When Simon Met Liman

By Joe Dungan / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

Seasoned movie director Doug Liman ’88 (Swingers, The Bourne Identity) has teamed up with first-time screenwriter Simon Kinberg ’95 to create Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a pair of assassins so secret they don’t know each other’s identity. The film, which will be released in June, is part action-adventure, part ro­mance, and part metaphor. During reshoots in March, the writer and director discussed their collaboration, their shared Brown experience, and how they snuck a little semiotic theory into a stylish summer flick.

BAM You graduated several years apart. How did you meet?

Simon Kinberg On this movie.

Doug Liman I didn’t even know he’d gone to Brown when I read the script.

Kinberg I knew you’d gone to Brown, actually. We were aware of your many successes.

Liman I read the script right after Bourne Identity.

Kinberg And you passed on it.

Liman I wanted to do television. Then Brad Pitt sent it to me.

Kinberg So when I sent it to you, it wasn’t meaningful. When Brad Pitt sent it to you, suddenly the writing really sang.

BAM You two seem to have an easy rapport. Does that have to do with a shared academic background?

Kinberg We definitely had a nice rapport from the first time we met. I don’t know how much of it is about going to the same college. Although [he turns to Liman] remember when we were talking about the action sequence with the mannequins? And it became this absurdist, semiotic conversation?

We both studied MCM at Brown, which is Modern Culture and Media [with a semiotics concentration], and in this fun, playful, splashy summer movie, we do smuggle in a little bit of semiotic theory.

BAM From the trailers it’s hard to categorize Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Is it an action movie or a romance?

Liman Most people involved don’t quite understand the movie, because it’s not an action film and it’s not a love story, on the one hand. On the other hand, it is an action film and it is a love story. It has a unique tone that is challenging, almost impossible, for a huge team of people to understand. I have the producer who thinks we’re making an action movie. Then I have the producer who thinks we’re making a drama. And between the two, somewhere is the soul of our movie.

BAM What makes collaboration between a writer and director work?

Liman Simon was objective about the movie and not possessive and not jealous. So many people in this business are possessive of their little plot of land: “This is my idea, I came up with it, and it’s going to be in the movie, goddamn it,” even if it doesn’t belong. When Simon argued a point it really meant something. Never once did I think, “Oh, he’s just saying that because of some emotional or personal or political reason.”

Kinberg When I think about you as a director, that’s equally true. It’s not about your being the first and last and sole author of the movie, the way it is for a lot of directors. A lot of directors I’ve met or worked with are afraid of other people’s opinions because they feel it’ll erode their opinion or it’ll challenge their authority. And you’re really open to whatever the best idea is. And that’s kind of rare for a director, especially one who directs big movies.

Liman I’ve always been rewarded by being inclusive, because people come up with good ideas.

Kinberg You also figure out what’s really precious to you about the movie and then you are willing to sacrifice anything else. From the first time we ever met, [I felt] what was precious to you about the movie was the same as what was precious to me: the metaphor and the marriage and the relationship.

Liman That may be more why we get along than any other reason. If we actually didn’t agree on what movie we were making, we’d be having the arguments from hell.

Joe Dungan is a freelance writer in Valley Village, California.

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May / June 2005