Doug Liman has had a diverse career – he’s directed critically acclaimed features that include The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith and Swinger; on the small screen he directed several pilots and produced series such as The OC. He’s directed cutting edge commercials for Levi’s, PlayStation and Nike, and campaign films for Howard Dean in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. He also traveled to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2009 earthquake to shoot footage for Quincy Jones We Are the World music video.
His new movie Fair Game tells the story of Valerie Plame, a covert officer in the CIA’s counter-proliferation department, who discovers that Iraq has no active nuclear weapons program, contrary to the belief of many in the U.S. government. When her covert identity is exposed through a press leak, her career is destroyed and marriage to Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) is pushed to the breaking point.
What interested you in this project?
Jez and John Henry Butterworth had done some work for me on Mr & Mrs Smith. It’s no exaggeration to say that they are my favorite screenwriters. I had approached them probably a half dozen times to write something for me, and they had turned me down each time. When (producers) Janet and Jerry (Zucker) brought me this script, I dropped everything.
This was the real Mr & Mrs Smith. What set the story apart was that it was essentially about a marriage, not a lecture on politics. It is a story that would be relevant a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now. Bill Pohlad, one of the producers, said that Fair Game was about a war, but not the war in Iraq. It was about the war in the Wilson household. That was the story I wanted to film.
My attraction has always been for characters, not action or politics. Here were two extraordinary human beings with a terrifically exciting story to tell. Having been ‘outed’ was a desperate situation for Valerie Plame Wilson and her family, and it could have destroyed them. I wanted to find a silver lining for the innocent people involved.
How important was it to stay true to exactly the facts as we know them? Were you worried about anyone in the opposition, particularly Karl Rove, suing you?
It was really important for me to stay true to the facts as they were publicly known through court testimony, because that was enough, there was no reason to go beyond that and go into conjecture. I have my own personal opinions about other people who might have been involved in this that are not really mentioned in the movie, but we stuck to the people who were either convicted of crimes, or where there was a Justice Department investigation and people identified by that investigation.
That really didn’t come from a fear of being sued because probably the best publicity this movie could get is for Karl Rove to sue us, and he’s a pretty good strategist, he probably knows that, so it came more from the fact that there was enough information in the public record and there was no reason to exaggerate it.
What did you learn from Valerie that you didn’t know before?
(CIA Operatives) do heroic things but they’re incredibly private people and they’re content with a life where they may be saving lives and saving countries and they’ll never brag about it, ever, it’s almost like a monk-like existence.
I’m used to creating characters that are very effusive. I haven’t had a character like this since Jason Bourne, and it was really important for me to find an actress who could bring you in so you could follow her on the journey, while still keeping up that sort of façade that Valerie Plame in real life had no choice but to put around herself.
What was it about Naomi that made her right for the role?
From out first meeting, Naomi showed unwavering commitment to the film. She became my partner every inch of the way, rolling up her sleeves, and working long, long days in difficult condition. We shot in five different countries under conditions that a star of her stature would never normally endure. And through all of this, she was able to deliver what may e the finest performance I have ever recorded on film
If these were characters in Hollywood there would be a lot more crying, but given what kind of person this is, Naomi had to bring us along on that journey without resorting to some of the tricks that I’ve used in my other films.
Naomi was my first choice to play Valerie Plame. In fact, I’ve only had two films in my career where I’ve gotten my first choice of actors, one of them was Swingers and that’s because my first choice of actors were all out of work, they had no other options. Sean Penn was my first choice for this. I asked Naomi if she had kept up with Sean, and I said, ‘Would you send the screenplay to him?’ Which she did, and a week later I was meeting in L.A. with Sean. So the whole movie came together.
Can you talk about shooting in Iraq?
We were the first American film company ever to shoot a non-documentary feature in Baghdad. It was nerve-wracking, but working in such a volatile, turbulent location was essential to the nature of the film.
What are you hoping the audience gets out of this movie?
A feeling of hope; I want the audience to love and respect Valerie and Joe as much as I do.