It was arguably one of the biggest political stories/fall out scandals of the Iraq War, so it wasn't a total surprise when CIA Agent Valerie Plame Wilson's true life story was made into a motion picture. Her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece saying the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq and her life was never the same again.
Directed by Doug Liman, "Fair Game" was one of the few U.S. films that premiered at Cannes this past spring, and was released in limited theaters earlier this month. Anchored by strong performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, the film retells the true story of undercover CIA Agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, who was outed by the White House in 2003 in an effort to discredit her husband for the aforementioned NY Times piece that caused a massive ripple through the Bush Administration; eventually leading to a slap on the wrist/scapegoating for the high-ranking White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby who was convicted on counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements in her case. On the verge of the film's move into wide release this weekend we spoke to the director about the rumors of Ryan Gosling in his potential upcoming picture, "All You Need Is Kill" (just an unsubstantiated rumor), his long-gestating Moon colonization picture (Jake Gyllenhaal still attached) and of course making the political/human saga, "Fair Game."
The Playlist: It might seem obvious to some, but what inspired the move to make this movie?
Doug Liman: My interest in the story actually was as a filmmaker first and foremost, not, not you know, not because of the politics, in fact when the story actually was unfolding, in 2003, as a political being I was aware of it, but I’m also a filmmaker who, who was in the middle of putting together the biggest movie of my career, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" -- the biggest budget movie of my career -- and I had to worry about my own life. And like most of the world, I quickly forget about people like Valerie Plame. And then years later, one of my favorite screen writers, who’s also a brilliant playwright [Jez Butterworth], called me up and said he’d written a screenplay about Valerie Plame. And what I thought was so extraordinary about their script, was that you know because a couple years had elapsed in between the events unfolding and when they wrote the screenplay, a number of critical documents had been declassified. And the story was much more interesting than first appeared when it was on the news.
That opened new doors I assume
Yes. And the other aspect was that of course they had written the screenplay with the cooperation of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and had been serving sort of intimate details about their home life during this time. The story was not only more interesting from a spy movie, action movie perspective, but it was more interesting on a character level then I hadn't been aware of when it actually was taking place.
It sounds like you received full cooperation from the couple. Was there certain things that they could or could not tell you?
Yeah, but you have to understand what their cooperation is. It’s the kind of cooperation that you have from me. Which is I’m answering your questions, at least the ones I feel comfortable answering, but I have no control over what you write.
There’s a certain level of trust and honestly like there’s moments in my career where I’m like I can’t believe somebody trusted me. Like I can’t believe I convinced people at Universal Pictures to let me go make "The Bourne Identity," you know when my credits involved "Swingers" and "Go," you know a two hundred thousand dollar budget movie and a three million dollar budget movie, and I can’t believe you know, that I convinced Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson to trust me, then you know I have the reputation of being very opinionated.
For those not fully aware, that reputation is? [ed. Liman was essentially kicked off "The Bourne Identity" and barred from the franchise by Universal, things didn't go entirely smooth on "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" either. A lot of his past woes are documented in this excellent NYMag feature]
For being opinionated, very difficult to control, if not impossible. Like if I’m going to let someone tell my story, I wouldn’t pick me. Honestly, think about if it was you and someone was going to tell your story, a deeply personal story, you know what I’m telling them right up front, you know, I’m going to tell it how I’m going to see it, and there are going to be things in the movie that you’re not going to be happy with...
That’s pretty ballsy.
By the way I’m, I’m interested in anti-heroes. My characters, in my movies are all flawed. You’ll probably never see Tom Hanks in a Doug Liman film. He plays, you know, very earnest and unflawed.
So how do they feel about the film now? Do you know?
I had the unique experience of being with Valerie and Joe, when Joe saw it for the first time, in a theater, about three weeks ago --
That’s nerve wracking.
She had already seen it because she had been to another press event, and the film ended and you know -- Joe will probably kill me for saying this, but as I told you, I, I call it how I see it -- Joe was crying at the end. And Valerie in fact, was telling him to toughen up, which is very much like their characters on screen. The things is, because I come from a Hollywood background, I’ve created onscreen romances, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's romance in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the assumption from the audience might be that I exaggerated a little bit, in the love story between Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. But when you see little moments like that take place, you know the people that get to witness that realized that I did not exaggerate at all.
Right, that’s got to have been a huge strain on their relationship.
Like he’s just come back from an assignment in the Middle East that got a little hairy and they’re having a little spat and he says, "by the way how’s your trip?" You know and she just glares at him because it’s the unspoken thing they both know she can never tell him the details of what she does. And I just love that even in this very surreal environment where you have a former Ambassador, who was the last American official to meet with Saddam Hussein and he actually threatened Hussein back, married to a tough covert, CIA operative, but the two of them find a way to tease each other and fight with each other which truly is unique and interesting the way John and Jane Smith found a way to interact, except in the case of "Fair Game" it’s actually real.
