Director fascinated by antiheroes

Director Doug Liman with Tom Cruise (far left) on the set of American Made.
Director Doug Liman with Tom Cruise (far left) on the set of American Made.

On paper, Doug Liman's breakout indie hit Swingers (1996), a modern comedy of manners made for just US$200,000, could not be more different from his US$178 million action blockbuster Edge Of Tomorrow (2014).

But they both defied convention by offering ethically dubious heroes, something that has long intrigued the 52-year-old film-maker.

"I've always been drawn to antiheroes. I don't know if I could ever make, like, a Tom Hanks movie, where your hero is really just a hero," he tells The Straits Times in New York recently.

This is why he was riveted by the true story of pilot Barry Seal, who made millions flying Colombian cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, but became a marked man after being exposed as an informant for the United States government.

The director, who is also a pilot, "fell in love with Barry Seal", whose story is told in the new movie American Made.

"He's like the Federal Express of the underworld - he doesn't care what's in the back of his airplane, he just cares how heavy it is.

"I'm kind of a rule-breaker myself and I loved this celebration of a life led outside the normal boundaries," explains Liman, who adds that he broke many laws with his guerilla film-making techniques on Swingers.

An antihero is not, however, what Tom Cruise - Liman's leading man in the new film as well as in Edge Of Tomorrow - is best known for playing.

"He's a giant movie star and you can't help but be aware of that, and I sort of timidly suggested to him: what about making his character in Edge Of Tomorrow a coward? Because he'd had some other ideas about it that were a little more classic Tom Cruise.

"I didn't know if he was going to quit or tell me I was an idiot and he was, like, 'I love that idea', and then went for it."

That movie, which cast Cruise as a reluctant soldier stuck in a time loop and forced to relive the same losing battle with alien invaders over and over, became a smash hit, earning more than US$370 million worldwide.

Liman notes that many of his films "tend to not question the morality of the characters".

This was true of Swingers, which starred Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in a story about young actors trying to find work and love in Los Angeles, especially when it came to the memorably brash character played by Vaughn.

"My friends really were appalled when they read the script and saw Vince's character - they thought how he was talking about women as 'pretty babies' was very misogynistic. But I just loved him and I was, like, 'If I love the character, the audience will.'

"People come in all shapes and sizes, and I don't necessarily feel like I need to judge that person for not being how I am," Liman says.

And sometimes, an unlikeable protagonist is just what a situation needs. In Liman's 2010 biopic Fair Game, that was the argumentative Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), the diplomat who took on the White House in 2003 when he disputed the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"Our mantra making that movie was, 'One a**hole can make a difference'. And that's my hero in the movie I'm calling an a**hole. I kind of like celebrating characters and not judging them."

The director also enjoys giving his protagonists less-than-ideal tools for getting out of sticky situations.

In the 2002 Matt Damon spy thriller The Bourne Identity, "I could have had Jason Bourne drive a Lamborghini on a high-speed chase through Paris.

"But I was interested in what it would be like if you were in this s****y little car that doesn't have much acceleration and make that a part of the challenge facing your hero."

Thus American Made shows Cruise's character flying tiny, cocaineladen planes that "have trouble clearing trees at the end of the runway".

Liman says: "I was interested in leaning into the real limitations of the airplane and then creating suspense and action through that."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Director fascinated by antiheroes'. Print Edition | Subscribe