Exclusive Interview: Director Doug Liman Talks 'Fair Game'!

Thursday, 04 November 2010 11:17 Written by  JimmyO
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Exclusive Interview: Director Doug Liman Talks 'Fair Game'!

Doug Liman loves spies. Not the over-the-top adventure that Hollywood generally creates however. He appreciates the simple choices that can be massive to someone working for the CIA. And along came a script about Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who was outed back in 2003 which in turn ended her career with the agency.

Liman has brought Plame’s story to the big screen with Fair Game. Naomi Watts stars as Valerie and Sean Penn stars as her husband, Joe Wilson. This is a captivating story that Liman has successfully made into a thought-provoking feature film. The performances are top-notch and the story is absolutely riveting.

Doug has thus far had a fascinating career including The Bourne Identity, Swingers, Go and many more. He is even bringing his vision to the small screen with “Covert Affairs”. And with the Valerie Plame story, Fair Game opening this Friday, he can add another terrific feature to his list.

iamROGUE.com recently had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Liman about his latest and the politics behind it. Doug is a smart and fascinating filmmaker. He is also a terrific interview! So if you are looking for something a little different this weekend at the box office, make sure you check out Fair Game at a theatre near you!

How aware of this true life story were you when it was happening?

You know, just averagely. Just to give you a sense of it, I didn’t develop this movie, it was brought to me. So it wasn’t something that was consuming me. I, like most Americans, watched the news and read about it and moved on with my life.

What made you want to take this story on?

Valerie Plame… I thought seeing the real life version of being a spy… like the REAL real life. I thought I was sort of doing the real life a little bit with Jason Bourne, but this is… like the more honest you are in the portrayal of spies, the more interesting they get. For me, Jason Bourne is more interesting than James Bond, and Valerie Plame was more interesting than Jason Bourne. So that was kind of a hook there. I’m on page five and pretty much decided I was going to do this movie when I was reading the screenplay. Then I get to meet Joe Wilson, her husband, and I’m like, you can’t make this shit up!

It’s like you’ve got this spy who, by definition, leads a very private life. She is married to a former ambassador who, by definition is outspoken and larger than life, how did that marriage work. Then you start to look at the nuts and bolts details of what it’s like to be married to a spy, and have two small kids. The intersection of spy craft and domesticity is endlessly fascinating to me. The things that the rest of us might take for granted, like do you need to hire a nanny or not. For them, she’s going on a business trip and she can’t tell her husband where she is going or when she is coming back and he is just trying to figure out if he needs to hire a nanny the next day or not.

The more we got into the story, the more and more interesting these characters were to me. I was already hooked. Like, I haven’t mentioned the White House or politics once. The only reason we even know this story is because the Bush White House outed her. Because she was a NOC, non-official cover, those are the James Bonds of the CIA; those people never speak to the press… ever. They take their secrets to the grave. And as far as I know, she is the only NOC to ever have been exposed and thus made themselves available to have their story told.

For the role of Valerie, you really couldn’t have picked a better actress.

I didn’t have a plan B. I was working with the writers Jez Butterworth and his brother, John-Henry Butterworth. And we were talking about whether I was going to make “Fair Game” or make a different movie and I said, ‘Well, honestly, I can only see making this film with Naomi Watts. There is no plan B. I guess if Naomi is interested, then we go make the movie right now.’ And she just gave birth, would she really make another movie first? So Jez Butterworth got on the phone and called Naomi because he knew her. The next day, Naomi had already read it and I was meeting with her.

My first choice for Joe was Sean Penn. Only twice in my career have I got my first choice actors.

What was the first time?

Swingers. And in that case, they were all out of work so what else were they gonna be doing?


This case, Sean Penn was in the process of winning the Academy Award for best actor. And here I am going to try and convince him to do a low-budget, independent movie.

How did you convince him? Was it the script?

The script. It’s just the script.

