Interview: American Made director Doug Liman talks about uncovering the heart at the centre of his action films

Doug Liman has never been a director afraid of making bold choices. Whether he’s taking the leap from indie cinema ala Swingers to expensive actioners like The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or honing his skills as a wrangler in order to challenge a fearless performer such as Tom Cruise, the New York born filmmaker is arguably one of the industry’s strongest and most passionate players.  On the eve of the release of his latest effort, the biographical crime drama American Made, The Iris chatted to the director about what drew him to this outrageous story, and just how one gets away with calling Tom Cruise a “coward”.

Having seen American Made, I have to say the story is absolutely crazy! Was Barry Seal someone you were familiar with prior to the film coming about?

No.  I knew a lot of the events portrayed…but I never thought about any of the pilots actually doing the flying until I read Gary Spinelli’s screenplay.  I’m a pilot so I really loved the combination of the worlds of flying and lawbreaking.  I hadn’t seen that before, it was like “Smokey and the Bandit with airplanes”.

Was there any details of Barry’s life, or specifically this aspect of Barry’s life depicted in the film that you wanted to feature that didn’t make the final cut?

This is one of those stories that the more you dig, the more fun and outrageous details you uncover.  But Tom and I really wanted to do a film that, first of all, had extraordinary flying sequences…you know car chases but with airplanes, and Tom would do all his own flying.  And we both love smart action movies and designing smart and original action sequences, and we’re not apologetic about that, we love entertaining audiences!  It’s a big thing for Tom to create real action without CGI.  But we were also drawn to the film set in an era in the 80’s when people could get away with things like this.  It wasn’t my first time making a film involving the CIA, but I had never really thought about the people that get recruited, the people that don’t work for the CIA.  It’s such an interesting relationship because people that work for the CIA come from Ivy League schools, they tend to be rule followers…but the people they recruit are people with loose moral compasses willing to break the law.

Do you have to be careful when researching films that involve the CIA? How extensive do you have to be with that industry?

In the case of American Made, these are actual historic events that my father investigated as chief council for the senate.  I went deeper than probably most filmmakers would.

So is this a collaborative effort between yourself and Tom Cruise?  Who approached who?

I brought Tom the script, and a part of what attracted me to working with him again was that I loved the idea of challenging the “Tom Cruise brand”.  You know, when you think of Tom Cruise and airplanes – everyone thinks Top Gun.  And when you say Tom Cruise and action movie, you think Mission: Impossible.  So I thought what about Tom Cruise: coward?  And in the case of American Made, I wanted different adjectives to be used to describe him.  And Tom is fearless when it comes to stunts, but he’s even more fearless when it comes to leaving his comfort zone and trying roles he’s never done before.

I have noticed in your films that the female characters tend to be quite prominent too, they’re not just extras.  With this movie you have Sarah Wright Olsen really holding her own against Tom, how did she come about the project?

We did open casting because the list of the normal actresses you’d think of to be in a Tom Cruise movie didn’t necessarily fit…I was looking for someone who could pull off that character and Sarah, when she came in…here’s this girl from the South who had just come from a family reunion that had been staged near a prison where her aunt had been incarcerated…and I just immediately thought this woman is the real deal!  She’s got more in common with Lucy (Barry Seal’s wife) than her publicist would probably want us to talk about.  She’s tough and beautiful and trash talking, and the kind of strong that isn’t necessarily sophisticated.

With your career i’ve noted that you tend to choose projects that greatly differentiate from each other. Has that always been a conscious choice?

I think part of what drew me to American Made is that Barry Seal was drawn to going on this dangerous adventure…and when I think about making choices in making movies, I’m drawn to what I feel are dangerous adventures to me.

Your career started out with features like Swingers and Go before you made The Bourne Identity, and something like American Made almost feels like going back to those smaller beginnings…

I’ve always been interested in making character-driven movies, even The Bourne Identity, I was always interested in the human element of these giant stories.  The events in American Made involve two presidents, and people like Pablo Escabar…but i’m talking to you about the love story between Barry and Lucy, because i’m interested in the humanity and the heart at the centre of it.  And i’m interested in human beings in outrageous situations!

American Made screens nationally from August 24th.