There are many odd things about Doug Liman's latest film, including the character of an Iraqi sniper who recites Edgar Allan Poe. But the oddest thing may be that it's a Doug Liman film.
After his breakout 1996 movie, “Swingers,” the cult classic comedy-of-dating-manners, the filmmaker steadily built his reputation as a maker of action movies with lots of moving parts, beginning with the 2002 spy thriller “The Bourne Identity” and ending with the Tom Cruise vehicle “Live Die Repeat (Edge of Tomorrow).” A sequel to that 2014 sci-fi blockbuster is in the works.
So it's more than a little surprising to see Liman's name on the credits for “The Wall,” a gritty, low-budget war movie featuring limited violence, more talking than action and a mere three characters.
Set in 2007 Iraq, it's the story of Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Nocturnal Animals”), an Army sergeant who is pinned behind a crumbling wall after his comrade (wrestler John Cena) is seriously injured by an unseen sniper. The sniper (voice of Laith Nakli) torments his quarry – over the radio – with a psychological cat-and-mouse game. We spoke recently with the 51-year old filmmaker by phone from Los Angeles about his “contrarian” way of working, and the surprisingly similarities between heroes and villains.
Q. “The Wall” is quite a change of pace for you. It's not just a tiny film, but an unusually talky one, compared to your other work. Did it exercise different muscles for you?
A. Yes, it was a way of doing the things I've loved in the past in a totally different way.
Q. Such as?
A. I love putting characters in extraordinary situations and seeing how they survive, whether it's pinning Jason Bourne down or pitting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie against each other (in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”). In a way, “The Wall is a reaction to having created this insane situation with “Edge of Tomorrow,” with aliens and time travel – just to pin Tom Cruise down in a box and see how he can get out of it. With Dwain Worrell's script for “The Wall,” Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character, Isaac, is pinned down in an equally tight box but in a much simpler and more elegant way. I'm also interested in superheroes, but not necessarily the Marvel kind of superhero. Jason Bourne is a superhero, but it's a slightly different tone. It's a little more grounded.
Q. Who's the superhero in “The Wall”? Isaac, I assume?
A. He is the superhero. He's like Iron Man. He has these cargo pouches, and he keeps pulling stuff out of them.
Q. The character of Juba the sniper is an unorthodox bad guy. For one thing, he's more sympathetic – and much more winning – than we're used to seeing in bad guys. His shooting abilities are those of a superhero.
A. Or of a supervillain. But my films don't have villains. They really don't. They have people with different points of view. The people hunting Jason Bourne are not the villains. You've got to look at “The Bourne Identity” – because, you know, like any movie franchise with a lot of sequels, stuff starts to get bloated – but if you go back to the original movie, Chris Cooper is equally the hero. He's trying to stop an assassin who seems to be out of control. In “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” I don't have a villain at all. I shot one, then put him on the cutting-room floor. Never used him. I have people with different points of view.
Q. What about the aliens in “Edge of Tomorrow”? They're bad guys.
A. The general who pins Tom Cruise down is maybe more the force of antagonism than the aliens. From the general's point of view, Tom Cruise's character is a coward. The general has every right to be critical of him. You can get plenty of antagonism from a villain who isn't actually villainous. You said maybe the aliens are the villains. But are sharks villainous? Sharks are in the ocean to kill and eat. They're just doing what they're supposed to do.
Q. What would you call Juba?
A. I use the word “villain.” But in my lexicon, villains are just heroes of their own story. I love the idea of making a war movie that has no politics in it.
Q. It surprises me to hear you say that the film has no politics. Although the American soldiers never once mention politics, Juba – their enemy – does, and repeatedly. By giving voice to a side of an argument we don't often hear, and humanizing the faceless enemy, isn't that inherently political?
A. Well, I've made the characters three-dimensional, with strong points of view that make sense from where they sit. But it's devoid of politics in that it's a story of survival. When you're in New York City, you can have the luxury of debating the morality of a war in the Middle East. If you're a soldier on the front lines, you don't have that luxury. The other side is trying to kill you. It's kill or be killed. I equate it with my film “Swingers.” That film is very much from the boys' point of view. But at the very end of that movie, when Jon Favreau has met up with Heather Graham, Heather Graham mentions a conversation she had with her girlfriends, and you realize – in that moment – that the story could have been told from her point of view. There is another side. You're right to pick up on the fact that we could have told “The Wall” from the other person's point of view. But that's not really a political message.
Q. And yet the character of Juba interrogates the morality of U.S. conduct in Iraq. If the film isn't political, surely Juba's character is, isn't he?
A. For sure, yeah.
Q. Is it an antiwar film?
A. I don't think it is. It celebrates – it treats soldiers like superheroes. The film stays in the trenches.
Q. It sounds like you're comparing Juba's arguments to a bomb on a timer. Are you suggesting that his ideas detonate later, after we've left the theater?
A. I'm hoping that an audience picks up on that and that an audience thinks about war, though hopefully not while they're watching the movie. I want them to be hoping and praying that Aaron Taylor-Johnson will survive. The stronger the argument of the villain in the movie, the stronger the villain is.
Q. And the stronger the film?
A. Yes. I'm hoping the audience leaves thinking about the fact that Isaac and Juba never meet. They're trying to kill each other the whole movie, and they never meet. That's one of the conundrums of war. The politics I'm interested in are the politics of why humans fight in wars. There was one version of “The Wall” – not to spoil the film – but where Juba and Isaac become friends of sorts, and are, like: “In a different world, we would have been friends.” I chose not to go down that path.
Q. During filming, there was no Juba. You – or an off-camera assistant – would feed Juba's lines to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, through the character's radio earpiece. What was it like, bringing the voice actor Laith Nakli into the process after the shooting was over?
A. It was almost like doing an animated film. Laith came in afterward and recorded the voice. What's extraordinary about Aaron's performance is that he was doing it against me or the script supervisor or an actor we had on the set at points. A lot of what he was reacting to out there was added later. For example, even the visual effects. We weren't in the Middle East. We were in the Mojave Desert. Aaron makes it so grounded and real. I've never made an animated movie before, but we created the character of Juba with nothing but a voice.
Q. What was Mojave like?
A. Part of the reason it was only a three-week shoot was that the conditions mimicked Iraq. I'm not sure we could have survived another week out there. I'm not exaggerating. Dust storms every afternoon, 120-plus-, 130-degree heat. No shelter from the sun.
Q. What are your favorite war movies?
A. “Casablanca,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Dirty Dozen.” Even “The African Queen.” Personal stories set against war. “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Nazis vs. Americans, that cleanliness of storytelling, as opposed to a messy, Oliver Stone take on the world.
Q. Talk about the use of language in the film. Juba is a former English teacher. He quotes Edgar Allan Poe. He has this great line: “Military lingo is all poetry.”
A. It's a film about language. The sniper uses language as a weapon. It's a film about language – on all levels, whether it's the poetry of military lingo or the actual poetry quoted in the film. Also the language between soldiers – the kind of playful, almost sexual language that's used under those conditions – is a major element. It shouldn't surprise people who have seen my films that my characters don't necessarily – even in a war movie as rugged as “The Wall” – speak in macho-speak. They're dancing for each other, and they're singing for each other. That feels honest to me. It is honest. I'm kind of a contrarian filmmaker. If I'm going to do a film about guys trying to pick up girls, like “Swingers,” I'm going to have them be neurotic and whining and nervous and scared. If I'm going to do a war movie, the characters are going to be taking about poetry.