Before he starts work in Limerick on a new series from George RR Martin, director Doug Liman is bringing the tale of super smuggler Barry Seal to the big screen, writes Esther McCarthy.
For a man who smuggled guns for the CIA and brought drugs into the US for the notorious Medellin cartel, Barry Seal was, by all accounts, a very nice fellow.
When director Doug Liman was researching for a new movie about Seal, everyone he met had only warm words to say of him — even the pilot whose plane he had stolen.
Now the story of the American’s daredevil smuggling trips — and how they placed him front and centre in one of the greatest scandals in US political history — is coming to the big screen.
Tom Cruise plays Seal in American Made, the story of an ordinary TWA pilot tasked with taking covert images of Central American countries, and later with smuggling arms to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It led partly to the notorious Iran-Contra affair, which almost brought down Ronald Reagan’s government.
Incredibly, Seal was also running hundreds of flights for the Ochoa Brothers from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel. It was the type of tall but true story that appealed to
director Liman, whose previous hits include The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow.
SEAL OF APPROVAL
It wasn’t long before Liman learned of Seal’s sheer charisma. “The thing that’s most remarkable about Barry Seal? How everyone who knew him loved him,” he tells me.
“We met a pilot who told us they loved Barry Seal and we asked how they met, and the guy said Barry stole an airplane from him.
“We met his widow and she showed a picture of her visiting him in a prison in Guatemala, and cutting his birthday cake with a machete. And this is the woman who thought she was marrying a TWA airline pilot. She loved him so much she never remarried.
“We talked to the people in the DEA, who told us how much they loved Barry, how he always delivered. And we’re talking about one of the largest drugs smugglers in American history.
“I just think they were captivated by him. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He wasn’t even in it for the money, he just loved the adventure of it.”
Liman has a personal connection to historical events. His late father, Arthur, was a top New York lawyer who worked as chief counsel to the senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair.
“Yes, he ran the investigation into these events for the US government. So I had a personal connection to it but that’s not what hooked me on the story. I’ve known of these events since they happened, because they were dinner table conversation.
“It wasn’t until I read Gary Spinelli’s screenplay and I saw the story from the point of view of Barry Seal that I became interested. I’m not interested in making a history movie, I’m interested in making a movie about characters that I find interesting. That was the reason I made this movie. It was a coincidence that it happened to be a world I knew as well as I know.”
For Liman, one of Hollywood’s best-known directors since having a smash hit with the comedy Swingers, Cruise, who he worked with on Edge of Tomorrow, was the best choice to play Seal.
“I thought of Tom Cruise’s performance in Risky Business when I was casting him for American Made. He played a high-schooler who starts a brothel, and it’s what made him a movie star. I was excited to revisit that kind of anti-hero with him.
“There’s such a fun and important sequence for Tom and myself, when the money starts to become a problem, where he’s running out of places to bury it. When he digs in his back yard and he keeps hitting bags of money he’s previously buried. The money weighs too much, it’s overwhelming him, it’s a problem.
“Whatever it was you asked him to do, whether it was fly guns to contras in Central America, or get drugs across the border, he always got it done. If you needed photographs of Pablo Escobar, which was how we were able to ultimately charge him, he’ll get it done for you. So often while it was not legal what he was doing, he was reliable.”
In his film roles, Cruise famously wants to do as much of his own stuntwork as possible and manned his own plane during the film’s many in-the-air scenes.
“We were only going to make this film if we could do the flying for real, both Tom and myself. With him doing it, there are parts where he’s doing all the flying himself. He trained in our specific airplanes, though he’s already a very experienced pilot and he has a long track record of safely flying.”
DIVERSITY IS KEY
During his long and varied directorial career, Liman has avoided sticking with the same genre and has frequently approached a subject matter in an unconventional way.
“I just think it’s the contrarian in me, that I look at a genre and think, ‘Everybody else does it this way, I want to do it a different way’,” he says.
“With this, it’s such a personal movie, and it isn’t because of my father’s work investigating these events, it’s because somewhere I really connect to Barry Seal, this guy who refused to go down the beaten path, and was going to chart his own route, literally and figuratively, through life, couldn’t be controlled and couldn’t be contained. In the same way maybe when I tackle a genre I don’t want to be contained by the way it’s normally done.”
As well as a filmmaker, Liman is a highly successful producer, and one of his upcoming projects is an Irish one.
Nightflyers — from Game of Thrones author George RR Martin — will film in Troy Studios in Limerick this autumn. While a pilot is all that’s been confirmed for now, he indicated that it has the potential to be a long-running smash. He feels bringing the production here is a wise move.
“You have amazing film crews in Ireland. And when you’re doing something that’s set this huge, you need the best film crews there are.
“I don’t want to disparage other countries, but there’s a very short list of places you can go and do science fiction that have the craftsmen capable of building the costumes, the sets, the props. And the pool of acting talent — that was the attraction to Ireland.
“It’s a big ambitious series and I think we’ll be in Ireland for many years.
“One of my long-time producers who I’ve done a few movies with now, is from Ireland. You not only have great crews but you have produced somebody named Alison Winter who’s helped me on the last few projects and made them the projects that they are. And she’s probably the most excited that we have a project in Ireland.”
American Made opens on Friday.
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