What would you do if you could teleport anywhere on Earth? If you’re anything like David Rice, played by Hayden Christiansen in Jumper, you’d see the world, bang a lot of broads and accumulate as much money as you could teleport out of bank vaults. But things get complicated when David learns of a group called Paladins, who believe it’s their holy mission to hunt down and kill Jumpers, and have been at it since the Middle Ages. When his abilities put his family and the girl he discovers he loves at risk, David has to make some decisions about how he lives his life.
At this point there’s almost no reason to keep talking about how Doug Liman went from an indie wunderkind to a mega-blockbuster director; he’s now made just as many big films as he did ‘little’ ones (and who the fuck remembers Getting In anyway?). But for Doug Liman it’s still very much a topic. While doing my research for this interview, I came across an article where Liman was quoted as saying Jumper, his new superhero movie, was the third in a sell-out trilogy, that he felt he had lost his indie cred. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker be so vocal about that sort of thing, especially when his sell outs have been so profitable and ranging from the great – The Bourne Identity - to the pretty good – Jumper.
Jumper is playing now.
I’ve read recently that you have called Jumper the third film in your
sell-out trilogy. I’m curious how you personally define the line
between art and commerce in filmmaking.
That’s a really good question. I kind of say that in a flippant way
because I’m not really selling out when I do these films because I’m
really committing myself and putting every ounce of energy and
creativity into them that I have. For me I would define them as
sell-outs in that they are clearly commercial. They are clearly
popcorn. They are tapping into our mass entertainment desire as opposed
to say something that might be more challenging but not as appealing.
For me it’s not really art versus commerce as it is making a really fun
movie versus making a more important movie, something that strives to
be important before it strives to be fun. I start with fun premise and
try to make it as important as I can. Bourne Identity started with a
ridiculous, popcorn premise and I tried to make it the smartest movie I
possibly could, but I started with a popcorn premise. Mr. and Mrs.
Smith started with a crazy popcorn premise – in fact it was developed
by a filmmaker who makes ridiculously popcorn movies – and then I got
involved and took it over and tried to make it as character driven as
possible, but I was starting with a mass appeal idea. With Jumper, with
the super power, you’re starting with as equally a popcorn idea as the
last two. The line is drawn at where is the inciting incident for the
creation of the movie.
Are you naturally drawn to these more fun premises or are you waiting
for that point in your career where you can make that really
‘important’ film next?
I really believe that filmmakers should entertain. There’s nothing I
hate more than a movie that preaches, or a movie that says, ‘You should
pay attention, this is important.’ I think we as filmmakers have an
obligation, first and foremost, to make people want to pay attention
and make the stories dramatic and entertaining enough that they will
want to pay attention and not make them dry history lessons. That said,
I like going to popcorn movies, I don’t apologize for that, but I also
kind of feel like it’s probably time for me to grow up and like I did
with Swingers, start with a character story and make it as fun as
possible – go back to that place and start with a less fun story and
maybe something dealing with more significant issues. That being said,
I think the next film I’m going to do is about a private expedition to
the Moon. Maybe it’s my curse in life that, as somebody who lives in
New York and goes to see all sorts of small important movies at the
Sunshine Theater, the teenage boy in me comes out when it comes time to
decide what to make.
In The Bucket List Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson travel the world,
but it’s obviously a green screen in a soundstage somewhere in Burbank.
In Jumper you are going where the characters are going, which makes
such a huge difference when you’re watching the movie. Was that
something that was hard to sell to Fox, or was it part of the vision
from the start?
It was my vision from the start because it’s a movie about people who
can teleport, and I wanted to transport audiences to these places. From
Bourne Identity, where I had had huge battles with the studio because
they said, ‘Shoot it in Montreal or shoot it in Burbank and fake it,’
but the audience will know and we needed to go to these places, that
was a massive battle. Obviously I won, and one of the things about
taking on the studio or taking chances and winning is that it
encourages you to do it again. I started out this film saying ‘I know
traveling the world makes it a difference.’ I proved it with Bourne, I
proved it to the studio, I proved it to myself. I never questioned
whether or not we would do it – it was a prerequisite to the movie as
far as I was concerned that we physically travel to these places.
