Photo by: Heidi Gutman/USA Network
This season a brand new agent took over the small screen. Part Sydney Bristow on Alias, part Clarie Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, Annie Walker (played by Piper Perabo) has been kicking butt and winning viewers’ hearts for months.
Covert Affairs fans will be sad to see the two-hour finale come tonight. But they won’t be disappointed. It’s not surprising with an Executive Producer like Doug Liman on the case. After all, he’s a big screen action movie master—having directed The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
In a conference call interview Liman spoke about developing the series, casting the stars, doing research at the CIA, and what’s next for him beyond the show.
Catch the season finale of Covert Affairs tonight at 10:00 pm on USA.
Q: How did you develop Covert Affairs for USA?
DOUG: I have a partner, Dave Bartis, and together we have a TV deal at NBC Universal and so our horizon tends to be within the Universal family. The tone of the 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… 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.
Q: Is there anything that you do to help guide how you’re going to develop a character?
DOUG: 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 see on a weekly basis what is 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.
Q: With the actors in Covert Affairs, had you had some or all of them in mind for the characters at first or if they all just fell into place?
DOUG: Certainly Piper and Chris [Gorham] we had in mind, whereas Jai, we knew what the template for that character was but there were so many different directions we could go. We were looking at all known quantities so when you’re thinking about Sendhil [Ramamurthy], we can sit around the room and talk about if we cast him, here are the qualities we can bring to that character and here are the storylines that would make sense for a character with those qualities to go on and here’s what the show would look like if we cast him. We had discussed other people to play that part and in the same way we could say here is the direction that character would go if you cast that person.
You don’t have to wait until you’re on the set with the actor. For the ones who are known, in the act of casting them, you’re actually making some decisions about how you’re going to tailor the character to fit that particular person.
Peter [Gallagher] and Kari [Matchett], in the act of casting them, we were committing to a specific dynamic and a specific set of story lines. It doesn’t mean you still don’t discover things on the day because you don’t know what the two of them are going to be like dealing with this particular subject matter, the same way that obviously Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were known quantities when I cast them. But the first time I ever put them in a room together was on the first day of shooting. You’re going to discover things, as much as you think you know two giant movie stars, the moment you put them in a scene together you’re going to discover things. I pride myself on my ability to step back and say I know we planned on this, but what is really happening. What is naturally happening here? Just take that step back and evaluate.
As much as we said, when we cast Sendhil, we said here are the storylines we’re going to get as a result of casting him in this part. Until you actually have Sendhil on the set playing Jai, you can’t know 100%. I pride myself on just, once you’ve done a couple days of shooting with them, taking a step back and saying how is this really working and let’s just constantly do mid-course adjustments. Those never stop.
Q. Covert Affairs has a heightened reality to it and we’re wondering how you defined the boundaries of that.
DOUG: 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.
Q: How much of the Bourne trilogy do you bring to Covert Affairs in terms of the spy gadgets and the action sequences?
DOUG: This isn’t a sequel to Bourne. It is not Green Zone, which tries to just rip off Bourne Identity. I did Bourne. I created that. But this is me doing something new. USA has a marketing team and Bourne Identity is very popular, in their promotions and talking about it. They’ll talk about Bourne Identity a lot because it is obviously in the spy genre. But I don’t try to repeat myself and Covert Affairs is definitively not Bourne Identity.
Q: What about in terms of the process?
DOUG: I think that having been through the process now, there are certain things that I know work that I learned on Bourne Identity like having a very special and very specific point of view when it comes to action works. The moment I started sitting down with Matt and Chris and said we need a point of view on our action. If I hadn’t had the experience on Bourne Identity I might not have been so adamant how critical that was to us. Therefore, it’s important that, in the middle of the shootout, she leaves the Blackberry behind because that’s human. Our character is going to make mistakes. Let’s own that. Jason Bourne never makes a mistake. That’s what is specific to him.
For Annie, we’re going to own it’s her first day. What would your first day really be like? Obviously it’s heightened. So I think that, plus we were defining, on Bourne Identity, a specific style of action that in a way came from some of the limitations involved with shooting the movie. In Covert Affairs, because it’s a television show and because Matt and Chris write outrageous action for each episode, the later episodes have action that is significantly more outrageous than anything in the pilot, that in the same way that I had to re-approach Bourne and say we’re going to have to come up with a different way of shooting action just to be able to afford this, then it suddenly becomes style, same thing on Covert Affairs.
Because that works, I totally engage it and, in fact, just this week we were dealing with an episode, the director named Rod Hardy’s episode 108 where they’re having a fight on the dock. In the script it lands in the water, it’s really dramatic and scary that she’s in the water with somebody that’s trying to kill her. I was talking to Rod who is directing that episode and he said, “It’s TV. We can’t really afford to drop her in the water because of the time that it’s going to take and how difficult it’s going to be to shoot the fight in the water.” Again, I was talking about having to have a conversation with each director about what the specific tone of our action in, but it’s also having conversations with each of them about the fact that we are adopting a style of shooting action in the show that enables us to, no matter how outrageous the scene is written, to pull it off.