There is a strong influence on character which is often lacking in a “spy thriller” here

For sure! I happen to be interested in people. As much as I love spy craft, I love spies more. I love the psychology of it and I got to meet with about a dozen spies and former spies to do research for this movie. As much as I was captivated by their stories of foreign operations and people dying in all sorts of insane ways, I was most captivated by just the simple things of what happens when a pipe bursts [at home] and you are abroad under an alias. Or what happens when your friends call up and want to have lunch?

You work in Virginia… Langley, but they think you work somewhere else. And they are like, ‘We’re in the neighborhood.’ There is an endless amount of things that we take for granted. If you are a spy, they will never be taken for granted again.

What’s incredible is this goes on on a daily basis. Just in the amount of time we’ve been on the phone, there have probably been a number of spies who have lied to their spouse about what they are doing. Or lied to a best friend about what it is they’re doing.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that.

You know, this film is really a celebration about the people who go to work every day at the CIA, in the shadows, whose names we will never know. The contributions to our safety we will never know. Who will probably never get any public recognition… and in the case of Valerie Plame (who was a NOC). They are the most super-secret of the spies and the CIA. Millions of dollars are spent to craft their identities. And the NOC’s have no visible ties to the U.S. Government.

In Valerie’s case, she worked for a company called Brewster Jennings. She was put through fitness school by the CIA and she was posted abroad as an employee of Brewster Jennings. She really worked for the CIA but there was no paper trailer between her and the CIA. And she was making – some years she was making a half a million dollars as part of her cover and every cent of it went back to the US Government. And separately she would get her check for a hundred, some odd, thousand dollars government salary. So here is a woman who could be making five times what she is making, and she is trading all of that to server her country.

So this film is a celebration of her and all the other Valerie Plames’ that are still working in the field, whose covers were not blown by the White House.

Did you work with her through this process?

Oh, from beginning until the end. And Joe Wilson by the way…

And they were supportive from day one?

Yeah, they made the decision that this was going to be the outlet which they allow their story to be told. They did not have control over it. I made that clear from the beginning that maybe there were going to be details which might be less then flattering and those are going to be in the movie as well.

You worked from both of their books correct?

Yeah, but it was mostly research.

How much do you feel that you had to change to make it work as a feature film?

We compressed certain things, we compressed the amount of time between certain events, and we never changed the order in which things happened. In some cases we skipped intermediate steps like, her name ultimately appeared in the newspaper because of a leak by Richard Armitage, but Armitaage got her name from Scooter Libby. So rather than do the detour, and do a whole Richard Armitage sub-plot, since the source directly linked him to Scooter Libby, we just left Armitage out of the movie. There were others… to me Armitage was a sideshow. Judith Miller was a sideshow.

There were all sorts of… the actual investigation, criminal investigation was a sideshow. I basically just decided to stick to the main ring and leave most of the sideshows out. So some people will look at the film and say, ‘…well, where’s this person?’ or ‘…where’s that person’, but they are sideshows.

What is next for you after this?

Well I’m working pretty hard in television for this exact second because we are working on the second season of “Covert Affairs”. Obviously I love spies. We are going to be doing another, even longer season of it. And I just directed a TV pilot for MTV and I’m producing a pilot for USA Network that started shooting this week, just this past Tuesday. And then, for film I have a couple of very big studio films, one of which is very likely to start filming the beginning of the year.

And then I am developing a film about the Attica Prison uprising. My father ran the investigation into the Attica Prison uprising and the movie will be based on his report. So it’s sort of a return to politics for me again. And it’s a return to filmmaking that, you know, is in a way a tribute to my father. Because the last time a White House abused its power to the extent the Bush White House abused its power was Ronald Reagan and Iran Contra. So there is obviously a strong emotional connection for me between Fair Game and the work my father did.

Check out the video below and hear Doug Liman tell you why he is a film school dropout!

To see more videos with Doug Liman, watch the Rogue Spotlight.

The Rogue Spotlight is an original iamROGUE web series dedicated to profiling influential filmmakers, musicians, and artists in the Rogue Community. Check it out, just click here.

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