The Liman Identity

Photo: Stefan Ruiz

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.

Liman and Hayden Christensen on the set of Jumper in Baja California, Mexico.Photo: Courtesy of Doug Liman

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

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.Photo: Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

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

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.

Liman with Brad Pitt; filming Sarah Polley on the set of Go.Photo: Courtesy of Doug Liman

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.

The Liman Identity