With ‘The Wall,’ Li­man gets down in the trenches

The mas­ter of moving parts be­hind the ‘Bourne’ se­ries re­turns — with a gritty, low-bud­get Iraq War film that’s long on di­a­logue

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN Q&A michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com

There are many odd things about Doug Li­man’s lat­est film, in­clud­ing the char­ac­ter of an Iraqi sniper who re­cites Edgar Allan Poe. But the odd­est thing may be that it’s a Doug Li­man film.

Af­ter his break­out 1996 movie, “Swingers,” the cult classic com­e­dyof-dat­ing-man­ners, the film­maker steadily built his rep­u­ta­tion as a maker of ac­tion movies with lots of moving parts, be­gin­ning with the 2002 spy thriller “The Bourne Iden­tity” and end­ing with the Tom Cruise ve­hi­cle “Live Die Re­peat (Edge of To­mor­row).” A se­quel to that 2014 sci-fi block­buster, which cen­tered on time travel and an alien in­va­sion, is in the works.

So it’s more than a lit­tle sur­pris­ing to see Li­man’s name on the cred­its for “The Wall,” a gritty, low­bud­get war movie fea­tur­ing lim­ited vi­o­lence, more talk­ing than ac­tion and a mere three char­ac­ters, one of whom is un­con­scious for most of the movie and another who never ap­pears on cam­era at all.

Set in 2007 Iraq, it’s the story of Allen Isaac (Aaron Tay­lor-John­son of “Noc­tur­nal An­i­mals”), an Army sergeant who is pinned be­hind a crum­bling wall af­ter his com­rade (wrestler John Cena) is se­ri­ously in­jured by an un­seen sniper. The sniper (voice of Laith Nakli) tor­ments his quarry — over the ra­dio — with a psy­cho­log­i­cal cat-and­mouse game. We spoke re­cently with the 51-year old film­maker by phone from Los An­ge­les about his “con­trar­ian” way of work­ing and the sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween he­roes and vil­lains. Q: “The Wall” is quite a change of pace for you. It’s not just a tiny film, but an un­usu­ally talky one, com­pared to your other work. Did it ex­er­cise dif­fer­ent mus­cles for you? A: Yes, it was a way of do­ing the things I’ve loved in the past in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way.

Q: Such as? A: I love putting char­ac­ters in ex­tra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions and see­ing how they sur­vive, whether it’s pin­ning Ja­son Bourne down or pit­ting Brad Pitt and An­gelina Jolie against each other [in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”]. In a way, “The Wall is a re­ac­tion to hav­ing cre­ated this in­sane sit­u­a­tion with “Edge of To­mor­row,” with aliens and time travel — just to pin Tom Cruise down in a box and see how he can get out of it. With Dwain Wor­rell’s script for “The Wall,” Aaron Tay­lorJohn­son’s char­ac­ter, Isaac, is pinned down in an equally tight box but in a much sim­pler and more el­e­gant way. I’m also in­ter­ested in su­per­heroes, but not nec­es­sar­ily the Mar­vel kind of su­per­hero. Ja­son Bourne is a su­per­hero, but it’s a slightly dif­fer­ent tone. It’s a lit­tle more grounded.

Q: Who’s the su­per­hero in “The Wall”? Isaac, I as­sume? A: He is the su­per­hero. He’s like Iron Man. He has these cargo pouches, and he keeps pulling stuff out of them.

Q: The char­ac­ter of Juba the sniper is an un­ortho­dox bad guy. For one thing, he’s more sym­pa­thetic — and much more win­ning — than we’re used to see­ing in bad guys. His shoot­ing abil­i­ties are those of a su­per­hero. A: Or of a su­pervil­lain. But my films don’t have vil­lains. They re­ally don’t. They have peo­ple with dif­fer­ent points of view. The peo­ple hunt­ing Ja­son Bourne are not the vil­lains. You’ve got to look at “The Bourne Iden­tity” — be­cause, you know, like any movie fran­chise with a lot of se­quels, stuff starts to get bloated — but if you go back to the orig­i­nal movie, Chris Cooper is equally the hero. He’s try­ing to stop an as­sas­sin who seems to be out of con­trol. In “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” I don’t have a vil­lain at all. I shot one, then put him on the cut­tin­groom floor. Never used him. I have peo­ple with dif­fer­ent points of view.

Q: What about the aliens in “Edge of To­mor­row”? They’re bad guys. A: The gen­eral who pins Tom Cruise down is maybe more the force of an­tag­o­nism than the aliens. From the gen­eral’s point of view, Tom Cruise’s char­ac­ter is a coward. The gen­eral has ev­ery right to be crit­i­cal of him. You can get plenty of an­tag­o­nism from a vil­lain who isn’t ac­tu­ally vil­lain­ous. You said maybe the aliens are the vil­lains. But are sharks vil­lain­ous? Sharks are in the ocean to kill and eat. They’re just do­ing what they’re sup­posed to do.

Q: What would you call Juba? A: I use the word “vil­lain.” But in my lex­i­con, vil­lains are just he­roes of their own story. I love the idea of mak­ing a war movie that has no pol­i­tics in it.

