In Edge of Tomorrow – the 2014 sleeper that has gradually gained steam ever since its release – director Doug Liman killed Tom Cruise 26 times. As Liman says, “I see the value in killing Tom Cruise.” And he has a point, because it’s so rarely done. Liman shares an anecdote where the two were working on a still never-made script and Liman suggested it might be interesting to kill Cruise’s character. Cruise responded, “Well, not if you want the movie to make any money.”
Liman seems to have a fascination with killing his star. As he says below, he even wanted to kill off Jason Bourne in the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. (Obviously, since we are now at five Bourne movies, that never happened.)
Now Liman has reteamed with Cruise for American Made, a movie that is out in theaters as you read this and had just opened nationwide late Thursday night when a weary Liman called me from the set of his new film, Chaos Walking, starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland. Actually, Liman says this is probably his last interview for American Made (and, naturally, he seemed pretty happy about that possibility).
The film is based on a true story and Cruise plays Barry Seal, a smiling, fast-talking cuss who loves flying planes, but is pretty bored flying domestic routes for TWA. When approached by the CIA to smuggle arms into South America, it doesn’t take a whole lot to convince Barry that this is a good job opportunity. And when he’s approached by a who’s who of Colombian drug lords, it doesn’t take Barry long to realize that a side job smuggling cocaine might not be the worst idea either. And, somehow, this all culminates, sort of, into the lead-up to the Iran-Contra scandal. And as an added twist, Liman’s father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation.
(Since this movie is in theaters and is based on a true story, this is your warning that we get into some heavy spoilers about American Made.)
As we speak American Made is out in theaters. You have to be happy with the response so far…
I am. I mean, especially because my father died 20 years ago and this is the first film I’ve dedicated to him. I dedicated Swingers to my grandmother. So this is my second time dedicating a movie.
Why did you choose this one to dedicate to him?
Because my father [Arthur Liman] ran the Senate investigation into Iran-Contra. But the personal connection to the movie, and to my father, was his sense of humor about these events. As deadly serious as his investigation was – and it almost led to the impeachment of one of the most popular presidents in our country’s history – he often would laugh at the dinner table when he shared the things that he could share that weren’t top secret. You know, nobody wants to tell the boss bad news, but when your boss is the President of the United States, and the bad news is the resistance army that you’ve placed so much faith in to fight the Soviets is actually more interested in smuggling cocaine than fighting a war, it’s the understandable reaction to not want to tell your boss bad news. But when the bad news is the people fighting communism are trafficking in cocaine, you end up in situations like the country did in Iran-Contra.
It’s not like Barry Seal led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal, but you can see the steps.
But you know what’s amazing? I just could never figure out how to get this into the movie, but it was Barry Seal’s plane that crashed and led to the Iran-Contra scandal. After he died, it was his airplane that crashed in Nicaragua, loaded with guns, and one person survived the crash. Because instead of going down with the plane like he was supposed to, he jumped out of the airplane, parachuted out, and the whole scandal came undone. And what I love is that that airplane, the wreckage of that airplane is now a restaurant in Costa Rica.
Like some opportunist took the airplane wreckage. And the restaurant’s called El Avion.
So like everybody in the story is an opportunist, is a gangster. Like, everybody.
This movie sneaks up on you because at first it’s just a smiling Tom Crusie piloting airplanes and we like movies where he’s flying planes.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, when you cast Tom Cruise in your movie, I’m acutely aware he’s Tom Cruise and all the baggage that comes with that. And I love using that. I loved in Edge of Tomorrow making him a total coward and I’m sort of making fun of Mission: Impossible Tom Cruise. Or in American Made, I’m going to make fun of the Maverick, Top Gun Tom Cruise.
I’d like to make a rule where only you and Chris McQuarrie are allowed to work with Tom Cruise because you two seem to know what you’re doing with him. You use him in the most effective way and I don’t think other directors quite get it.
I mean, obviously, there’s many movies that have squandered his incredible abilities.
There was one just a couple months ago.
