Executive Producer Doug Liman Gives Insight into USA Network’s Covert Affairs: Podcast Pt 2.
Executive Producer Doug Liman knows how to create great characters. He definitely adopts a character-driven attitude when it comes to movies (Bourne Triology ) and TV (The OC). Now he hits USA Networks with Covert Affairs on July 13 at 10 PM with the pilot that will kick this series into gear and watch the tension ratchet up in future episodes.
This is part 2 of a podcast/transcript that was done with a round-table of journos and it shows you just how deep Liman and team go into creating movies and series. It’s that potent an interview. If you heard Peter Gallagher, this one provides all the missing pieces that Gallagher’s was missing because this is the guy who’s sitting in the drivers seat when it comes to creating the road-map for this show.
Moderator Our first question comes from John Larocque from Media Boulevard.
J. Larocque I’m just kind of following up on a comment you made on the last phone call. One thing that interested me in the relationship between Fair Game and Covert Affairs, it said that the CIA was not going to be supportive of Fair Game and yet they were very supportive of CA. What interested me is that you’re able to get all that research and be able to use it both ways and open doors. Can you talk a little bit about that?
D. Liman Yes. I think the key was that once–I had a brief window before Fair Game was announced to personally have access to the CIA. Even though both Fair Game and Covert Affairs are supportive, they’re both very pro-CIA. In fact, I just learned last week that Tennant himself, while complaining that The Bourne Identity movies are not realistic, that they are good recruitment tools for the CIA.
In my particular case, I like to see things firsthand. So I personally wanted to go to Baghdad and see with my own eyes before talking about an operation that took place in Iraq in Fair Game. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I had never been to the CIA, I wanted to go inside and see with my own eyes. Once I was associated with Valerie Plame, my access to the CIA in terms of my being able to go inside that building was going to probably never happen again, at least under that administration. In fact, we are in conversation with the CIA right now about filming inside the CIA for Covert Affairs.
So I think in general, my relationship with them is very positive. Fair Game was a touchy subject. There is still litigation going on associated with it. It’s the kind of subject that people don’t really want to touch.
Moderator Our next question comes from the line of Pattye Grippo with Pazsaz.com.
P. Grippo The question I have is a lot of people have been asking the relationship between Arthur and Joan Campbell. In the pilot, at least, it’s kind of strained, which is interesting because they work so closely together. What they’ve been wanting to know is are these two going to be a factor throughout the season in the show or is this something that is limited just to the pilot?
D. Liman No, it is definitely a running through line. We cast amazing actors. Peter Gallagher and I go back to our days on The O.C. and even on that show, one of the breakthrough things for The O.C. was that normally a show like that the parents would just be the foil. They’d be like those characters in Charlie Brown that are just like, “Waah, waah, waah, waah.” We actually said no, just because they’re parents doesn’t mean they don’t have their own loves and desires. That doesn’t go away just because you grow up and have kids. That sort of parallel universe brought the same thing to Covert Affairs that you don’t have to be in your 20’s to have interesting, romantic challenges.
Obviously, anyone who has seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith knows that husband and wife married spies is something that I find particularly interesting. We were talking about Fair Game, there are some similarities to Fair Game, too, because only one of them is a spy but it’s still sort of husband and wife maintaining a marriage against the backdrop of all the lies that come with that kind of job.
Moderator Our next question comes from the line of Sheldon Wiebe with Eclipse Magazine.
S. Wiebe There are elements of Covert Affairs that obviously remind us of earlier things you’ve done like in the shows kinetic energy and the, as you referred to moments ago, the Arthur and Joan Campbell thing. They could be Mr. and Mrs. Smith 15 years later. You also have to figure in USA has a certain model. They have a thing with the fish out of water lead character and the kind of easy, breezy surface style with the dark edge underneath to make the stakes feel real. What I’m wondering is how did you develop Covert Affairs for USA?
D. Liman I have a partner Dave Bartis and together we have a TV deal at NBC Universal and so our sort of horizon tends to be within the Universal family. The tone of show that we were looking to do with Covert Affairs really fit perfectly within the brand of USA. It was kind of like we found each other as opposed to us modifying something for them. We went to them first and we went to them with a specific tone, knowing that it was going to be a good fit. That’s an important thing as a filmmaker is making sure–It’s not just getting your thing made, it’s getting it made in the right way. Part of making it the right way is making sure that you’re at the right home and that you’re not constantly going to be fighting because they like oranges and you like making apples.
In fact, one of the huge upsides of being at USA is because I had a tone in mind that is consistent with other things I saw on USA, once you go to a place like that as your home, suddenly the feedback you get from the executives at USA is awesome because you’re not fighting each other. You both have the same end goal, and they have years of experience in this tone. I get to bring my years of experience, and it’s been an amazing collaboration with them. Sometimes you might hear filmmakers complaining about executives. But in this particular case, every time we’ve had a note session with them, the show has gotten consistently better.
Moderator Our next question comes from Icess Fernandez with the Charter Playground.
I. Fernandez I have seen the pilot about 3,000 times at this point and I adore it. I think one of the questions I desperately wanted to ask is tell me about the difference between storytelling for the screen versus storytelling in an hour format for television.
D. Liman Well, it’s hard to get a movie made about characters these days. We’re in a climate where unless it’s based on a toy or it’s a superhero where somewhere it ends a man – Spiderman, Superman, Ironman – that’s where movie companies are putting their resources. TV is sort of the last … of a safe place to develop real characters. People are going to tune in next week not because of the spectacle you showed them, they’re going to tune in next week because of Piper and because of her character.
