It’s unusual to see Tom Cruise play the fool, but Doug Liman has gotten him to do it. Twice. The director — known for hits like Swingers, Go, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity — has worked with Cruise on 2014’s underappreciated Edge of Tomorrow and this month’s American Made, and in both of them, the eternally cool Cruise portrays schmucks of one kind or another. The latter film finds him living out a fictionalized version of the life of Barry Seal, a fascinating footnote of history who began as a TWA pilot and became a drug smuggler and informant to the U.S. government. We caught up with Liman to talk about sharing a house with Cruise, shooting a zero-g sex scene, and his response to allegations that his and Cruise’s negligence led to the deaths of two pilots working on the film.
How’s the press tour going? Are you too exhausted to talk, or can I ask you a few questions?
No, no, I really love talking about American Made. It’s a trip down memory lane. It was such an adventure making the film, it’s like talking about a great … not a great holiday you went on, but some great trip you went on.
How so? What made it such an adventure?
We went to these unbelievably remote places to film it, these little remote places, in the rain forest and jungle airstrips. I shared a house with Tom Cruise and the writer [Gary Spinelli] while we were making the film, and that was like a movie boot camp.
What’s Tom Cruise’s cleanliness level like, as a housemate?
Well, my answer’s a little biased, because I’m messy, but I think he’s a little OCD.
It was the writer, Tom, and I all in a house. No housekeeper, no chore chart. We really worked so hard making the film, but we had so much fun doing it, because our evenings are spent talking about the day’s work, and then brainstorming new ideas. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did this, or funny if we did that?” And pushing each other. Tom and I are both pilots, and so we had a flight simulator in the garage.
Do you have any comment on the lawsuit that’s been filed by the families of the pilots who died during the making of the film?
No. Just that I’m a pilot and Tom Cruise is a pilot. I don’t know anything specific about the accident, because it didn’t happen during the filming. They were just moving one of the airplanes. I was just going to say that it’s just a reminder — something all pilots know — which is that flying is really dangerous. Not in commercial planes, by the way. I don’t want to scare people who are about to get on a United flight. Being on a commercial airplane is actually one of the safest places you can be on the planet.
In the movie, much like in your last collaboration with Tom Cruise, Edge of Tomorrow, you were able to get Tom to play a fool. How do you get that kind of performance out of him?
You know, Tom is somebody who is known for being fearless, for hanging off the sides of airplanes and stuff like that. But he’s truly fearless when it comes to trying roles like Barry Seal, or Cage in Edge of Tomorrow. He’s willing to play these kinds of roles. He loves playing them, but I think the only trick was asking him to do it. I’ve made a career of being a contrarian. If I’m going to work with Tom Cruise, it’s my instinct to be like, “Well, I’m going to do the anti-Tom Cruise movie.”
Honestly, I didn’t know this, but when I first started working with him, I suggested on Edge of Tomorrow, I was like, “How would you feel about being a total coward, like all the way through the film? Unabashed coward?” I didn’t know, maybe he’d be like, “Okay, maybe.” I didn’t know if he’d be like, “You don’t understand my brand.” Instead, he loved that idea, and started just riffing dialogue about a character who felt like, “Well, somebody’s got to be around to enjoy the world after it’s been saved. Why shouldn’t it be him? He’s doing his part by keeping himself comfortably away from the war so somebody’s around to enjoy the world once it’s been saved.” Honestly, that’s all it takes, is to ask.
What about this story was intriguing to you?
Well, I’m really attracted to anti-heroes, and I’m a little bit of a troublemaker myself, and a little bit of a rule-breaker, and I like spies. There was an opportunity to combine the things I loved most: to do a movie about the CIA, but have a hero who is conducting one of the largest covert operations in the CIA’s history, and at the same time, he’s figuring out how to profit from it, become one of the wealthiest men in America. It’s like my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, if you ever remember those commercials, when the chocolate bumps into the peanut butter. It’s like these two worlds I love all rolled up into one character: Barry Seal.
And I love the idea of a really unconventional love story. These iconic southern characters. And the other aspect was as a bonus to it all: I had a personal connection to the story, because my father ran the investigation into Iran-Contra. I knew these events from growing up, and I knew them through a humorous lens; even though my father was a deadly serious investigator, he had a sense of humor about these events, just around the dinner table. But I had known about this story since I was in college, and I never thought about making it into a film.
When I read Gary Spinelli’s screenplay, I didn’t even realize until I got to the end of the script that I was reading a story I already knew. There was such a massive disconnect with the real world between the policymakers in Washington, D.C., and the people on the ground conducting this covert war. People were too afraid to tell their bosses about what was really happening, and you ended up with this massive disconnect between the people on the ground and the people in Washington, D.C. I knew the story from the Washington, D.C., point of view, because those are the people my father investigated.
I knew that his work investigating the CIA really was the foundation for the CIA that I put in The Bourne Identity, to the point where Oliver North — and I only had one conversation with Oliver North in my whole life, and it was right before Bourne Identity came out. He called me up and said, “I heard you based a character in your new movie on me.” He’s talking about Chris Cooper’s character in Bourne Identity. And I’m thinking, “The movie hasn’t come out yet. He may not realize it’s the villain.” Then he said, “How about you come on my radio show? You know, your father asked me all those tough questions during the Iran-Contra hearings. You come on my radio program, and I’ll ask you a bunch of tough questions.”
