To gain some insight into the career and ambition of director and producer Doug Liman—a multifaceted, endlessly inquisitive artist—take a look at his second directorial effort, Swingers, the classic comedy starring a younger Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn that launched his career. A tinkerer by nature, Liman understood that there was a different way to make an independent film, for much less money, while creating a more immersive experience.
With Invisible—his latest project from Conde Nast Entertainment, Samsung and VR firm Jaunt—the Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow helmer continues to push boundaries and question established procedure, entering the world of virtual reality with a bang and a lot of action, and demonstrating that the much-discussed, burgeoning medium need not be reduced to a mundane, aimless panorama.
Speaking with Deadline, Liman touches on his proclivity for “immersive storytelling,” the low bar that has been set with VR, and the “Holy Grail” he is chasing after in the medium.
You’ve pursued many artistic outlets throughout your career. At what point did you start thinking about virtual reality as a medium?
I had put on a VR headset and was just floored by the potential of it, but also, it wasn’t necessarily being used to its full potential. I think it was a natural thing for me to be drawn to, just knowing the concept, because I really aspired to create movies that give you a first-person experience.
When I set out to make Bourne Identity, my main goal for the franchise was to create something where it feels like you’re in the action. You’re not just passively watching it from far away. That’s something that I have constantly aspired to do—even in Swingers, to feel like you’re Jon Favreau; you’re not just watching him.
I really have thought about immersive storytelling my whole career, so when I first heard about VR, I was like “Oh, this sounds like it’s for me.”
What was the genesis of Invisible, and what were you setting out to do?
Given the kind of filmmaker I am, the kind of experiences I’ve been trying to give audiences, I was drawn to the potential of VR before I even tried watching anything in VR.
To be honest, when I started watching VR content, I was mostly disappointed and thought people could do better—not that different from when I set out to make Swingers and thought, There’s a better way to make an independent film. Which is why Swingers ended up being so much less expensive than anything like it.
Maybe, in part, I was attracted by how scary it seems. You know that expression, “What’s the worst that could happen?” People use that all the time; parents use that with their kids to convince them to try something. “What’s the worst that could happen?” How many times are we told that in our lives?
I’ve had some experiences in my life, where someone is like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” where it’s been pretty bad. Whether it’s trying to kiss a girl in ninth grade and it’s like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And it was bad.
In college, I tried to organize a dance marathon, and it was like, “Try it! What’s the worst that could happen?” Nobody showed up, and that’s a 24-hour-long party that no one’s at.
I’ve experienced some “What’s the worst that could happen?” and when I started looking at VR, and I’m like, “I want to try something new. What’s the worst that could happen?” I was like, you can really fall flat on your face with this one.
There’s some really boring VR content out there. It’s like watching a PBS videotape of a boring play. You’re like, “Cool! I can look at the ceiling and the wall, in case the main performance isn’t boring enough.”
I really think I was attracted in part because I understood how dangerous a medium it is. I was excited by the challenge of inventing new rules—rules that might enable dynamic, scripted storytelling to live up to the potential of the medium.
Invisible was an idea that Melisa Wallack and I had been kicking about, and I thought, this is exactly the kind of story that might work in VR. I was looking at things that weren’t working, because not every story, I think, can work in VR.
I really thought making a scripted series in VR work has to start at the concept stage.
Even with that, it was a steep and fast learning curve. I discovered almost immediately that the bar for Melisa and her writing is so much higher because you have to hook an audience way more quickly, because part of VR’s appeal and the way it works is that the audience has to want to follow the story. Then, they enjoy hunting to find the breadcrumbs you left them. They love exploring the world, but they have to want to explore it.
So many times, VR is used as promotional material to support a world that has already interested an audience in another medium. But if it’s original content, new characters and a new world, you don’t have the luxury of a five-minute setup to get hooked into a character and a world, the way I do in my movies.
When taking on a series in VR—grappling with the complexities of that medium—what inspired you to throw the additional challenge of a visual effects component on top of it all?
I think VR really lends itself to visual effects work because basically, every shot is a visual effect anyhow. I think VR is really effective when The New York Times does it, if you want to take an audience and show them a real refugee camp, and give them that experience.
