Doug Liman, indie film’s latest gift to the Hollywood studios, scored two years ago with Swingers and currently follows through with the more frenetic and polished Go, pleasingly filled with 17-to-22-year-old Angelenos who toil in a supermarket by day and dance, drug, drink, and drive by night.
The New York–born director is the son of revered attorney Arthur Liman, best known for his Iran-contra prosecution. He started making films when he was six years old. In the fifth grade, he made a sync-sound short called The Mummy that was shown at a bunch of festivals and that he claims is still the high point of his career. While attending Brown, Liman started a TV station that is still the only production facility on campus. He hung around for a year and a half after graduation to keep it operating. Then he headed west to film school at USC. “I figured I’d learn to love L.A. from being at USC the way I learned to love Providence from being at Brown,” he says. “I still love Providence, but I hate L.A.” Liman moved back to New York after Swingers and bought a West Broadway loft that still looks as if he’s just moved in. Its notable features are a curved bar seemingly abandoned mid-construction, a large Swingers poster, and about a half dozen phones, which ring constantly. In addition to chaperoning Go into theaters, Liman is producing See Jane Run, a low-budget movie written and to be directed by Sara Thorpe, a friend from Brown.
Like so many sons of famous fathers, Liman seems ambivalent about who he is. His eyes are tense and piercing, his head and neck held so stiffly erect that they swivel as one. From the waist down, he has the bent-kneed, loping gait of the jock he proudly announces himself to be. “In L.A., I specifically moved in with two women so I could meet some guy-guys to hang out with,” he says. “In New York, there are these guys I play touch football and hockey and baseball with, but I didn’t know anyone like that in L.A. It sort of worked.” Indeed, Liman met Swingers writer-star Jon Favreau when Favreau hit on one of those roommates at a party. “Jon took me to the Brown Derby every Wednesday night. When Jon finally showed me the Swingers script, I loved it. Because I’d been living through it.”
Arthur Liman helped his son raise the money for the $250,000 film. “My father wasn’t against my going into movies, but he wished I’d go to work for a studio where I’d have a normal job. He did all the legal work for Swingers and called me twice a day to make sure I wasn’t going to lose his friends’ money and I was being a good businessperson. He got sick when we were in postproduction and went through his second operation when the big bidding war started. He said, ‘Take a million, you won’t get any more,’ but we decided to hold out. In terms of proving myself as a man, it all was embodied in the night the deal closed with Miramax. It was too late to call him, but I scribbled ‘Miramax, $5 million’ and faxed it to him in the hospital. After that, I don’t think he worried about me.”
Go also started off as an indie film, but when the foreign investors pulled out during preproduction, Liman and his producers contacted everyone they knew at the studios, and the film wound up at Columbia. “We shot it for $6 million, and because they were happy with it, they threw money at us for post. The higher-ups are happy with the movie, but I had a pretty contentious relationship with Sony during the shoot. I fought pretty hard, but I’ll fight harder the next time.”
Liman says that one of the executives on the film would walk around the supermarket, one of Go‘s main locations, and turn all the products to the wall so you couldn’t read the labels. “I was right behind him turning them all back. I got a memo saying we had to change all these lines because we couldn’t mention product names. But that isn’t legally so. They said I couldn’t say, ‘It smells like cKone.’ But I went to school with Marcy Klein, so I called up Calvin and he put me in touch with his chief financial officer, who said, ‘You don’t need permission to mention cKone. That’s ludicrous.’ And that when I realized the studio was out of hand. I was talking to my best friend, who’s a carpenter, about it and he said, ‘Does that mean you can’t have a character in a movie who says Ford cars suck, who has an opinion about a product?’ That happened at the end of the first week, and after that I didn’t back down about anything.”
While most indie filmmakers write as well as direct their films, Liman directs and shoots, but doesn’t write. “I think I can be more objective about the material if I haven’t written it. I see my role as a director as imagining an average person sitting in a movie theater and giving them an entertaining experience. When I read someone else’s script, I see the movie in my head and it’s like I’ve already been to Pasadena with a test audience. And I shoot my own films because I like being busy. I started behind the camera so young that I don’t have to think about framing, and I get a better sense of the performances looking directly through the lens, because that’s what the audience is going to see.”
Liman is currently working on an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. “Because of my father’s work in Washington, I got to see what goes on in the intelligence community. It’s not like they’re in some James Bond world. I’m also developing a film about a private trip to the moon—the low-budget moon shot. I’m into the idea of undertaking these great journeys and it becoming just this series of small steps. I finally got my pilot license and I bought a plane and I’m going to fly around the world. It starts with being in a bookstore and buying an atlas; just take the first little steps and you’re already on your way.”