From his early days directing cutting edge indies like Swingers and Go to his latest venture, the sci-fi action and effects movie Jumper, director Doug Liman has always taken things as far as necessary to get the movies he envisions. He’s finally back with his follow-up to the 2005 summer blockbuster Mr. & Mrs. Smith which brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together in more ways than one, this time reuniting Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson from the last two “Star Wars” prequels, pitting them against each other in a war between “jumpers,” those with the powers to teleport anywhere, and “paladins,” the bounty hunters sworn to stop them from abusing their power for wealth.
Jumper is an impressive achievement for the director who already traveled the globe for Mr. & Mrs. Smith and his previous movie The Bourne Identity, and this time, he shot some insane effects-driven fight and action sequences inside the Colosseum in Rome and on the site of the Pyramids in Cairo, as well as creating a high speed car chase through the crowded streets of Toyko.
Just a few days after Jumper opens, the “Knight Rider” TV movie Liman produced for NBC reviving the ’80s television show will air, but unfortunately, ComingSoon.net didn’t get that far when we talked to Liman about Jumper and how his early films helped prepare him for the experience.
ComingSoon.net: I remember seeing some early production art from “Jumper” maybe a year and a half ago when Simon Kinberg came into town, so you must be glad to be finished after working on it for so long. Doug Liman: Yeah, of all the films I’ve done, this was by far the most ambitious, just in that I wanted to really do as honest a version of a superhero film as I could possibly do, and part of that involved physically traveling to every place that these actors teleported to.
CS: What was involved with convincing the authorities in Rome and Egypt to let you into the Colosseum and all those places? You must have known what you wanted to do beforehand and it must have been insane to get them to say “Yes” to doing some of that stuff. Liman: I can’t believe we actually pulled off every location we set out to do, because we basically got a “no” everywhere. We wanted to shoot on the actual pyramids and on the Sphinx, and Egypt of course said, “No” and “No, you can’t fly a helicopter near those things” and Rome said, “No, you can’t stage a big battle sequence in the Colosseum where you haven’t had a film shoot in 40 years,” and Tokyo was “Of course, you can’t shoot a car chase on the streets of Tokyo. We don’t even let people shoot dialogue sequences on the streets of Tokyo.” At every one of these environments, you faced those kinds of hurdles, and we just had an amazing team. Some people had been with me since “Swingers” and we’d faced a small scale version of getting “no’s” like that, so one of my producers from “Swingers” spent about a month in Egypt to navigate the military police bureaucracy, so we could ultimately accomplish what we accomplished there. And we had people on the ground in Rome doing the same thing, and when we got to Tokyo and they said, “None of the things you were promised you could do here are we going to allow you to do.” “Well, we’re physically here. We can’t go to another country. We’re putting everybody up in hotels in Tokyo. We have a crew here.” They’re like, “Yeah, all that stuff we said you can do, it turns out you can’t do.” But we just went and did it anyhow. I’ve done some crazy guerilla stuff. On “Swingers,” I needed to do a driving scene with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, and the only way I could afford to do it was get one of those U-Haul tow hitches that you’re supposed to tow a car behind to move to a new location. They rig this tow hitch to the car so you can just tow the car behind it and it very clearly says on it in huge letters, “No One Should be in the Car Being Towed.” Giant warning letters. I attached that to the back of a pick-up truck and was towing Jon and Vince down the highway in L.A. Just crazy illegal! It’s illegal to put somebody in the car with that trailer hitch, it’s illegal to shoot a movie on a highway with no permission, and we just went and did it, because I had no choice. The Tokyo sequence in “Jumper” was like that.
CS: Did you have to shoot any of the locations and then shoot the actors on green screen then put them together at any time? Liman: No, we just went and did it. There’s no green screen in Tokyo. I mean, obviously, the car couldn’t teleport so there’s some visual FX work, but that’s all real. We really put Hayden Christensen in a car and drove the car 80 miles an hour through the streets of Toyko.
