"Edge of Tomorrow" director Doug Liman wanted to make a great popcorn flick -- a film that's exciting, terrifying, and funny, everything audiences want in a summer blockbuster. But for the movie to outlast the season, he knew from experience ("The Bourne Identity" series and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith") that it would need strong, relatable characters. So he relied on powerful actors Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, whose characters, Major William Cage and Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski, must count on each other to save the world from alien invasion. I chatted with Liman about making films for the long haul, working with Tom Cruise, tempering tech with humanity on film, and his favorite apps.
Without giving too much away, I found the film's conclusion particularly impressive. When you were conceptualizing the final scene, what were you hoping to convey?
In a movie that I'm proud of so many aspects, the actual final moments are what I'm most proud of, because I wasn't making a science fiction film or a film about aliens. It was really a film about if you were put in a situation and forced to repeat the same day, how would a real person deal with that, and how could two people have a relationship with that as the obstacle. I wanted to leave an audience with a sense of the possibilities of what could happen, thinking about the future. In a film that's been stuck in the same day, over and over again -- not to tell you the answer. You just point the audience looking forward. I'm proud that it's satisfying and ambiguous. And for me to tell you what's going to happen would fight the existential nature of "Edge of Tomorrow," because the future is unwritten.
What are the challenges when you're directing an actor as seasoned as Tom Cruise?
Tom Cruise comes with a lot of baggage. You can't ignore his filmography. Not only has he been a star since he was 18, but also he's been in movies that have defined their generations. No other actor has been in more movies seen by more people.
There's the expectation that he's a hero, because that's what he's consistently played. That was more of an opportunity than a challenge, 'cause I wanted to turn it upside down. Tom was as eager as me to take the brand known as Tom Cruise and turn it on its head.
Not only is [his character] not a hero, but he's a coward, and he's an awful soldier. He's such an awful soldier that he gets himself killed after a few minutes of being dropped into the front lines.
You could have cast so many other actresses opposite him. Why Emily Blunt?
I believe in very strong female characters, and the trick for me about having a strong female character is giving her a strong story. Not just casting a strong actress, but combining it with a strong story. From Emily Blunt's character's point of view, she's a war hero, is seen as a soldier who's going to lead us to victory in this massive battle, and she has a secret that nobody knows.
She has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and then she meets Tom Cruise, and he's a coward and horrendous soldier with no interest in saving the world -- just himself. And can she use him to accomplish her goal? Finding an actress who can bring the courage, the strength, the beauty, and the intelligence, and because I wanted to bring humor to the movie, I was also looking for someone who had comedy chops. So there wasn't even a discussion. It was only Emily Blunt who could do that.
Why is her character called the Full Metal Bitch?
It is a compliment. It was an homage to the novel that the movie was based on, that the soldiers called her the Full Metal Bitch. For me, I'm a very thoughtful filmmaker, who wants to make movies that are smart and thought-provoking. I wanted to preserve that element from the novel, because there's that thing that happens in society where strong females, oftentimes they're called bitches. Even though in the film they're doing it as a compliment, it's a double-edged sword, and it just makes the world feel more real for me.
What are the challenges of directing such a tech-heavy film?
I wanted to make a futuristic war movie, not a science fiction movie. When you think of the great war movies, they're all grounded. They're about human beings acting heroically under pressure; they feel honest, and those were all the things I wanted to get across in this movie. But it's set slightly in the future, and when humans go to war, military tech advances exponentially. "Edge of Tomorrow" takes the position that if the aliens attack tomorrow, there's not going to be an iPhone 6 released, because the people at Apple will be focusing on building tech for fighting aliens. That's the world in which it takes place, and that's why you have that combination of things that feel very familiar and things that don't exist today. The tech in the film is extremely grounded. But you get a sense of how much technology can advance when the best minds on the planet are focusing on it for one effort.
With so many forgettable blockbuster films released each summer, how do you plan to keep this film in the public's mind for years to come?
I believe that it's about having strong characters, which is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind in blockbusters. They're about capturing the flash of the moment, and they don't stay much longer, 'cause if they did, you might realize that they're an empty piece of candy.
I'm interested in movies that have staying power. "The Bourne Identity" was released 12 years ago, and people are still watching it. I imagine that most of the movies coming out this summer won't be. "Edge of Tomorrow" is modeled on movies from the '50s that we still watch to this day and that are as relevant as ever because they have strong characters and are honest. We can get sucked into the theater by special effects, but the movies that we remember are the movies where we loved those characters. "Edge of Tomorrow" has strong characters, 'cause I had strong partners in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. We toiled every day on the character development of the movie on top of the spectacle of making a summer blockbuster.
Since you directed "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," I'm curious what was it like on set with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, while rumors swirled about their affair?
The interesting thing about "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is that you don't have to imagine what my life was like, because I filmed that. The first scene of the movie, where Brad and Angie were in the shrink's office, was shot on the first day of production. They basically had just met, because we didn't have time to rehearse, so I wanted to take advantage of the awkwardness that comes from the first day of shooting and capture it and put it onscreen. There are no cuts in that scene, so that was what they were like five minutes after they met each other. Then you can look at the scene of them in the shrink's office, which I shot on the last day of production, and you can see what they were like then, after being through this adventure together. So I have recorded for all posterity that dynamic.
How would you describe these dynamics?
It's awkward, because you're strangers -- this is them as strangers. And at the end, there was a huge amount of affection, the kind of affection where you sort of rib the other one, where you're so close that you're willing to tease the other person.
What are your top five mobile apps?
1. Duolingo, because I'm learning Spanish.
2. Waze, because I like to get where I'm going fast.
3. Yelp, because I like eating.
4. ForeFlight, because I'm a pilot.
5. iAnnotate, because I read scripts and I get to angrily mark them up.