“I’m more inclined to see the villains’ point of view in my movies,” Doug Liman told The Observer on a brisk October afternoon over bottles of Poland Spring in the Tribeca studio of his production company, Hypnotic. “When you grow up in New York, you’re more inclined to see everybody’s point of view.”
Mr. Liman, who was raised on the Upper East Side and graduated from Fieldston and later Brown, was answering our question about how a local sensibility has crept into his Hollywood work. He does seem to have a soft spot for certain bad guys—say, Chris Cooper’s Conklin from Bourne Identity, whom the director based on Oliver North. “You identify with all the bureaucratic hassles that he has to deal with,” Mr. Liman told us. “People who believe they are patriotic, bypassing all these rules of law to get done what they think is right.”
Replace the word “patriotic” with “artistic,” and Mr. Liman might be talking about himself. He’s certainly dealt with his share of hassles, after all, and though he’s no murderous intelligence agent—that we know of!—he has developed a certain reputation as “difficult” and brusque. Despite being dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, his hair a mess of brown curls, it was clear from the moment we sat down with him that the 46-year-old director—whose upcoming MTV show, I Just Want My Pants Back, had a sneak-preview after the MTV Movie Awards but is officially premiering on Feb. 2—is just as stand-offish and intense as advertised. The man who put Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn on the map with Swingers and who made Will Hunting into an action star treated the whole interview not unlike a deposition.
Still, Mr. Liman is a complicated guy. Take a look at his résumé, which swerves from indie breakouts like Swingers and Go to major blockbuster hits like Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and whose follow-up film after the mindless popcorn flick Jumper was a retelling of the Valerie Plame case, Fair Game. With his latest project, a TV adaptation of the coming-of-age novel I Just Want My Pants Back (a difficult name to roll off the tongue, so let’s just shorten it to IJWMPB, or, better, Pants), Mr. Liman is returning to one of his favorite subjects, youth culture—albeit 16 years after Swingers helped define an earlier generation. Which is not to say he ever really left the genre behind: he executive produced The O.C. and directed that show’s pilot.
The difference is that Swingers was personal. “There was a lot of autobiography in it,” Mr. Liman told us. “In that I and basically everyone I knew had left New York—our safety net—for this new and alien place.”
In Mr. Liman’s own words, his world as a teenager involved “10 square blocks” on the Upper East Side. (Mr. Liman, who is single, currently lives in Tribeca, “near Bubby’s,” with his dog, Jackson.)
“I used to think New York ended at Canal Street,” Mr. Liman told us. When we attempt a joke—“Well doesn’t it?”—he glared at us, inscrutably.
“I love New York,” he said. “This is the greatest city in the world. So if you grow up here, and this is what you know, you’re growing up very spoiled.”
Mr. Liman’s father was the prominent attorney Arthur Liman, best known for serving as Senate counsel during the Iran-Contra hearings. His mother, Ellen, is a painter and art dealer.
Mr. Liman’s pet project, Pants, has been in the works since 2008, only a year after the publication of David Rosen’s 2007 novel of the same name. The book, which tells the story of 20-somethings living in the West Village, seemed an unusual choice for a big-name director currently juggling two difficult Hollywood features. (One is an alien film starring Tom Cruise; another is about the 1971 Attica prison riot, for which Arthur Liman served as New York State’s investigation counsel.)
When we asked Mr. Liman why Pants was mostly set in the now-trendy neighborhood of Greenpoint instead of the more hipster-populated Bushwick, he seemed annoyed. “Maybe eventually they’ll all get too poor and end up in Bed-Stuy,” he said.
As prickly as he can be with reporters, we probably got off lightly. Sarah Polly, who starred in Mr. Liman’s $3.5 million indie sleeper hit, Go, called him “this complete mess who can barely keep track of his possessions.” (They later reconciled.) Mr. Favreau didn’t talk to the director for years after Swingers, because Mr. Liman made a killing off the film when Harvey Weinstein bought it for $5.5 million, while Mr. Favreau and Mr. Vaughn ended up with more cred than cash. (The duo later reconciled.) Rumors during Fair Game’s promotional tour hinted that Sean Penn’s absence was due to a falling out with the director. And after being ordered to write 50 endings for the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie feature Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only to have Mr. Liman go with the original, screenwriter Simon Kinberg coined a term to describe the director’s style: He called it “Limania.”
During the making of The Bourne Identity, Mr. Liman’s daily fights with Universal were well documented: New York magazine chronicled the studio’s litany of complaints in a 2008 profile of the director: he was chaotic, went over budget and reshot scenes without permission. He made the lighting crew stay overtime during a forest shoot, so he and friends could play paintball. The rough cut didn’t include enough action scenes for the studio’s taste, and they made him shoot 20 extra minutes.
