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'The Wall' Is the Most Stressful Action Film of the Year

Doug Liman opens up about his latest thrill ride and the humanistic warmth of John Cena.

Larry Fitzmaurice

David James courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

If the weight of the world doesn't have you stressed out enough, may I suggest The Wall? Doug Liman's latest film—one of two to see release this year from the veteran American filmmaker, with his Tom Cruise drama American Made dropping in the fall—is the kind of movie that will cause you to twist and turn in your seat throughout its economical and perfectly paced 90-minute runtime.

Set in 2007 amid the gradual winding down of the Iraq War, the film zooms in on a pair of US military snipers (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, both flexing impressive acting chops here) as they're pinned—literally—behind the titular and ramshackle wall, caught in the crosshairs of an Iraqi sniper with a deadly shot and impressive camouflage skills. There's a measure of soul-searching on our presumptive heroes' behalf, both of the personal and political kind, but this movie is all about survival, and the lengths human instinct takes us to stay alive. Plus, it might just have the best ending of any American film this year (although the alternately creepy and boring Life, from earlier this year, gives it a run for its money in this department).

We sat down with Liman in the lobby of Manhattan's Bowery Hotel to talk about the film, working with Taylor-Johnson and Cena, and how the film industry's changed over his impressive two-decade-plus career.

VICE: I spoke with Aaron this morning, and he was telling me he went through a lot to get this role.
Doug Liman: In general, making movies doesn't get easier—they each pose their own challenges, especially if you're not repeating yourself. You have things you can't do because you did it already. One of the areas where it actually does get easier is when Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows up in my office unannounced. He was like, "I'm your guy." Someone of that caliber walking through my door—that wasn't happening when I was making Swingers, you know? People weren't banging down my door to make The Bourne Identity. I had to convince somebody.

He mentioned you guys played ping-pong when you first met.
We did. We spent a while talking about the movie and his character, and I have a ping-pong table in the office, so I gathered that we might as well play ping-pong while we're at it. He wasn't that good, so I switched to my left hand. I gather he was seeing it as more of an audition—I was just talking about the movie and playing ping-pong. I don't like anyone telling me what to do, so even though I recognized right there that he would be extraordinary in the movie, I was like, "Who else is out there?" But he continued to hound me—he even sent me a picture of himself as a chauffeur waiting with a sign for me.

I think he knew he was going to be in the movie before I did, so I had to catch up to him. I was looking for somebody young, because we're talking about soldiers. When I made The OC, I wanted to cast 17- and 18-year-old actors to play high schoolers. With this movie, I didn't want to do the normal Hollywood thing and cast Brad Pitt as a soldier. The people who fight our wars are 18 to 20 years old—if they have seniority, they're 25. I was looking for somebody who could hold a movie the way Tom Hanks did in Cast Away. It didn't take me long to realize there really was no one but Aaron. He was right when he said, "It's me."

Edge of Tomorrow had such an epic scope—this film's much smaller in comparison. What led you to take this project on?
It all started with Dwain Worrell's script, which was sent to me as a writing sample. I read it and said, "Who's directing this movie?" I expected them to say, "David Ayer's directing it. David Fincher's directing it." But they were like, "No one's directing it." No one thought I would be interested in a film of this size, but I've made a career of gravitating toward projects that people—the powers that be—thought I wouldn't be interested in. After I made Swingers, the pressure was on to make a studio comedy, and John August had written a little film called Go. They said, "Well, Doug's never going to want to do another little indie movie," so John was told not to send it to me. But he did, and on a fluke, I read it and surprised everybody by saying, "I want to make another independent movie after Swingers."

I don't make "career decisions." I make decisions based on reading scripts and saying, "I want to tell this story," and The Wall was just a script I read. I wasn't thinking about the scale of the movie when I was reading the script, and hopefully you're not thinking of that while you're watching the movie—you're getting caught up in the experience.

Once I decide I want to make a movie, I try to set a budget that will push me to make the most creative movie. A lot of times—like on Mr. and Mrs. Smith—I've felt like I had too much money, and I ended up squandering a lot of it on sequences that never made it into the final movie. It wasn't until my back was against the wall, and I was out of money that Mr. and Mrs. Smith became the movie it became. A producer I worked with joked that he doesn't even bother looking at anything I shoot before lunch—he waits until after lunch, when I'm worried about the end of the day coming. I really wanted to have that pressure on me for The Wall, because I had that pressure on me for Swingers.

Doug Liman and John Cena on set. (Credit: David James. Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions)

How have you seen the studio system and the industry change as you've worked through the years?
Most of the changes I've noticed as a bystander, because my own experiences have been fairly consistent. I took big chances early in my career—everything about Swingers was a chance. I gambled on the actors who had never been in anything, telling a story like this, and making a movie under these conditions. All of those gambles paid off. The Bourne Identity was an extremely unconventional studio action film that Universal hated while I was making it. Everybody was trying to walk away from it when it was coming out. The writer who wrote the script arbitrated against himself to not get sole credit, for the first and only time in Writer's Guild history. They didn't know what to make of the movie, but obviously it was a big hit.

Once you've taken a few chances and they've paid off, the system wants you to continue to take chances. You get typecast as, "He takes chances and tries to reinvent genres." So you get sent the more interesting projects. If someone's presenting me something that feels a little bit conventional, they're saying, "It's conventional, but we want you to put it through your filter and come out the other side looking totally original." It's extremely hard to be really original in a commercial setting, but it's easier to be original if you don't have to be commercial.

A lot of times in my career, I've taken chances. In The Bourne Identity, I didn't want to take the girl hostage in the third act. In film school, they call that a "WIJ": woman in jeopardy. They have an acronym for it because it was so common. I told Matt Damon early on, "We're not going to have a WIJ." Then, I got to a place where I couldn't figure out the ending, and I turned to Matt and said, "You know, I think we're going to have to have a WIJ, because it solves all our problems. There's a reason why some of these cliché elements exist—because they work." But Matt was like, "You promised me we weren't going to have a WIJ." So I was like, "Fuck, I did promise him that." So I went back to the drawing board and came up with a way to end the movie without a WIJ. I'm trying to make original movies that are commercial. That's my genre.

Does this film have a political bent?
If there's a political bent to the movie, it's to shine a light onto the soldiers who are actually out there fighting every day. I loved that Dwain's script provided the chance to make a war movie that has no opinion on war. The Wall has a very positive opinion on American soldiers—they're almost like superheroes. All of the gear they bring into battle with them, they're like Iron Man. These guys carry 50 pounds worth of stuff.

I didn't want this movie to look like the evening news. And these soldiers aren't on the news anymore, but they're still out there fighting. I don't think you'll find a week where there's not an American soldier who's died in combat. It's never in the news, but they're out there every day fighting and giving up their lives. Let's make the soldiers the story—not the generals, not the people in Washington, but the actual people who have to go and fight.

John and Aaron's characters have this natural chemistry that's very appealing and real-seeming.
Casting John Cena was key. I wanted somebody who you felt was going to save the day. If you've ever met John Cena, he comes into the room and makes you feel like everything's going to be OK. It was really important to me for the film to have that tonality.

For me, the film is an uplifting story. I look for something personal in all my movies, and what I have in common with Aaron's and John's characters is perseverance. That's my main skill in the movie business. As you pointed out, I oftentimes don't get it right, but I persevere, I go back, and I keep at it until I get it right. Aaron's and John's characters don't give up—they keep trying. Just when you think they can't possibly keep going, they pick themselves up and try a new tactic to survive. That speaks to me on a personal level, and it's probably the reason why I wanted to make the movie.

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