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The Liman Identity

Liman and Hayden Christensen on the set of Jumper in Baja California, Mexico.  

Liman was his family’s problem child. His two older siblings took conventional high-achiever roads—one is a lawyer, the other a scientist. Liman shuttled among three New York private schools. “I had some work-ethic issues,” he says delicately. He was frustrated and a big kid. “I was a troublemaker,” he says. “For a long time, I didn’t fit in.”

Fortunately, at Brown, Liman found his crowd—“very self-aware dorks,” says Dave Bartis, a college friend and later a business partner.

Liman was the alpha dork. (“I’d follow him anywhere,” says Avram Ludwig, a longtime friend and colleague, “and have.”) At Brown, Liman founded the campus TV station. Just as exciting, in his telling, was getting arrested for stealing a traffic light or lighting a friend’s bed on fire—Liman rigged a pen to detonate firecrackers. Though he wasn’t exactly an athlete, he also led his crew on physical adventures, a dorky action hero. Once, while white-water rafting, he was held underwater by a whirlpool. Another time, off Martha’s Vineyard, he disregarded a Coast Guard warning and sailed into eighteen-foot swells. It was reckless stuff, surprising since, as a friend explains, “Doug is a physical coward. He’s very scared of the things he does. He forces himself to do things. It’s an act of will.”

After Brown, Liman attended USC’s film school, then headed to Hollywood, where his will appeared to fizzle.

“After five, six years,” says Liman, “I didn’t have much to show for it.”

“What are you doing with your days?” asked Arthur, who figured he had a right to know. He helped support his son financially, a sore point with struggling friends. “The whole thing in my life was, ‘Am I going to have to bartend again?’” says Jon Favreau, a Queens College dropout, who wrote Swingers. “Doug knew he would be okay financially. The big thing for him was whether he was going to make a name for himself in movies.” Arthur worried less about his son’s artistic name. “His father stressed about whether he was going to be a bum, literally,” says Ludwig. “I don’t think his father took him seriously as a mature individual.” The father pushed the son to get a job as a studio executive.

“My father felt I was out of control,” Liman says. “We started getting into bigger and bigger fights.”

“I’m not going to help you out anymore,” his father told him.

“Good, cut me off,” replied Liman. “I’ll develop a thicker skin.”

It was around this time, in 1995, that Favreau showed Liman Swingers, a buddy script based loosely on the lives of him and his pals; he hoped to direct and star in it with his friend, actor Vince Vaughn. When Favreau couldn’t raise money, Liman proposed to direct the movie himself—and Favreau decided to let him. Liman knew where to get funding. Arthur Liman hadn’t cut his son off and, always patient, believed he was worth one more shot. He secured $200,000 from a client. “My father was the studio,” says Liman.

Liman’s adventurous streak was well-suited to making a low-budget film. He pulled over on the side of a highway to shoot Vaughn and Favreau, hiding the camera as cops closed in—you can hear the police radio on the soundtrack. He marched into clubs and started filming.

The movie was a critical success at festivals, and Miramax quickly offered $750,000 for the rights. Arthur was ecstatic. Not only was his wayward son a success, but he’d also get his client’s money back. But the younger Liman had by that time met producer Cary Woods, who insisted the movie was worth far more. Arthur convinced his son that producers were untrustworthy, out to take advantage of young directors. Doug drove to Woods’s house to call off the deal. But on entering, he overheard the producer on the phone. He was talking to the head of Universal about this great young director named Doug Liman.

That’s got to be worth something, Liman thought. “I disobeyed my father,” he says. He signed Woods as executive producer.

Liman was told that Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein was ready to increase his offer to $3 million. Liman was instructed not to answer the phone—the longer Weinstein stewed, the better Liman’s negotiating position. Then, a Weinstein underling showed up at Liman’s house, tapped on the window, handed Liman his cell phone. Weinstein was on the line. Liman passed the phone to Woods.

“What will it take to get this deal done?” asked Weinstein.

“Something bold,” said Woods.

The next day, Doug faxed his father: “Miramax $5.5 million.”

Vaughn got scale. While Favreau earned perhaps a few percentage points, Swingers made Liman wealthy in his own right—one reason that Favreau refused to talk to Liman for years. “I made more money out of Swingers than any of these other [projects],” says Liman