Identity Crisis

By Jake Miller '91 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007

Until this summer, Doug Liman '88 was best known for directing and producing quirky independent films such as Swingers, Go, and Kissing Jessica Stein. With The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon, Liman entered the world of amnesiac secret agents and summer blockbusters.

BAM Your version of The Bourne Identity is quite different from the book.

Doug Liman I read the novel in high school and always thought it would make a good film. Even with a book that reads like a movie, you need to reinvent it. I always felt like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was a better adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities than the movie Bonfire of the Vanities was.

BAM In the novel, Bourne eventually realizes that he's a good guy who went undercover to fight a communist assassin. In the movie, his past is much darker.

DL The thing is, the novel is a Republican-era novel: it's okay to kill because you're killing for the great U. S. of A. The book had a value system that's no longer relevant. We considered replacing the Soviet Union with another enemy, like China or bin Laden, but we decided that the U.S. government in the last twenty years has been as guilty as anybody. You probably see some of my Brown education, as well as some of the values that were passed onto me by my father [Arthur Liman, the chief counsel to the U.S. Senate committee probing the Iran-Contra scandal] in that interpretation.

BAM Did you draw any insight into the world of covert operations from your father's experiences?

DL In a lot of ways this is my Iran-Contra movie. Chris Cooper's character, Conklin, is Oliver North, and Julia Stiles is Fawn Hall.

BAM Have you gotten any flak for the movie's nuanced view of the world?

DL Not really. The studio was concerned that the movie wasn't patriotic enough, but we test-screened it about a month after 9/11, and it scored even better than it had before. People understood the nuances of the way the CIA works better than ever. So we weren't worried.

BAM One of the reviews called it an action movie for grown-ups.

DL That's what we set out to do. Matt [Damon] and I both love going to action movies, and we're almost always disappointed. When I first pitched the project to him, I said, "I want to do a drama that the studio can market as an action movie." We tried to make a movie that our friends would like but that wouldn't be so heady it would alienate the mainstream audience. The fifteen-year-olds who go see the movie probably aren't thinking about U.S. foreign policy in Africa. They're just seeing the cool action sequences.

BAM Why did a guy who started out making independent movies like Swingers want to make a big action film?

DL These are different aspects of my interests and my life. Go is very much about my friends at Brown; Swingers is about my life when I first got to L.A., and Bourne Identity is really about my high school imagination and wish fulfillment.

BAM Why don't more movies try to be both smart and exciting?

DL Oh, it's really hard to do this. Smart characters would never get themselves into the situations that you need in order to have exciting action. They just wouldn't do it. They're not going to go down into the hole in the ground without calling the cops first.

BAM Which brings up the scene where Bourne jumps down the stairway, using a dead body to cushion his fall. Do the physics of that really work?

DL Well, there was much debate about how many floors he could really survive.

BAM And who was your source for that?

DL Well, nobody really knows. I just tried to make it as many floors as I could without getting too much attitude from people on the crew saying it was totally unbelievable.

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September / October 2002