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Mad about him

Special to The Times

The real-life exploits of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may be drawing headlines, but for an equally fascinating Hollywood drama, consider what went on behind the cameras during the long and costly struggle to bring “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” to the screen.

The movie was delayed and rewritten numerous times and had its stars’ entanglements splashed all over the tabloids -- a high-stakes distraction for films from “Cleopatra” to “Gigli.” It went so far over budget that “the studio said to us you have to stop the monetary hemorrhaging,” according to one of its producers, Lucas Foster. Another says the picture required an unusual committee approach to guide it to completion. Yet for all that, 20th Century Fox, buoyed by mountains of pre-release publicity and a packet of high test-audience scores, thinks it will have a major hit on its hands when “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” opens June 10.

And if so, that will make another notch in the belt of director Doug Liman -- a development that will amaze and confound a number of those who have worked with him and watched him emerge triumphant on films that at times appeared to be headed for disaster.

“The truth is, Doug is a madman,” says Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer (“A Beautiful Mind”), who also produced “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” "[But] I think he has the ability, which is not insignificant, to have a movie coalesce around him. Actors want to work with him and studios want the product that exists with his name on it.”

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During a break from last-minute work on the film, Liman winces when he hears that Goldsman has called him a madman. “I’m an unusual person,” he acknowledges. But in every case, he says, “The movie I end up with is the movie I aspired to make.”

Blue-eyed and rumpled, Liman is something of a filmmaking phenomenon. He remains affable -- and consistently successful -- even as he drives colleagues to distraction and his films run significantly over schedule and over budget.

Liman is the son of the late, powerful New York attorney Arthur Liman. His affect is unusual: Those who’ve worked with him talk about his “thousand-yard stare,” a gaze that suggests Liman is sometimes not quite present. Several people who have worked with Liman say he suffers from indecision and lack of focus so profound that his films were finished more in spite of him than because of him.

“I stepped into territory I’ve never been in before in 30 years,” says Frank Marshall, who produced Liman’s previous film, “The Bourne Identity.” “I’ve always had a respect for the line between a producer and a director. And I had to step over that line into something that I feel is the director’s responsibility.”

Even Marshall concedes that Liman has great ideas -- including the notion to remake “The Bourne Identity” -- and that his films all share a fresh, distinctive visual style. That started with the 1996 indie hit “Swingers,” which introduced Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn to the world. Liman then made “Go,” a small but well-received 1999 picture about the aftermath of a drug deal. Reports of trouble surfaced on the next film, “The Bourne Identity,” which nonetheless spawned a mighty franchise. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is a comedic action movie about two hired assassins who are married to each other.

Liman’s defenders insist that lightning could not strike four times in a row. Yet they also acknowledge that they don’t quite understand how he has managed to succeed.

“I think there’s a method to his madness,” says Favreau, who wrote and starred in “Swingers.” “I don’t know how it works, to be honest with you. I do know that the guy is able to pull it off every time.” Favreau acknowledges that he complained about Liman’s methods in the past and says Liman is easier to appreciate in hindsight.

Although many in Hollywood have speculated about the exact nature of Liman’s process, Liman says he’s never been told that there is anything unusual about the way his mind works. But he knows there was something out of the ordinary about the way he worked during a flight he took from New York to Los Angeles when he was preparing to pitch the idea for “The Bourne Identity.” On that trip, he says, he wore two sets of headphones so he could simultaneously watch “The Horse Whisperer” (starring Robert Redford) and “The Wedding Singer” (starring Adam Sandler). At the same time, he reread the Robert Ludlum novel of “The Bourne Identity.” From that cacophony, he says, he came up with what he saw as the key to making his film: telling it from the woman’s point of view.

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Help from others

Several writers and producers who have worked with Liman say that kind of chaos may inspire him but can be a hindrance when it comes to making a film. They contend that Liman owes a big debt on each of his films to others who were working alongside him: on “Swingers” to Favreau (whose credentials as a director are established) and editor Stephen Mirrione; on “Go” to writer-producer John August and, again, Mirrione; on “Bourne Identity” to Marshall and others; on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” to Goldsman and others.