But if you’re talking about scripted, the magic of VR is transporting the audience to a world that’s different than our world. If you’re just going to show them our world, they might as well watch VR on The New York Times. The way you show the audience a world that’s different than our world is with visual effects. It just seems like the natural place for scripted VR to go.
To be honest, the biggest challenge in VR, and ironically the thing that got me most interested in the beginning is shooting action in VR. One of my starting places was, the action of, say, The Bourne Identity. I’m working so hard to make the action of my movies immersive, and make you feel like you’re in the car with Matt; you’re being chased by Angelina Jolie. It’s to give you that immersive experience like you’re in it. You’re not passively watching it.
I selected Invisible as the story I wanted to tell in VR because it does have effects and it does have action. The reality is, it was shockingly hard to do the action. I was working with [director/stunt coordinator] Simon Crane, who’s done a number of films with me. He’s at the top of the field in action directing, and I’m excited for the next one we do because of how much we learned.
The Holy Grail, I’m still looking for, which is, the peak of action in VR that justifies the medium. I feel like we made big steps in that direction with Invisible. I know it’s there—I know we can do it—so I’m excited about the medium. I’m excited to keep going, and I’m excited, as other filmmakers join the fray, because we learn from each other.
The camera technology used to shoot Invisible is quite complex. How do you work with a camera shooting in 360 degrees, while keeping yourself and your crew out of the shot?
Shooting VR is really cumbersome right now. It has the challenge of the camera shooting 360, so it ultimately requires you to use witness cameras and things like that to see what the cameras are picking up.
The other aspect of VR is that younger directors who grew up in a media-saturated environment might have an edge in VR. But those of us who started out when movies were made on film have one advantage right now in VR, which is that you don’t get to see what you’ve shot until later. They can’t stitch it in real time.
Those of us who grew up when movies were made on film are used to shooting and waiting to see the results, and a modern filmmaker is used to seeing results immediately. You can look at a high definition monitor and see exactly what an audience is going to see when the movie’s done.
In VR, there’s a lot of looking at the elements that are going to go into it, and then having to imagine what it’s going to be like when it’s all put together. Especially when you get to visual effects, sometimes you don’t to get to see it until a month later.
The audio is so complicated. I grew up making films like where, you did the color timing over here, and you did it with no sound, and over here, you did the sound, and you had a lousy picture to look at. And then it’s not till you’re all done with everything that the picture and sound are married.
Movies were made that way for 70 years—some of the greatest movies. VR was the same way, where mixing the sound is so complicated that when you’re doing the stitching of the picture, you have a lousy soundtrack that you’re working with, and then separately, over here, you have great sound, but you have no picture to go with it, and it’s not till it’s all done and it’s too late to make any changes that you finally see the sound and the picture married.
But that’s also really exciting, especially in the case of Invisible, where I was so happy with how the results turned out.
Virtual reality is a format that has generated a lot of conversation, and with that, a lot of skepticism. What are your thoughts on the future of the medium, and its place in entertainment?
Personally, I think VR’s greatest strength is going to be in replacing Skype—sort of having meetings with avatars, and not entertainment. I think gaming is extraordinary in VR. It has a huge potential. I think augmented reality also has incredible, untapped potential.
I think VR documentaries and VR narrative series are also really exciting, and we’re still discovering where this medium can go. As I said before, I love making action films, and I know that VR will become mainstream when one of us succeeds in the goal I set out for myself—when one of us succeeds in accomplishing truly giving an audience the experience of being in the middle of extraordinary action.
Has it been heartening to see the conversation shift over the course of this past year, with the success of your series and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, which lit up Cannes?
It’s exciting for me because it’s such a fertile environment for creative thinkers, and people who want to push boundaries and try ideas.
Filmmakers feed off each other, even if we don’t know each other. We learn from each other, we feed off each other; we get better because of each other. The competition pushes us. The camaraderie pushes us.
So yeah, I think the more filmmakers that join and achieve any form of success will encourage more people to come into the tent.