In movies, you can basically buy the audience into the theatre a little bit. If you spend enough money on visual effects, even if you are lacking in story and character, you might still pull it off. TV has no choice but to rely on character and everybody knows that. I love working in it. It’s such a big canvas where, if you’re successful, you go on for years so it’s a much bigger canvas than the movie ever could be.
I pride myself on doing character-driven movies, and when my movies have worked, it’s been because it’s been the right casting and the right character and it just clicks. Not every filmmaker does that with their films. For big Hollywood movies, I’m on the more character-driven side of the equation. So TV is a natural place for me to be because you’ve got no choice but to be character-driven.
I Fernandez Is there anything that you do to help you guide how you’re going to develop your character?
D. Liman Well, it is, at the end of the day, 100% about casting. One of the things I love about TV is that, because it is a longer format– My own personal process within movies is to develop the characters with the actors and when I’ve done that properly, you can’t imagine anyone else but that actor playing that part.
Because of all the romantic controversy around Mr. and Mrs. Smith, there was a lot of talk about the casting of that movie. Angelina Jolie was not my first choice. When people hear about the other actresses we were considering, they say, “Wow, you were really lucky that that didn’t work out and you ended up with Angelina.” What people don’t realize is had it worked out with a different actress, I would have created a different character and you would have been saying to me, “I can’t imagine Angelina playing that part because it was so Nicole Kidman.”
Or you know Brad Pitt was originally Jason Bourne before Matt Damon. You probably say, “I can’t imagine Brad Pitt playing Jason Bourne.” But had I done The Bourne Identity with Brad Pitt and I did my job properly, you would be saying to me, “I can’t imagine Matt Damon ever playing that part.”
It’s almost a work-shopping process to create the characters with the actors. In film, that can cause some problems. That’s not an entirely conventional way of going about making movies. I’ve had some fairly public battles as a result. Whereas in TV, that is inherently part of the process, so the moment you cast Piper and you start working with her, you start to figure out what really clicks, what really works. Then you write to that. Then eventually, it’s almost like custom-fitting an article of clothing. Because it’s long form, it goes on. Even in just the first season of Covert Affairs, our canvas is bigger than the canvas of Bourne Identity and its two sequels, and same thing with Auggie. You get to sort of see on a weekly basis what is sort of working – on a daily basis, for that matter, and then you write to those strengths.
The most extreme example of that is I once shot a pilot and we discovered that one of the actresses was particularly good at crying. We just wrote to that, and suddenly they were crying in every episode and it worked. So it’s like what is the person really good at, and then you write to it.
By the way, that’s how I edit. Once I’m in the editing room, forget about what I intended to shoot. I take a cold, hard look at what I really did shoot and then I edit that because if you try to edit what you intended and you missed somewhere, that will show up versus if you actually edit what you did shoot, it looks like you did it perfectly, if that makes sense.
Moderator Our next question comes from the line of Amy Harrington with Pop Culture Passionistas.
A Harrington I’m here with my sister Nancy who is my writing partner. We understand that Covert Affairs has kind of a heightened reality to it and we’re wondering how you defined the boundaries of that.
D. Liman That’s a good question. My true love of the show and of this world is that special spot where the spy world and our world, the world the rest of us inhabit, intersect. I’m fascinated by that in real life; fascinated by the spies on the Hudson and how those people interact with the world that I interact with, and what overlaps we have. In real life, I’m fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by it in my movies. When I started Bourne Identity, the first question I said to myself was how come you never see James Bond pay a phone bill or rent, so I just always had that in the back of my head.
So for me, the hyper-reality of the world of Covert Affairs, the only boundary is that she has to be able to return to Earth when she goes home, whether it’s at the beginning of the episode, end of the episode, middle of the episode. As long as she can return home and return home to the world that we know, the missions can be as outrageous as our imaginations can carry us. We’ll know we’re going too far if suddenly there is not a real world to return to. That’s where I draw the line. Does that make sense?
A Harrington In an unrelated topic, we understand you went to Haiti with Sean Penn’s Jenkins-Penn Relief Organization. We were wondering if you could tell us about that experience.
D. Liman I went twice, once right after the earthquake and then once about a month and a half ago, each time for a week. What’s incredible about the work that Sean is doing–First of all, I’ll just give you the setting. We stayed on a tennis court, in tents on a tennis court overlooking a golf course in which about 60,000 displaced Haitians are living with poles and fabric and tarps as their homes. Sean has made it his personal mission to look after these people. Rightly so, if he’s there, the world can’t possibly ignore these people as long as he’s there. If the world ignores these people, the level of misery and suffering is inconceivable.
The really interesting thing is when I first got there with Sean it was right after the earthquake, nobody was living inside. Everybody was living in a tent. Most people were living on the runway, one of the taxiways at the airport because that was sort of semi-safe. Where Sean was out in the middle of Port au Prince at this … country club and the interesting thing was when I went back a month and a half ago, almost all the other non-profits down there, those people have all moved into homes or hotels. Sean is still in literally the exact same tent he was in in mid-January. It gives a real sense of urgency to helping these people when you yourself are living under the same conditions they are.
I had the same kind of eye-rolling attitude about what is a movie star going to possibly accomplish in Haiti that I’m sure everyone on this call has hearing about it. I’m as cynical as they come. I hear about Edwards going down there handing out food and I’m like, “That guy’s just trying to take focus away from his marriage.” I’m really as cynical as they come.
What Sean is doing there is simply remarkable and inspirational. And personally inspirational that I live in New York City, I’m surrounded by people who work in non-profits, lawyers who do pro-bono work on the side, and I’m like, “I’m a filmmaker. What can I really do?” Seeing what Sean is doing in Haiti, the two kinds of people that are operating best in that war zone is the military and the filmmakers who are down there. Filmmakers know how to go into an environment with minimal infrastructure, and get shit done.