In the midst of the CGI landscapes and comic book swashbuckling of the summer movie season, director Doug Liman’s The Wall seems like classic counterprogramming. Instead of a bustling cast of talking animals or cartoon babies in suits, The Wall is a throwback three-hander about dueling snipers in the finals days of the Iraq War. Even if three people (John Cena, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and an unseen protagonist) glaring at each other through scopes doesn’t sound like obvious blockbuster fodder, the film does tap into our collective obsession with snipers.
Anyone who has read Charlie Brooker’s classic essay on sniper video games knows the perverse thrill of assassinating “anonymous strangers on the horizon, which is what God wants videogames to do.” In popular culture, sniping combines lurid voyeurism with virtual omnipotence. We marvel at the crack shots like Chris Kyle, the man who inspired the film American Sniper and turn them into legendary figures. In that sense, The Wall is an extension of that myth-making, but during my recent conversation with Liman in West Hollywood, he has other things on his mind besides canonizing the sniper.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
What do you think fascinates movie audiences about sniper movies? It’s a very specific type of tension that’s built up in a sniper movie versus a traditional war film.
Good question. To be honest, I never watched American Sniper, because I already had this on the horizon when it came out. I never saw the original TV movie of Bourne Identity. I didn’t want anything to influence me in the making of The Wall, so I’m probably one of the least qualified people to answer.
Let me readjust this question. What fascinates you about this dynamic?
The thing about snipers is, you’re killing somebody who’s so far away. On some level, it’s so personal, because you see them in the crosshairs. It’s not like dropping a bomb, where it’s indiscriminate. You’re almost god-like in your power, especially because the facts of a sniper rifle, you’re so far away and the bullet travels faster than the speed of sound.
So, the person’s been dead for two seconds by the time the sound of your gunfire reaches them. That sounds like something science-fictiony, made up for Hollywood, but that’s the reality of snipers. The motto in the film that Aaron Taylor-Johnson says — from a place you will not see, comes a sound you will not hear — that’s the motto of snipers. You’re dead before the sound gets to you. There’s something so intimate, yet so impersonal. You’re so far away. Certainly for me, making The Wall, it’s this cat-and-mouse, but you’re never going to see the person.
It’s not quite like a drone warfare situation, where it’s a person in a control room pressing a button. You’re still out there. You’re still vulnerable in a certain way, but you also do have that, as you say, hand of god.
Our military advisor goes by the nickname “the Reaper.” That’s almost biblical in the way he metes out death.
What did you learn about the personality trait that is required to perform that job? It seems beyond my comprehension to understand taking a life in that way.
You have to start in the place that some wars have to be fought, that someone’s gotta fight them. I know from the soldiers that I met with and helped me make The Wall, it’s better to fight them there than fight them here. No one wants to know how the sausage is made, but some things have to be done to keep us safe.
I think your movie brings up an interesting question, that we’re keeping ourselves safe, while the Iraqis are not able to keep themselves safe. What’s your thought about that, about these two diametrically opposed figures representing these two countries, and one of them is saying what you’re saying, that they want to keep themselves safe, keep people away from our country, but then this country is being invaded, people are being invaded, and they’re blowing up schools?
My films don’t have evil villains. They have villains. They have villains who are trying to kill the hero, but the villains in all of my movies have a valid point of view. The people hunting Jason Bourne have a total valid point of view. You could easily make that movie and make the people hunting Jason Bourne the heroes. I imagine when Matt Damon never wants to do one again, maybe we’ll do one of those movies and the hero is the person who successfully kills Jason Bourne. The general who sends Tom Cruise to the front line and his death in Edge of Tomorrow has a valid point of view for doing that.
The Iraqi sniper trying to kill Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena has a valid point of view for doing what he’s doing. Those make the scariest villains. It’s almost Batman and Joker-esque. We created this sniper. We trained him, we alienated him, we stabbed him in the back. We created this adversary. Doesn’t make the Joker any less of an adversary that Batman helped create him. In fact, it makes him a worse adversary.
Was there ever a thought to showing the Iraqi sniper, or did you always feel like it needed to be this idea as opposed to a specific type of person or an actor you can look at?
I felt like, in a way, you look at some alien movie where you say, “I wish they didn’t show the alien.” It was just scarier when it was an idea. Combined with the fact that I really wanted to put the audience in Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s shoes. He doesn’t get to see the sniper. The sniper is too far away. As it is, it was hotly debated in my editing room, whether we would even cut away from Aaron to show the trash heap not from his point of view. I felt it was important to not be totally religiously stuck in Aaron’s point of view, but there’s a point where you change perspectives so much, it’s...how could that not be a letdown? I couldn’t think of a way to direct any actor that would be scarier than what’s in your imagination.
Do you feel like the Iraqi sniper character is human enough that people can identify with him or will people just say, “that’s a villain”?
I think for our story, he’s the villainous character, the same way the people hunting Jason Bourne are villainous characters, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have a legitimate point of view. I’m just not telling the story from their point of view. I’m giving you enough information that you could tell the story from their point of view. They’re the heroes of their story, but I’m not telling that point of view. I’m telling it from this point of view.
Tell me about casting John Cena. He’s known now for comedic work. He had done military roles in the past. Was there an audition process? I know that character was added to the script by you during the pre-production process.
I wanted a character you could count on to save the day. Someone to bring that kind of stature. John Cena just has that quality. You kinda feel like everything’s gonna be OK. That can’t be acted. That’s the kind of star quality some people have. Once I’d created that character and wanted that character to play this role in the movie, John Cena became a pretty obvious choice. Also, I was excited by the idea of taking somebody who hadn’t done anything like this before. I hadn’t made a movie like The Wall before. Aaron Taylor-Johnson hadn’t made a movie like The Wall before. It seemed weird to me to put somebody else in there in a role they’d done before. We should all be equally out of your comfort zone.
What attracted you to a story that was intimate, that was about connections as opposed to large setpieces?
What attracted me to The Wall is at the heart of it are the same human qualities that attract me to the movies that maybe have bigger canvases: how do people act under extreme conditions. Edge of Tomorrow, for all the visual effects and eye candy, my favorite scene and the reason I made the movie, was the scene in the farmhouse, where it’s just Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and words. No aliens, no action. For me, the action is all about getting characters into these really outrageous situations so I can see what they do.
How do you approach that from a technical standpoint? I’d imagine you’d want to not only have the intimacy of the character, but to suggest a world outside of that intimacy.
That, to me, was the exciting challenge of The Wall. How to make it feel bigger. If you were actually pinned down behind that wall, it would feel pretty damn big. The stakes would feel infinitely big, because at the end of the day, we care about the people we’re following. Saving a million people is never going to feel as compelling to us as saving one person we care about. Some of it is just owning that we’re gonna care more about these two people than any kind of bigger plot involving people we don’t know.
And it’s shooting in an environment where you have this big, expansive desert, these layered details. There’s pipelines and oil rigs. You can read into that why we’re really in Iraq. The only thing I wasn’t able to do in the movie, in terms of giving it scale, I always wanted some sense of something on the horizon. There’s life out there, but it’s too far to get to. But I couldn’t pull that off in a way that was technically satisfying to me. It was really important to me for you to see the story against a bigger world out there. It’s a big war, and we’re, like, dropping down into this one trench of a big story.