But he’s really bold and adventurous in terms of trying things, and part of that is that they don’t all work. The one thing you can say about Tom is that he doesn’t play it safe. He makes gutsy decisions. Look at his character in Tropic Thunder! I mean, he’s a mega brand, right? I mean, he’s a huge brand. I mean, he may be as almost well-known as Coca-Cola, right?
Not many Tom Cruise movies end with him being brutally murdered.
Well, Tom and I had developed another movie called Luna Park that we haven’t made yet. And at one point during the script development, I said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if your character dies on the moon?” And Tom just very bluntly said, “Well, not if you want the movie to make any money.”
That’s a good line.
There was no ego in it. He was just like, “If you kill Tom Cruise at the end of your movie, here’s what it does to your box office.” He’s just like, “It’s just a fact.” Matt Damon and I talked about killing Jason Bourne at the end of The Bourne Identity. We were like no one will see that coming! And obviously, we decided not to do that.
Right, there’s been a few more of those movies.
But it wasn’t even about the sequel. It was just, would it be satisfying to the audience? So we really were faced with one hell of a challenge. I was making a comedy. I was inspired by my father’s sense of humor about these outrageous events, and since you’re in a tough place, the comedy has to end with your hero dying.
Is that why you did a fade-out instead of actually filming it?
Yeah. There’s killing your hero and then there’s punishing your audience. And that’s one of the things I learned making this film is that there’s a difference between those two and that we killed our hero, but we didn’t punish the audience. Because I had a version that was more graphic and I thought that would be really, really shocking to see that happen to Tom Cruise.
It would have been.
I tested the movie, and it’s not about the survey card. You just sit there with the audience and you can just feel the audience turn against the movie. And they’re like, you just punished us. We loved that guy. Keep the coffin closed.
You did get to kill him like 20 times in Edge of Tomorrow.
That’s true. Yeah, that’s true. I’ve never actually made a movie with Tom Cruise where I have not killed him.
Oh wow, that’s true.
But I think that, honestly, part of what makes our relationship special is that sort of I see the value in killing Tom Cruise.
When you were making Edge of Tomorrow, did you ever think that it would take some time to catch on?
I mean, Tom and I really make films for the long term. And I got lucky in so many ways when I first filmed Swingers. Nobody should get as lucky as I got. The editor I hired [Stephen Mirrione], who was in film school, wasn’t even in a good film school. I’m not criticizing the film school, but he was not even in like a good film school. And who happened to just see my message on the message board, went on to become an Academy Award-winning and nominated editor. And obviously, Jon Favreau was a huge star-to-be, and Vince Vaughn was a huge star-to-be, and all these people that I just happened to be friends with. So nobody’s gotten luckier than I have in terms of a film like Swingers.
I think I quote “Ha-Ha Hole on Pico” once a week.
Swingers was a total disappointment when it came out. Nobody saw that film.
Right, and it didn’t even get into Sundance.
I was totally depressed after the release of that movie. In fact, I went to see it the night it opened, just in one of the few theaters it played in on the Upper West Side of New York on a Friday night screening. And a third of the way into the movie, the film broke. And they turned the lights on and they gave everybody their money back, and that was pretty indicative of how poorly it did theatrically. But here I am 20 years later, and more people have seen Swingers than probably Edge of Tomorrow. So I sort of got a lesson early on that movies are about the long term, the good ones. There’s movies that are flashy and catch on and they’re of the moment, but will people be watching It in 20 years?
That’s hard to say. And how do you reconcile that with a studio that wants a big opening weekend?
Well, Tom, who more than anyone I know is appreciative of the opportunities he’s been given. Tom, in the middle of American Made, would constantly be reminding me and us that filmmakers don’t get the opportunity to make movies like American Made anymore. He was just like, “You realize how lucky we are that the studio’s letting us make a movie like this?”
It feels like a movie from 20 years ago…
And this was a brutal shoot, all over the world. And it was really complicated doing those action sequences with airplanes, and nothing about this movie was easy. And Tom, it never showed on him. He just was like, “This is amazing that they’re letting us make a movie like this.”
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