Interview: Director Doug Liman Says Tom Cruise Did All His Own Flying in ‘American Made’

The story of Barry Seal is one of the most fascinating and astonishing stories you will see all year.

In the new film American Made (advance tickets are now on sale here at Fandango), Tom Cruise portrays Seal, a former airline pilot for TWA who was recruited by the CIA for secret missions in South America during the early 1980s. Those missions eventually put Seal face to face with drug smugglers, including a rising star named Pablo Escobar – and before long Seal was working for all the wrong people, but he was making a ton of money doing it.

The film reteams Cruise with his Edge of Tomorrow director, Doug Liman, and the duo set out to tell Seal’s story in a rather unconventional way.

“I think that a movie that comes along once in a generation where a star and a director are given the freedom to go shoot with real airplanes in really dangerous and remote locations, and with the actor actually flying the airplane,” Liman told Fandango during a recent conversation about the film. “I don’t think I’ll ever make a film that will be as much of an adventure in the making of as American Made. I just can’t imagine.

Below, Liman goes into more detail about the extreme lengths they took to remain authentic to Seal’s story, as well as why he and Cruise are itching to return to the world of Edge of Tomorrow for a sequel.

Fandango: The story of Barry Seal is a wild one, but how come it took this long to tell it as a movie? What attracted you to the project?

Doug Liman: To do something that’s never been done before.

Fandango: How so?

Liman: Well, this was an extremely ambitious movie to make because of the flying sequences. We were going to do real flying sequences like car chases, but with airplanes and Tom Cruise piloting the airplane.

We were gonna shoot out of remote airfields all over Columbia. Some of them were the actual airfields that were used at the time but have since been decommissioned that we had to restore. An airfield is, by the way, is an awfully nice word to describe a dirt strip with tall trees on either side and an impossibly short runway. Tom and I were committed to making a film that was deeply entertaining, but we wanted to do it in a way that veered off of the more conventional path.

Fandango: So Tom was up there in those planes. When we see them flying, it’s actually Tom doing all that flying?

Liman: Yes, every time. If you look in the credits, there’s no other stunt pilot in it. It’s just Tom.

Fandango: What was it about Barry Seal’s story that attracted you? Your father was a prosecutor investigating the Iran-Contra affair. Did that play a factor at all?

Liman: Actually, this didn’t start with me or my father — it started with Brian Grazer sending me a script, the story of Barry Seal, and I fell in love with this outlaw who was making a fortune while flying for the CIA. I like doing films about anti-heroes, and I loved this particular anti-hero. And I loved the world and the world of this kind of flying that I’ve never seen in a movie before – a sort of Smoky and Bandit flavor, but done with airplanes. So I was in love with this story before I ever realized that it connected to Iran-Contra.

Fandango: It’s crazy that they connect and how this one man had so much to do with major historical events of that era.

Liman: Yes, and though I’m intimately familiar with the story as it looked from the White House and the National Security Agency and the CIA, following the story of Barry Seal… I didn’t realize it was the same story, but a very disconnected part of the fun and humor. It’s that disconnect that enabled Barry Seal … He was able to exploit that disconnect to the tune of something like $80 million.

Fandango: This guy just seemed like your average airline pilot. Why did the CIA choose him for these big missions?

Liman: First of all, he was an extraordinary pilot. He really was a great pilot. And second of all, and it’s part of what I loved about entering this world and making American Made was … I’ve made movies about the CIA, like the Bourne franchise. I’m a little sick of the CIA. And then suddenly through Gary Spinelli’s brilliant script I saw that there was another side to the CIA that I hadn’t explored. That was that the CIA hires, they go to the top universities in America to recruit, but they don’t recruit out of the detention hall. They hire the honor students. And that’s the kind of character that Domhnall Gleeson plays. But those people are expected to go out and recruit criminals.

Fandango: So the CIA actively looks to hire people to break the law?

Liman: They look for people with loose moral compasses who are willing to break the law in pursuit of these missions. They look for people like Barry Seal. They’re looking for specific qualities, a rule breaking quality. What was so fun about this world is that they got it, right? And this, by the way, plays out every day. I mean, this is not unique to Barry Seal, but in the case of Barry Seal nobody took it further.

Fandango: This is your second movie with Tom Cruise. How has working with him changed you as a filmmaker?

Liman: Tom has made me more courageous as a filmmaker. He has given me the confidence to take bigger strides and risk falling flat on my face. We have a relationship where you’re allowed to admit total failure, and you can point it out to the other one, and that’s okay.

Fandango: You’re not a filmmaker who does many sequels, but you do want to do a sequel to Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat) with Tom. I know you’ve said that you wanted it to revolutionize the way movies are made. How so?

Liman: We have an idea for the sequel that’s more character-driven than the original. It’s smarter and more character-driven. That’s not the usual formula for a sequel, but I do think it should be in a way. The first film is the one that kind of needs maybe more mindless action just to sort of hook a bigger audience. Once they’re hooked on to your characters, there’s the possibility to make a sequel that’s smarter and maybe a little smaller, not bigger.

Fandango: It feels like some of the recent summer movies that have been successful are more character-driven where it’s less about the special effects. Do you feel like we’re starting to turn a corner now with some of these bigger movies were people want more character-driven films and less of the giant spectacle?

Liman: I think so, and I think maybe it might have to do with the fact that so much of the action now is computer-generated, so the spectacle doesn’t even have the same impact on the audience that it has, say, when Tom Cruise does a stunt. Because when Tom Cruise does it, the audience knows it’s real. So it’s like watching David Blaine freeze himself in a block of ice. You know you’re watching somebody really put themselves in harm’s way.

Fandango: What was the most fascinating thing about Barry Seal that you learned while making this movie?

Liman: How much people loved him at the time. A lot of times Hollywood will make a movie about a guy like Barry Seal and will look at it through a rose colored lens. Butch and Sundance were probably not as liked by their contemporaries as they were made to like when them when we watched the movie. And especially when you’re doing a movie about outlaws like Barry Seal.

Barry was really loved by his contemporaries. His widow never remarried. She showed us a photo of her in a Central American prison visiting Barry on his birthday, cutting a birthday cake with a machete. And this was a woman who thought she was marrying a TWA airline pilot. And she loves him so much to this day she never remarried.

I was amazed how many people in law enforcement that we met who worked with Barry loved him. It was remarkable given what an outlaw he was how loved he was universally.

Fandango: Yeah, they loved him, but then they screwed him over in the end.

Liman: Well, that’s inevitable.

American Made hits theaters on September 29. You can snag your tickets for the film right here at Fandango.

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