The Wall: Director Doug Liman On Creating An Accurate Military Thriller

– by Edward Douglas

With hits like The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow under his belt, director Doug Liman has had the chance to make smaller, more intimate movies in between, and that certainly can be said for The Wall, his latest movie.

The Wall begins with two soldiers, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena, out in the broiling hot Iraqi Desert as the war has come to an end, as they investigate a situation where contractors were killed, presumably by an expert sniper. When the two soldiers get separated, Taylor-Johnson’s Sergeant Allen Isaac ends up stranded behind a wall, the only thing protecting him from the sniper who taps into his ear piece and starts playing mind games with him.

While this is a relatively smaller movie for Liman, it doesn’t lack in the tension and excitement of his earlier films, while also in the vein of thrillers like Phone Booth, or Ryan Reynolds’ Buried, being a film so focused on Taylor-Johnson and his amazing performance.

LRM got on the phone this past weekend for the following interview...

LRM:  What interested you about Dwain's screenplay?  I assume you had already shot "American Made" and were working on that? Did it just show up while you were making that other movie, and you had a time frame to do it? How did it happen that you kind of started making this movie while finishing the other movie? 

Doug Liman: I actually was working on this film even before American Made, and I had read the script. I was originally sent it as a writing sample, and I was like, “Well, I love it. Who's directing this movie?” They didn't have a director. I think it was maybe a little smaller. They didn't submit it to me because they didn't think I might be interested in a smaller movie. Go, which was my film I made after Swingers, like, they didn't submit that to me either because they thought, oh, he's not going to want to do another independent film after Swingers, he'll want to do a studio film. I guess I don't follow the normal playbook.

Then while we were working on American Made, Tom was gonna go off and do--I forget what movie he was going off to go make--so I suddenly had a window, and I realized I could go make this movie while we were still working on American Made. Ever since I read the script of The Wall, it was a story I was dying to tell. It had so many of the elements that I look for in a movie and usually create some crazy, convoluted scenario by which to have those elements, whether it's a spy with amnesia in the Bourne franchise, assassins trying to kill each other in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, or time travel and aliens in Edge of Tomorrow. To put characters in an extraordinary situation and see how they survive against impossible odds. Dwain's script in The Wall, it has all of that and it does it so simply and so elegantly. It's like one of these things where I've been running a mile around the block when I could have just gone and taken the short cut to get there.

I make movies because I'm interested in putting characters in extraordinary situations and seeing what they do. That's my interest in the extraordinary situation. I'm not interested in the aliens in Edge of Tomorrow, I'm interested in Tom Cruise. It's the same way in The Wall, I'm interested in these two soldiers, Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character and Jon Cena's character. I'm interested in these soldiers, and their attempt to survive against impossible odds.

LRM: Did it feel like when you were making this that it was going to be a smaller, simpler movie because it takes place in one location, and mostly focuses on one character? Did it feel like it might be a five or six-day shoot, or did it take longer than it looks?

Doug Liman: I mean, it's still a shorter shoot. It's not a five-day film--it's not an art film. My goal was to make a movie where you're not thinking about how long it took to shoot. People watch Swingers and we shot it very quickly for no money but the story, you get caught up in the movie, you're not thinking about those details and that's my goal as a filmmaker. I don't want you to think about the budget when it's a big budget, I don't want you to think about the budget when it's a small movie. I want you to be in the story. I do believe in cutting the appropriate budget for the story. I got lucky making Swingers that I wasn't able to raise the budget I wanted to raise and had to make the film for about one seventh the budget I wanted, and I looked at it when I was done and said, "Thank God I wasn't able to raise the money I wanted to raise. The film's much better, it's much more clever, and from that point forward I didn't fully learn the lesson. It wasn't until Mr. and Mrs. Smith where I was given so much money, I squandered it shooting things I was never gonna use until I ran out of money and then had to shoot the movie with my back against the wall. Then I realized that I'm always gonna do my best work if I start from the outset, and set a budget that I feel will keep me on my toes the whole time.

We were gonna shoot under such harsh conditions, and I wanted to shoot in the desert. There's no respite from the sun, from the heat, from the wind, so a slightly shorter shoot was probably the only way to work under those conditions. I mean, we barely survived it as it was.

LRM: Where did you actually shoot? Did you actually find a place in the desert, build the wall and place the trucks and stuff there?

Doug Liman: We shot in the Mojave Desert. There's a lot of visual effects. The only set is the wall, basically.

LRM: What made you think of Aaron for that main role to play that character?

Doug Liman: To be honest, Aaron thought of Aaron. Aaron showed up at my doorstep in my office in New York having already memorized the script and was like, “Look no further...I'm Isaac.” I'm like, “Well I've just started the project,” and he's like, “No, you don't have to look any further, it's me. I'm not exaggerating.” I think he knew he was starring in the movie for about three months before I did. He just...he had that perseverance, and he won me over. It's not like I had any great insight. When you look at his performance in The Wall, he showed me a little bit of that and was like, okay, he obviously needs to play this role.

LRM: Obviously there were some military aspects to "Edge of Tomorrow", so are you pretty familiar with military protocols and stuff like that to make sure it's all accurate?

