Always Tomorrow: Tom Cruise must fight, die and repeat in Doug Liman’s sci-fi actioner

By his own admission, Doug Liman has overseen some difficult productions during the course of his two-decade-and-counting directorial career. His 2010 dramatization of the Valerie Plame case, Fair Game, for example, encountered a predictable storm of political controversy prior to its release, while more gossipy tongues wagged throughout the shooting of his 2005 action hit Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which memorably partnered Angelina Jolie with Brad Pitt on (and later off) screen. And then there are the infamous accounts about his battles with Universal over the final cut of 2002's The Bourne Identity, which survived its turbulent creation and spawned an ongoing franchise, though Liman was pointedly not invited back to helm any of the sequels. "You can look in the archives of The Wall Street Journal and find stories about Matt Damon and I taking on Universal," Liman says now of his Bourne experience. "There's a little cartoon of Matt and I with a TNT plunger and a copy of the script sitting on top of a [stack of] dynamite, while a studio executive is pulling his hair out."

Since it almost wouldn't be a Doug Liman film without reports of behind-the-scenes turbulence, the director is candid about some of the off-screen dramas that occurred in the preliminary stages of his latest feature, the near-future science-fiction spectacle Edge of Tomorrow, which stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as a pair of heavily armed grunts battling a race of hostile aliens. First off, Liman threw out the existing script soon after coming aboard the project, feeling that, as good as it was, it wasn't the movie he wanted to make. "It's not the first time I've been in that situation," he insists. "Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a great script, but it wasn't the movie I wanted to make either. And with The Bourne Identity, the stories are legendary about how much I didn't want to make that script even though it was a script that I had developed."

But a bigger crisis point in the young life of Edge of Tomorrow was still to come. "Early on in the process, we were having a script meeting and there was the pressure of a start date, but the script wasn't anywhere near ready," Liman recalls. "We were really stressed out and it was at that exact stage during The Bourne Identity where my first producer was walking around the room screaming, 'We're fucked, we're fucked, we're fucked!' and then quit. That's the kind of tension and pressure a production gets put under when the script is in flux very close to the start date.

"So we're having a tense script meeting," he continues, "and I snapped at Emily about something because I am human and the pressure sometimes gets to me. And Emily said, 'It was just a suggestion—I've never made a film like this before.' And I turned right back to her and said, 'Well, I've never made a film like this before either.' And there was this pause, because the director had basically told his stars, 'I have no idea what I'm doing.' And then Tom said, 'Yes, that's exactly why I wanted to make this movie. I wanted to see what kind of movie you'd come up with never having done this. I want to go on that journey with you as you figure out how to make this movie.' There are not that many movie stars who would have that attitude; if I said that to Angie Jolie, she would have cut my head off!"

Not only did Cruise's words defuse the tension of the situation, they also marked a new beginning for the Warner Bros. project. "I really can't stress enough what an amazingly collaborative environment was fostered from that moment on and what a godsend that was for a filmmaker setting out to make an ambitious movie in an arena he's never tried. This was by far the hardest movie I've ever worked on and I've worked on some very hard movies. But the weight of the movie wasn't just on my shoulders—it was on all of our shoulders. I love World War II movies and I looked to those films as inspiration when I started this one. And in those stories, you went out with a platoon, you didn’t go out alone; you fought and triumphed as a team. Ultimately, the same values that I respect so much in the stories of World War II, I experienced first-hand on the set of Edge of Tomorrow."

Beyond being a personal inspiration for Liman, World War II serves as a clear narrative and aesthetic inspiration for Edge of Tomorrow, from the unambiguous division between the heroes and villains (in short, the humans are the Allies to the aliens' Axis) to the central battle sequence, an elaborate restaging of the 1944 Normandy invasion with more advanced technology and deadlier obstacles. (It's no accident that Edge of Tomorrow is opening on June 6, exactly 70 years to the day after what's arguably the 20th century's most famous battle.) The overt D-Day references originated entirely with the director, who says that earlier drafts of the screenplay, which is based on Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 novel All You Need is Kill, avoided specifying a location.

"It was one of the very first things I did, to give the film a sense of place and time. Normandy was sort of the obvious choice, so I started with that, thinking that I'd come up with something else. But I couldn't top it! Every other version I thought of wasn't as rich. Obviously, the initial conversation with the studio was that it should really be set in America, because an American audience will [supposedly] only care about an American city being invaded. I'm kind of a contrarian, so when I hear an ideology like that, my very first thought is 'Maybe they're wrong.' Or maybe they're right, but I can still make it an international city and make the audience care. The decision to set the film in Europe was a multi-part one; first, it was my attraction to World War II and wanting to set the movie in a future world that was evocative of that time; then I wanted to see if I could do something unconventional in a big Hollywood movie, which was having it be about saving a non-American city; and then finally I thought it would be a fun world within which to cast and create characters. So the dividends of that choice were awesome."

Of course, the stalwart cinematic soldiers who fought their way through World War II movies never confronted the peculiar wrinkle that Tom Cruise's Bill Cage faces in Edge of Tomorrow. The military's go-to media spokesman who has spent his career actively avoiding combat, Cage is forcibly enlisted in D-Day 2.0 after cravenly defying direct orders from a commanding officer. Tossed in boot camp, he's immediately marked as cannon fodder thanks to his lack of battle experience. Sure enough, he perishes almost immediately after his boots touch the beach, only to wake up the day prior to the invasion and relive the whole experience again…and again…and again. It turns out that he's somehow been caught in a time loop, a hellish predicament that nevertheless might just hold the key to his—and humanity's—survival. Aiding him in his seemingly impossible mission to defeat the alien menace is battle-hardened super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who fights under the nom-de-war "Full Metal Bitch" and has special reason to believe Cage's time-loop story, even as everyone else dismisses them as the ramblings of a crazed coward.

