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The Liman Identity

Arthur Liman, chief counsel for the Senate committee investigating the Iran/contra affair, questioning Vice-Admiral John Poindexter on July 15, 1987, in Washington, D.C.  

Swingers did something else. “Doug’s challenge was to find himself,” says Favreau, who’s since reconciled with Liman. “He had to become Doug Liman, not Arthur Liman’s son. He did that directing Swingers.”

Soon after, Liman called his father to say that he’d been named MTV’s Young Director of the Year. His father, by then stricken with cancer, watched the awards ceremony on television. “Maybe our luck is changing,” he told his wife. A few weeks later, he died.

“He got to see that I was going to be okay,” Liman says and chokes back tears. “That’s what all the fights were about.”

Liman had dreamed of making The Bourne Identity since he was a kid reading Robert Ludlum’s book on the beach at his parents’ place in Westhampton. But the rights were out of reach.

“Doug has to be doing something,” says a friend. He shot TV—he directed the pilot for The O.C. He shot Tiger Woods’s iconic Nike commercial, where the star bounces a golf ball on the end of his club. Liman was the second-unit director. On Woods’s lunch break, Liman grabbed a camera and caught Woods in that unscripted moment.

Liman also directed Go, a $3.5 million indie hit about a teenager’s small-time drug deal gone bad. Go’s set was chaotic, a seeming extension of Liman’s personality. As Go star Sarah Polley explains, Liman is “this complete mess who can barely keep track of his possessions.” Liman filmed Go himself while carrying around The Sunset Guide to Basic Home Movie Lighting—“to make sure,” as Liman says. Liman didn’t even know how the movie would end until long after the completion of principal photography—he came up with the final scene in a bar with friends. Not only was Go a critical and commercial success, it reassured him in his make-it-up-as-you-go, very rebel style.

“ ‘Jumper’ completes my sellout trilogy,” says Liman.

Liman eventually secured the rights to Bourne. He’d just learned to fly, and jumped in a plane to meet Ludlum at his home in Montana. It was his first solo flight, and he nearly ran out of fuel on the way home. Controlling the rights gave Liman some leverage, on a vastly greater scale than the first two films.

Still, on Bourne, his filmmaking style nearly ended his career. The weird affect didn’t help. “You freaked me out at first,” Franka Potente, Bourne’s co-star, told him. “You didn’t look at me once.” Liman didn’t really come across as a movie director, a type who takes charge. Liman doesn’t have that switch. “He’s not going to tell anyone not to do anything,” says one colleague. Liman didn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—make decisions until he absolutely had to. “I like to keep my options open,” he says. “I’m known for changing my mind.”

And with Liman, a script is a fluid thing. “I go into a movie sort of saying what it’s not going to be,” he says. Ludwig, who’s worked with Liman since Swingers, says with only a little exaggeration, “He makes a movie, then starts writing the movie.” In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, screenwriter Simon Kinberg says, “I wrote 40 or 50 totally different endings.” (Liman eventually chose the first one.)

“Limania” is how Kinberg refers to the Liman moviemaking process. At the core of Limania is a belief that a film only reveals its nature as you make it. “I’m trying to find the movie during the process, as I did during Smiths. How much of a comedy it was going to be was something I was wrestling with on a daily basis.”

On Bourne, Limania infuriated producers, who were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. “Bourne was overly chaotic; we went into production with a script that was just a mess,” says Saar Klein, Bourne’s editor. Klein later became Liman’s friend, and is now editing Jumper, but he found himself hating Liman during Bourne.

Most maddening, perhaps, Liman seemed immune to the chaos he caused. “He is more comfortable with the chaos than everyone else,” says Klein. “Nothing can embarrass the guy.” Some suggest that Liman’s disruptions are strategic, that he cunningly deploys his disordered persona. “His persona is something he cultivates,” says Favreau. “There’s part of him that is him, part of him he creates. He enjoys the image he projects of being a mad scientist of cinema. It gives him leeway.”

One does notice that Liman’s tales of conflict usually turn out well. “I always get my way,” Liman confides one day, his eyes widening.

Unfortunately, Stacey Snider, the head of Universal when Bourne was being made, didn’t share Liman’s confidence in himself. To the studio, Liman’s process seemed costly, unorganized, and, worse, immature, with some justification—one night he paid the crew overtime to light a forest so he could play paintball. “Universal hated me,” says Liman. “I had an archenemy in the studio. They were trying to shut me down. The producers were bad guys.”