Perfectionist. Mensch. Creative. Restless. Eccentric. Immature. Indulgent. Irresponsible. Indecisive. Brilliant. Idiot savant. Balls of steel. Blithely indifferent. Mr. Magoo.
These are just some of the ways people describe filmmaker Doug Liman, 43.
“Maybe it’s more chaotic onset than your average big-budget Hollywood movie,” says Liman of his controversial filmmaking process. “But it may be smarter or more inventive than those other movies.”
“Doug is a self- and semi-managed tornado,” says Akiva Goldsman, producer of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” “It’s chaos, and it’s effective chaos.”
“I’d work with him in a second,” says Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. “He’s not one of these bloated filmmakers with a big entourage. He makes great cool commercial genre films — which are hard to come by — and he does it with an independent filmmaker’s soul.”
Regardless of the knocks on his methods, Liman’s films continue to enjoy a strong B.O. run. His teleporting action-adventure “Jumper” opened last week to a $38 million holiday weekend take. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as married spies, mixed up romance, comedy and thriller and took in $468 million worldwide. And 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” launched the most radical reinvention of the spy genre since 1962’s “Doctor No.”
Liman’s creative process on “Bourne,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper” — a disorganized shooting style that involves constantly throwing out new ideas while shooting — forced his screenwriters, producers and crews to work long hours of overtime and cost the studios millions in budget overages. Producers and assistant directors have learned to accommodate Liman’s erratic shooting process, often taking on what would be ordinarily the director’s role.
Universal threw Liman off the “Bourne” franchise after a widely reported and painful production experience. But both audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to “Bourne” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
For “Jumper,” though, Liman finds himself in strange new territory: It’s his first film to land scathing reviews.
“I set out to make a film that appeals to teenagers,” Liman says. “I knew that kind of indulgence would not sit well with critics.” Indeed, the movie played best to males under 25.
If “Jumper” falls off dramatically at the box office, Liman may finally question his own creative process. But so far, he’s had little reason to.
“Bourne” was the film on which Liman didn’t get his way. On his early indie efforts “Swingers” and “Go,” Liman ran around real locations with a handheld camera, improvising and picking up shots. (Collaborators Jon Favreau and John August, respectively, picked up the pieces.) Both films were well received by critics and specialty auds.
Since then, the helmer has been trying to replicate that style of guerilla filmmaking on large-scale studio action movies. His pics boast a certain hip unpredictability.
The “Bourne” experience was frustrating for Liman, who pitched the notion of using Jason Bourne’s amnesia as a way to make a movie where the action was part of character development. “Normally the action is just a gratuitous thing,” he says. “In the case of ‘Bourne,’ he was going to learn about himself in the action scenes.”
Liman acquired rights to the Robert Ludlum books and lined up Matt Damon before Universal chairman Stacey Snider greenlit the movie. Things went smoothly until Liman’s first producer, Richard Gladstein, bailed before the start of production and Frank Marshall took his place. Soon Liman and Marshall were butting heads, as Liman tried to introduce new story ideas on set, and didn’t consider a call sheet a blueprint for what he should do on a given day.
“Every time I had to make a decision, my inclination was against making a traditional action movie,” Liman says. “I wanted to make an art film the studio could sell as an action movie with trailer moments to trick the audience. They had no idea what to make of this. ”
One of the worst moments for Liman came when a producer berated him in front of the cast and crew for not knowing what he was doing. He had spent a long day shooting a scene with Damon and Clive Owen and didn’t like what he had. When he wanted to take up the same scene in the morning, Marshall called Universal’s Snider and they forbade Liman to do the reshoot.
“I was about to cry,” Liman recalls.
But he talked to his actors and, because he was his own camera operator, figured out a way to cheat the shot by using a four-minute roll of film to shoot first Damon’s close-up, then Owen’s, and then swing back to a wide shot before he ran out of film. “I didn’t believe they would call cut on me,” he recalls. “I didn’t tell anybody.”
He got what he wanted, and the scene is in the movie.
But the studio ordered reshoots, and Marshall essentially took over the $60 million movie, which went at least $10 million over budget. “The director is the captain of the ship,” says Marshall. “If the captain has a process that can’t get the ship to the dock, that’s a problem.”
Says Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger: “He has a chaotic and at times brilliant mind. For many involved with Doug on ‘Bourne,’ the experience was too painful to contemplate ever doing it again. But he helped to create a signature identity for ‘Bourne.’ I would work with him again on the right project.”
Brad Pitt, who was initially cast as Bourne, brought Liman in on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” On this film, Liman collaborated closely — and sometimes contentiously — with producer Akiva Goldsman and screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who also worked with him on “Jumper.”
Liman gave up camera operating on “Smith” to attain a glossier look, and finding the movie’s tone was key. “There’s a weird intellectual approach to filmmaking, where I pose a question to myself and use the film to try and answer it,” he says. “It causes havoc onset anytime a director wants to go backward rather than forward.”
For the teleporting tale “Jumper,” which required 27 assistant directors to shoot in Tokyo, Paris, London, Rome and Dubai, Rothman, a fellow Brown alumnus, ordered the helmer to “shake it up.”
That Liman did. He insisted on shooting in the daytime at the Roman Coliseum, which meant grabbing 45 minutes after dawn and 45 minutes before sunset. Liman had to nail his shots on the first day or move to a night shoot. He rehearsed in the darkness, choreographing the movements of his actors with four Steadicams, and got what he needed with no second takes.
Liman eliminated most of the backstory for the Palladins, the group led by Samuel L. Jackson that aims to destroy all jumpers. But then the director realized he had to put something back in. That created fresh script problems and necessitated reshoots. Liman hadn’t shot any close-ups of Jackson, and it cost $50,000 a day to bring the actor back.
While Marshall is unlikely to enable Liman again, Goldsman is talking about doing a Valerie Plame movie with the helmer and Nicole Kidman.
Even Snider has come around. “We have a project in development with him now,” she says. It’s an idea written by Liman’s cousin John Hamburg about a private expedition to the moon, with Jake Gyllenhaal attached. “Bourne” exec Alli Shearmur is producing.
“My films have been successful and therefore the process has accommodated me,” Liman says. “When the studio said ‘no,’ I did it anyhow. Now they don’t say no to me.”