Director's Chair: Doug Liman — 'Edge of Tomorrow'
Issue: June 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Doug Liman — 'Edge of Tomorrow'

HOLLYWOOD — Doug Liman first made his name directing the low-budget 1996 comedy Swingers, before proceeding to redefine the action spy thriller with the hugely successful The Bourne Identity, followed by another global smash, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and the sci-fi thriller Jumper.

Now Liman returns to the sci-fi genre with the new Tom Cruise movie, Edge of Tomorrow, which unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit the Earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Cruise stars as a military PR officer — who has never seen a day of combat — sent off on a suicide mission and killed within minutes. The twist? Trapped in a sort of Groundhog Day time loop, he now finds himself forced to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying, again and again. But with each battle, he becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside a Special Forces warrior (played by Emily Blunt). And, as they take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Liman, whose credits also include Fair Game and Go, talks about making the 3D film, his love of post, and working with Tom Cruise.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
DOUG LIMAN: “Not so much just a sci-fi alien invasion film as a love story set behind enemy lines — in this case, sci-fi enemy lines with this alien invasion taking over Europe. And I was very interested in how a relationship works when one person has a super-power, like Tom has in it, and could I create a female character that could not only be his equal, but in some ways his superior? Going back to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I’ve always been interested in very strong female characters.”

POST: What most surprised you about working with Tom Cruise?
LIMAN: “Just what an incredible actor he is. With all the super-stardom you can forget what a talented actor and comedian he is, and he’s also unbelievably hard-working and collaborative.”

POST: Edge of Tomorrow is the first motion picture to be shot at the new Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in the UK. What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
LIMAN: “I think most directors go into making a movie with a bit of ignorant optimism, and I’m no different. But this was so much more difficult than I ever anticipated going in. There were just so many areas — from the story to all the action to all the CGI — that were so complex. And doing a big action film where you don’t get to use as your stakes the mortality of your hero? So you have to find alternatives? That was so hard. And then as I was far more interested in the human characters than the aliens. I wanted them to wear these real exo-suits that were very heavy, so that further complicated production as often we needed cranes and cables over each one. So the level of planning and rehearsal that’d go into creating the simplest little gesture was so complex. And then the CG component added a whole other level as we had major characters that all had to be animated. That was probably the area that surprised me the most — just how challenging it all was, as you’re basically casting, wardrobing, and performance-directing those characters, and you need to apply the same attention to detail as when you’re directing Tom and Emily.”

POST: This was shot by Academy Award-winning director of photography Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha). What did he bring to the mix?
LIMAN: “He brought an amazing style, humanity and texture to the movie. I didn’t want it to look like one of those plastic-looking video-game movies that Hollywood loves to release over the summer. I wanted to set it apart from the pack and Dion’s style is far more evocative of the classic war movies that I love. At the same time, it gave me the flexibility to create really cutting-edge, dynamic action.” 

POST: Did you shoot film or digital?
LIMAN: “Film, which was very exciting for me as I wasn’t sure I’d ever get that chance again.”

POST: Did you shoot 3D or post-convert?
LIMAN: “We post-converted, and the advantage for us was that we had a lot of time. I had a great team, between my VFX super Nick Davis and stereographer Chris Parks, so we were turning shots over for 3D a year ago, and the results are fantastic. When 3D doesn’t hold up in post-conversion is when it’s an after-thought and rushed.”  

POST: All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
LIMAN: “Right from the start. We began designing the aliens way in advance, as we had all this practical action, and I pity the director who goes to Tom and tells him that his digital double will be doing all the fight scenes. So that meant we had to, early on, design the whole way the aliens were going to kill the humans — even before we’d finalized the alien designs. So all the action was shot in a very traditional way, where we were flying people around, reacting to creatures that aren’t there. And in order to even design all the action sequences, you needed to know the aliens had these tentacles that could move at supersonic speeds. Sony Imageworks did most of the first two acts, then Framestore did the third act, and then MPC came in and did the final work.”

POST: Did you do a lot of previs?
LIMAN: “Yes, a lot, all done by Third Floor. Sometimes we shot according to the previs, and sometimes it was more of a jumping-off point, and then it was more about me in green suits or sticks with tennis balls on them.”

POST: Do you like post?
LIMAN: “I love post and I loved it in particular on this film, as there was so much creative decision-making and directing to be done in post. My movies have always come together in the editing room and post, as I’ve tended to work from scripts that are incomplete at best. So the final writing has always taken place in the editing room, and I love the workshop collaborative nature of that, where you have the ability to try stuff and immediately put it up there and get a reaction. I feel that where I really grow as a filmmaker is in the editing process. That’s where I really learn — not just about the particular movie I’m making, but how to make movies in general.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
LIMAN: “It was done in London, New York and LA.”

POST: Tell us about working with editor James Herbert (Sherlock Holmes)?
LIMAN: “He wasn’t on the set but he was editing on Avid at Leavesden while we shot and he was amazing, as every night I’d finish shooting, go over to the editing room, and he’d have already cut together five versions from the previous day’s footage — quick sketches. And it was such a fast efficient way to understand your footage and it enabled me to give smarter notes more quickly. We also had this great VFX editor, Laura Jennings, and pretty quickly we had — albeit low-res — VFX images we could comp into the frame. That’s the biggest challenge of editing a film like this. I don’t think I quite understood going in just how challenging it is; editing a scene where half the characters are virtual and maybe the entire environment is virtual. And sometimes the shots don’t exist at all until they’re ordered. So you’re editing with just blank celluloid sometimes.” 

POST: How many VFX shots are there?
LIMAN: “About 1,000 — so a lot of work.”

POST: What was the most technically difficult shot to pull off?
LIMAN: “I think they were all equally tough as I didn’t want it to look like there are any VFX shots. The Bourne Identity had 200 VFX shots and you can’t spot any of them. But that’s a far easier situation. Here, once you have an alien, the audience inherently knows the shot’s not real, so that’s a tough challenge — to make it look real.” 

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? Where did you do the mix?
LIMAN: “We mixed at De Lane Lea in London and we also did a Dolby Atmos mix at Pinewood, which was awesome. Sound is a critical part of any film, and when you’re telling a story on this scale, it’s even more important. Even with a big budget like we had, there were many things we couldn’t afford to shoot, so we had to rely on sound to tell parts of the story. Music is also critical, and the only person who’s worked on all my films is Julianne Jordan, my music supervisor. And just as I didn’t want to do a traditional sci-fi film, I didn’t want a traditional sci-fi action score, so I hired Christophe Beck, who did The Hangover and Frozen. Starting with Bourne I avoided all the usual composers who did action and spy movies, and hired John Powell, who’d only done animated films till then, and I took the same approach this time. I think it’s because I’m interested in these genres in terms of how they illuminate character, as opposed to working in genres for their own sake.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. Where did you do it and how did that process help? 
LIMAN: “At Technicolor in London, and it’s always been very important to me as I DP’d my first films. So the look and feel of my films isn’t something I gladly hand off to someone. It’s something I have very strong opinions about, but I also love collaborating with Dion and the colorist on the look. The really critical part of the DI was making sure all the VFX shots felt as real and honest as possible.”

POST: Did it turn out the way you had hoped? 
LIMAN: “Even better, which is always my goal, throughout the production, all the post and editing, the DI and mix.” 

POST: What’s next? 
LIMAN: “After such an intense two years on this, I feel like I’ve just come back from a war. It’s hard to imagine doing a normal movie. This is my most personal movie since Swingers, and while it may look like this enormous production, at its core it was a very intimate, tight-knit team and experience.”