CS: The Colosseum scenes were pretty amazing, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen the inside of it except maybe in a movie like “Ben-Hur.” What was involved with getting crews in there and how much time did you get to shoot there? Liman: Every location came with some impossible criteria but luckily the entire movie of “Swingers” was impossible, so I was kind of well prepared for this movie. In the case of the Colosseum, they were like, “Yes, we will allow you to shoot it here” and they hadn’t said “Yes” to anybody in 40 years, but “We won’t allow you to disrupt the tourists, so if you need the place empty, you either shoot it at night or you shoot it before the public’s allowed in or after they leave” and I really wanted the sequence to be daytime, which meant that we had 45 minutes of daylight in the morning before the public was allowed in, and we had 45 minutes of daylight at the end of the day after the public left. So we did an hour and a half a day in two 45-minute chunks. I can’t believe the studio said, “Fine, go for it.” What studio in their right mind ? People not in the film business don’t understand how little time 45 minutes is, but basically it takes an hour a shot on a big budget movie, that’s how you budget your day. A 12-hour day, you get 12 set-ups, so with those windows, you’re going to get no shots in the morning, and you’ll get no shots at the end of the day.
CS: You mentioned using some of the same crew of “Swingers” on this movie, but working with the stunt and FX guys in doing things like flipping a double-decker bus, do you ever come up with an idea and are told that it’s impossible to accomplish? Liman: The thing about this movie is I used the same 2nd Unit director that I used on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and obviously, we go all the way back to “Bourne Identity,” even the car chase in “Go.” I’m interested in real action, not CG/fake action, so in the case of the scene where Jamie Bell hurls a London bus through the air at Sam Jackson, traditionally that would just be done with a computer-generated bus. Very easy to generate objects like a bus in the CG world, but I was very determined to never use CGI in this movie. I felt like that was a slippery slope and next thing you know, we would just look like “Spider-Man” and it would just feel dishonest. We actually hurled a real London bus through the air.
CS: At Sam? Liman: Without Sam, with a stunt double. That’s just a classic classic stunt, and these days, you tend not to do real stunts. I’ve done real stunts in all my movies but there’s a tendency on some of my peers to say, “We can just generate it in the computer” but the audience can feel when it’s real. You know that we really hurled that bus.
CS: As far as getting Hayden and Sam back together after doing the “Star Wars” movies, were they up for pretty much anything having done all of the crazy CG green screen stuff? Liman: Oh, they were so grateful to have real sets, especially Hayden, who spent so long on “Star Wars.” He sort of talked about that film as being kind of a form of purgatory, because you’d just show up to the exact same green screen stage every single day and have to act. A lot of people criticized his performance in that movie, but if you understand what Hayden had to work with in that? It’s a f*cking remarkable performance, and to have to act in a green screen environment every single day and try to make that real and honest? In the case of “Jumper,” I made it easy on him, because we actually physically went to the real places. He didn’t have to imagine what it was like to be in the Roman Colosseum, he physically was there. It was a huge asset for the production that he had come from a visual FX environment, because shooting visual FX scenes is really tough on the actors. There’s a reason why the performances in “Fantastic Four” are as lame as they are. It’s not that those aren’t great actors, it’s that trying to deliver a really great performance in a visual FX environment is crazy hard.
Now I’ve proven that I can do it without cheating, but for years I would never mention this, but I cheated on “Swingers” and I cheated on “Go” and I cheated on “Bourne” because I shot those in a quasi-documentary style with a handheld camera and just putting a camera on your shoulder and shaking it a little bit makes the performance twice as good, twice as honest. It’s just a fact, and giving the actors in “Swingers” the ability to go anywhere and not have to hit marks made it that much easier and better, too, so I basically skewed everything in my favor to cheat everywhere I could to get the best possible performances on my first three movies. And I knew I was cheating and no one ever called me out on it, but I cheated. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was my first movie where I’m not going to cheat, and that actually happened because in between the two, I did a TV show called “The O.C.” that on the first day on the set, I went to grab the camera and put it on my shoulder to help Mischa Barton’s performance and one of the producers who was my partner said, “Put that camera back down. You can’t do that.” He was like, “You don’t understand. You’re going to go off and do another movie and the rest of us are going to have to be here. You have to fix her performance. You don’t get to cheat like you did on the movies. I know you cheated, and the buck stops here. Fix the performance so that other directors can follow suit because you’re not going to be here every day.” And that’s why there’s a fundamental difference between “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and the movies that proceeded it for me, and I’m extremely proud of the performances I got in that movie because I didn’t cheat. No handheld camerawork in that film, and in “Jumper” it was taking that yet a step further, ’cause not only is it not this impromptu handheld camerawork, it’s in a technical visual FX environment where actors had to hit incredibly precise marks, not only in terms of physical space, but in terms of timing and to try to make those performance as honest as Hayden and Rachel made them in that environment I’m really proud of what they did.