Late-night paintball is just the tip of the Mr. Liman’s activity iceberg. “He’s an adult, but he has a very mischievous, youthful sensibility,” said author Naomi Wolf, a friend of Mr. Liman’s, through her partner (and Mr. Liman’s long-time collaborator), Avram Ludwig. “He’s always instigating some sort of adventure with his circle of friends. They’re always doing physically risky things … rafting, flying planes, going out during a storm on their boat. They’re always getting into trouble.
“It’s a boyish kind of trouble though, not an evil kind,” Ms. Wolf was quick to note. “I think of him as one of those Shakespearean characters like Puck. They disrupt convention, and they perform this incredibly important function of shaking people’s perceived conceptions.”
She recalled a prank Mr. Liman played on her during one of his loft parties. “I was talking to Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter of Precious. We were talking about very important things, like prison policy. And toward the end of the evening, I notice that Doug’s playing something behind me on the giant movie screen that he has.” The video was Ms. Wolf’s “extremely embarrassing” interview with Ali G. from 2010.
Mr. Ludwig, who has worked with Mr. Liman for over 20 years and co-owns a boat with the director, told The Observer that the director’s defining trait is his refusal to take no for answer. “He won’t argue with anyone; he’ll just listen to them and then go do his own thing.”
During the shooting of Fair Game in Jordan, Mr. Ludwig and Mr. Liman “borrowed” a camera and flew themselves into Baghdad to get a few key shots themselves. (Both friends have pilots licenses, and Mr. Liman owns a Mooney airplane.)
In 2009, Mr. Liman and four pals were out sailing on the Hudson when they spotted a 250-foot cargo ship bearing down on a speedboat. As the speedboat passengers jumped into the water to avoid being crushed, Mr. Liman and his friends raced to the scene and scooped them out of the water.
“Doug Liman, Bourne Identity Director, Saves Three Men in Hudson Boat Crash,” read the Huffington Post headline. “‘Bourne Identity’ director Doug Liman plays hero on the Hudson,” proclaimed the New York Daily News.
That said, at least one witness insisted that the story had been subject to a little Hollywood-style hyperbole. “I appreciate what Doug did for us, which was pull us out of the water,” Daniel Rechelbacher, owner of Salon 2b in the financial district and one the people on the speedboat that night, told The Observer. “But by the time Mr. Liman’s boat came, we had already radioed for help. We had saved ourselves.”
Mr. Rechelbacher offered free haircuts at his salon as a thank you to Mr. Liman and his friends, but he felt that Mr. Liman overplayed his role as the “hero.”
“Put it this way … he asked one of the women in our group how she felt about her ‘savior,’” Mr. Rechelbacher sighed. “And she was like, ‘What, you mean, like God?’”
It turned out Mr. Liman was talking about himself.
The director said he couldn’t remember that particular interaction but admitted, “It was a surreal situation: I might actually have said a lot worse. I was trying to be funny in a stressful moment.” He laughed. “I was single, and she was beautiful. Sadly the long-term relationship I got was with Daniel, who has been giving me free haircuts ever since.”
Mr. Liman also admitted that he has been known to whip out the letter of commendation the Coast Guard gave him after the incident whenever he is pulled over by authorities on the open water.
Of course, there are plenty of colleagues who just can’t get enough Limania. “Some directors just have a list of notes where they’re trying to get you to act a certain way, but Doug was a lot more natural,” said 25-year-old Peter Vack, who plays lead hipster Jason Strider in Pants. “One time I was doing a scene for the pilot where my character is trying to chat with a girl that he thinks is out of his league. I did the scene, and afterward Doug goes, ‘That was great. But you’re playing Jason like Jon Favreau in Swingers; you’re acting nervous around her. I want you to be so beaten-down that you’re not even nervous.”
When asked what he thought of a director referencing his own hit movies for set notes, Mr. Vack replied, “It took a lot of balls.”
As an afterthought, he added: “And who hasn’t seen Swingers?”
After buying the rights to Pants in 2008, Mr. Liman and Mr. Rosen realized the story would have to be relocated from the Village, which had become much too expensive to be a believable setting for it’s post-college New Yorkers.
“We thought to move it to Williamsburg,” Mr. Liman said. “But in the three years it took to get the show mounted, no one could afford Williamsburg anymore. So the show has actually tracked along the same path as 20-somethings trying to live in New York and Brooklyn.”
When NBC turned down the series, Mr. Liman turned to MTV. After reading the script, MTV’s head of programming David Janollari received a call from Mr. Liman. “He said, ‘You know, Swingers and Go were like my kind of love letters to the West Coast,” Mr. Janollari recalled. “And I’d love this to be my love letter to New York … my love letter to Brooklyn.’”
Of course, Pants is also another exploration of Mr. Liman’s favorite theme. “I am very interested in stories about people in their early 20s, when some of the most massive decisions about their lives are being made,” he told us. “The clay is still wet. What you’re going to do with your life, who you’re going to date … it’s all open. You’re at a crossroads that has an infinite number of pathways.”
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