Doug Liman – Director extraordinaire

September 2010 By Philip Berk

The Plame Affair splashed all over the world’s newspaper when Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent whose effectiveness and safety depended on her classified status (and secret identity) was outed in a newspaper column to discredit her husband, a former ambassador, who had put into question Bush’s contention that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Following the disclosure, the CIA sent a letter to the Dept. of Justice requesting a criminal investigation.

Who in the Bush administration gave columnist Robert Novak that information?

A number of key Bush administration officials were called to testify but only one, Lewis “Scooter” Libby was ultimately convicted, and he’s still serving a jail sentence (for perjury.) 

Meanwhile Valerie was left twisting in the wind.

Both Valerie and her husband have written bestsellers about the affair and Fair Game is the film that tells their story, with Naomi Watts playing Valerie and Sean Penn her husband Joe Wilson.

The director is Doug Liman whose erratic career covers almost every genre from Swingers to the Bourne Identity  to Mr and Mrs Smith, and now Fair Game.

The latter would be the one he was destined to make because he happens to be the son of one of America’s most renowned legal minds, Arthur L. Liman, who gained fame as the chief prosecutor in the Iran Contra investigation that rocked the Reagan administration. 

The film was made with Valerie’s full cooperation. How available was she before and during production. 

“Valerie started during the writing of the film, although, since most of the material we were seeking to tell our story was classified, she was not at liberty to share it with us, but she could steer us towards places where we might find the information. Once we had the details of her story, she would be a barometer for us of the technical details as mundane as which way did her desk face or how big was her office. During production, she went on location scouts with me, and when we actually found the space that we used for the counter-proliferation division, she walked in and had a sense memory experience saying, “Oh my god, I just walked into my old office.”

Obviously she was devastated when outed. Even her life was in danger.  Has she moved on or is she still bitter? 

Deflecting the question he replies, “I’ve lived with this film for a while and I’ve lived with the story for a while. I try to find something in my own life that could maybe equal what happened to her, where suddenly someone tells you, ‘You can never make movies again. You can’t even touch a camera anymore; you can’t talk to any of your friends who are in the film business.’ There’s nothing in my life that could even begin to understand the disruption that happened to her, but Valerie is incredibly strong. She never wanted revenge; she just said, ‘This happened. Let me figure out how to deal with it and let me move on and not really look back.’ Just the poise and dignity with which she picked up the pieces, left Washington D.C., and said, ‘I’m going to start a new chapter,’ was inspiring.”

Most of the key people involved in her outing are not named in the film. We all know who they are; they’re portrayed on screen but not by name. Was that a legal decision, and was there any threat of a lawsuit? 

“That’s a good question,” he answers, “and it goes to the heart of what this movie’s about because George Bush was certain there were WMD’s in Iraq. He didn’t necessarily have the facts to back it up, but he knew it in his heart.  Wilson was certain that Saddam Hussein did not try to buy uranium from Niger (which the Bush administration used to prove their case.)  In both those cases, they had an opinion, but they treated that opinion like fact. I have an opinion as to who’s really responsible for this, but I don’t have the facts. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that the characters in the film made by treating my opinion as fact.”

Which doesn’t answer my question, why except for Libby who was convicted, aren’t the others identified by name?

Again he evades the question.

“Libby is the villain of the movie, because he is the only one who actually was convicted. But, I didn’t want to go into the land of Oliver Stone and make up scenes inside the White House. I thought the less we know about the White House, the scarier it’ll be. More importantly, that’s a slippery slope once you start making up scenes. We didn’t need to because there were court transcripts about what did take place. I didn’t want to co-mingle material where the words were pulled from a court transcript with scenes that I just made up.”

So his motivation was fidelity to what he knew to be the truth as opposed to the threat of possible lawsuits?

“I thought the single best thing that could possibly happen to us was to get sued by Libby or  Karl Rove. You can’t buy that kind of coverage, and they know not to do that.”

Having grown up with such a respected father, what  political lesson did he take away from the film?

“There’s a couple of things I walked away with, but there’s one main thing. My father often said — in many speeches he would cite Justice Brandeis —  sunlight is the best disinfectant, and he would use that when he would talk about the investigation of Iran-Contra. People constantly ask what does your film hope to accomplish  in this election year. Could it have an impact? I’ve said, “Its goal is a little bit more intellectual, not to restart investigation for people to go to jail. It’s just to let the sunlight in, to present information to the American people.”