It’s both by using new technology like the Canon Mark 5D IIs, however you say that… Canon 5D Mark II. It’s a still camera that shoots 24 frames hi def. I used it a little bit on Fair Game and we have five of them on the set of Covert Affairs. It actually brings more Swingers to the table than Bourne in that particular situation.
In the case of Swingers, I wasn’t video, I was shooting film. But I was shooting high speed film stock. I said I’m not going to use high speed film stock and then shoot the movie the way everybody else shoots their movie. I’m going to say what can I do with high speed film stock. How can I shoot in a way that’s different than how the movies that came before me shot?
That really came from the fact that I had shot a short film in film school on 35mm. I noticed when the camera was rolling and before it panned on to the set or something, so it was aimed off the set, I could see everything fine. I could see there is the brightly lit set, but I could see into the shadows and I could see the crew walking around. It looks fine. I said why are we going through all this trouble to light the set when this film stock evidently seems to be able to mirror the human eye.
So, I brought that to Swingers and said we’re not going to have any movie lights. So the lighting equipment on Swingers came from Home Depot because they were movie lights, they could be in the shots because the lighting equipment consisted of 100 watt light bulbs. You’d just go into a location and change out the light bulbs for 100 watt light bulbs and we’d go shoot. That defined the style for that movie.
In the same way, we have these really small cameras. We’re not going to use them just in place of a traditional movie camera. What can we do with these cameras? What is doable today that wasn’t doable a year ago, because these cameras didn’t shoot 24 frames per second a year ago, but they do now? What can we do today?
In the case of this water sequence, I’m saying we can shoot this sequence with these cameras because if one lands in the water, who cares. Suddenly you can get the camera operators in the water with these cameras. If you were using older technology like The Red, which is only two years old anyhow but if you’re using older technology like The Red, you’d be having to figure out how not to have the camera land in the water. And the amount of equipment involved in protecting the camera would basically make shooting a fight sequence in the water prohibitive or you’d have the camera far away and it just wouldn’t be exciting.
Suddenly we can do a fight sequence in the water and the cameras can be inches above the water. That’s the other half to how we’re approaching action is we’re being inventive about what you can do with technology today that wasn’t doable a year ago, let alone ten years ago.
Q: How do you prepare the action sequences with actors who may not have done them before? Are there any challenges that come with that?
DOUG: One of the things I learned on Bourne Identity was if you can possibly do it, cast a stunt person. Better to find a stunt person who can act, easier to do that than to find an actor who can do a stunt. The other thing is it’s much easier to do a fight sequence between… one of the two people in the fight needs to be a stunt person or you’re going to risk somebody getting hurt. Piper can do the fight herself if the other person she’s fighting is a trained stunt person. In the same way that Matt Damon, most of the characters surrounding Matt Damon that he fights with were, first and foremost, stunt people and that way, you don’t need to have stunt doubles.
That’s the main philosophy for putting Piper into the action. And by now she’s done eight episodes. She’s almost a stuntwoman herself. She has more fighting experience now than probably a lot of female stunt people have because she’s been doing it for months.
Q: Can you tell us about the research you did at the CIA for both the film Fair Game and the TV series Covert Affairs?
DOUG: Yes. 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.
Q: What is the difference between storytelling for the screen versus storytelling in an hour format for television?
DOUG: 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 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.
Q: Can you talk about your upcoming projects All You Need is Kill and Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter?
DOUG: [All You Need is Kill] it’s a project I’m developing at Warner Bros. It’s an amazing, amazing script. It’s a wholly original piece of writing. It delivers all of the wiz-bang satisfaction of a big Hollywood effects movie, but it does it in a completely original way.
You can find truly original pieces of writing, but they’re original because who would have even have thought of that or why would anyone ever want to go see that. Then there are things that are I love that kind of movie, but it’s not original. So when somebody can actually write something that is wholly original and delivers traditional entertainment value but is totally original, that is Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Simon Kinberg did that and now you see a slew of movies trying to rip that off. The one thing they can never rip off is how fresh that movie felt when it came out.
Nick Tungsten, Nightmare Hunter is a project I’ve been developing for years because it’s an action movie set entirely inside a child’s nightmare. What I love about that particular one is it’s an adventure fantasy film like Harry Potter. But unlike in Harry Potter, unless an owl comes and delivers you that letter, you don’t get to go to Hogwarts. This particular movie, anybody can go join the playing field because all you have to do is go to sleep. If you dream it, it’s an adventure film for the proletariat. It’s accessible to everybody. That being said, I’ve had script issues so it’s pretty far off still, but the core idea is something I love.