Otherwise he has this amazing power and he can go anywhere in the world
but it never feels like he leaves the sound stage, it would have been
lame. Because of the success of Bourne and Smith, I found myself in an
uncomfortable situation on this one since it was ludicrous that I told
the studio I wanted to go to 11 countries to shoot a visual effects
movie. It’s one thing to say in Bourne Identity that I want to go to
these places because we won’t need visual effects if we actually go
there. You’d say, ‘We could fake Morocco in downtown LA, but we’d have
to digitally change all these buildings. Or we could go to Morocco.’
I’m going ‘We need to go to the Sahara Desert… and we need to do
visual effects!’ I was prepared for giant battles, and what was
offputting for me as a filmmaker was that Fox said, ‘OK.’ In fact, they
were basically encouraging me to push them. It’s like a parent saying,
‘Go ahead and smoke pot.’ If you’re used to being rebellious, that
plays with your head a little bit.
Right before filming began, you changed your leads. Was it actually right before or –
Oh, it was right before. It was like a week before.
Wow. That’s pretty close. How does that change the dynamic of
everything you’re doing. How does a production recover from that
massive a change so close to the start of shooting?
It kind of puts the film in classic Doug Liman territory: a little bit
of chaos right before shooting. It keeps everybody on their toes. In
this case it was the studio that planted the seed, the idea in my head.
They started to see the work I was doing in prep – I was originally
going to do this as a small little superhero movie, very quaint, very
personal – and they said, ‘This movie could be huge. You should think
about recasting it and making the characters older because we think
this could be a massive tentpole movie for us.’ I normally would have
told them to fuck off, but I thought about what they were saying from a
character point of view and I said, ‘You know what? The relationship
between David Rice and Millie would be a lot more interesting if they
were 25 instead of if they were 18, which is what they originally were.
It would be much more interesting to have Hayden Christiansen spending
seven years teleporting around the globe, sleeping with women
everywhere. Doing the proverbial, how do you get out of the apartment
the next morning after a one night stand? You don’t need to deal with
that awkwardness if you teleport. Just teleport right out of the bed.
That was a much more interesting relationship for me to explore – that
guy being reintroduced to the crush he had in high school. That guy
settling down as opposed to him being in high school and he hasn’t had
a chance to sleep around. From a creative point of view, I thought the
studio was right, so we shut down and started recasting.
There’s a moment on every one of my movies where I look back and
everything is telling me to quit and back down, and I didn’t. In the
movies there’s always a moment where the characters do something
heroic. In The Bourne Identity there was a moment in Prague where the
studio was telling me, ‘We don’t give a shit about this movie. It’s a
bad action movie, that’s all it is and that’s all we’ll ever let it be.
We’re not going to let you reshoot and work on the performances because
we don’t give a shit.’ I stood up to them and went behind their backs
and shot new performances where I needed them. It cost that
relationship with Universal but I’m really proud of the movie, and now
in hindsight extremely proud of the young filmmaker who stood up to the
studio and risked it all, just to make the movie better. In the case of
Jumper I recast the male lead because Tom Sturridge, who was playing
David Rice, just couldn’t play 25. He was 18 and was too young. I
thought the female lead we had cast could play 25. We cast Hayden
Christiansen, who I fell in love with from his performance in Shattered
Glass, started up production and two weeks in, much to my horror, you
could tell he was 7 years older than she was. Not physically, but there
was something ethereal that I could not put my finger on. It was not
going to work. I said to my producer, ‘I need to recast the girl.’ He
said, ‘If you go to the studio and say you want to shut down a second
time – even though it was their idea to shut down the first time – if
you go to them and say you want to recast, they’ll just cancel the
movie and you’ll become that director, the guy who cost Fox 20 million
dollars because they shut the movie down. You’ll never work again, it
doesn’t matter that you did Bourne and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you already
have a reputation for being a troublemaker and this will just cement
it. As your producer and your friend I have to tell you that it’s just
too risky and figure out a way to make it work. That said, if you
really feel like you have to recast it, here’s how you can go about
doing it where you stand a chance without destroying your career.’ I
followed his advice and went out on a limb and cast Rachel Bilson – she
and Hayden are just incredible together. It was a crazy, bold me for me
personally as a filmmaker, but in hindsight I’m so grateful that, faced
with that choice and those sleepless nights, I did what I did.
