Doug Liman seems to be one of the hottest directors in the game at the moment, with his name attached to numerous big projects like Justice League Dark and Chaos Walking (starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland). The filmmaker, who delivered beloved comedy Swingers in just his second try at the helm, most recently proved to fans that he can direct a great sci-fi outing, too, with Edge of Tomorrow aka Live Die Repeat, and thankfully, he’s back in the director’s chair for the sequel.
Liman’s latest is The Wall, which features Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena as American soldiers under attack by a legendary Iraqi sniper by the name of Juba, the Angel of Death. The film is a tense exercise in psychological and physical torment on the battlefield as a cat and mouse game is played out in the extreme heat of the desert.
While doing press in New York City to promote the flick, we sat down with the director to chat about the chemistry between his two leads, how Hollywood often gets war wrong, the upcoming Live Die Repeat and Repeat, why he departed Gambit, and lots more.
Check it out below and enjoy!
So you get this Black List script, The Wall. What’s your first reaction after reading it?
Doug Liman: I mean, the first reaction off reading it was I couldn’t put it down. It was a riveting page turner. My main sort of criteria or criticism of so many scripts I read is that I don’t care or I’m not rooted. Dwain Worrell’s script didn’t suffer from either of those. I immediately cared about these guys and I was immediately rooting for them to survive. You never gave up rooting even as the likelihood of survival became bleaker and bleaker. That’s what drew me in. I cared about these guys.
Were you at all aware of the “Angel of Death” sniper beforehand?
Doug Liman: I was not. I was in Baghdad during the war shooting Fair Game. I had been around the war but I did not specifically know about this Angel of Death.
You have two actors who are in completely different stages of their careers. Aaron is pretty accomplished at his young age and coming off a career best performance in Nocturnal Animals and then you have wrestling star John Cena who has just recently begun to make a name for himself in small comedic roles. Can you talk about the inspired casting of this film?
Doug Liman: Well, thank you for saying that. The challenge for me in casting the movie is that in Isaac, I needed a young soldier and an actor who could hold a movie. You know, the way Tom Hanks holds Castaway. But when he was doing Castaway, Tom Hanks had many, many films under his belt. He was a seasoned older actor. I was looking for somebody who mimicked the age of the actual soldiers we send into combat. So once you combine meeting those two qualities, the pool was sort of the size of a kiddy pool that maybe fit one person, which was Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Then opposite Aaron, I wanted to cast somebody whose very presence told you everything was going to be okay. That’s the kind of star quality and screen presence I’ve seen John Cena display in Trainwreck – even though it’s a comedy. It was exciting to show the world John Cena in a more serious role. I had done the exact opposite in Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Angie had done very serious roles and I showed her to the world in a comedy for the first time.
When I saw the trailer for The Wall and John Cena popped up in there I was immediately interested, so I think it was really smart and it worked.
Doug Liman: And the two of them together have great chemistry. That’s the thing about a buddy film is that it’s like casting a love story. Swingers works because of the chemistry between Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. If they didn’t have chemistry, I don’t care how good the directing is or how good the acting is. The movie is just not going to work. Same with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, if Brad and Angie don’t have chemistry the movie is not going to work. If Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena don’t have chemistry together, there’s nothing I can do. The movie’s not going to work. That’s the magic of casting. When you get it right and you get the right two people, it’s great. I wish there were more scenes with the two of them because they’re so much fun to watch together.
What makes the sniper so much more terrifying is that he’s an unseen antagonist. How did you set out to sort of take advantage of that in the film?
Doug Liman: Snipers ARE terrifying. They’re terrifying specifically because they are unseen. They’re terrifying because bullets travel faster than the speed of sound so you’re dead before the sound of the gunfire gets to you. You’re dead before you even have the chance to hear that somebody fired. So that’s just a terrifying idea.
I love when you see Isaac calculating that. He’s drawing into the sand, trying to figure out the distance of the sniper by calculating the sound of the sniper fire to contact. It’s super fascinating.
Doug Liman: And real. That’s part of what makes The Wall work as a movie. It’s the culmination of a career of making movies where I’ve drilled down on details because there’s good drama in the details. The Wall is all about those details. The kind of simpler the movie is the more you get to make smaller things exciting.
I also gravitated towards how contained the film is. I place it alongside others like Buried with Ryan Reynolds, Castaway like you mentioned or Locke with Tom Hardy where you have one actor in an incredibly tense situation, in survival mode, and you just watch them for 90 minutes. As long as the stakes are there, it’s really all you need.
Doug Liman: Yeah. I mean, those films with the exception of Castaway, are very acutely aware of it being one actor and my goal was to make something that felt like a slightly bigger world but still put you in the shoes of somebody facing impossible odds.
The psychological warfare is actually the main battleground of the film, which also allowed it to be smaller. It was a mind game as opposed to a grand, epic in scale war game.
Doug Liman: And there are a lot of mind games to war games and there’s a lot of intellect and math in war. A lot of Hollywood is people randomly firing with machine guns. In the military, you would never put your machine gun on automatic fire. Ever. You wouldn’t know that watching movies. But it’s too imprecise, they’d never do that. Every bullet counts.
You watch Hollywood movies and so many times they’re like Rambo indiscriminately firing. The reality is the people in the military are really well trained, very precise, very restrained and they make every bullet count. Resources are critical on a battlefield and a key component of The Wall was showing that aspect.
Like Nick Irving, who was our on-set technical consultant and a sniper who goes by the name of The Reaper because of how many people he’s killed. I’m pretty good at math and while I’ve got pictures on my phone of the animals on my farm, he’s got pictures on his phone of the all the people he’s killed. At the same time, when he’s trying to show us the math of how you’d compute how far away the sniper is based on the crack and the bang of the bullet, I’m really good at math and I had trouble keeping up.