Obviously, it's impossible to hear the words "time loop" and not immediately flash to Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis' beloved 1993 comic masterpiece. And the device does pave the way for lots of intentional humor in Edge of Tomorrow as well; in fact, this may rank as one of the funniest movies Liman has made, even amidst all the sci-fi firepower and looming threat of an alien apocalypse. Much of the comedy extends from the editing choices—with Liman and his editor James Herbert consistently finding clever ways to start and end Cage's multiple trips through the same day—as well as Cruise's egoless commitment to his character's initial cowardice, making this something of a knowing send-up of his ’80s Top Gun screen image.

"Tom and I both have a very good sense of humor," Liman says. "We believe that the more dire the situation, the more you need humor, both in life and in movies. The collaboration I had with Tom started almost a year before he began shooting and extended pretty much a year after we finished, and it was really about building a great character and a great character journey for Cage. You'd think that with the amount of movies Tom's been in, there wouldn't be a role he hasn't done, but we found something he's good at. You wouldn't have thought that Tom Cruise would be such a great coward from his body of work!"

But where Groundhog Day explores Bill Murray's plight with a consistently light touch, Liman knew he wanted to keep raising the dramatic and emotional stakes for his time-looping hero. "Simply by virtue of the fact that the day repeats, this story flies in the face of the basic tenets of [Hollywood] moviemaking, which is that the main character must not die. If they're at the risk of dying, you have instant stakes. So how do you create stakes when your character is immortal the way Tom Cruise's character is? I wanted to get into the mindset of what would it be like to go through living this way for a year or more, going far enough that you thought you might spend an eternity doing it. From the beginning I knew I wanted to play with aggressive jump-cutting, jumping in and out in the middle of a day, as opposed to Groundhog Day, which starts [almost] every day with the same scene of him waking up with the alarm clock. I also wanted to play with the concept of what's a jump-cut that the audience experiences versus a jump-cut that Tom's character experiences. Intellectually, that was interesting for me and it was also unbelievably entertaining, as it allows us to have a film that repeats the same day and yet still feels like it's purposively moving forward."

And, by the way, Liman is leaving it up to the Internet to "solve" the number of times that Cruise relives his version of D-Day, in the same way that blogger Wolf Gnards eventually cracked the total amount of Groundhog Days that Phil Connors suffers through in Puxnsutawney, PA—3,176 days for the record. "I told Tom that he's been reliving this day from a year to three years in order to get that specificity of performance. But someone on the Internet is likely to come up with a metric I didn't think of and calculate exactly how long it would take to get as far as he gets."

As close a bond as he formed with Cruise during the making of Edge of Tomorrow (Liman heralds their working relationship as "the most incredible collaboration I've ever had between movie star and director"), he's equally effusive in his praise for Blunt, whose character is written and performed to be an equal to—and even superior of—Cruise's Cage. "I'm sure you're acutely aware of the lack of great female roles in tentpole Hollywood movies and it's not that the actresses aren't great. It's that the parts aren't great, because they're usually afterthoughts. I'm attracted to strong women and strong female parts, and you get those parts by thinking about the movie from their point of view. With The Bourne Identity, I pitched it saying, 'A lot of people will tell you, “Wouldn't it be cool to be Jason Bourne?” But I want to make a movie where the point is, what would it be like to date Jason Bourne?' The moment you have a filmmaker thinking in those terms, you have a legitimate two-hander of a movie with a great role for Franka Potente and a great role for Matt Damon.

"If you look at Edge of Tomorrow from Rita's perspective," Liman continues, "it's a movie about a heroine who is expected to lead humanity to victory the way she has in the past. But she has a secret—she can no longer deliver the victory humanity is counting on from her. And then she meets Tom Cruise and this unlikely coward has the ability; if she can train him, maybe together they can accomplish what the world was expecting her to accomplish. That's a great movie on its own! You can cast Emily Blunt and some unknown guy and you'd have a great movie. So you have Tom's story and Emily's story and they're both really strong stories—you get two movies for the price of one."

Those two movies meet in the middle, so to speak, in the film's quietest but most resonant scene: an extended sequence in a farmhouse in the French countryside that starts from one character's point-of-view, but then shifts midway through to reveal a wholly different perspective. That scene also happens to be the very same scene Liman started with when he jettisoned the original screenplay and began building the movie over again from scratch with Cruise's input. "All we had was that scene," he reveals. "And we built the whole movie out from that scene. You can look at a hundred drafts of the script—the only thing that's consistent is that scene. It was the reason to make the movie; I thought, 'Let's build a movie around that.'"

Although Liman managed to steer Edge of Tomorrow through its rough beginnings thanks to the camaraderie of his stars, the director says that it was never an easy movie to make, routinely demanding seven-day work weeks and pressure-cooker situations on-set and in the editing room. But even through the exhaustion, he sounds exhilarated by the process of watching what he describes as "the biggest counterprogramming movie of the summer" come together. "My goal for the movie was always to make a movie that my mother could understand; I wanted humor, humanity, stakes and the complexity of a movie that has time travel without bogging the audience down in rules. The thing I feel most proud of is that it features my best performances since Swingers and we accomplished them in environments where the entire set might have been green-screened, but they're still intimate and emotionally honest. Trying to accomplish that on a giant visual-effects movie was by far the biggest challenge of my career and may go down as the biggest challenge I ever undertake. I'm about to make my next movie, Everest, right after this and I'm actually looking forward to shooting at 28,500 feet, which is the highest point we know that [Everest pioneer and subject of the film] George Mallory got to. It sounds like a nice break from Edge of Tomorrow!"