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Doug Liman Never Does Things the Easy Way

Flashy festival premieres are usually a big deal because of who’s attending. But in January, Doug Liman made news because of the fact that he wasn’t going to show up for the unveiling of his latest film, a remake of “Road House,” at SXSW. The reason? The veteran director was mad that Amazon MGM Studios, which was releasing the action movie, wouldn’t put it out in theaters, instead sending it straight to Prime Video. Liman wasn’t just going to boycott his own premiere, however—he took to Deadline to publish an open letter blasting the studio.

“My plan had been to silently protest Amazon’s decision to stream a movie so clearly made for the big screen,” he wrote in the trade publication. “But Amazon is hurting way more than just me and my film. If I don’t speak up about Amazon, who will? So here we go.” Declaring Road House “fantastic, maybe my best,” Liman laid out his version of what happened—how he originally agreed to make the film for MGM for a theatrical release, but that when Amazon acquired MGM, those plans changed. “Amazon said make a great film and we will see what happens,” Liman asserted. “I made a great film. … [But] contrary to their public statements, Amazon has no interest in supporting cinemas. … Amazon asked me and the film community to trust them and their public statements about supporting cinemas, and then they turned around and are using Road House to sell plumbing fixtures.”

Liman’s essay, which you really should read, hardly contains the ravings of a lunatic. Yes, he’s angry, and feeling more than a little betrayed, but his arguments for the importance of the theatrical experience are reasonable and layered. Still, this sort of public condemnation is rare, especially if you don’t want to burn bridges in a very insular industry. Not surprisingly, Liman’s missive generated plenty of headlines and conversation: What the hell is he doing? 

Ultimately, the director decided to attend the SXSW premiere after all, although he didn’t appear on stage alongside his stars, who gave him shout-outs. “I also want to thank our incredible director, he’s in the audience tonight,” Jake Gyllenhaal told the packed crowd, later adding, “He’s so brilliant and this movie is, too.” 

All the behind-the-scenes drama risks overshadowing this new “Road House,” but for those who have followed the 58-year-old filmmaker’s career, it’s par for the course. Few modern directors have so often flirted with disaster, his movies’ on-set and post-production issues becoming news stories before the actual film even makes its way to viewers. Aspiring auteurs should probably not emulate his volatile approach—even if his track record remains surprisingly solid despite (or because of) that chaos.

It’s indicative of Liman’s M.O. that, although he's been responsible for several hit films, you may not remember that he directed them. “Swingers,” “Go,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Edge of Tomorrow”: Those are all his. If that’s a surprise to you, that’s partly because, unlike other filmmakers (especially action directors), he lacks a demonstrative visual signature. (By comparison, you can spot a Michael Bay or Michael Mann movie from just a scene or two.) In addition, he doesn’t have the high profile that many of his peers do—you tend to think of the stars in his films before you think of him. Put it this way: Because Jon Favreau is now a hot-shot director thanks to “Iron Man” and “The Jungle Book,” many mistakenly think that he starred in, wrote and directed “Swingers.” Nope, Liman was behind the camera for that one. He’s the farthest thing from a journeyman or a for-hire hack, but he has enjoyed a certain degree of anonymity for such a successful filmmaker.

Unfortunately, when you do hear from Liman, it tends to be because storm clouds are gathering around his current project. At the time that “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was getting ready to open, all the gossip was about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: Were they having an affair? Was he cheating on wife Jennifer Aniston?!?! But for the studio, the bigger headache was that the action-comedy was way over budget and delayed. Those issues became so well-known that the Los Angeles Times did a piece about a month before the film’s release documenting how Liman was driving his producers crazy—and how he had established a reputation for doing this on all his projects. 

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” producer Akiva Goldsman noted in the article, “The truth is, Doug is a madman. [But] I think he has the ability, which is not insignificant, to have a movie coalesce around him. Actors want to work with him, and studios want the product that exists with his name on it.” Veteran film producer Frank Marshall, who worked with him on 2002’s “The Bourne Identity,” which launched that Matt Damon franchise, said of the experience, “I stepped into territory I’ve never been in before in 30 years. I’ve always had a respect for the line between a producer and a director. And I had to step over that line into something that I feel is the director’s responsibility. … I’m not saying I directed the movie. But as the producer, it was my job to get the movie finished.” Favreau told the L.A. Times, “I think there’s a method to his madness. I don’t know how it works, to be honest with you. I do know that the guy is able to pull it off every time.”

Liman did it again with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which was a massive hit, no matter the anxieties he caused the studio. In that L.A. Times piece, Liman didn’t take too kindly to being told that Goldsman had called him a madman, although he did admit, “I’m an unusual person … [but] the movie I end up with is the movie I aspired to make.” 

