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The Liman Identity

Jon Favreau, Liman, and Vince Vaughn on the set of Swingers; with a house model from Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  

Relations got so bad that the studio rejected out of hand anything Liman said. For a time, Liman developed a back channel in Matt Damon, who was playing Bourne. “I would be his surrogate because at least I could be heard,” says Damon. That only worked sometimes. One day, Liman woke up realizing he’d missed a shot—a not-uncommon occurrence with the director. “I screwed up,” he told the producers. “I need to redo the scene.”

“We don’t care. You are not doing it again,” Liman was told.

“No is never no for Doug,” explains Ludwig. “He’s not confrontational. He goes around.” Liman loaded four minutes of film, took the camera himself, and surreptitiously reshot the scene. Liman saw it as a rebel moment necessary to assure the film’s quality—he went rogue, in the language of alter ego Bourne J.

The producers viewed it as the ultimate transgression. “That was the huge epic screaming fight, the biggest screaming fight on the set ever,” says Liman, who testily explored auctioning off his director’s credit on eBay.

Bourne was a critical success and a commercial triumph, and announced the Liman aesthetic: smart, stylish genre films that confound their genres. Jason Bourne is James Bond for a new generation—his initials are J.B. for a reason. 007 was an eminently self-assured, technology-enhanced Cold Warrior. Jason Bourne fights the U.S. government—with a ballpoint pen at one juncture. Bond was stuck in his role; Bourne looks for his true self. Other Liman movies also tend to comically overdramatize their energizing metaphors. Jason Bourne must search for his identity, since he’s lost his memory. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a movie about couples therapy in which the fighting couple is armed with real weapons.

Bourne’s success—it grossed $213 million worldwide—didn’t appease Universal, which banned Liman from directing sequels. “I lost my baby,” he says.

As Liman sees it, Universal executives hoped he’d never direct another movie. Brad Pitt rescued him. He’d been initially cast as Bourne, and he was so impressed that he brought Liman the script for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. “He was told he could pick any director he wanted except me,” says Liman. “So he brought it to me.”

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a $110 million film funded by Regency, was crazy in its own way. To start, there was media pandemonium over the Brad Pitt–Angelina Jolie romance. Then Limania chewed up budgets and nerves. Liman decided that a hand grenade tossed into Pitt and Jolie’s suburban house didn’t play well onscreen. The explosion, though, had destroyed the set; the studio refused to pay to rebuild it. Liman and Ludwig went off on their own. Like the old indie days, they built part of the set in Liman’s mother’s garage in Rye, financed by Liman. They borrowed a robot from iRobot, makers of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, which delivered the grenade. Liman shot the scene himself, and it ended up in the movie.

As Jumper is about to hit theaters, Limania has changed. Or, at least, the way it’s perceived has changed. “Almost anything can be justified as a style of filmmaking if it works,” Liman tells me at his loft one day. (And, by Hollywood standards, the Liman process works. “He’s four for four,” says Damon, who adds, “He saved my career with Bourne.”) Liman has surrounded himself with a few central people. Two key players from Mr. and Mrs. Smith, producer Lucas Foster and screenwriter Kinberg, are working on Jumper. Ludwig, his oldest colleague, is, too.

These days, Liman can’t seem to cause trouble even if he wants to. “Now, if I try to do something conventional,” he says, “I’m surrounded by people who say, ‘That’s not your way.’” It’s a pissy complaint, part self-congratulation, but a complaint nonetheless. Now, the producers play nice, even when he veers off script. One day, inching through Times Square gridlock on his way to shoot at the Empire State Building, Liman thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to pick up a piece of the final fight scene here! Hayden Christensen and Jamie Bell, two of the Jumper leads, were in the van with him, their clothing already splattered with what looked like blood. In the film, their climactic battle shifts from the pyramids to the Colosseum to the Empire State Building—they teleport, remember? Why not add Times Square? Liman rushed through tourists, cleared a space on the island in the middle of Times Square. He called action, and Christensen and Bell wrestled over a bomb detonator. It had the feel of the old days, except a producer signed off. He was in the van.

“Suddenly,” Liman tells me, “I’m nostalgic for Bourne.” He filmed Bourne in Europe. “To be a lone filmmaker thousands of miles from home with nobody believing in me, that seems romantic.” Fox, his new studio, dotes on him. “Doug, you pushed this to the limit and beyond,” e-mailed the studio executive in charge. Liman says, “That made me feel a little better. Now the studio is like, ‘What else can we get you?’” Liman acts deflated. “Wow,” he thinks out loud, “I must have grown up and sold out”—that phrase again. Of course, it’s a boast in the form of a complaint, a Liman habit. Still, you can’t stick it to the machine if the machine won’t act insulted.