Tom Cruise teams up with director Doug Liman for American Made
On the screen there have been two Tom Cruises this decade. The first is the assembly-line star of franchises such as Mission: Impossible, Jack Reacher, and The Mummy, the Tom Cruise who very intently runs, jumps and triumphs.
The second is the actor who stars in films made by Doug Liman, the Tom Cruise who played an oft-killed cur in the sci-fi action loop Edge of Tomorrow and now excels as a risk-taking pilot fronting for the CIA and the Medellin cocaine cartel in American Made.
Doug Liman, how did you become the creative elixir to Tom Cruise's career?
"I think it's because I was willing to poke fun at the Tom Cruise brand," Liman says. "So many people tip-toe around movie stars, but by my nature I'm a moth drawn to the flame, so when we started working on The Edge of Tomorrow I said, 'You're always fighting the bad guys, so what if we make your character a coward?' I didn't know how he would react – to be honest, I said it a little timidly – and he loved that idea."
"Because of the success of Edge of Tomorrow, I wasn't so timid when I said, 'what if this time you're an amoral scoundrel?' And he loved that idea," adds Liman. "It's not like I'm showing you a side of Tom Cruise you've never seen. He became a movie star because of Risky Business, where he plays a high school student running a brothel. With American Made we're going back to the qualities that made him a star in the first place."
A black comedy about the extremes of American ambition, Liman's new movie is based on the life of Barry Seal, an airline pilot who went to work in the late 1970s for the CIA as they ramped up covert wars in Central America. Seal would fly guns and supplies south from America, and soon realised that it was profitable to return northwards with cocaine shipments from the then nascent Colombian narcotics trade.
As played by Cruise with nervous adrenalin and a people pleaser's enthusiasm, Seal is the delivery man of choice for two fearsome organisations. The film, like Seal, seductively bounces along on ebullient energy, pushing ramifications to the bottom of the list of issues behind running out of places to stash illicit cash and assembling a crew of pilots to handle the ever-increasing demand.
"It was one of the trickiest films to edit because it works on momentum. Barry is not necessarily thinking of the end game – he's just in the moment," Liman says. "The film requires you to be in the moment, and the tension comes from this little stitch you have in your gut that the party can't go on forever."
A loopy, even delirious, confidence has energised the 52-year-old Liman's signature movies, whether it was his 1996 breakthrough Swingers or the union of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on and off the screen in 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The latter was one of the films where Liman butted heads with his leads, and there was also disagreement on 2002's The Bourne Identity, the espionage thriller that launched the successful Matt Damon series subsequently directed by Paul Greengrass.
Most movie stars, Liman believes, are inherently "defensive" about the roles they'll play and how they're perceived. Cruise is his exception. Both men are qualified pilots, and they recreated the majority of Seal's exploits in propeller planes, with Liman and Uruguayan director of photography Cesar Charlone wedged in beside Cruise.
"We flew small planes into remote stretches of Colombia and landed on former drug airstrips the cartel had used," Liman says. "Tom Cruise and I flew three hours from Medellin to a remote dirt airstrip the military maintained for its war on the FARC guerilla group, shot out there and then camped under the airplane."
Liman wanted to update the screen tradition of chaotic and comedic car chases – he and Cruise studied the hokey 1977 demolition derby Smokey and the Bandit for tips – with light planes, which tested the safety demands. Even starting an airplane engine on camera is considered a stunt, requiring an hour-long safety briefing first, while an airborne chase sequence necessitated an eight-hour meeting on Cruise's 54th birthday, July 3, 2016.
"I said, 'You want to have an eight-hour flying meeting on your birthday?'," recalls Liman. "And he said, 'Yes, because there's nothing more I want for my birthday than to be making a movie'."
The CIA's misadventures in Central America eventually reached Ronald Reagan's White House, resulting in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Liman's lawyer father, Arthur, was the subsequent US Senate inquiry's chief legal counsel. The filmmaker doesn't agree with those who believe the CIA actively sanctioned cocaine smuggling, but the era and Barry Seal's deeds nonetheless fascinated him.
"We had archival photographs of things the audience would never believe. We had a photo of Barry Seal and his wife Debbie where he's in jail in Central America and she's visiting him on his birthday and she's cutting a birthday cake with a huge machete," Liman says.
"In most films you have to exaggerate things, but with American Made we had to tone them down to make them believable."
American Made is in Kiwi cinemas from August 24.
- Sydney Morning Herald