Whenever someone gets around to releasing a boxed set of director Doug Liman’s films, his latest one Fair Game may stand out as something very different from the rest, maybe because it’s his first movie based on real people and events, particularly the CIA investigation into the government’s allegations of Iraq building WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) with plans to use them against the United States.
Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, a loving wife and mother who shortly after the events of 9/11 was working as an undercover CIA operative investigating Iraq’s WMDs, but when she uses her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) and his connections within Iraq to find out the truth, Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby reveals her identity to the press, causing immense turmoil in Valerie’s life as she desperately tries to save her reputation and her marriage.
Although Fair Game is by no means an action film, one can find certain elements of Liman’s studio movies The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith within the movie, as well as a return to the handheld filmmaking Liman used in early films like Swingers. More than anything though, it’s the strong performance by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, who previously appeared together in Alejandro Iñarittu’s 21 Grams, that makes Fair Game such a compelling film.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Liman at the New York junket for the movie and tried to get the most out of the little time we had, also briefly talking about what might be his next movie, the sci-fi flick All You Need is Kill.
ComingSoon.net: This movie had been in development for a while before you came on board as director, right? Doug Liman: Yeah.
CS: At what point did you come on? Was there already a finished script? Liman: They had like a 300-page rough draft, and it was almost the Wikipedia of the entire scandal, so the last 100 pages didn’t even have Valerie or Joe in it.
CS: So they were dealing with the stuff after investigation… Liman: Yeah, it was everything. It was everything you needed to know. You can never plan the stuff in the film business. You could not have picked a better moment for the director to come on board, because they sort of laid out like a big, giant buffet, and then I was able to read it on the page and pick out the aspect that I thought was most interesting and say, “Let’s just focus on that.” I don’t know if I would’ve had the insight to have said that if I had to do that in a vacuum. Knowing everything, I was able to pick what I thought was gonna be most interesting to focus on for the film, and for me, that was the story of Valerie and Joe. It also was the one aspect of the story, I said, “Well, we can have a kinda Hollywood ending,” there’s only one…
CS: But there’s only one way to end it because the story is the story, right? Liman: No, but you could do the investigation. I mean, their film, the script they sent me, it was more political, and I found myself not as interested in every little fact, as I was interested in the characters of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. I just fell in love with these two people. I think one of the things that sets this film apart from a lot of the other films that have been done in the last couple years that deal with politics is that those films tend to come from a place of sort of negativity. There’s something that’s bad or went wrong, whereas I actually came into this film from a position of, “I love these two characters.”
CS: At what point did you actually meet Valerie? It must’ve been fairly early on I’d imagine. Liman: Yeah, right after I read this long draft. I said, “I’m interested, and I’m really interested in focusing on Valerie and Joe.” So Janet and Jerry Zucker, the producers who were incredibly well connected–they’re the ones who originally got the rightssaid, “We’ll get you in a room with Valerie and Joe.”
CS: Oh, Joe was involved also? I knew Valerie was involved, I didn’t realize Joe was as well. Liman: Yeah. No, almost every meeting I had with Valerie, Joe was also there.
CS: I assume they had read the 300 page tome already and they already knew something about the movie? Liman: I’m not sure they’d read it yet.
CS: But you must’ve told them the part of it you wanted to focus on. Liman: I did, and I said, “And here’s what I need from you.” She said, “I can’t do that.” I needed access to information that she wasn’t allowed to talk about. I said, “Well, I need it. I can not make this film without that.” Ultimately, the Zuckers and Valerie figured out a way for me to meet other people who could give me what I needed.
CS: Were either Sean or Naomi attached at that point? Liman: No, I spent a little over a year working on the script, and then we sent it to Naomi, and she loved it, said she was in and I said, “I know you know Sean; would you do me a favor and send the script to Sean?” Then a week later, I’m meeting with him in L.A. and he was in, so the film actually came together without any agents involved. I mean, it was not even the producers. It was just the writer, the director, Naomi and Sean, then we sorta went out and raised the money.
CS: And then Summit got involved later on. Liman: Summit, when the film was done. They came in as a foreign distributor before production started, and then came in as the domestic distributor after the film was done.
CS: I’m not sure if anyone’s brought it up yet, but it is kind of strange that both you and Paul Greengrass have a movie involving some aspect of WMDs in the same year. He dealt with another aspect of it in a completely different way, but it is kinda strange. Liman: Yeah, it probably has more to do with my relationship with Matt, because Matt and I come from a very similar place in having an interest politically but not having an interest in the Trojan horse film. By that I mean it appears like mass entertainment and woos the audience in, and then it teaches them something, and it shows them something that’s honest and truthful. We had tried to do that together with “Bourne Identity.” I was doing a retelling of “Iran contra” with “Bourne Identity” because it looked like a Robert Ludlum spy movie, but secretly, we’re gonna be teaching people about the U.S. history vis a vis Iran contra, and people didn’t really get that.
CS: But they loved it anyway. Liman: They loved it anyway, yeah. If they felt the honesty of that, then I tried to do it with “The O.C.,” this TV series I produced. Woo ’em in with teen love stories and then get the maid arrested on immigration charges. Matt and I both share that in common, so it’s interesting timing-wise that we both finally did it for real in the same year.