Q: It sur­prises me to hear you say that the film has no pol­i­tics. Although the Amer­i­can sol­diers never once men­tion pol­i­tics, Juba — their en­emy — does, and re­peat­edly. By giv­ing voice to a side of an ar­gu­ment we don’t of­ten hear, and hu­man­iz­ing the face­less en­emy, isn’t that in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal? A: Well, I’ve made the char­ac­ters three-di­men­sional, with strong points of view that make sense from where they sit. But it’s de­void of pol­i­tics in that it’s a story of sur­vival. When you’re in New York City, you can have the lux­ury of de­bat­ing the moral­ity of a war in the Mid­dle East. If you’re a sol­dier on the front lines, you don’t have that lux­ury. The other side is try­ing to kill you. It’s kill or be killed. I equate it with my film “Swingers.” That film is very much from the boys’ point of view. But at the very end of that movie, when Jon Favreau has met up with Heather Gra­ham, Heather Gra­ham men­tions a con­ver­sa­tion she had with her girl­friends, and you re­al­ize — in that mo­ment — that the story could have been told from her point of view. There is another side. You’re right to pick up on the fact that we could have told “The Wall” from the other per­son’s point of view. But that’s not re­ally a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage.

Q: And yet the char­ac­ter of Juba in­ter­ro­gates the moral­ity of U.S. con­duct in Iraq. If the film isn’t po­lit­i­cal, surely Juba’s char­ac­ter is, isn’t he? A: For sure, yeah.

Q: Is it an an­ti­war film? A: I don’t think it is. It cel­e­brates — it treats sol­diers like su­per­heroes. The film stays in the trenches.

Q: It sounds like you’re com­par­ing Juba’s ar­gu­ments to a bomb on a timer. Are you sug­gest­ing that his ideas det­o­nate later, af­ter we’ve left the the­ater? A: I’m hop­ing that an au­di­ence picks up on that and that an au­di­ence thinks about war, though hope­fully not while they’re watch­ing the movie. I want them to be hop­ing and pray­ing that Aaron Tay­lor-John­son will sur­vive. The stronger the ar­gu­ment of the vil­lain in the movie, the stronger the vil­lain is.

Q: And the stronger the film? A: Yes. I’m hop­ing the au­di­ence leaves think­ing about the fact that Isaac and Juba never meet. They’re try­ing to kill each other the whole movie, and they never meet. That’s one of the co­nun­drums of war. The pol­i­tics I’m in­ter­ested in are the pol­i­tics of why hu­mans fight in wars. There was one ver­sion of “The Wall” — not to spoil the film — but where Juba and Isaac be­come friends of sorts, and are, like: “In a dif­fer­ent world, we would have been friends.” I chose not to go down that path.

Q: Dur­ing film­ing, there was no Juba. You — or an off-cam­era as­sis­tant — would feed Juba’s lines to Aaron Tay­lor-John­son, through the char­ac­ter’s ra­dio ear­piece. What was it like, bring­ing the voice ac­tor Laith Nakli into the process af­ter the shoot­ing was over? A: It was al­most like do­ing an an­i­mated film. Laith came in af­ter­ward and recorded the voice. What’s ex­tra­or­di­nary about Aaron’s per­for­mance is that he was do­ing it against me or the script su­per­vi­sor or an ac­tor we had on the set at points. A lot of what he was re­act­ing to out there was added later. For ex­am­ple, even the vis­ual ef­fects. We weren’t in the Mid­dle East. We were in the Mo­jave Desert. Aaron makes it so grounded and real. I’ve never made an an­i­mated movie be­fore, but we cre­ated the char­ac­ter of Juba with noth­ing but a voice.

Q: What was Mo­jave like? A: Part of the rea­son it was only a three-week shoot was that the con­di­tions mim­icked Iraq. I’m not sure we could have sur­vived another week out there. I’m not ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Dust storms ev­ery af­ter­noon, 120-plus-, 130-de­gree heat. No shel­ter from the sun.

Q: What are your fa­vorite war movies? A: “Casablanca,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Dirty Dozen.” Even “The African Queen.” Per­sonal sto­ries set against war. “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Nazis vs. Amer­i­cans, that clean­li­ness of sto­ry­telling, as op­posed to a messy, Oliver Stone take on the world.

Q: Talk about the use of lan­guage in the film. Juba is a for­mer English teacher. He quotes Edgar Allan Poe. He has this great line: “Mil­i­tary lingo is all po­etry.” A: It’s a film about lan­guage. The sniper uses lan­guage as a weapon. It’s a film about lan­guage — on all lev­els, whether it’s the po­etry of mil­i­tary lingo or the ac­tual po­etry quoted in the film. Also the lan­guage be­tween sol­diers — the kind of play­ful, al­most sex­ual lan­guage that’s used un­der those con­di­tions — is a ma­jor el­e­ment. It shouldn’t sur­prise peo­ple who have seen my films that my char­ac­ters don’t nec­es­sar­ily — even in a war movie as rugged as “The Wall” — speak in ma­chos­peak. They’re danc­ing for each other, and they’re singing for each other. That feels hon­est to me. It is hon­est. I’m kind of a con­trar­ian film­maker. If I’m go­ing to do a film about guys try­ing to pick up girls, like “Swingers,” I’m go­ing to have them be neu­rotic and whin­ing and ner­vous and scared. If I’m go­ing to do a war movie, the char­ac­ters are go­ing to be tak­ing about po­etry.

The Wall (R, 90 min­utes). At area the­aters.


Doug Li­man, left, and John Cena film “The Wall.” Cena’s char­ac­ter is un­con­scious for most of the movie, which fea­tures three ac­tors.

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