Director's Chair: Doug Liman — <I>The Wall</I>
Issue: May 1, 2017

Director's Chair: Doug Liman — The Wall

Doug Liman first made his name directing the 1996 low-budget cult hit comedy, Swingers, before proceeding to redefine the action/spy thriller with the hugely successful, The Bourne Identity, which spawned a five-movie, mega-franchise (he stayed on as executive producer for the sequels). The prolific director/producer followed Bourne with another global smash, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the sci-fi thriller Jumper and the Tom Cruise sci-fi hit Edge of Tomorrow. And in between movies, Liman exec-produced such TV shows as Suits, Covert Affairs and Knight Rider.

Now, Liman is back with a new psychological thriller, The Wall, that follows two soldiers pinned down by an Iraqi sniper, with nothing but a crumbling wall between them. Their fight becomes as much a battle of will and wits as it is of lethally- accurate marksmanship. It stars Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals, Kick-Ass, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and WWE star John Cena (Trainwreck, Daddy’s Home), and was written by first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell. It’s produced by Amazon Studios and co-distributed by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Liman, who was still deep in post at press time, talks about making The Wall, his love of post and TV.

What was the appeal of this story and what sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I loved the script. I read it as a writing sample for another project, and it just grabbed me. I couldn’t put it down. And I love war movies, and this is a very taut war thriller, but it’s also a really interesting look at the way war really works, and what it takes to survive. It’s very black and white, whereas Vietnam War movies are all about the morality. So it’s like a WWII movie where it’s good vs. evil. No one’s questioning why they’re fighting the Nazis, and I like that cleanliness of purpose. And Dwain found a way into Iraq that’s clean and entertaining, and I wanted to make a nail-biting movie that’s very simple, clean, storytelling. And there’s no politics in it because that’s not how war works when you’re in Iraq and someone’s trying to kill you.”

But I heard you did make some changes to the original script?

“Yes, Dwain’s story was about just one soldier, and I added the second character so the story then opened up, and it became a buddy movie. Their friendship and the jeopardy they face together make the film more entertaining and nail-biting.” 

This was like an indie — what were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the very short shoot?

“I believe in the budget matching the scale of the movie, and it helped that I got so lucky with Swingers early in my career, where we had to be really creative as we had no money to do stuff the conventional way. I always look back on it as such great training, and ever since, I’ve tried to put my back against the wall creatively, and then figure out the smartest solution, because it’s not always about having the biggest budget. So we had a very low budget on this and the shoot was just 14 days. But if we’d had 30 days, I feel it would have been worse for the movie as the conditions were so harsh where we shot, in Lancaster, the high desert outside Los Angeles, in July. It actually looks just like the Iraqi desert. It was 110 degrees and the wind picked up every afternoon, blowing at 60mph. One thing that got us through was knowing it was a short shoot. And July also gave us consistent weather, and the wind is also a big element in the film. So to get that real impact of the location, you need either a huge budget with lots of special effects and VFX, or you do it like we did — in just 14 days while Mother Nature’s giving you all the effects you need for real.” 

Most directors like to keep a core crew, but you seem happy to work with new people all the time, and this was shot by director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury. What did he bring to the mix?

“I believe in changing up my crew from movie to movie, as every one is a learning experience and I’m always looking for new teachers. And the DP is a key partner. This may have been my biggest growth experience of any film I’ve done, thanks to Roman. He showed me a level of restraint that was extraordinary. I began my career as my own DP, and I’d say to Roman, ‘Let’s move the camera for this shot,’ and he’d say, ‘Why? How’s the story enhanced by moving it?’ And I’d say, ‘It changes the angle, and I’ve always moved the camera.’ There was just one scene in the whole of Swingers where the camera was on a tripod and locked off. But Roman got me to reflect on what was just second nature to me, a reflex. And he was right. And we ended up only moving the camera once — the exact opposite of Swingers.”

Why did you and DP Roman Vasyanov decide to shoot 16mm anamorphic?

“A bunch of reasons — the harsh weather, the low budget and short shoot, going with natural light, and 16mm unlike 35mm doesn’t need to be threaded — it just pops into the camera very quickly. And there’s a grain pattern to 16mm anamorphic that isn’t like anything else, and shooting in the desert it can make the environment more beautiful, and more dramatic. One of my main goals on this was, ‘How do we elevate it artistically, on every front?’ I hadn’t shot 16mm since I was briefly at film school.”

How did you avoid the usual war film look and clichés?

“I think not moving the camera was crucial. We definitely wanted to avoid that usual shaky hand-held camera war movie look, and we didn’t want it to be too stylized. It’s more like a documentary look and feel.”

All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?

“Every film I did before this gave me the experience to make The Wall, because of the crucial VFX component. The enemy sniper is a completely post-created VFX character — every single shot. Obviously, when you do a big sci-fi movie, everyone knows that the alien is a VFX element, but the best and most effective VFX shots are the invisible ones that the audience never notices. We had over 200 VFX shots in Bourne, but no one ever noticed them [they were] so good. Even people in the industry didn’t realize that Matt Damon’s fighting scenes were enhanced with VFX. And for many of my movies I’ve shot in the real locations, under very tough conditions, so when we decided to shoot in the California desert, I’m finally not shooting in the real place, but nature put us all in the mindset of being in Iraq, because it’s just as hot in the California desert as the Iraqi desert, with the same dust storms. And then we had a really significant amount of VFX to plan and integrate from the start, and I actually underestimated the amount of post work it’d take to do. When [editor] Julia Bloch showed me her first pass, none of the VFX were there, and usually I cry, I’m so upset, but not this time.”

Where did you do the post? 

“All in New York, and we cut at my offices.”

Do you like post?

“I love post as my movies have always come together in the editing room and post, especially 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.”

This was the first film you edited with Julia Bloch, who worked on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked. 

“Again, I like to work with new editors, and sometimes that means hiring people with more experience, and sometimes less, where they’re more open-minded in their approach to storytelling. When I met Julia, I saw how smart she was about storytelling, and I felt she’d be a good match, as I don’t do traditional movies, with traditional storytelling. And she instantly got that this, also, wasn’t your usual, traditional movie. As it was, I underestimated what a huge editing challenge it was, having a movie that’s this relationship between two characters, and one is just CG — and there’s zero photography to work with. It’s taken a lot of work.”

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?

“Several hundred, and Molecule did 80 percent. We’re still working on them.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? 

“Sound is a critical part of any film, and so is music. I always try and mix it up. 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. 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.”

Where did you do the mix?

“At Harbor [Picture Company] in New York, and we’re still working on it.”

Where are you doing the DI and how does that process help? 

“Also at Harbor, and it’s always been very important to me as I was also the DP on 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 the DP and the colorist on the look. The really critical part of the DI is making sure all the VFX shots feel as real as possible. I’m very involved, but I’m not done learning from Roman.”

What’s next? 

“I did American Made with Tom Cruise, a thriller about the CIA and drug running in the ‘80s, which comes out in September. I’m actually editing and posting that, along with a TV project, while I’m posting The Wall.”

You also produce a lot of hit TV shows. Will you keep doing that?

“Yes. I love TV. And it really celebrates the unconventional in a way that you don’t get much in movies now.”