On “Swingers,” Favreau says, Liman came up with the will and the way to get the film made on a tiny budget. He says he and Mirrione played crucial roles. “I think we both had a very strong hand in the outcome of ‘Swingers’ and there was no point that Doug was not present,” he says. “Doug had final cut.”

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On the next film, “Go,” August gives Liman credit for “good instincts” and talent as a director. But August also says he did far more than a writer-producer might normally do. “I was on the set for every frame,” he says. But on such a small movie, August says, Liman’s constantly shifting decisions about what to shoot and how to shoot it weren’t so dire. “He has that scrappy ‘Let’s try it this way’ quality,” he says. “That’s great when you’re making ‘Swingers’ or ‘Go,’ but it’s hard to scale it up to a big-studio film.”

Liman’s bitterest conflict, at least publicly, came on that first big-studio film, “Bourne Identity.” Liman clashed with Marshall and several others on the set. While giving Liman credit for the idea of making the film and for creating its stylish look, Marshall says Liman failed to pull the film together.

Among the tasks that Marshall says fell to him was cutting the version of the film that was released. “I’m not saying I directed the movie,” says Marshall. “But as the producer, it was my job to get the movie finished.”

Liman disputes Marshall’s account, in the process taking a swipe at a disappointing film that Marshall directed: “At the end of the day, look at ‘Congo’ and look at my movies and let an audience figure out where that movie came from.”

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After first saying that he, not Marshall, cut the film, Liman reflects and eventually allows that the cut represented a collaborative effort. “At a certain point we all came into agreement,” he says. “It was my cut and it was Frank’s cut, the same way ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ is my cut and Akiva’s cut and Lucas Foster’s cut. We’re all happy with it.”

Like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Identity” was delayed. The film went about $10 million over its $55-million budget, the filmmakers said.

Several individuals who worked on “Bourne Identity” say it went off track in part because Liman constantly changed his mind about what he would do on any given day. He would set up to shoot something and then not shoot it. He frequently asked to reshoot scenes that had already been filmed. “He never knew what he wanted to do,” says Marshall. “He would reshoot some scenes four or five times because he had a new idea. It was ‘Let me see the footage and I’ll decide whether I like it or not.’ ”

“He’s created this personality where he doesn’t have to do the planning or make decisions or be responsible,” says the film’s line producer, Patrick Crowley.

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“I don’t really analyze my process,” Liman responds. “I do know that if it’s not right, I won’t move on. I’m tenacious to a fault about that.”

Several people who worked on the film say the action became hard to follow. Liman would shoot a wide master shot of a scene and then direct changes in the actors’ performance when he shot close-ups. The result was footage that, according to Crowley, couldn’t be cut together properly. “He felt that he was hamstrung by having to conform to basic rules of visual perception,” Crowley says.

Liman says he doesn’t shoot according to convention. “Pat Crowley’s the kind of person who would freak out about that,” he says. But Liman maintains the scenes did cut together. He says he simply discarded rules of filmmaking that are no longer relevant. “There are people out there who are too old-fashioned to appreciate that in an age of MTV and video games, audiences have matured,” he says.

There were other problems. At one point, while shooting in a forest near Prague, Liman kept some of the crew around after filming was done for the day to light the forest so that Liman could play paintball. “There were 15 or 20 people working in golden time so Doug could play paintball in the forest,” marvels Marshall.

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Liman first says only a couple of crew members stayed late, but later remembers it was a larger group. Still, he shrugs it off. “If I read that about a director, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I like that guy,’ ” he says.

When the film was finished, the studio expected the worst. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, according to a source with firsthand knowledge, actually arbitrated against himself with the Writers Guild so that he wouldn’t have to take sole credit for the film.

As it turned out, the picture was a huge hit. Liman says the film’s success was due to a successful collaboration between him and star Matt Damon, who did not comment for this article. When it came to making the second film, Marshall, Crowley and screenwriter Gilroy refused to participate if Liman were to be involved. Liman appealed to Damon to support him. Damon said he’d work with Liman if Marshall and the others went along. They would not. Liman had no involvement with the second film, though he was contractually entitled to executive producer credit.

