We’ve just debuted the first American Made trailer, the forthcoming action thriller based on a true story from director Doug Liman. The film 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 and soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in the history of the United States. The operation spawns the birth of the Medellin cartel and almost brings down the Reagan White House.
Late last week, we were treated to a special preview of the trailer at Universal’s HQ in London where Doug Liman stopped by to introduce it, and answer some questions on the movie prior to its release in August.
How did you come across Barry Seal’s story?
Doug Liman: I had actually read a script, written by Gary Spinelli. You can see from the trailer that it’s the most incredible story and probably today, with what’s going on in the world, some of the most outrageous things you can’t really invent. The world can create things more outrageous that a screenwriter can imagine, and this was taking place against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan and the excesses of the 1980s.”
The really interesting thing for me about the film was that I was reading the script and by the time that I got three-quarters of the way through I was really in love with the story, and really in love with Barry Seal.
There are some stories that should be shown in history classes [which this isn’t]. I like anti-heroes and I love this character Barry Seal, who is basically playing the C.I.A. against Pablo Escobar against The White House against the Drug Enforcement Agency. He just had no filter at all, and really was drawn to the challenge of the excitement of it all. It’s a movie set against the backdrop of cocaine smuggling but it’s not a movie about the drug business. In fact, the American version of the trailer doesn’t show drugs at all. I’m not really interested in the drugs business. Barry Seal’s more like U.P.S. He doesn’t really care what he’s flying – he’s got guns for the C.I.A. or cocaine for the cartels. He’s just interested in whether he can get it from point A to point B.
I was really just caught up in this outrageous character – it was sort of irrelevant to me whether it was true or not.
Obviously you’ve worked with Tom before. Were you looking specifically for something for you and Tom to do together?
I love working with Tom. I think we push each other. For me, the relationship between a director and an actor is really special. It’s something that since the beginning of my career, like working with Jon Favreau and Swingers where Jon not only starred in in but wrote it. I’ve always treated the stars of my films as really being my partners and they’re the sort of guardian of that character and I empower them in that way. I love actors who want to participate in that way, because as a director you have so many moving parts – there things that are not even creative at all that you’re dealing with – so the star, it’s their role to guard that character and make sure that that character is doing things that make sense.
Tom has been an incredible partner. Edge Of Tomorrow was extremely challenging. Any filmmaker who has made a film about any form of time travel – way more than any physicist – will tell you that time travel is impossible, just because of the paradoxes that it causes the screenwriting process. It’s no question that humans will never travel through time. So yes, Tom was a really incredible partner and obviously he plays an anti-hero in Edge Of Tomorrow and was incredible playing that and so, it is still a newcomer Tom Cruise in American Made because it’s a side of Tom that other filmmaker don’t necessarily chase.
I think I’m particularly interested in that because it is not something that Tom does normally, and together we have a level of trust. People think of Tom being this really fearless actor/ stuntman who is always jumping out of airplanes – and actually in the case of American Made he did all of his own flying in the movie. Honestly, the most fearless thing about Tom is the things he’s willing to try and do on a character level on screen. Some of the things don’t work and they just look silly and he trusts that we’ll cut out the things that don’t work. He’s willing to really go for it. He jumps in with this reckless abandon that is really refreshing. Other actors who I have worked with who are huge movie stars are way more guarded of their brand and way more nervous about taking chances and I think that Tom appreciated that the character of Barry Seal was going to give him the chance to dive into a world and a character that’s unlike anything he’s done before.
Barry Seal seams opportunistic and man who’s got a swagger to him. He’s not necessarily a hero so to speak.
I think of him as a hero but he’s doing a lot of bad things. I think he’s a hero because he’s so courageous and just willing to put himself out there an try anything. I could be talking about Tom Cruise or I can be talking about Barry Seal.
Tom and I try to make smart, thought-provoking movies. We didn’t want to fall into the biopic trap. My attraction was this character who has no qualms about [exploiting the C.I.A.] who were opening up routes to fly guns illegally to Nicaragua and when he’s got an empty plane on the way back, you know, why not fill it up with cocaine.
The film seems to have a lovely comedic tone.
Tom is a really funny person. He an I ad-libbed on the set. He’s not just a funny actor, he’s basically a funny writer. He comes up with really amusing moments to play.
As a director, when you’re directing Tom Cruise and he’s doing his own flying, how terrifying is that?
Well, I’m also a pilot, but it can be pretty hair-raising. There are scenes where he climbs out of the cockpit to go to the back of the plane to dump the cocaine out and we’re flying alongside him in a helicopter – and you’re like – ‘there’s nobody at the controls of his airplane!’ We shot a scene where Barry Seal is landing at night on a remote airstrip, which is what these guys did, and these remote airstrips don’t have lights so they, in real life, would park a pick-up truck at the end of the runway. Again, you’re dealing with the most responsible characters, so if you’re Barry Seal you hope that somebody’s waiting for you at the other end with a pick-up truck lighting the airstrip.
We’re doing a scene where Tom is going to land an airplane at night, but we’re a movie so we’re going to do it at dusk and then use visual effects to make it night, and Tom and I have gone up and there’s a safety pilot on the plane but they are not at the controls, they’re at the back with me. There’s just the three of us. We took off and we got in the air and I had realised that they had sent me up there with a camera with no film in it. So, it was out last day at this location, so we land and they ran over and reloaded the camera and we took off again. As we take off, we’re like shoot, it actually is night. You’re shooting these airstrips and they’re usually pretty long, so the communication is not great, so as we come around we see the pick-up truck turn [its lights] off, because the producers think we’ve wrapped. We radioed down and said we actually need the pick-up truck to light – it’s not an element for visual effects any more. The safety pilot was like ‘Tom, how’s your night vision?’ Of course, he’s Tom Cruise so he’s like ‘it’s great’. It was fully night and Tom landed it on a remote airstrip lit by one pick-up truck.
How many countries did you film in?
We shot in Columbia, for a lot of the film. It’s an incredible, incredible country. That doubled for all of our South America and Central America locations. We even went, in Columbia to a remote airstrip called Araraquara. It’s three hours from Bogota in a plane and in three hours over nothing but rainforest. You’re looking out the window the whole time and seeing nothing but trees before you get to this remote airstrip. You have to fly in your own fuel and Tom and I camped on the airstrip. We brought tents in Medellin, Columbia and Tom wanted to go to the camping store as well, so going to a shopping mall in Medellin, Columbia with Tom Cruise? That in itself may have been more dangerous than anything else.
We shot the rest of the film in Georgia and Louisiana.
Can you tell us about some of the other cast members?
Well, Tom has an amazing female co-lead, Sarah Wright. I have a very strong mother, strong sister and I think’s that’s why in my films my female characters are usually significantly way stronger than my male characters. Sarah was an amazing find because when you work with movie stars as big as Tom Cruise they set a very high bar, and to find someone who believes they have the larger pair of pants in the relationship, which Emily Blunt did in Edge Of Tomorrow and Sarah Wright does in American Made…
He also has a C.I.A. head, played by Domnhall Gleason, and again it’s not my first time tackling a film to do with the C.I.A. – there’s a lot of C.I.A. on screen so that becomes a big challenge for me about how to create a C.I.A. character that’s totally original and I found a great way in with Domnhall Gleason. He’s basically a guy stuck in a cubicle at the C.I.A. and all he’s trying to do is get out of the cubicle and get into an office, and all this insanity ensues just because of something extremely relatable.
American Made opens in UK cinemas on 25th August.