American Made: Interview with Director Doug Liman

Inspired by true story, American Made, directed by Doug Liman, stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot, who is recruited by the CIA to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning communist threat in Central America, He soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in U.S. history.  The event spawned the birth of the Medellin cartel and eventually almost brought down the Reagan administration with the Iran Contra scandal.

Universal will release the picture on September 29.

Interest in CIA

Doug Liman: The thing about the CIA is that it’s made out of career professionals.  The actual daily work of the CIA that’s so important to the U.S., most of that doesn’t change.  But as “American Made” shows, when the President has a crazy thing that he wants to do, the CIA are loyal soldiers and they will do it, as Schafer says, “if you are doing it for the good guys it’s legal.” That mindset has gotten the U.S. into a lot of trouble over the years.

Who Killed Him? 

DL: We know who killed him, cause they are in jail, and they did work for Pablo Escobar.  That aspect of the story is not really up for discussion.  Where conspiracy theorists love to dig in is, he really was sentenced to this very weak sentence that set him up to be killed, and was that done on purpose, or did it just happen?

I am personally of the mindset that it just happened, but Barry Seal is kind of this conspiracy theorist magnet because he crossed paths with both Clinton and Reagan and Bush.

Difficulties Making the Film?

DL: There’s obviously the challenge of doing flying sequences and doing car chases with airplanes, and do it for real with Tom Cruise doing all of his own flying.  And I am very interested in showing the limitations of the planes like that they really have issues when it’s heavy and it’s hot out and it’s a short runaway like it was when he hit the trees, and give the audience what the experience is like and what it’s like to kill the engine on a street.  The biggest challenge for me was to wrestle this story into a piece of two hour entertainment.  And I say entertainment because my father ran the investigation into these events in the U.S. Senate, so I knew them very personally. As definitely serious as my father’s work was, he also had a sense of humor about the more outrageous aspects of what had happened.  I dedicated the film to him and I brought his sense of humor to the story.

Perception of CIA

DL: I think of the CIA like the shark in “Jaws.” The shark does what it was created to do, and the CIA does what it’s created to do.  I really wanted to see the story from Barry’s point of view because obviously the person you might be most judgmental of is Barry Seal.  And I wanted to look at the world the way he saw the world.

He didn’t think about politics, he didn’t even had an understanding of what it meant to sort of fight communism in Central America and Tom and I tried to bring a sense of a character who is completely apolitical, caught up in these political events, and not understanding them and not understanding the consequences of what was happening.  And not understanding the consequences of the drugs and not understanding this war that was ravaging Central America and he was just in it for the adventure.  And the real Barry Seal left behind a legacy of video and in his case, it was interviews, it wasn’t just him speaking to the camera. Tom and I studied it and he really was in it for the adventure.  I wanted to make a film that decidedly avoids politics because the character, certainly the character of Barry Seal, avoided it.

He doesn’t even get to finish the sentence before he is killed by the situation he was basically set up.  I have done the CIA before with the Bourne franchise and with the TV series “Covert Affairs” and with “Fair Game” and I kind of thought maybe I was out of material to pull from the CIA and certainly from my exposure to it from my father’s work.  And then Gary Spinelli’s screenplay opened my eyes up to what is the most interesting aspect of the CIA and part of why I referred to it like a shark.  Once you create an organization like this, it’s going to act a certain way because it was created to act that way.  The people that the CIA recruits go to the best universities, and they find the honor students, the real straight laced by the numbers, rule- following types.  But those people are then tasked with going out and they look in the juvenile halls and they look for the criminals and they look for people like Barry Seal, people who have criminal tendencies.  So people who work in the CIA are case officers and people who do the actual work on the ground, do not work for Barry Seal and those are people who are specifically recruited because of their loose, moral compasses. And then you end up with a situation where Schafer has gone looking for somebody with criminal tendencies, and then you know what happened, he found one with criminal tendencies.  And you can’t necessarily control that person. It’s hard for somebody who is kind of like a young republican who may not even understand the ways in which people like Barry Seal are going to abuse the situation.  And at the same time, they are profiting from the efforts of somebody like Barry, so they are not even asking the questions.

Avoiding Politics

DL: I am not sure that Barry Seal is innocent.  When I say the film is not political, it’s obviously a movie mired in politics and political figures, But it’s not advocating my politics. I am trying to separate my own political views, which are not relevant to the story. I consider political movies films where the writer or director or producer has an agenda.  And my agenda is enough time has elapsed to first look back at these events and not get so caught up in oh you are attacking Ronald Reagan, and not get caught in left wing, right wing, democrat, republican, but just like enough time has elapsed, I am hoping, to just look at it and just laugh at what happened and learn a little bit from it.  But definitely laugh at it and take a look at the, Adolfo Calero, I am also hoping that this inspires people to dig a little deeper into the story, because this is one of those examples where the real story is sort of more outrageous and is more layered than the movie. It’s not like we exaggerated things for the movie, we actually left some things out and I think it will be fun for people who are intrigued by the story to go look into it.  And there are little Easter Eggs all over the movie to point you in the direction to let you know yeah, we know that.

