Director Reveals Incredible Personal Connection to Tom Cruise’s ‘American Made’

Chris Tilly

The first trailer for new Tom Cruise movie American Made debuted today, and to coincide with the launch, FANDOM sat down with the film’s director Doug Liman to discuss the making of the movie.

American Made is based on a true story and revolves around Barry Seal, a pilot and hustler who ended up working for both the CIA and Pablo Escobar.

In the below interview, Liman reveals his own amazing personal connection to Seal’s story, and describes some of the amazing stunts that Tom Cruise pulled off in the air.

FANDOM: What was the appeal of this story?

Doug Liman: I was sent the script by Brian Grazer. As a producer he has one of the most incredible track records, and he said he was going to send me the script to American Made, so you take that really seriously – any material coming from Brian Grazer. And I fell in love with the character Barry Seal – he spoke to a lot of qualities that I myself cherish – this fearless anti-authoritarian boldness. In my own limited way, within my career, I’ve challenged the studios, which is nothing in comparison to the people that Barry Seal took on. But he’s a role model to me, of sorts, of challenging authority, and just bold, outrageous action. So that’s what drew me into wanting to make this movie and tell the story. So I was – as I was reading the script – I was like, ‘I love this world, I love the character. I want to make this movie.’

Then when I got towards the very end of the story of the script, Oliver North makes an appearance, who I know first-hand. I’ve spoken with Oliver North. I based the villain in The Bourne Identity on Oliver North – Chris Cooper’s playing Oliver North. And I know Oliver North because my father ran the investigation into Iran-Contra, and Oliver North and my father were adversaries. And so I realised in that moment – I was like, ‘I know this story.’ I didn’t know this aspect of the story, but Barry Seal is one of the pilots flying the missions that my father was investigating. I’d seen it from the Washington side, because my father was in Washington and he was investigating it from the White House, and this was the same story but it was from Arkansas. It was the people on the ground actually carrying out Ronald Reagan’s agenda. So I realised towards the end. I was like, ‘Oh, this is the exact opposite way into the story that I already knew.’

Domhnaal Gleeson and Tom Cruise in American Made.

FANDOM: With what’s happening in American politics right now, is this a very timely story?

Liman: Certainly my father’s investigation into Iran-Contra is in the news again because he made the decision to give immunity to people in the White House to have the investigation be conducted quickly and to have the truth come out quickly. But it also meant that people like Oliver North, who are convicted of serious crimes, were able to have those convictions thrown out because of the immunity.

And so given what’s happening in Washington today, people are debating how wise the decision was for my father to grant immunity. I will defend – not only because he’s my father, but because the truth got out more quickly, that America; the world – would benefit from granting people like [General Mike] Flynn immunity, and let’s get this over with. The stakes are way bigger than whether one person goes to jail or not.

FANDOM: In the trailer, Barry Seal says, “Some of this sh*t really happened?” So how much of the story if true and how much is embellished?

Liman: The more outrageous things are actually the true things. The things that we embellished were the little details. I fact I wanted to tell the story in such a way that when people look into it, as outrageous as the movie is, when people leave the theatre and look into Barry Seal, the reality is it was even more extreme than we showed.

Cruise plays pilot Barry Seal.

FANDOM: Tom Cruise does all his own flying and stunts in the movie – how do you get insurance for that?

Liman: You get a special insurance policy, and a lot of the flying stunts originated because we were filming in Colombia and we had an army of pilots working with us there. We were flying to remote locations and had all sorts of small airplanes. And pretty much every one of those pilots, in a previous life, had flown for Pablo Escobar. I would usually sit up front with the pilot in one of the planes when we were ferrying from one location to another, and by the time we’d land, that pilot would have been regaling me with stories of the flying they had done, and I would land and tell my producers: ‘Oh, these guys just told me about what they used to do, and we should put that in the movie.’

So pretty much all the outrageous flying stunts originated from first-hand recounting. And all these people knew Barry Seal. They all knew each other and all knew Barry Seal. So for me, it was very fortuitous that we ended up filming in Colombia, and that I was exposed to so many pilots who had flown with Barry Seal, and who shared with me the outrageous stunts Barry Seal and these guys did in real life. For them it was routine. But it got to the point where my producers were like, ‘Stop talking to these pilots’ – because every time I’d talk to a pilot I’d come away with a new stunt that we have to do.

Cruise does all his own flying in the film.

FANDOM: What was the most dangerous stunt Cruise performed in the film?

Liman: All of the flying was extremely dangerous, before you add the fact that we’re filming it. Tom’s doing the kind of flying Barry Seal did, but he’s doing it while also acting and while having to worry about the fact that it’s being filmed. We flew across oceans 100 feet above the water at 250 miles an hour – which is a very unforgiving place to be in a twin-engine plane because altitude is your friend when something goes wrong, and at 100 feet you have just no margin for error. Anything goes wrong and you have to deal with it in a split second. And he’s having to act. And there’s a helicopter flying alongside that we’re trying to co-ordinate. We landed on some very remote and hairy air-strips. Which are the kind of airstrips that Barry Seal landed on in real life, but again Tom is having to do it while acting.

We were even going to simulate landing at night on a remote airstrip lit by a pick-up truck, and because the camera ran out of film we had to reload, and by the time we reloaded, it actually was night. In fact the producers thought we had wrapped and suddenly we saw the pick-up truck turning its lights off and going home. We were like, ‘No, we need that pickup truck back, we now have to do this stunt for real.’ And Tom really is an extraordinary pilot. I know people are like, ‘Oh, he’s Tom Cruise, people are going to compliment him anyhow’ but he really – having now done a film where he did his own stunts in Edge of Tomorrow, and seeing him as a pilot, he’s a great stuntman, and he really is an extraordinary pilot. We had a lot of professional pilots on the film, and he was the strongest pilot.

American Made hits UK screens on August 25 and US screens September 29.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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