This isn’t director Doug Liman’s first spy movie. The director of the first “Bourne” film and the movie that brought Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” is among the best at showing us stunt-filled sagas with chases, explosions, and gunfights. But in this true spy story, Liman makes scenes of two people talking quietly as tense and scary as a shoot-out.
I spoke to Liman at Washington D.C.’s legendary Mayflower Hotel about “Fair Game,” based on the story of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, played in the film by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. I think it is one of the best films of the year.
I have met Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame and I think you and the cast captured them very well.
That’s one of the nice things about talking to the press in Washington. People here really do know Joe. It’s hard to find a reporter here who hasn’t met Joe Wilson. As portrayed in the film, it’s pretty accurate that he was out there. And not universally loved. But I love those people. Even when we’re at the Cannes film festival, Joe and Valerie were there, and people were asking, “Is it really real?” “What’s real and what’s not real?” — and we devoted a lot of effort to making sure that everything you see in the film did happen and is not exaggerated. So we’re at a party on the beach and right on cue you hear some squeal of feedback and Joe Wilson has found a microphone! On the beach! And Joe is giving a speech. People gathered, and “thanks everybody,” and then goes on to talk about how the Bill of Rights is really a Bill of Responsibilities — he is the character you see at the end of the movie.
I loved the way you gave us a spy who is not kick-boxing or attending glamorous events so she can sneak into the bad guy’s office and crack open his safe. She’s not “James Bondette.”
She’s not scaling the side of a building like Angelina Jolie does in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But she still puts herself in harm’s way, getting into a strange man’s car in Kuala Lumpur. Being driven down remote windy roads with the nephew of an arms dealer. In real life, tht would be terrifying. In movies, we want to see someone hanging off the side of a cliff. But once you ground it in reality, the real-life things people do as spies are really extraordinary.
It’s not all that dissimilar to being a lawyer doing a deposition. You need to know everything about them before you walk into the room. It is preparation. It is methodical, hard work. That’s one of the reasons it was so outrageous what was done to our national security for political reasons. She was at the peak of her career. It takes 20 years to get to put the groundwork in to really accomplish things. The CIA is not like the movies where you get the assignment and an hour later you’re parachuting behind enemy lines. These operations take years and years of development of painstaking relationships and that all evaporate in the blink of an eye.
How do you respond to those who say this is a partisan film?
It’s not anti-Bush. It’s not partisan. I showed the film to one of Scooter Libby’s lawyers. The most villainy of the film is put onto Scooter Libby because we had the most facts about his guilt. I said, “Go ahead and poke holes in it.” I put it through a vetting process before making the film and even in post-production because new information was always coming in. The only hole the lawyer could find in the movie was he said, “You put scary music over Scooter Libby.” But the facts are in fact the facts; they cannot be challenged. Maybe telling this particular story versus telling a different story is an issue, but to me this is a film about an issue that should be unifying us not polarizing us, about the right we have as Americans to speak out and criticize our government without the fear of reprisal. That’s what it is to me to be an American. This is a story about someone speaking out against our government and the White House trying to destroy him.
David Andrews gives an extraordinary performance as Scooter Libby.
Casting is everything. I put a huge amount of work into casting and consistently across my career I am most proud of my bold choices I made in casting. You can’t say casting Sean Penn was a bold choice because he had just won an Oscar for best actor. But I was under a lot of pressure to put a movie star in as Scooter Libby because those are the only scenes without Joe or Valerie. They said, “If you don’t cast a movie star, those scenes won’t survive because people just want to watch movie stars.” I knew that from “The Bourne Identity.” A lot of great scenes ended up on the cutting room floor people Bourne wasn’t in them and people just wanted to follow Matt Damon. David Andrews did such a phenomenal job in his audition, I thought even though Sean Penn has just won the best actor Oscar, this was someone who could go toe-to-toe with him.
How do you maintain suspense when people know what really happened?
People don’t know, for the most part. Most of what’s being told in this movie has never been succinctly reported anywhere. Most people don’t know what Valerie Plame did for a living. And there has been so much intentional mis-information. It was crazy that people bought into it. It was self-referentially hypocritical. They said she was important enough to send him to Niger but not important enough to matter. Nobody was seeing that discrepancy. For me, this is a side of the story that’s never been told, what it felt like from their point of view.
My films are very rooted in specific people’s point of view. Some film-makers give a more global point of view, like God looking down at the characters. My films are more like you’re in the car with Jason Bourne and you only see what he sees. You very rarely cut to see someone else’s point of view. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” — every scene is from those characters’ point of view. They’re in literally every scene, very unusual in a big studio film. In keeping with that philosophy of film I’ve been developing, to see this story play out entirely from Joe’s or Valerie’s point of view, is a side of the story people have not seen before.
What about the other characters?
Because Valerie and Joe were participating, which is a bold move on their part. I’m an outspoken person myself and my films tend to be about anti-heroes, so they knew I was not going to sugarcoat it and show the bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and I’m forever grateful. Nobody in the White House would cooperate with me but because of the various criminal and Justice Department investigations I had an enormous amount of material that could be trusted.
People recounted specific scenes that took place inside the White House but there wasn’t enough material to balance the film the way I would have wanted. So I decided to borrow from Steven Spielberg. Most people know that when he was making “Jaws,” the shark never worked right, so he didn’t have nearly as much footage as he wanted. What he discovered by accident, which made him a superstar director, was that the less you saw of the shark, the scarier it was. So with “Fair Game,” the White House was going to be my broken shark. I wasn’t going to have enough material for inside the White House, but it would be scarier to see less of it. You’re on the outside looking at this monolithic building that houses the most powerful men in the world who are hellbent on destroying you. And you don’t get to see what they are doing. You can just be scared.