You talk about your reputation as a troublemaker, you talk about the
classic Doug Liman chaos – is that reputation fair, and are you the
kind of person who can only work when you are surrounded by that chaos?
To be honest at this point I play it up and everybody plays it up
because it’s got good color to it. Part of it is actually deserved,
part of it comes from the fact that I have a unique process where I
workshop the characters with the actors. It’s worked for me – if you
look at my films, it’s hard to imagine any other actor playing those
characters. I recast Mr. and Mrs. Smith when Nicole Kidman dropped out,
I cast Angelina Jolie. People look at that movie and say, ‘Thank God
Nicole dropped out because Angie was perfect for that role and Nicole
would not have been.’ But they don’t understand – I workshopped that
part with Angie. Yeah, it caused some chaos with the studio because
there were scenes that were scripted that we opted not to shoot because
that character wouldn’t do what was in those scenes. I spent days and
days and hours every day in the trailers with the actors going through
the specifics of the characters, what they would do. Not what the story
required them to do, but what they would actually do. If it messed up
the story, it didn’t matter – we went with what was right for the
character. Looking back at the movies I’ve made so far, I’m
extraordinarily proud of the characters I’ve created. I created them in
partnership with the actors I’ve worked with. That might be how an
independent movie is made, but that’s not how a superhero movie is
made, or any other big budget film. On The Bourne Identity I had a
French production manager who was freaking out because Matt Damon and I
were constantly changing the script to do things that felt more
consistent and honest with what his character would do, and my French
production manager would keep screaming at me that we were like a big
ship and could not change direction on a whim. When you change
direction, it’s not so easy for the film to change direction. Of course
he was wrong and we did change direction to suit it to Matt Damon’s
strengths and it went on to become a hit franchise. When you take on
the system a little bit and you succeed, it encourages you to do it
more. By the time it came to doing Jumper I had put myself in a
position where people expected me to take on the system. Fox wanted me
to make them suffer. They were like, ‘We want you to do to us what you
did to Universal on Bourne.’
Your Moon film – is that going to be popcorn science fiction or is it going to be real science?
It’s very real. I hired Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down the
book, so he’s a journalist in Washington DC, he’s not a Hollywood
screenwriter. For me I’m fascinated with the fact that when I look up
at the Moon there are people walking around us today who once stood up
there. I’m someone who likes crazy adventures; I like mountain
climbing, I like going on river trips, but the greatest adventure ever
undertaken by man was going to the Moon. It blows away Lewis &
Clark, it blows away Columbus, it blows away Shackleton. If I can
retell that story in a modern way for a contemporary film audience so
it doesn’t feel like a boring history lesson, that would be the first
film in the post-sell-out Doug Liman phase.
David Fincher is working on a film version of Rendezvous with Rama, and
he keeps saying that the way he wants to make it is so that kids walk
out of the movie and, rather than wanting to buy an action figure, they
want to buy a telescope. Do you think a movie can reawaken the interest
in the space program for a younger generation?
Oh for sure. If you watch any of those old documentaries about the old
Apollo program you can’t look up at the sky without a sense of
inspiration. The reality is that it’s an imperative now. Sea levels are
rising, population is growing. Do the math. We’re going to run out of
room here. There are no new continents to discover like Columbus
discovered America. We are going to have to start looking elsewhere.
The problem isn’t global warming – there are too many of us.
Deforestation? Too many of us. Either we’re going to have to cull the
herd or we’re going to have to find some other place to send people.