Doug Liman Partners With ACLU, PEN
Filmmaker Doug Liman launched his career with ‘90s indie films “Swingers” and “Go,” but in the past decade, he graduated to producing TV shows “The O.C.” and “Covert Affairs” and directing big budget, action films like “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and last year’s political thriller “Fair Game” based on the true story of former C.I.A operations official Valerie Plame. After working with the ACLU on the film, he partnered with them and PEN American Center to film a documentary on their Reckoning with Torture project which enlists authors and military officials to perform staged readings of the Bush administration’s declassified post-9/11 U.S torture documents. The first of many proposed readings across the country commences at Sundance Film Festival on Saturday where Liman will film the event and embark on a new phase of his already diverse career. Speakeasy caught up with Liman at Sundance before the reading.
Tell me how you got involved with Reckoning with Torture.
When I was promoting Fair Game this fall — it’s my first serious movie — I started to interact with a different set of people than say the kinds of people I was interacting with when I was promoting The Bourne identity. One of the groups that I suddenly found myself working with was the ACLU. In addition to talking about Fair Game, suddenly they started telling me about the work they were doing to uncover the various torture documents that they’d been able to declassify from the Bush administration and their efforts to sort of get that out to the world, particularly to Americans. I became very captivated with the work they’re doing. They told me they were thinking about putting together an event at Sundance and I was eager to get involved.
Is this going to be your own entity or is it a group project?
It’s very much ACLU’s. They didn’t hand it to me and say “go run with it.” There’s a very specific agenda. This is part of a much bigger plan. I’m one little cog in a giant machine, but I’m doing everything I can to make my little piece of it be as extraordinary as possible.
What other cities do you plan to stage the events in?
They and I, sometimes together, sometimes not, will be doing this all over the country. Also, we are filming it and ultimately we’ll pull something together that can go even wider than whatever would be possible with readings. We’re trying to create a format that can be replicable for high schools to do, for colleges to do, for community theaters to put on. I hate to call it entertainment, but it is shockingly interesting to be given a look behind the closed doors of what was happening during these interrogations. These are highly classified documents that the ACLU was able to declassify, and in the same way people are fascinated by WikiLeaks, which was done illegally, this is legal but even more compelling. This is the kind of information that we as U.S citizens normally are shielded from. I hate to say it’s compelling and interesting and in a way entertaining because it’s horrifying, but it is riveting.
Are the documents just on Guantanamo Bay?
Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay. What’s amazing about it is that it’s as objective as you could possibly be. We’re not editorializing. We’re literally reading the actual declassified documents. If there’s any editing happening, it’s because the U.S government, when they declassified it, redacted certain sections, so we obviously have to skip over the parts that have been redacted. It is just a raw look in the way that WikiLeaks gives you an unfiltered uncensored raw intelligence. This is a really special look behind those closed doors.
Do you think you’ll like making documentaries so much that you’ll give up making action movies?
At the end of the day, I’m a commercial filmmaker. Even when I made “Fair Game,” I made it into a very compelling, “entertaining” movie. It’s upsetting because it’s a true story, but I’m interested in making compelling entertainment. I’m still going to be making big commercial action movies because I just happen to love that, but I grew up with a father (Arthur Liman) who worked in private practice and was one of the top litigators in this country but he would also take away from that and do work for the good of this country running the Iran-Contra investigations, running the investigation into the Attica prison uprising. He’d take pro bono cases, many of which you’d never heard of. I’m excited by trying to find my own version of that balance of 75 percent big commercial movies and 25 percent for the good of country.
What’s your opinion of Obama not closing Guantanamo Bay?
I am upset that the state secrets doctrine that was employed by Bush seems to be employed just as frequently by Obama. I always said when I made “Fair Game” I would’ve made that movie whether it was done by the Bush administration or done by the Obama administration. I’m really passionate about Obama. I think he’s so smart, and therefore I’m very hopeful, but I am a little bit dismayed when I read in the paper that he’s continuing some of the practices that he campaigned against. Obama’s always surprised me that he really knows what he’s doing. I’m cautiously optimistic and at the same time worried.
Is there anything Americans can do to change the situation?
People need to speak out. Politicians listen to the loudest voices. People are always complaining, “oh, these Lobbyists are influencing the politicians.” Well, of course they are, because the politicians are just listening to the voices. If more people took to the streets and protested for gun control, politicians would vote for it. But instead when they get 100 emails against gun control and two emails for gun control, it is a representative government. They’re not going to go out on a limb for gun control. I think people should speak out.
Do you think people should fight back like they’re doing in other countries right now?
I just wish people understood more that it’s our government and they actually do listen to us and that it actually does work. And throughout our history when people have spoken out, policies have changed and if we could get back to understanding that.
You started out making small budget films, so was it always your plan to make bigger budget films or did it just work out that way?
It was always my plan to make big budget action movies. In fact, the irony is that it was my dream to make a James Bond film ever since I was a little kid. I was never going to be hired to direct a James Bond film early in my career. I ultimately created the Jason Bourne franchise and directed “The Bourne Identity”. And suddenly the Bond franchise started imitating my franchise. It’s a weird thing when you’re aspiring to do the other and the other is suddenly following you.
What’s it like coming back to your indie roots at Sundance?
I definitely have nostalgia for Sundance because I came here with “Go.” I knew when I made “Go” that I was going to grow up after that movie. That was the last one I could make where I was going to be challenging the system in a very youthful way.
On IMDB it says you’re directing a show called “I Just Want My Pants Back.” What’s that about?
It starts on MTV in September. It brings me back to my “Swingers” roots. This time it’s set in New York, a group of twentysomething-year-olds. People don’t need to worry—there’s no child pornography in this one.