little bit more nuance into that scene before it turned dramatically."

Henry giggles uncomfortably and asks Clay to lay off when he begins to advance beyond kissing, unbuckling his seat belt and putting his hands on her chest. The protest goes unheeded and fear swells in her eyes; suddenly, what seemed like a romantic moment has turned into a nightmare.

Impuse car scene

"They had a very sweet kiss and one of the things I wanted to do with the reshoot was enhance that, so it felt more like a turn," LeFranc said. "Henry gets in a car with a boy, she feels comfortable with it. You can't imagine he would ever do anything like this to her."

Liman, who flew back up to the set on Toronto to reshoot the scene, said they also worked to show Henry's thought process during the event. "Lauren said that we have to understand that Henry's mind has left the scene before her body has," Liman explained. "Because that's something that women who are being assaulted, sometimes they just check out to get through the ordeal."

The scene culminates with Henry's first teleportation, which sends her back to her bedroom. On the outs with her mom and her mom's boyfriend, she has nowhere to turn but to her mom's boyfriend's daughter, who is a few years older and not exactly thrilled about having to live with the school's weird troublemaker new girl. Henry is none-too-thrilled to know Jenna, either, which makes it even harder to explained what happened (as if explaining you somehow teleported isn't hard enough). LeFranc reworked this sequence, as well, to highlight the discomfort in their relationship and the immediate outcome of the event.

Henry and Jenna return to the truck and find that the teleportation's collateral damage was severe. The front of Clay's car was crushed, and more significantly, so was his spine. He winds up on life support in the hospital, which devastates Henry even further.

"For her to realize the consequences of what she did with Clay and feel guilt, we wanted to portray what a lot of women feel in these circumstances," LeFranc said. "That they feel weirdly guilty or they feel it's their fault."

The reworking and reshoots took place before the game-changing reporting on Hollywood's sexual assault epidemic and the beginning of the #MeToo movement, but those issues were fully on LeFranc's mind.

"Part of why I wanted to tell a story like this was to try to give it a lot of breathing room and really try to express fully what it might be for a woman going through," she said, "because I haven't seen it portrayed and I don't feel like a lot of these women have a voice. So I'm hoping that we did them justice in that we portrayed something honest."