CS: There’s a really interesting throughline between the movies you’ve done over the years. I’m always interested in when a filmmaker makes a movie that’s based on real facts, and you have to entertain the audience. There are different reasons to make a movie, whether it’s to make money–which is rarely a reason for a director to make a movie–and also to entertain or inform, and you really mixed those last two things. Was that something you were looking for in that 300-page document to find things that would entertain at the same time as telling Valerie and Joe’s story? Liman: Yeah, for sure, and for me also, because I am a fairly commercial filmmaker, I don’t want to use “it’s a true story” as an excuse for why it’s just not that satisfying in the end. I’m not making a biopic; I’m not making something for PBS. I’m making something that people are gonna spend their hard-earned money on. They’re gonna want the kind of emotional satisfaction from this movie that they’ve gotten from my other movies, so we need to focus on the part of the story that I think can deliver that, and that’s Joe and Valerie.
CS: It’s a very unconventional structure because most of the time in a movie, you spend time developing the characters and then all these things happen to them. In this movie, you have a lot of things happening, and then as it gets to the end, you start focusing more on the characters. It’s very rare to have a structure like that. Liman: But that’s sort of the nature of the beast that we had to stick to the facts, so part of sticking to the facts is we end up with a story that is – you’re right, in an inverse order. One of the things that happened actually after Cannes was I started drilling down more and more on the characters that I actually dropped the politics all together in the version of the film I showed at Cannes.
CS: Has the movie changed a lot since Cannes? Liman: I edited it since Cannes, so to keep the White House and the politics alive even in the second half of the movie a little bit more than it was in Cannes.
CS: Okay, because I loved the second half of the movie and the fact it focuses on the characters. Another interesting thing about this is that you went back to shooting the movie yourself. Did you see this as a way to go back to some of those earlier films you did and be able to recapture that feeling by being more hands-on? Liman: It’s more that here’s one style of film I do as a DP. I kinda feel like it’s like a rock star who has one hit song and that’s it, and people who go to their concerts, they’re just waiting to hear that one song. There’s basically one look I can do as a DP and I do it really well and I did it on “Swingers,” I did it on “Go,” and I basically did it on “Bourne Identity.” Then my films haven’t required that look, so I’ve had to hire other DPs. So this is the first film I was like, “I think that look would be good for this story.”
CS: It’s great because as I said before, it keeps elements of some of the things we’ve seen in your other movies, even “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” as a throughline. Liman: Well, for me, this film is… if you chronicled my short history, it sorta makes sense I’d arrive at this movie because it has elements of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and it has elements of “Bourne Identity,” and it has elements of a filmmaker who’s starting to become a real adult. So therefore, more character and more in the real version that I would start with something that’s a little bit more comic booky and arrive at something that’s maybe a little bit more honest and a little bit more mature.
CS: Now that you’ve finished this, have you started thinking about what you want to do next? Do you want to do something a little bit more towards those big action movies? Liman: Yeah, I kinda feel like I want to, as a career path – and I know that any plan that I’ve ever made for myself in this business have all gone in the toilet, but you’ve gotta have a plan, and then just be prepared for it to change. So my plan from this point forward is do a big movie, do a more serious movie, do a big special effects movie, do a serious movie, because I do love the technical problem-solving that is involved in the big action movies.
CS: I think “All You Need is Kill” is one of the ones you’ve been eyeing next, which is interesting because it’s based on a Japanese book, so are you going to go for Japanese lead actors? Liman: No, it’s totally American.
CS: Is that what you’re looking at next? Liman: It’s one of the two projects I’m actively working on. Again, to all of my movies, I try to bring a… no matter how popcorn it may seem on the surface, beneath the surface there is some kind of message or story or theme that I think is weighty and important. Even in “All You Need is Kill,” which could just read as it’s about an alien invasion in the future. I’m working on it actually with Jez Butterworth who wrote “Fair Game.” Well, seeing war from the point of view of the foot solider, and that’s not something you’d normally get in movies. Normally in movies if you start with a foot soldier, eventually they’re with the President of the United States. It’s like, “Well, what if you could spend the whole movie just from the point of view of a foot soldier?” Obviously, “Fair Game” is in part about a war, so all these things sort of emotionally and intellectually connect. They’re all like connecting the dots. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was a rejection of “Bourne Identity” because “Bourne Identity” celebrated Jason Bourne as this incredible hero because he could kill a guy with a pen. I got to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and I said, “You know what? It’s much more impressive to maintain a marriage.” It’s actually easy to be James Bond, have a different woman every movie? It’s much harder that you’re working a nine to five job and have to come home to the same spouse day in, day out. The person who makes that work is more impressive. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was sort of directly connected to “Bourne Identity,” and then “Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” directly led me to “Fair Game,” and suddenly “Fair Game” is leading me to “All You Need is Kill.” Even though it only touches on the war, now I’m sorta fixated on what does war feel like from the point of view of a foot soldier? Obviously in “All You Need is Kill,” the foot soldiers (are) battling aliens who have invaded earth, but still, what does it look like, because they don’t get the big picture?
CS: By the way, is the Moon project something you still want to do? Liman: That’s the other one.
CS: What are you waiting for on that? Are you still working on the script and getting it right? Liman: Yeah, just both of them are in budgeting and both have small, early crews on them.
Fair Game opens in select cities on Friday, November 5. You can watch a video interview with the lovely Naomi Watts here.