April 19, 2019

Fairness not just a game for director

Director Doug Liman’s Manhattan home is adorned with more than a dozen photographs and even a painting of his late father, the legendary Jewish attorney Arthur Liman. While the nameplate on his doorbell reads Bourne, J. — a reference to the hero of his hit spy thriller, “The Bourne Identity” — Liman’s own identity is inextricably linked to his father’s legacy of working for the civic good. On the one hand, Arthur Liman represented corporate interests such as those of Time-Warner; on the other hand, he ran a legal foundation for the poor, took on Oliver North as lead counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings, and served as chief counsel to the New York State Special Commission on Attica Prison following the 1971 riots.

“I live under this impossible cloud of my father’s memory,” Liman, 45, said. He has even been known to describe his films “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper” as his “sellout trilogy.” 

But Liman’s new movie, “Fair Game,” based in large part on Valerie Plame’s book about her outing as a CIA operative by the George W. Bush administration, is a different story. “I feel like it’s the first movie that [demonstrates] I’ve grown into the kind of man my father always dreamed I might become, in that I found a way to merge public service and private practice,” Liman explained. “And that I showed a level of responsibility and attention to the facts that could only have happened because I followed his example.”

“Fair Game” begins in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, in the early days of the war on terror, as Plame (Naomi Watts) assumes fake identities to unearth weapons programs in the Middle East and beyond. But when her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), writes a newspaper editorial refuting Bush’s claims about nuclear weapons in Iraq, the film shows the administration retaliating by leaking to the press that Plame was a spy. She promptly loses her job, the lives of her undercover operatives are placed in grave danger, and her marriage and family life are strained to the breaking point.

“It is,” Liman said, “the film my father would have been most proud of.”

Liman was drawn to Plame’s story not only for its civic implications: “I’ve obviously been fascinated with spies and with spy craft,” he said, referring to his previous films. When his father began working with the intelligence community around the time of Iran-Contra, Liman would drive down to his offices in Washington, D.C., and try to learn everything he could about intelligence gathering, counterespionage devices, even what was placed on the windows to prevent foreign agencies from eavesdropping.

What most impressed him about Plame and her colleagues was their lack of James Bondian flamboyance. “I came to understand what must be a universal truth of covert CIA officers,” he said. “Which is that even though they go on these really extraordinarily adventurous missions to foreign countries, posing as people they’re not, they come home and it’s almost a monklike existence. Living in the world of Hollywood movies, it’s inconceivable to me for somebody to, like, stop a nuclear weapon and then not tell anybody about it.”

Doug Liman grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and then on Fifth Avenue, where his parents moved to be closer to the extended family, including Arthur Liman’s first cousin, Joan Hamburg, who was once labeled “New York Radio’s Folksy Powerhouse” in The New York Times for her commentaries on food and bargains. Liman virtually grew up in the same household as his cousin, John Hamburg, who is also a filmmaker, albeit in a very different genre: Hamburg is best-known as Ben Stiller’s in-house screenwriter and recently directed the Jason Segal/Paul Rudd bromance “I Love You, Man.”

Although well-to-do, the relatives sought to “re-create, in a way, the experience our great-grandparents had when they first came to America from Russia and Poland, where multiple generations basically lived under the same roof.”

The extended family sat together (and still sit together) in the same pew at the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue: “What I was taught about Judaism was that it wasn’t a story about God, but a story about man, in that we as human beings need to help each other,” he said. “Public service was emphasized as crucial and talked about in every aspect of our daily lives. And I’ve looked for that in every one of my films.” 

Director Doug Liman. Photo by Ken Regan

“The Bourne Identity,” for example, was meant to be “a retelling of Iran-Contra, which was one of the most egregious abuses of power by a president in our country’s history,” Liman said. “Ronald Reagan set up a secret CIA with its own Air Force and Navy and soldiers that reported only to him. Audiences didn’t get the connection, but it helped me sleep at night.”

Arthur Liman gave his son his first Super-8 camera, which had been a gift from a client, when Doug was 6. Through his father’s entertainment connections, he also met George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and had the idea to become a director.

His father strongly opposed the idea. As Doug was finishing his undergraduate studies at Brown University in the late 1980s, his brother, a Yale law school alumnus, was already clerking at the Supreme Court, and his sister was earning a doctorate in neuroscience at Harvard. “My father did everything he could do to try to dissuade me,” Liman said of his cinematic ambitions. “There were lectures on many occasions about how I was wasting my life, and how did I possibly expect to grow up and get married and pay a mortgage and do all the things that adults do, working in the movies. He was constantly threatening to cut me off.”

Even so, Arthur Liman supported his son well into his 20s and even raised the financing for his directorial debut, “Swingers,” starring Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, which eventually was sold to Miramax for $5.5 million. Just three weeks after Liman was named MTV’s Best New Filmmaker in 1997, his father — who by then had undergone at least two operations for bladder cancer — died at 64. The filmmaker is grateful his father lived long enough to learn about the sale, which set a new record for an independent film. “Suddenly, I wasn’t going to need a mortgage to buy a house,” he said.

Liman went on to establish a reputation for what he would call his “very rebel style” of filmmaking, which infuriated Universal studio executives on “The Bourne Identity” but appears to be no longer an issue since he has turned out hit after hit.

As on many of his films, Liman served as his own cinematographer. For “Fair Game,” he even donned a bulletproof vest to shoot scenes in Baghdad for 24 hours, accompanied by a security detail armed with automatic rifles as they filmed at an abandoned mosque and on bridges crossing the Tigris River. “Since we were American filmmakers, I think the assumption over there was that we were Jewish,” he said. “But I didn’t go out of my way to broadcast that.”

A real problem arose, however, when Liman cast the Persian-Israeli actress Liraz Charhi to play the heartbreaking role of Zahraa, the Iraqi expatriate Plame convinces to return to Baghdad as an undercover operative. The well-known Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy was cast as her brother, a scientist in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, but Liman said, “The Egyptians said they’d revoke all of our permits if we brought an Israeli actress to shoot in Cairo. Not only that, but if Khaled acted in a scene with her, even if it was shot in another country, they said they would make sure he never worked again.” As it turned out, Nabawy disregarded the threats, stating that he had multiple offers to work on films in other countries.

“I was very surprised because as far as I know, Israel and Egypt have peace,” Charhi recalled of the ordeal. “But in the end it didn’t really matter, because Doug moved those scenes to Amman and then I met Khaled, we had our shooting days, and everything went well.”

Now that “Fair Game” is set to open on Nov. 5, Liman is working on another film of which his father would no doubt have approved: a dramatization of the Attica prison riots. “If ‘Fair Game’ was a step into [the right] territory, ‘Attica’ literally retraces my father’s steps,” he said.

“I grew up with a photograph of him eating lunch with the prisoners one Christmas Day, and now, from going back there to do research, I have a picture of myself in that exact same cafeteria.”