Hollywood loves stories of directors betting big and then hitting the jackpot, which is why part of the lore around “Titanic” and “Avatar” is how risky those James Cameron movies seemed before they became phenomena. But that thrilling, feel-good narrative fades quickly if the filmmaker isn’t able to keep pulling rabbits out of his hat. That’s what happened to Liman after “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” when he signed on for the sci-fi action flick “Jumper,” which was meant to set up a trilogy. Starring Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson and Samuel L. Jackson—and proudly advertised as “From the director of ‘The Bourne Identity’ and ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’”—the film, about a young man who discovers he has the power to teleport himself, was only a modest hit, insufficient to start a franchise. The reviews were terrible, with many focusing on Christensen’s awkward performance, but years later, Liman also put the blame on himself.

“When I was making ‘Jumper,’ I said that my version of a superhero film would be that the person doesn’t become a superhero,” he recalled in a 2018 interview. “They have a superpower, but they use the power to save themselves, at the end of the movie, and not to save the damsel in distress. I thought that would be interesting, in the same way ‘The Bourne Identity’ took what was in the spy genre, and just threw it out the window. And then, you end up in these moments, where you paint yourself into a corner and it’s hard to get out of because you start to realize that these clichés exist because they work, and you’ve intentionally cut off a known thing that works to do something experimental. In the case of ‘The Bourne Identity,’ it worked out, and in most of my films, it’s worked out.”

As was becoming common, when Liman was working on “Jumper,” there were stories about a tense shoot. (In addition, Christensen sustained serious injuries and, tragically, set dresser David Ritchie died during an on-set accident.) In the midst of production, Liman spoke to Empire, insisting that rumors about him being difficult were simply a byproduct of staying true to his vision. “I remember an argument that I had with the head of Universal [when making ‘The Bourne Identity’],” he recalled, “and she said, ‘This isn’t your film school. You don’t get to run around and try ideas out. This isn’t your film school.’ She was wrong. That’s the way you get something original. You don’t want to fall back on something someone else has done. Then you’re a hack.” 

Nonetheless, it was becoming increasingly clear that Liman was, as he had previously put it, “an unusual person.” In a separate “Jumpers” interview, he confided, “I’m full of inner turmoil. … I don’t really know that many other directors but of the few I know I seem to be far more neurotic and have far more angst about what I’m doing. I live in New York City, and I’m making huge action movies. The people that make huge action movies live in L.A. and they’re surrounded by other people who make huge action movies. I’m surrounded by people making documentaries! I am just acutely aware of, like, ‘What am I doing?’ There’s a conflict that rages where I think I just want to go make a little issue movie or something.” Even when he talked to Empire, a certain self-consciousness came to the surface. Describing how he found “Jumpers,” Liman said, “The script came to me a little under two years ago. I loved the concept; the script needed a lot of work—which is the story of my life. Which probably doesn’t mean the script always needs a lot of work, just that I have unusual taste or something.”

His desire to make “a little issue movie” resulted in 2010’s “Fair Game,” a mediocre true-life political drama, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, about the Valerie Plame affair, which received mixed reviews and failed to light up the box office. Liman returned to action fare with “Edge of Tomorrow,” a thoroughly delightful sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise as an ineffectual military officer who finds himself in a “Groundhog Day”-like loop in which he’s constantly engaged in the same battle with terrifying aliens. No surprise, there were reports of a contentious production on “Edge of Tomorrow,” which were confirmed by Liman, who spoke about an angry argument he once had with Cruise and costar Emily Blunt.

“I was a little under pressure, and I snapped,” Liman confessed in a 2014 L.A. Times interview. “And Emily said, ‘Easy, I’ve never made a movie like this before!’ I fired back, ‘Well, neither have I!’ The room sort of ground to a halt. My producer Erwin Stoff told me later it was the most incredible thing he’d ever heard anyone say: The director telling the stars of the movie that, basically, he had no idea what he was doing.” Still, Liman was unapologetic about his approach, saying, “It’s no secret that my process is a little bit loose and can be a little bit infuriating to a studio if they don’t know what they’re signing up for.”

“Edge of Tomorrow” remains a cherished action movie—even more so thanks to the fact that, because the film was a commercial hit but not spectacularly lucrative, it never got the sequel many fans would have loved to have seen. All the misery Liman put his team through—“I don’t need the studio coming down on me,” he said in that 2014 interview. “I make movies for me and posterity. I’m more scared of history than I am of the studio”—resulted in a great movie, but not one that would spark a franchise. That shouldn’t be the only mark of success, but in modern Hollywood, it is. Maybe if Liman hadn’t been so exacting—maybe if “Edge of Tomorrow” hadn’t ended up costing so much—perhaps a sequel could have happened. But maybe the original movie wouldn’t have been as good as a result.

