Director Doug Liman Dishes on New USA TV Show "Covert Affairs"

USA‘s new show Covert Affairs is pretty good even by USA standards. The interaction between Piper Perabo and Chris Gorham is entertaining, and it’s a lot of fun, considering it’s about the CIA. I’ll give you a full review soon, but right now I’ve got an interview with producer Doug Liman to share with you.

You can also check out a few videos for the show below, and check out the Covert Affairs Official Page here.

New jobs are tough—especially when your new employer is the CIA. Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) is fluent in six languages, has traveled the world and is besting her fellow CIA trainees in every test. But that doesn’t explain why she’s suddenly summoned by CIA headquarters to report for active duty as a field operative one month before her training is over. She doesn’t know there may be something—or someone—from her past that her CIA bosses are really after.

Annie’s unofficial guide to the CIA is Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), a tech ops expert who was blinded while on assignment. As Annie navigates this new world of intrigue, danger and bureaucratic red tape, Auggie is there to make sure this quick study won’t be kept in the dark for long. Also starring Peter Gallagher, Kari Matchett, Sendhil Ramamurthy and Anne Dudek.

I’m just kind of following up on a comment you made on the last phone call. One thing that interested me in the relationship between Fair Game and Covert Affairs, it said that the CIA was not going to be supportive of Fair Game and yet they were very supportive of CA. What interested me is that you’re able to get all that research and be able to use it both ways and open doors. Can you talk a little bit about that?

D. Liman Yes. I think the key was that once—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.

The question I have is a lot of people have been asking the relationship between Arthur and Joan Campbell. In the pilot, at least, it’s kind of strained, which is interesting because they work so closely together. What they’ve been wanting to know is are these two going to be a factor throughout the season in the show or is this something that is limited just to the pilot?

D. Liman No, it is definitely a running through line. We cast amazing actors. Peter Gallagher and I go back to our days on The O.C. and even on that show, one of the breakthrough things for The O.C. was that normally a show like that the parents would just be the foil. They’d be like those characters in Charlie Brown that are just like, “Waah, waah, waah, waah.” We actually said no, just because they’re parents doesn’t mean they don’t have their own loves and desires. That doesn’t go away just because you grow up and have kids. That sort of parallel universe brought the same thing to Covert Affairs that you don’t have to be in your 20’s to have interesting, romantic challenges.

Obviously, anyone who has seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith knows that husband and wife married spies is something that I find particularly interesting. We were talking about Fair Game, there are some similarities to Fair Game, too, because only one of them is a spy but it’s still sort of husband and wife maintaining a marriage against the backdrop of all the lies that come with that kind of job.

There are elements of Covert Affairs that obviously remind us of earlier things you’ve done like in the shows kinetic energy and the, as you referred to moments ago, the Arthur and Joan Campbell thing. They could be Mr. and Mrs. Smith 15 years later. You also have to figure in USA has a certain model. They have a thing with the fish out of water lead character and the kind of easy, breezy surface style with the dark edge underneath to make the stakes feel real. What I’m wondering is how did you develop Covert Affairs for USA?

D. Liman I have a partner Dave Bartis and together we have a TV deal at NBC Universal and so our sort of horizon tends to be within the Universal family. The tone of 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 is making sure—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.

Tell me about the difference between storytelling for the screen versus storytelling in an hour format for television.

D. Liman 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 the last … 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.

Is there anything that you do to help you guide how you’re going to develop your character?

D. Liman 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 sort of see on a weekly basis what is sort of 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.

Covert Affairs has kind of a heightened reality to it and we’re wondering how you defined the boundaries of that.

D. Liman 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. Does that make sense?

It’s interesting when I was watching the pilot because I was thinking that, given the other kinds of character dramas that are on USA, that this might be more like them and wondering, because of what you did with Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the Bourne trilogy. And suddenly, I found myself reliving parts of the Bourne trilogy and how suddenly Piper was tossed in to this deadly situation where she had to get out. I thought of it like Bourne meets Sydney Bristow to the next level. I’m wondering how you decided to take some of the way you constructed the Bourne series in terms of the action and keeping the momentum going, and got it so that you really felt sympathetic for Piper’s character.

