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The Liman Identity

Liman with Brad Pitt; filming Sarah Polley on the set of Go.  

One day I wait for Liman at his production office across from the South Street Seaport. The place looks like it could be packed up overnight. There are a few cheap desks, a bunch of papers. I notice a shelf of Liman’s favorite candy, which an assistant dutifully restocks. Liman arrives late, as usual. As usual, he wears a T-shirt and jeans, though today he’s also got on a long fitted coat. “You look good,” says an assistant. “What’s wrong?”

Liman is, by now, a respected Hollywood citizen. As Bourne’s box-office figures climbed, he called his friend Sarah Polley with updates. She told him, “I’m going to talk to you in a few months when you’ve cooled down a little, because this is really nauseating.” Liman’s deep attachment to commercial success doesn’t play particularly well with indie sensibilities, like those of many New York filmmakers. “In Hollywood, it’s cool to make movies that make money,” explains Kinberg. “In New York, it’s cool to make movies that don’t make money.” Polley, who’s something like Liman’s indie conscience—she wrote and directed Away From Her—recently invited him to escort her to an awards ceremony for the New York Film Critics Circle. “It’s the closest you’re ever going to get,” she told him.

In Liman’s office, he sits with his sheepdog Jackson—for his birthday, Liman bought him some sheep—and talks about moving beyond his adolescent taste in movies and in lifestyle. “They’re tied together,” he says. People want him to grow up—“My mom, everyone,” he says. Liman has long cherished that very rebel style, but lately he talks as if it’s merely an artifact of birth order—“it’s the style of the youngest child,” he says. Liman talks about wanting a family, kids, which his father wanted for him. He wants to see if his long-term on-again, off-again relationship can work.

And he talks about wanting to make other kinds of movies. “A part of me is a liberal New Yorker involved in politics and certain attitudes about movies,” he says, by which he means that movies should be more than entertainment. “I kind of lost my indie credibility over Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” he says. “I know I haven’t lost it. I just have to go make an independent movie. I just have to do it. Just for me.”

Polley has suggested he examine “his fascination with what his dad was able to achieve,” which sometimes strikes Liman as a good idea, too. “I may do something on prison reform,” he says.

And yet Liman recently sold his next project, based on a script he wrote ten years ago with his cousin John Hamburg about a private expedition to the moon. “Sometimes I get these ideas in my head and they don’t die,” he says. None other than Stacey Snider, now at DreamWorks, bought it. “People say that’s a sellout [to let Snider buy it],” Liman tells me. Apparently, he agreed for a time. “I had only pitched it to her so I could then say no,” he says. “But she was so unbelievably aggressive and supportive, all the other stuff evaporated. It’s hard for me to hold grudges.”

Liman tells me he has high hopes for the moon-shot project. “It’s not part of the sellout,” he says at one point. “Its aspirations are loftier. When I wrote it, it was a frivolous movie. Now the planet is in crisis. It’s wrestling with the dominant social issue facing us today, overpopulation.” He was going to do good, have it both ways, like his father. Some part of this is true, no doubt. But as Liman knows, the new movie will have a huge budget, an unrealistic premise, an escapist plot, a ton of special effects, and grand commercial expectations. It’s exactly the type of film Liman can do like few others. Adventure movies excite Liman. And so he changes his tune—Limania in action. “All this talking about [worthy stuff],” he says, “it goes out the window when I have a story I want to tell.” Liman likes being the big kid living out his fantasy life onscreen and off. He lets me know he’s got to go. There are some cool special effects to review for Jumper. And he’s got an idea about flying his plane to the Vineyard, where he keeps his boat. “I’m not really in a rush to grow up,” he says.