You might ask why is Adolfo Calero wearing a Coca-Cola T-shirt in the movie and he is the head Contra.  Well he is wearing a Coca-Cola T shirt because at the same time that he was leading the head of the Army that was supposed to be overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, he also had the Coca-Cola bottle franchise for Nicaragua.  He is no Che Guevara.  The Contras were not in the terms that Reagan used to describe them.  There is a disconnect that my father found so outrageous and at points amusing.  In fact, it was that disconnect that allowed me to read the first draft of the screenplay, and I was 60 minutes into reading the screenplay and I didn’t realize that Barry Seal was involved in Iran-Contra.  I knew Iran-Contra from the point of the CIA and the White House and there’s big a disconnect in real life, between the Pilots who were doing the work and the policy makers in Washington. It took somebody like myself, who was well versed in Iran-Contra to catch up and go oh, Barry Seal took advantage of that disconnect, and obviously a lot of other people did.

Casting Tom Cruise 

DL: Tom is the only one I ever talked about making this film–and it was for many reasons. But the most important one is the Pilot’s license.  I am not sure how you could have made this film with an actor who wasn’t a ilot. It would have been way more expensive to make it look like that, because to simulate that flying if you are not actually doing it in a movie like this.  Nobody would really spend that kind of money.  I really feel like part of the spirit of the movie is relishing in the excitement of the flying and that is what excited Barry.

If you make a movie like “Party Girl” and the parties are lame, you are not really explaining why “Party Girl” is a party girl.  And the same thing, if the flying is what is exciting Barry Seal and not the other things, like you can’t get away with a movie that decidedly eschews politics the way Barry did–unless that is being replaced with some other passion and in this case flying.  The pilot’s license was not insignificant.

But the main reason I wanted Tom Cruise is that my actors are my partners in my movies.  Right now I am in Montreal and I start shooting tomorrow with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley and I have been in the writer in a conference room and we are going over the script.  We are not rehearsing, we are going over story and character and my actors become my partners. I am looking at the whole film and I am counting on the actors to sort of become the guardians of their character.  I like to workshop my characters with my actors so we create something that is unique. With Tom Cruise, I felt like there weren’t that many other people who could really help understand Barry the way that I understood Barry.  And the flipside is that it actually made it very tough for us to make the film because we understood Barry on such an innate level cause he didn’t do anything that Tom or I wouldn’t do.  You are so inside it, you are like how do I convey it to somebody in the audience who maybe wouldn’t be as excited about risking their life taking off from that little airstrip.  But Tom and I sort of understood this attraction to the challenge and the danger like a moth to the flame.  And I thought Tom would be an amazing partner in terms of helping me try to get inside Barry’s mind and what drives him, cause it’s not, I like complex characters and I don’t like reducing them down to, here’s a flashback where his mom threw away his toy airplane and now all he wants to do is fly.  I just don’t believe that humans can be reduced that way. To really try and have a whole film be an exploration of what is driving Barry Seal, I thought Tom Cruise would be an amazing partner, and he was.

Anticipating Trump’s Reaction

The one thing we know about Trump is, you don’t know what to expect, so I don’t know what his reaction will be.  I do know that Reagan is one of these incredibly revered figures in American history and it may be blasphemy in America to make a film that in any way challenges his reputation.  And if you watch the Presidential debates, they are all fawning all over Ronald Reagan, all of them, Rubio, Bush, Trump, they are all trying to carry the mantle of Reagan. So I don’t know how it will be received in America, half the country is Republican, it’s like attacking the prophet Muhammad or something.  It is such a no-no to bring this up, but in my defense, Reagan himself apologized for this.  And as far as I know, I can’t think of another politician ever apologizing for anything.  It’s hard to find a studio executive willing to apologize, and Reagan actually apologized for Iran-Contra.  And if you go to the Reagan Museum out in California, that is a big part of the museum, his apology for Iran-Contra

Invisible—First VR Project 

DL: I love the arc of this and it’s so wide open. It’s also a chance to sort of go for it and either do something great or fall flat on your face and I kind of interested in doing things that fit into that category and I am not interested in movies that play it safe or the art by definition doesn’t play it safe and the sort of smart career move for somebody like myself is to not do the art and sort of let it get a little bit more proven.  But I like being out on the front lines and doing something that could totally work or totally fail. I think the key for VR is and I have maintained this, there is not enough of an audience out there for VR, but there’s certainly a lot of appetite for content to be created and for more and more filmmakers to work in the arena and learn from each other, because I didn’t have that many people to, I didn’t have that many examples to look and learn from in the way say when I was making “Swingers” which was an independent film where there were other independent films I could look at.  And usually you are looking at it and you are like I am not going to make that mistake.  When I was making “Swingers” there was a Parker Posey film called “Party Girl” that had come out the year before, and it was about, Parker Posey plays this girl who is going to all these wild and big parties and meanwhile, because it was made as an independent film, the parties were tedium for the most part and she was just shot against a wall and it was like well it’s “Party Girl” but the parties look lame.  And so I learned from that when I made “Swingers” and I said we can’t afford to make the Los Angeles nightlife seem exciting if we have to recreate it, and we are going to have to shoot it in real places that are open to the public, which is how I shot “Swingers.” I learned from from the mistakes of “Party Girl.” In VR, a bunch of us are going to have to put ourselves out there and have some things work and have some things fail, so more people can learn.  And when somebody makes something that is truly must see, then everybody is going to get VR headgear and the revolution will be over and there will be mainstream VR content.