We’ve seen a lot of apathy by American audiences in response to anything Iraqi war related and I wanted to know what you thought about that and how you think people will respond to it.
I’m well aware of that, I’ll be having those same emotions myself, but this movie’s not about the war. In fact, you know much to the horror of some left wing groups, the movie hasn’t been about the war. It has no opinion whatsoever on the war. You know I recognized my position in life, and that I am a Hollywood filmmaker, I’m not a writer for the Washington Post.
But the characters do express a lot of justified outrage.
They do. I recognized that, that my particular skill set is bringing the characters of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson onto the big screen, to a mass audience to understand from their experiences a view of what happened and that that’s something that not only gives, I feel like I have the skill set to do, I feel like that’s what people spend $12.50 to go to the movies to see. They don’t—- I know I have a lot of peers who have very strong opinions who put them into their movies, and I really fought against that. My producers and I were having the kinds of arguments during the development of the script where I was basically the Republican in the mix. Because I was overcompensating, keeping our own personal politics out of the story. I figured it might -- the average American moviegoer -- just can’t be lectured to by a Hollywood critic. And I certainly didn’t want to experience it myself when I was going to go to the theater so the last thing in the world I was going to do was do that myself to an unsuspecting audience.
Do you see this film as a risky move on your part?
Well, I recognize that if my goal was buying a big jet then it probably isn’t the right subject matter. We’re at the time where people want more escapist fare, where comedy is -- from a financial point of view -- a safer bet. But I’ve had this career-long obsession that there is a way to make a piece of mass entertainment that is also relevant.
You seem to have a strong facility between -- I’m going to call it the quote unquote popcorn film -- and the serious film that we can call "Fair Game." This isn't "Jumper."
Well because even when I’m doing popcorn, somewhere in my mind is a serious movie, it’s the only way I can live with myself. I think I can talk about every one of my movies and give you the spiel that I would give at a cocktail party if people asked what I was working on, that would make it sound like I’m doing "Fair Game."
For every single one?
Honestly, I’ll bet at the end of the day it doesn’t just play as a popcorn movie, but I think people recognize from my films that there’s sort of an innate intelligence, even in the, for the most goofiest comedic moments, that there’s an actual reason for this movie. And that there filmmaker is, there’s an actual intelligence and thinking that’s going into it, so "Fair Game" is, to me is more of a continuum then it is a change.
There are thrillerish tones in it that are similar to 'Bourne.'
And similar to "Mr. And Mrs. Smith" tones. I think that Sean and Naomi have that same funny -- you know, before things turned bad -- had the same sort of fun and unique interaction that the characters in "Mr. And Mrs. Smith" have. Because they are just as outrageous as the "Mr. And Mrs. Smith" characters are. The one thing about reality is sometimes it gives you material that is wilder than some of your wildest imagination could come up with.
Was it hard to get those two on board?
It was not. This was the first movie since 'Swingers' that the first two people I sent the screenplay to said, "yes." And you know in the case of 'Swingers' the actors were out of work. I mean they were saying yes to me while bartending, and actually I paid them so little that it wasn’t even a choice, they just had to do both.
Sean Penn had just won the Academy award so he could have played anything he wanted, but it’s a testament both to, to the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and it’s also a testament to the real life Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. Because in a way Jez and John-Henry don’t get to take credit for those characters the way the screenwriters for "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" can take credit for those characters because those characters were made up.
Translating that reality to the big screen, I just hadn’t done it to this level and also the thing about "Swingers," or even "Bourne Identity," which drew a lot from reality, at the end of the day it’s a fictional story, and you just take whatever qualities you like from real life. And that whatever’s not convenient for real life you leave out and you’re telling it as your story it’s almost like a Sudoku puzzle because you actually have to work with the hand that you’re dealt. And so you don’t get to just choose the most interesting qualities of Joe and Valerie. But you know this has been the best reviewed film of my career, and the people who have criticized it have mostly criticized the ending, but where I have received criticism it’s been about the ending, and that unfortunately is the nature of telling a true story. Because trust me, the real life Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson would have liked a more Hollywood ending too. Valerie’s a trained CIA agent, you don’t think she would have preferred a finale where she stormed the White House with the skills the CIA taught her during her career? That not only would have been a better ending for the movie, it would have been a more dramatic ending for her in real life.
"Fair Game" hits theaters in wide release this weekend, Friday, November 19.