Doug Liman: Yeah, I mean, this obviously took the military detail to a new level because in Edge of Tomorrow I was sort of envisioning what the future might look like for the military, whereas on The Wall I wanted to capture the military as it today, or as it was in 2007. The Pentagon is extremely supportive of movies, but we didn't work with the Pentagon on The Wall, we worked with individual soldiers, with gold star wives, with veterans. It was amazing how many soldiers and former soldiers opened their hearts, their stories, their photographs and their experiences to a bunch of strangers trying to make a movie called The Wall.

Aaron will tell you about his experiences in Arkansas, at sniper school and all of those experiences ended up on screen. Even the dialogue between John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson was totally re-scripted once actual soldiers got involved in helping us make the movie, because there's a certain way they speak that I wasn't familiar with, nor was Dwain Worrell, who wrote The Wall.

We screened the film for a couple hundred soldiers about two weeks ago, and it was extremely meaningful for me because some of the soldiers in the audience had helped us make the movie, but most of them had not. You know, I grew up in New York City on the Upper East Side. The fact that these men and women in arms were so welcoming to me and just wanted to help me, John Cena and Aaron make the best movie we could make, there's nothing in it for them. It was really meaningful to me, and really gave me a taste of how lucky we are in this country that we have men and women like this in arms.

They didn't know what kind of movie I was going to make. I mean, most Hollywood filmmakers making a film set in Iraq, there's gonna be a political message, it'll be controversial, like they don't know. They still welcomed (us). They jumped into the process for nothing in return, just to help us make the best movie we could make, and try to capture the experiences with as much detail and specificity as we could.

My films have always been about the details. I mean, even when I made Bourne Identity I was able to speak with somebody who evidently was an assassin for a living. He told me he always has a roll of duct tape and a screwdriver with him. He had a lot of nasty reasons why you have those two things with you. There's a scene in Bourne Identity where Jason Bourne is at the farmhouse and grabs a roll of duct tape and a screwdriver, which he never uses in the movie.

Any of those assassins out there who see the movie will see that detail will appreciate the specificity, and I worked hard to get inside the head of what it means to do that kind of job for a living. The Wall has those details across the board: the Skittles, the ripped crotch in the pants, the way they talk to each other and the sort of pace. There's a lot more soldiers than there are assassins so I'm counting on these details...and I've already seen it being appreciated in the way I imagined the one to assassins who might see Bourne Identity and would appreciate the duct tape and screwdriver detail.

LRM: I assume you're finishing up "American Made" and you've done this thing where you've done smaller movies and bigger movies going back and forth. Do you know what you might do after that yet? I mean, you have a couple things in development. Do you have any idea what you want to do next? 

Doug Liman: You know, even when I do bigger movies I'm still doing smaller movies, because I make small movies within the bigger movies. Edge of Tomorrow, which is probably my biggest movie budget-wise--it is my biggest movie budget-wise--still had scenes that I shot with Tom Cruise and me alone, nobody else, with Tom doing his own hair and makeup. Even within the big movies, the independent filmmaker in me is still alive and well, so I don't really see it as bigger movies and smaller movies, because it's still me and my process. It doesn't change that much. On the bigger movies, maybe I have permission to do it and the smaller movies I steal it.

LRM: So do you have any idea what you'll have next? You have a bunch of things in development, including "Luna Park", which I think is a movie you've been trying to make for a long time?

Doug Liman: It is. I have a bunch of things in development. It's the one area of my life where I recognize there's some aspect of it beyond my control, so I just push as hard as I can on the movies I'm most passionate about. It is about actor availability, locations, time of year, and also it's about my mindset, because with so many of my movies my interest level changes based on the movie I made before it.

I was interested in making Mr. and Mrs. Smith specifically because I had made Bourne Identity and thought that I had made a mistake on Bourne Identity by glamorizing a spy and playing into this Hollywood thing that, oh, spies are these incredible characters who should be celebrated when Mr. and Mrs. Smith was maybe just maintaining a marriage is something that should be celebrated. Why does Jason Bourne...why does James Bond have a different girl every movie? That guy can't hold down a relationship?

We're celebrating the wrong people, and that was sort of why...I probably wouldn't have made Mr. and Mrs. Smith if I hadn't made Bourne Identity, and I don't think I would have made The Wall if I hadn't made Edge of Tomorrow, and sort of ask, "Oh, I'm having to create this crazy, outrageous stuff in order to create a hero that can show simple heroism? Have a character sort of face impossible odds to and show simple heroism? I've gotta create this crazy, outrageous scenario with time travel and aliens?", when there's a simpler way to do it. Just show the experience of actual American soldiers pinned down in combat.

The paint is still wet on The Wall, so to speak, so I'm not sure yet exactly what lesson I'm gonna take from it, and therefore what movie I'm gonna want to make next.

The Wall opens in select cities across the country this Friday, May 12, with previews Thursday night. Look for our interview with Aaron Taylor-Johnson sometime soon.

Related: Doug LIman on Why He Left Channing Tatum's Gambit

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