Flying High: Doug Liman and Tom Cruise reunite for CIA caper film 'American Made'

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Director Doug Liman didn't realize at first what the script for American Made was about.

"I was just reading about this pilot and his adventures, and I was connecting to the material because I myself am a pilot," he says by phone from Montreal, where he is preparing his next film, Chaos Walking. "I was in love with the story, the characters and their world, before Oliver North made an appearance. Then I realized, holy shit, this is a precursor to Iran-Contra."

Veering from suspense to slapstick, American Made tells how commercial pilot Barry Seal smuggled drugs for the Medellín Cartel before joining the CIA and DEA as an informant—and then became the target of both politicians and assassins. Starring Tom Cruise and some astonishing aerial footage, the Universal release opens on Sept. 29.

"I loved the character of Barry Seal," Liman says about the script. "And I loved the tone of Gary Spinelli's writing. You've never seen flying portrayed like this, this kind of cowboy flying. Flying that can't happen today, because with today's technology, GPS, satellite coverage, you could never get away with what Barry Seal got away with in the ’80s. In a way it's a story about the last days of the Wild West, the last vestige of the Wild West, which was in the sky."

It's also a story with a personal connection to the director. His father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate's investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. On live TV, he interrogated North and others about the Reagan Administration's attempts to use drug money to arm and train Contra rebels to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

American Made's plot uses Seal to fill in the background to the scandal. A bored airline pilot who turns into a rogue agent, he pals around with Pablo Escobar, makes so much money that his bank has to build an additional vault, and slips out of jail with the help of people like Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

Asked about the script's accuracy, Liman says that those who know the facts will complain that the plot doesn't go far enough. "I felt an obligation to honor my father's work and not do anything that would undermine it," he adds. "My father's deputy is still alive and could confirm that some allegations in the original script weren't true. When I asked Gary to take them out, he would say, 'How do you know this didn't happen?' I'm like, 'You have no evidence and you're asking me to contradict my dead father? That's Shakespearean. You're never going to win that, you're not going to get me to put something in this movie that directly contradicts my father's work.'"

Liman notes that he dealt with Iran-Contra before, albeit obliquely. In The Bourne Identity, Chris Cooper's character is loosely based on Oliver North. Similarly, that movie's Treadstone conspiracy came from Enterprise, an actual covert operation. The difference with American Made is its humor. This movie delights in pointing out the absurdities in Seal's life, from stuffing bales of money in horse stalls to practical jokes with deadly drug dealers.

"My father would come home and laugh about some of the insane things he was uncovering," Liman recalls. "In particular the Contras, this army that couldn't shoot straight and really had no interest in fighting. But American Made is an equal-opportunity film in that it doesn't take a political stance, it just takes a step back for us to laugh at ourselves."

Seal could be Tom Cruise's best role since playing a coward in Edge of Tomorrow, another Liman project. "What I enjoyed about working with Tom on Tomorrow was his amazing sense of humor," Liman says. "I also loved his willingness to take on unpopular roles. Movie stars aren't normally like that. There's a thing that made them successful, and they usually won't stray far from that.

"But when I suggested on Tomorrow that I wanted to make him a coward, fly in the face of what people think when they think of Tom Cruise, that Mission: Impossible brand, he jumped into it. He was not hesitant at all."

Cruise bears little physical resemblance to the actual Barry Seal, but in Liman's opinion he was fearless in portraying what he calls a "totally amoral scoundrel. Not immoral but amoral. Someone who is not thinking about the moral implications of his actions. I think of him as kind of Federal Express for the underworld. If it absolutely has to be delivered overnight and it's illegal, Barry Seal is your guy."

Once Cruise agreed to the role, Liman says they focused exhaustively on building his character. The two used Cruise's own experiences growing up in the South, as well as stories told by Seal's second wife Lucy, a consultant on the project. Sarah Wright, who plays Lucy, has a Southern background herself. Her recent family reunion in Louisiana was held near a prison so they could visit her incarcerated aunt.