Last February he traveled to Haiti  to get Sean Penn to do some looping for the movie, and caught up with the relief work Sean was doing there, he was told  to take a camera and film the more important scenes in life.

“It was worse than that,” he laughs. “I was recording lines, and he said, ‘Put the camera down and pick up these 50 lb. bags of rice and help us move them.’ He just put me to work and said, “We need your help. Just roll up your sleeves.” I ended up spending two weeks with him in Haiti. It made me appreciate in a way the role film-makers can play in the world. I was really inspired by how much Sean Penn and (director) Paul Haggis were accomplishing down there.”

In his conversations with Sean either in preproduction and during the shoot, did they ever discuss the difficulty of making political movies in Hollywood today?

“My conversations with Sean were always about the process. We never really stepped back to look at the forest. We were always sort of in the trees. Our conversations almost always were about Joe Wilson and the marriage and how emotional it would be. And even though we were making a political movie in a climate that is not conducive to political movies  — and I had many of those conversations with my producers about that — our concept from the beginning was that it has to be about these two characters and this marriage. Political events become ancient history awfully quickly, but stories about people remain relevant.”

So it was pure pleasure working with Sean… 

“Sean Penn is probably the greatest living actor right now. Our conversations were all about his portrayal of Joe Wilson. His commitment is unlike any I’ve ever been exposed to, and I’ve worked with some amazing actors. He flew himself to Santa Fe and lived with the Wilsons. He just followed Joe Wilson around. I would watch the two of them together; it was almost like watching a horror film where Sean Penn is literally sucking up the essence of Joe Wilson. As the days go on, Sean is more and more like Joe, and on the set he was very much in character of Joe Wilson. He didn’t want a lot of distractions, he was like, ‘I’ll do my thing, not going to work long days, but I will stay focused the entire time I am on the set and never come out of it.’ 

They never talked about the business?

“We just never had a chance for him to not be Joe Wilson or to discuss the bigger picture of what we were doing. So we never had a conversation about the difficulty of making political movies, but obviously he agrees.”

Shooting in five different countries, that must have been a huge challenge?

“It was important for me to actually shoot in the real environments. That’s been important for me in all of my movies. We were the only American film to shoot in Baghdad. We had to shoot with local crews in each environment, which was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced as a film-maker. Baghdad, however, wasn’t the toughest place we shot; Cairo was very, very rough on my actors and crew. When we finally got back to America the crew made t-shirts that said “Survivor Liman,” and then they listed all the countries we went to.”

How did the legacy of his father shape him as a film-maker? And when he decided to be a film-maker, how did he take it?

“Not well. My brother went to the top law school and got clerked for the Supreme Court. My sister got her Ph.D in Neurobiology, top of her class. She’s one of the top scientists in America, and my parents were like, ‘You want to do what!’ It was an issue through my twenties. Going home, which I did frequently because we had a warm, close family—I was attacked relentlessly. In fact, with friends whose kids are thinking of going into the business, I do everything I can to discourage them because one, you need thick skin, but on the other hand if they really want to do it, there’s nothing you can say that is going to stop them. My father was one of the most persuasive people on the planet, but he couldn’t talk me out of being a director.”

Does he read reviews, and does he react to them?

Again skirting the question, he responds “I don’t really separate myself from my films so if somebody criticizes something in my movie, I take it deeply personal. One reviewer in Cannes had some criticisms of the film that were so sharp and I thought so true,  I actually went and re-edited the movie and made some changes to the film. I thought about e-mailing this reviewer and saying, ‘So I did your notes. Do you want to see the next cut?’  So yes,  I do read every review to see if there’s any truth in something.”

As he was leaving, I asked him about his reputation in Hollywood of being a Weapon of Mass Destruction. He welcomed it, he told me, even though it’s not true.

And to prove it, this is what Matt Damon has to say about him after he was replaced by Paul Greengrass on the Bourne Supremacy.

“I love Doug. I never had any doubt that he would go on to bigger and better things. Anybody who knows him knows he’s not built to fail. And I’m glad he’s had the last laugh. We argued creatively, but it was like brothers. It was very spirited. There was no doubt that he had the last word. I did things that I didn’t think were right at the time because he said so. But at the end of the day you bet on the director’s sensibility. I would work with Doug again in a second.”