I agreed to go on his radio program if I could ask him a question for every question he asked me. I was like, “You know, there’s probably going to be a movie somewhere in here.” Oliver North ultimately declined, but here we are, 15 years later, and I got all the answers I needed without ever having done that radio interview with Oliver North.
There’s a lot in the movie that appears to diverge from the truth, but then again, a lot of it is about things that would be very hard to verify because they involve deep secrecy. How much was stuff that you and the writer suspect really did happen secretly, and how much was pure invention?
You know, we’re not making a biopic. Tom Cruise doesn’t look like Barry Seal. His character is inspired by the stories we learned about Barry, and a lot of times, stories like this, not only do journalists look at the veracity of the actual events portrayed, but also the personal aspects. In the case of our story, Barry’s wife showed us a photo of her visiting him in a Guatemalan prison on his birthday and cutting his birthday cake with a machete. This is a woman who thought she was marrying a TWA airline pilot. I really feel like Sarah Wright’s character [of Barry’s wife, Lucy] is very true to Barry. The DEA agents who worked with Barry loved him. We’re talking about one of the largest drug smugglers in America, and these agents loved him.
When we were shooting the movie in South America, we worked with a lot of local pilots, and one of them was telling us how much he loved Barry Seal. We said, “Oh, how’d you meet Barry?” He said, “Oh, Barry stole an airplane from me. He took it out for a test flight and never came back.” That guy loved Barry. His wife never remarried, to this day. The events portrayed in the movie are very much drawn from reality. This is how the CIA conducts its missions. In the case of confirming some of the events portrayed in the film, I did tap into some of my father’s work that didn’t rise to the level of making it to the hearings. We connected a bunch of dots, but more importantly, this is how the CIA works.
I thought I was done making CIA movies after The Bourne Identity. I really had used my father’s work in Iran-Contra on The Bourne Identity. You get one experience like that in your life where you have personal exposure to something and you put it in a movie. That’s it. I put the greatest hits of the CIA in The Bourne Identity, and I thought, “That’s it. I’m done doing CIA.” Until I started looking at Barry’s story, and I realized actually that the most interesting part of the CIA I hadn’t told yet, and that’s that the CIA doesn’t go to detention halls to hire CIA officers, they go to the best universities, and they hire the honor students. Those are the people who go work for the CIA.
Between my father’s work, and working on [Valerie Plame biopic] Fair Game, and my close relationship with Valerie Plame, I know a lot of people who work in the CIA, and they’re rule-followers, they’re straight-A students, but their job is to go out and find people with loose moral compasses, people like Barry Seal, to go out and do the real dirty work. You end up with these rule-followers in Langley trying to control these criminals, people who were selected for their criminal tendencies, people like Barry Seal. Sometimes the CIA gets more than they bargained for. That’s the spirit of American Made and Barry’s story.
Can you tell me about shooting the zero-gravity sex scene between Barry and Lucy?
Well, you know, that was actually inspired by a real event with Tom Cruise and myself. Not involving sex. Tom and I were training for the movie, and Tom did all his own flying in the movie. He put the airplane into a parabolic arc and pinned me against the ceiling, and right in that moment, I had this inspiration, and I said, “Wouldn’t that be great to do in the film? Wouldn’t it be fun if they were fooling around in a plane and the plane went into the same kind of parabolic arc and they got pinned against the ceiling?” That was the kind of process that Tom and I had making the film, where the ideas could come from anywhere, but we were just constantly pushing for, “Could something be funnier?”
You know, we lived with the screenwriter. Tom, he’d wake up at two in the morning and say, “What about changing this line of dialogue by a few words?” He’s a real perfectionist and I think what makes our partnership so extraordinary is that I don’t always get things right the first time. On the very first day of filming on Edge of Tomorrow, we shot a scene and that night, I told my producers, I was like, “I don’t think I got that right. I’m going to try to reshoot it this week without adding a day to the schedule, and just fit it in.” Then you gotta tell the star, “I don’t think I got that right. I want to try it again.” Tom is just so supportive. He’s like, “Yeah, let’s find the movie together. Whatever you think you need.”
Tom shares with me this attitude of, even if something’s not working, you keep working on the script so it is working, or keep working on the editing so it is working. I’m unrelenting in terms of trying to make the best possible movie I can make. I found a really great partner in Tom Cruise, because his commitment to entertaining audiences with something that’s thoughtful, that isn’t like empty calories like cotton candy. The thing about a movie like American Made is it’s obviously a highly entertaining film, and it’s action, and comedy, and Tom is incredible in it, but it’s also … You can’t help, by the end of the film, when you leave the theater, thinking back to the fact that, “Did this really happen?” Then you can sort of relive the movie again. That’s the kind of filmmaking and films that Tom and I both aspire to make.
We love that Edge of Tomorrow is as popular as it is today, versus the day it opened, because it didn’t have the greatest opening. But it’s so much more meaningful to us that all these years later, it’s the film that people come up and talk to me about more than any other film that I’ve made. We aspire to make movies, both of us, that will stand the test of time. Don’t ask us after opening weekend to assess how the film did. Ask us in ten years. If people still remember the movie, if they’re still talking about it, if they’re still watching it, that’s success.
This interview has been edited and condensed.