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The Liman Identity

Before he was the Bourne director, Doug Liman was the son of a New York legend, the lawyer Arthur Liman, who managed to do good while getting rich. No wonder Liman has sellout issues.


The name on the doorbell at director Doug Liman’s Tribeca loft is “Bourne J.,” which stands for Jason Bourne, hero of The Bourne Identity, Liman’s first blockbuster. As filmgoers recall, Jason Bourne lived in a fancy bourgeois apartment in Paris’s 8th Arrondissement. The entrance to Bourne J.’s building is cramped and grubby, as is the elevator. The apartment itself is long, narrow, and mostly empty. At one end, there is a desk and a bunch of power tools. At the other, a porch seat is suspended from the ceiling. The walls, which pitch inward, are a dirty white, the windows just dirty. There are two dead potted trees. The movie Bourne had, briefly, a wealthy businessman’s cover. Liman grew up a real rich kid on Fifth Avenue, and now is an A-list Hollywood director. But his cover appears to be that of a fun-loving grad student. “I’m theoretically in the middle of a renovation,” Liman tells me, though he’s lived in this loft eight years.

I find Liman, 42, sitting at a picniclike table he built out of antique pine, the apartment’s only table. He’s at work on Jumper, his $75 million movie about kids who teleport, which will be out next month. Just over his head is a colorful oil painting of his late father, one of many images in the loft of Arthur Liman. In fact, among ice skates, power tools, and dead foliage—there are more deceased plants on the fire escape—I count eleven images of Liman’s father. There’s a smiling photo of him at Yale and two framed front pages from the Times. And the desk belonged to his father. “He was the dominant relationship in my life,” Liman says fiercely. “It was like, ‘Go try anything, do anything.’”

Liman revered his father, a legendary attorney. Many people did. He represented America’s largest companies and also worked for the public good. He ran a legal clinic for the poor and served as lead counsel for the U.S. Senate’s Iran/contra investigation and for the New York State Attica commission.

Arthur might have told his son to try anything, but his own relation to entertainment was through business—he represented Warner Bros., among other companies. “My dad couldn’t connect to my wanting to be a filmmaker. He was very connected in entertainment, and through him I met Steven Spielberg and got rides on his private plane to California. I’d see Spielberg’s people reading scripts. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up.’” But, Liman adds, “my father wasn’t comfortable with it. He thought I should be a studio executive. He wanted me to get married.” And, as Liman knows, he would have wanted his son to do something useful for others, too. Arthur had it both ways: He defended narrow business interests and still the Times lauded his triumphant civic efforts. “Doug was always trying to make his father proud,” says a close friend of the son’s.

Liman is sure that his father would have liked Jumper, an action-adventure film with lots of video-game-like scene changes. “I’m being productive, I’m entertaining,” Liman says. Still, Arthur’s larger accomplishments frame his son’s. “I have the commercial part,” Liman says thoughtfully. “I need to do the public-service part.”

Living up to Dad’s example isn’t the only pressure. Friends lean on him. As one close friend says, “Doug’s moral-ethical relationship to the world is not really activated by the material he’s doing.” Liman has often heard this type of comment; indeed, he’s internalized the criticism. “Jumper,” he tells me, “completes my sellout trilogy.” He’s counting The Bourne Identity and his next film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

As Jumper is about to hit theaters, Bourne J. appears to be in the midst of a little identity crisis (like Jason Bourne, by the way). “It’s time for me to grow up a little,” Liman tells me. “It’s time to tackle more serious subject matter. I’m feeling that pressure. What am I going to be? I need to reinvent myself.” I ask about future projects. “I’m looking at material related to my father,” he says.

The first time I talked to Doug Liman, a few inches of snow covered the ground. He’d ridden his single-speed bicycle the few blocks to meet me. Talking to Liman about anything can be disconcerting. There are the adult braces, which give him a slight lisp. And there’s his tendency to stare for periods between sentences. Plus he has a habit of looking past you. (“I have trouble making eye contact at first,” he explained to one actor.) Still, when he launched into a story about the film Swingers, he grew animated. His hands shot out, his fingers splayed. Swingers was his indie breakthrough movie, the one where he discovered what he likes to call his “very rebel style.” “It was the one film that was truly not a sellout,” he says, and also the last one his father saw.


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