D. Liman I’ll try to answer it and tell me if I’m off topic on the question. The casting of Piper was critical in terms of sympathy; it was as critical as casting Matt Damon in Bourne Identity. These are actors who just bring an enormous amount of empathy. They just have that thing, that “it” that you want to follow them, you want to root for them.

The other thing is like Bourne where I just wanted to come at the genre with a very specific point of view. Like I said earlier, simple things I just keep in the back of my mind like how come James Bond never gets a phone bill. We then went to the next step of how come in James Bond, in the car chases; he always narrowly misses hitting things. He always just gets away with it. In the real world, it’s not like that. In the real world if you’re in a car chase, you’re going to hit a million things and your car is going to end up a total wreck by the end. That simple rule of how come James Bond always seems to—he skids and then just misses hitting. And I was like in Bourne Identity, we’re going to be the film that he skids, just looks like he’s going to miss hitting and then boom, he does hit because it’s human.

So having those kinds of rules, and so for Covert Affairs, trying to come up with a singularly strong point of view, in this case, Piper is playing Annie Walker who is new to the CIA. I didn’t want her to be all that good. She’s talented and she’s got promise, but it was important to me, and remains important to me even as we shoot episode 108 so she has 8 episodes worth of experience now, that our specific point of view is the things she tries to do to get away don’t always work.

Once you have a singular point of view like I had for Bourne and now I have one for Covert Affairs, it gives you a roadmap and it makes the action very specific and it makes it part of the character storytelling. One of my roles, as we go through the series, is to sit down with each of the directors and go through the action sequences and go through what is the specific point of view for this show. Once we’ve been on the air and hopefully by season two, the directors can just see the action from season one and understand the specific point of view.

But in the case of working with Alex Chapel on episode 106, there is a fight sequence that takes place in a boathouse. At some point Piper picks up a flare gun and he said he was going to make the flare gun metal. I happen to know a thing or two about boating, and flare guns are never metal. They’re always plastic, fluorescent colored plastic. He said, “If she hits somebody with a plastic gun, that’s not going to be that effective.” Well, that’s where this show lives. We have to own that, that she grabs the plastic gun and punches somebody with it and it breaks. Now the person turns on them. That is the very specific point of view for the show. It’s a roadmap for designing all of the action sequences. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. The other flip side of this question, which is the way you’ve got her thinking on her feet so that, as in the pilot, she’s in there retrieving the data from the cell phones that I noticed that both got left, and how she did it. Then the FBI guys said, “What are you really here for?” and she says, “Because of my shoes. I left my shoes.”

D. Liman I love that moment. Those are the Bourne Identity moments. Those are a group of us sitting around brainstorming so that Piper’s character can, on the fly, think of stuff making her smarter than the rest of us because she is the combined intelligence of the entire writing team. Those moments, we try to have at least one in every episode.

There is a later one that Kay Woods is doing where Auggie gets involved in a fight, and Auggie is blind. This moment is actually more fun than anything we did in Bourne. He’s a blind guy in the middle of a scrappy fight. So what does he think to do, and he’s got to think of it in a split second, he turns the lights off. He kills the lights because a blind guy against a sighted guy with the lights on, the sighted guy is going to kick his butt, but once the lights are off, that is the environment in which suddenly Auggie is going to have the advantage because he’s used to not being able to see.

It levels the playing field.

D. Liman It more than levels it. Now it’s Auggie’s home field. So it’s not just about, at the end of the day, why I like the spy genre as opposed to the action movie genre is that spies are smart. The successful spies are the smarter spies. That obviously was important for Jason Bourne and it’s equally important for Annie because she’s not going to start out with the best operations skills because she’s new and that would be unrealistic. But she will, in a pinch, think of a smart way out. She’s clever.

I was wondering how much of the Bourne trilogy (in terms of your experience working in the movies) do you bring to Covert Affairs?

D. Liman 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 – 5D Mark II, it’s 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. I hope that answered it.

You talked earlier about fitting the parts with the actors once they’re cast. But with so many actors in Covert Affairs, I was just curious if you had some or all of them in mind for the characters at first or if they all just fell into place.

D. Liman Certainly Piper and Chris we had in mind, whereas Jai, we sort of 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, 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 and Kari, 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.

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