In Liman's opinion, what makes the relationship between Barry and Lucy so unusual is that she starts out a trophy wife, but grows into a true partner as the story progresses. "There's a scene early in the movie where you see Barry and Lucy having sex, and it's just not pretty," he notes. "[Imagine producer] Brian Grazer said to me, 'Shouldn't they kiss first?' And I was like, 'You don't understand this movie at all. This is a movie where they have sex in the first act, and they're going to kiss in the third act.' So for the rest of the movie, Brian had a kind of chip on his shoulder."

Liman describes himself as edgy and unconventional, but he is quick to note his insecurities as well. On the Edge of Tomorrow shoot, he relates an argument he had with stars Cruise and Emily Blunt and producer Erwin Stoff. "At one point Emily sort of told me to back off, she'd never made a movie like this before," Liman remembers. "And I fired back, 'Well, I've never made a movie like this before either.' And Erwin went ashen. 'You're the director of a 150-million-dollar movie,' he said. 'No one else outside this room can ever hear you say that you don't know what you're doing.'

"And Tom immediately goes, 'No, I signed up for this because I want to see Doug figure out how to make this movie. I'm in for the journey. I love that he doesn't know everything right now.' When you expose your greatest weakness and insecurity, for someone to say, that's why I love you, you just can't ask anything more from your star."

Apart from its plot and characters, American Made is distinguished by its spectacular aerial footage. In one scene, a half-dozen or so pilots, their planes filled with contraband, circle over the Gulf of Mexico to wait out DEA reconnaissance. One pilot falls asleep at his controls. Seal must fly up next to the plane and gently tap its wing to wake him.

"Getting all those planes into space over the ocean is way harder than you think," Liman says. "We would pick oil rigs, like everybody would try to fly over the green oil rig at the same time. We have a helicopter filming, we have all the different airplanes, trying to get people into formation with each other, but they would veer off, they'd suddenly lose each other, they can't find each other anymore. And once an airplane gets farther away, it's hard to see. It was really tough and time-consuming."

In one remarkable shot, taken in a cockpit from behind Cruise's shoulder, we watch as he drops from the sky and lands on a dirt airstrip in the jungle. Liman laughs about the elaborate shots he constructs, only to have editors cut them because they're too long.

"I held onto this one as long as possible," he says. "That's Tom flying, and we went all the way through the scene in one shot. Now I'm a pilot, and in a million years I would never land on that airstrip. It's too short, it's too narrow, there's this huge tree you've got to clear before you drop down, there's two trees at the far end, and he's got to land and come to a stop before he runs over the actors at the end of the runway."

Although the project hired professional pilots with 10,000 hours' experience, the director thinks Cruise was the best-trained pilot on the shoot. They shared a house with a flight simulator in the garage, and when Cruise wasn't working on his character, he was in the simulator.

"The most impressive shot of the movie is Tom landing at night," Liman says. "The idea was to shoot at dusk and use visual effects to make it look like night. The airstrip was going to be lit with a pickup truck, which is how they did it back in the day. Someone would drive out to a remote airstrip or dirt road and light it with headlights, which is not much to go on as a pilot."

Unfortunately, they were already airborne when Liman realized there was no film in his camera. They landed and loaded the camera as quickly as they could before taking off again.

"As soon as we got airborne, we realized it was actually night," he recalls. "What we were going to simulate, landing on a dirt airstrip lit by a truck, we were now actually going to do for real. We had a safety pilot with us, and he asked Tom, 'How's your night vision.' Tom's like, 'It's great.'

"Of course it is," Liman notes ruefully. "The safety pilot says okay, and Tom lands the airplane on this crazy, small dirt airstrip, again clearing trees. In the dark of night, lit only by one pickup truck. And he did it perfectly."

Since Go, Liman has been able to drive his narratives at high speed, stripping away the boring parts, zeroing in on movement, developing characters through action. Even in Edge of Tomorrow, which repeats scenes over and over, Liman found ways to goose the material so that it remained fresh.

With American Made, he distills the insanity, the duplicity and deceit of the Reagan years to a talented but rudderless pilot surrounded by greedy fools. It's a movie filled with dazzling imagery, like Seal crashing his plane into a suburban development and emerging covered with cocaine. But is also reminds viewers just how corrupt that era was.