In the last 10 years, Liman has continued making films, including the underrated true-life action-comedy “American Made,” which saw him reuniting with Cruise, but he has made fewer headlines for his films’ on-set issues. Which is not to say he doesn’t keep trying to push himself. In that 2014 interview, he declared, “I never want to repeat myself. I can’t imagine anything else as upsetting as realizing I’m redoing something I did before. For some reason, when it comes to film, I’m very good at not repeating myself. Even though in the rest of my life, I’m constantly repeating my mistakes.” 

To that end, at the height of COVID in 2020, he threw himself into making a pandemic-set thriller. “Locked Down,” which hit HBO Max in January 2021, starred Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as an unhappy couple who grow closer by planning a jewel heist together, the film reflecting the real-world lockdown conditions happening during the shoot. The whole project was conceived, written and filmed in 2020, with Liman flying to London for production. “I need some aspect of [a project] to be really freaking hard to get my interest,” he told GQ, later adding, “I think I have a sense of adventure in life that I bring to my films. … There’s other filmmakers, who in general, the studios prefer who only go into known territory. I’m interested in venturing into the unknown and seeing what I can find. I wish I lived 100 years ago and I could go explore some part of the planet Earth that no one had ever been to.” 

Like so many COVID-era films, “Locked Down” felt strained and instantly dated. But as always, the movie exemplified Liman’s let’s-try-this spirit, tackling something different simply because it was. 

People who have collaborated with Liman often mention his honesty, how he’s willing to go to any length to make the movie as he sees it—even if he’s not quite sure what that vision will be. In the 2014 profile piece, Cruise said of his “Edge of Tomorrow” director, “There’s no doubt about this guy’s talent, no doubt about his taste and his commitment. And one of the ways Doug works, you’re developing the tone as you’re working.” That, by the way, was the same piece in which Liman lamented, “Does it have to be this hard to be original? Can I make a film that’s just as original and maybe leave fewer bodies on the battlefield? Can there be fewer fatalities? Does originality necessarily have to involve suffering? For me, so far, it has.”

Some filmmakers and actors are such nightmares that they prove toxic, driving talented people away from them. (David O. Russell is but one name that comes to mind.) Liman may be demanding but, to this point, he has never crossed the line into deplorable behavior that makes someone unhireable. Nevertheless, the hits of his early career have been tougher to come by in recent years. (Of all the directors in the world, it’s bitterly ironic that his long-delayed, extensively reshot 2021 sci-fi film with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley was called “Chaos Walking,” which would be a fitting title for a biography on the man.) He continues to work, but lately he’s faced his share of struggles—the agony without the resulting ecstasy.

Those struggles continue with “Road House,” which has a swagger and lightness to it until the film gets bogged down in a dimwitted third act. As it happens, I actually saw the movie at a press screening, cozied up in the theater, just as Liman would have preferred everyone to experience it. He has a point: The story’s over-the-top exuberance and beautiful Florida locales lend themselves to the big screen. But he’s wrong that this is his best work—far from it—and while “Road House” has plenty of high points, it lacks the ingenuity and spirit of his finest films.

Liman has played with fire throughout his career, refusing to repeat himself and ignoring budgetary and scheduling considerations until he’s satisfied with the final product. (Sometimes, though, he can just seem irresponsible: Never forget the infamous story that, during the shoot for “The Bourne Identity,” he paid his crew overtime just so they could light a forest one night because he wanted to play paintball.) Since there’s no such thing as a typical Doug Liman movie, he doesn’t have the traditional oeuvre in which you notice thematic similarities and directorial tendencies. He just does his thing the way he wants, and damn the consequences.

During the “Road House” imbroglio, Gyllenhaal was asked about his take on Liman’s complaints. The actor tried not to take sides in the disagreement between his director and the studio. 

“I adore Doug’s tenacity, and I think he is advocating for filmmakers, and film in the cinema, and theatrical releases,” he said last month. “But, I mean, Amazon was always clear that it was streaming. I just want as many people to see it as possible. And I think we’re living in a world that’s changing in how we see and watch movies, and how they’re made. What’s clear to me, and what I loved so much, was [Liman’s] deep love for this movie, and his pride at how much he cares for it, how good he feels it is, and how much people should see it.”

What Gyllenhaal was learning was what so many before him had discovered. Doug Liman movies don’t have much in common—except for their maker’s stormy passion to do things his way. You buy a ticket, get on the ride, and then hang on for dear life.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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