What surprises some who worked with Liman is that after the problems on “Bourne Identity,” he was able to segue to an even bigger studio film. And on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” history seemed to repeat itself. The film went over schedule in part, Liman says, because Pitt had to leave in the middle to meet his commitment to appear in “Ocean’s Twelve.” He was gone for three months.

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It took nearly two years to get the film made. The picture started shooting in January 2004 and didn’t wrap until this past April.

“Obviously that’s not your conventional way of shooting a movie, and it’s not a way I would recommend,” Goldsman says.

According to a source involved in the production, the budget -- originally set at just over $100 million -- swelled to $126 million.

Although Fox is distributing the movie, it was fully financed by Regency Enterprises, which the studio partly owns. Sanford Panitch, president of the company’s New Regency Productions, says those budget numbers are off but declines to elaborate. “There’s a lot of movie for what this movie cost,” he adds.

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As for choosing Liman to direct, Panitch says, “He came in with the most original approach to the material.” Pitt also was excited about working with Liman, Panitch adds. And Panitch was also impressed with Liman’s work on “The Bourne Identity.” “I think he sort of reinvented the James Bond genre,” he says.

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‘Elliptical in his thinking’

According to Goldsman, Liman’s approach made it necessary to form a sort of committee to steer the movie to completion -- a committee that included Goldsman and Foster as well as second-unit director Simon Crane.

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Pitt, who would not comment for this article, was said to have become exasperated with the drawn-out filming. According to one story making the rounds, when Liman at one point urged Pitt to deliver more emotion in his performance, the actor pointed out that Liman was shooting the back of his head. Liman says he doesn’t remember that but adds, “I may have been wanting to get more emotion from the back of his head. I probably succeeded.”

“Doug likes to be off-center, if you will,” says Foster. “He’s elliptical in his thinking. He’d cheerfully shoot an entire scene from the back of the head. Sometimes it works, by the way.”

The picture was rewritten time and again. Sequences were shot with villains who were then dropped altogether; a comedic cameo by Vince Vaughn was considerably expanded. Vaughn says he was fine with his relatively brief experience on the film. Liman gave him a lot of freedom to improvise, he says, adding, “He’s so bright when it comes to the camera. His movies always look really, really good.”

In the midst of the project, second-unit director Crane -- a veteran of the “Lara Croft” films as well as “Troy” -- was brought in to handle action sequences. That led to reports that Crane had, in fact, taken on an unusually substantial role.

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Liman says there was nothing unusual about bringing in a specialist to direct second-unit action sequences. (The second-unit director ordinarily shoots sequences that do not involve the stars, such as car chases.) By some accounts, Crane directed a number of scenes with Pitt and Jolie that normally would have been Liman’s responsibility.

Goldsman says Liman was always present on the set but says, “The actors certainly are very comfortable with Simon Crane.”

Under pressure from the studio to staunch the spending, Foster says, “one of the best ways was by having another person in there to pick up some of the workload.” Foster confirms that Crane shot scenes with Pitt and Jolie but says they were action sequences that were properly Crane’s province. “It’s been a big thing going around -- Simon Crane directed the movie,” Foster says. “Simon Crane directed sequences in the movie, which is what he was hired to do.”

In one regard, Liman was restricted, Foster continues. “Doug’s desire to change things at the last minute is not OK when you’re shooting a big stunt,” he explains. “That was just a nonstarter.... Doug lost his right to comment on changes. Once we did the rigging of the set -- that was it. He stood there with me and Akiva and watched Simon do his thing.”

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Foster says one problem they didn’t have on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was mismatched shots. “We all did our homework before on Doug,” says Foster. “There wasn’t a situation where we didn’t have coverage because I would stand on the set and get the coverage. I’d say, ‘We’re shooting that shot.’ ... The good thing about Doug is he’s OK with that.”

At the end of the day, Foster says, Liman made key contributions despite the stress of dealing with some of his methods. “Akiva and I figured out how to reverse-engineer it and we dealt with it,” Foster says. “We made it work. For all of Doug’s stuff, he actually made the movie better. His special sauce that he adds -- that weird, elliptical view of things -- is the difference between movies like ‘XXX’ and ours. Even with all the Sturm und Drang, it led to a better movie.”


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