CS: Sam mentioned that a lot was shot that was cut out of the movie to keep it streamlined and to save stuff for a sequel. Have you and Simon talked about doing a sequel and is there a danger of setting things up for a movie when you never know these days whether a sequel will be feasible? Liman: Yeah, you know, there’s two things. Yes, I cut a lot of explanatory stuff out. I did the same thing on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” As a filmmaker, I’m very interested in how streamlined you can make one of these movies, and I’m not the only one. When J. J. Abrams did “Mission: Impossible,” he was like, “I can explain the villain plot but can you make one of these movies without explaining what the rabbit’s foot is.” It’s just from a straight intellectual filmmaker type thing. What can you get away with and where can you go with the genre, so for me, part of the editing process is “How much of the expository stuff can you pull out?” At the end of the day, all I care about are the characters, but can I strip the stuff out, like the machine that comes out in the third act of the film, we used to have a plot to explain exactly where the machine came from. Who gives a sh*t about the machine? All I care about is Sam Jackson believes jumpers need to be destroyed and can you take somebody who has this fundamental belief about killing in the name of God, I care about that character and what it might take to change his mind and what it might take somebody like the Hayden Christensen character, to get him to risk his neck? And I don’t care about the machine. Can I make the movie without the scene that explains the machine, so it’s not like “I’m saving it for a sequel and if a sequel doesn’t happen we’re screwed.” Obviously, you don’t see us going to make a sequel to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and there’s a ton of expository stuff in that film that I don’t bother explaining because end of the day, it’s about those two people and their relationship.
CS: I wanted to go back a little bit because you started out as the indie guy doing “Swingers” and “Go,” but how did you become the action and stunt guy in terms of first getting onto “The Bourne Identity”? Liman: I always wanted to do an action movie, so when “Swingers” came out and it was this big hit and I was flavor of the month and people were like “What do you want to do next?” You were suddenly getting the tour of the town and people who would never meet with you before the movie suddenly will meet with you, so I said, “Cool, I want to do ‘Bourne Identity’ which I read growing up” and they were like, “Well, what else? Because you can’t do that.” I’m a very stubborn person and being told that I can’t do something nothing is going to get me more pregnant than being told “no”. I was told “no” on “Bourne Identity” for four years. “You’ll never get the rights. Do something but ‘Bourne.’ It’s too hard.” Eventually, I flew myself to Montana and met Robert Ludlum and convinced him personally to give me the rights to the book after having been told “no” for four years, and he said, “Yes” to me, and then went and sold it to Universal and hired screenwriters to write it and hired Matt Damon. Basically, there’s only one producer on the planet who would hire Doug Liman, director of “Swingers,” to direct “The Bourne Identity” and that was Doug Liman. The same way there was only one producer who was going to hire Doug Liman, struggling film student, to go make “Swingers” Doug Liman.
Sometimes, you have these filmmakers who get lucky and somebody else helps them. Sometimes, a producer comes along and says, “I love your screenplay. Let me produce your movie. Let me make it easy for you.” That didn’t happen for me. Nobody came and said, “Let me help you” like that. I had to make my own opportunity with “Swingers.” In hindsight, when I look at the people I went to film school with, the people who had it easy early on, have had a tougher time later on, and I feel like I got a much better training for Hollywood by having nobody help me on “Swingers” and having so many doors slammed in my face, and ultimately, no one would give me any money to make that movie, and I kept slashing the budget. Ultimately, I found a way to make the movie, but I had to do it myself, and that was pretty good training, because nobody was going to let me do “Bourne Identity.” I had to just go do it myself. When I talk to film students, I say that it’s going to be a lot harder when you get out of film school than you realize, but that’s like a necessary part of the process. If you somehow skip that, and just suddenly sell a screenplay, you’re going to miss out on a critical component of your development as a filmmaker, and you’re going to miss out on developing a set of skills that you’ll need later on.
CS: What’s next for you? The writers’ strike is over, and while I assume you want to rest because this has been a long journey, do you think you’ll jump right into “Untitled Moon Project” next and will you actually go to the moon to stay in line with how you made this movie? Liman: Yeah, I’m thinking very seriously about that film, and I basically have two approaches to it. The movie would cost about $100 million to make, so how much would it cost to actually go to the moon and make an IMAX documentary instead? Could I spend $99 million going to the moon and a million dollars shooting an IMAX movie or is it going to be a fictional story. I think ultimately, it’s going to be cheaper to make the movie than to physically go (to the moon).
And unfortunately, that’s where we lost the connection with Doug before we could ask him about “Knight Rider” or anything else.